Derby Telegraph Column

As printed in the Derby Telegraph, 7th September 2012

The return of Parliament this week has been dominated by the Government reshuffle. This has seen promotions for 2 of my neighbouring MPs: Patrick McLoughlin has become Secretary of State for Transport and Anna Soubry has become a Health minister. My congratulations to them both. Patrick’s presence in the Transport department is good news for Derbyshire in terms of securing the infrastructure investment we need and ensuring Bombardier’s interests are not overlooked. I know my fellow local Conservative MPs and I are hoping we can get a sympathetic ear for the transport projects we would like to see in our constituencies.

The Prime Minister has rightly set out that the priority for all departments is now delivering economic growth and the Government have started to set out this week a series of initiatives to achieve this. One issue that features regularly in my inbox is how to get the construction sector moving again and so it was good to see further announcements this week on this issue.

I don’t want to see any construction on our green belt but measures to help get acceptable developments moving will be welcome – and nationally there are 400,000 houses with planning permission that have not yet been built. If developers can show that these sites are not currently viable then some of the planning restrictions, including the requirement for affordable homes, may be lifted. There will also be further support for first time buyers to get on the housing ladder.

These measures will provide a comprehensive plan to unleash one of the biggest homebuilding programmes this country has seen in a generation. That means more investment around the county; more jobs for our people; and more young families able to realise their dreams and get on the housing ladder.

My week started this week with a meeting on the proposal for plain packaging of tobacco products with a local business that fear they would have to close if this idea went ahead. This issue has been the subject of a Government consultation this summer, with over half a million people having objected to the idea. Despite being a non-smoker and having lost 3 chain-smoking grandparents at a young age, I can’t support plain packaging for many reasons.

Firstly, this would be an open invitation to the black market – as the local business demonstrated a great deal of effort and money goes into designing and printing the current packs to make them hard to counterfeit. With standard packaging, counterfeiting the packaging would be much easier. We already lose £3.1 billion in tax revenue from contraband Tobacco – how much more would we lose with this idea?

Smoking is of course a legal activity and selling cigarettes is legal, so I struggle to see how imposing such draconian limits on how businesses can market their products could be justified in a free country. We already rightly require significant space on the packet to be reserved for health warnings – and maybe this could be increased further – but not allowing any branding at all is a step too far.

The ban on displaying cigarettes only recently came into force in supermarkets and isn’t yet in force in small shops. We need to see if this succeeds in tackling the problem of young people starting smoking before we consider other measures on packaging. It’s now illegal in Scotland to buy cigarettes and pass them on to somebody under 18, and we should make that the case in the rest of the country.