Saturday, 25 October 2014

A Meeting With Mark Isherwood AM

A bit of a diversion with this blog entry as I have been asked to write this up.

Many of you will know that I have been heavily involved in Save eCigs Petition against the Welsh Government's plans to ban vaping in public spaces. Many of you will also be aware that the Petition has now been formally presented (by Rhydian Mann) to the Welsh Government's Petitions Committee.

Furthermore, the Petitions Committee has now written to Mark Drakeford to ask for more evidence for his plans as a result of our petition. Ironically, the very next day, Drakeford launched his latest tirade of evidence-less persecution of Vaping. As my previous blog entry discussed that in detail, I will suggest you go and read that for the full details rather than rake over it again here.

To keep up the pressure on the Health Minister (Drakeford), Katie Knight of the Save eCigs campaign has been furiously working behind the scenes to set up meetings with the different AM's (of all parties) and Vapers such as I, so that we can get our side of the story across and try to gather some momentum.

As a result, Katie arranged for me to meet up with Mark Isherwood, Conservative AM for the North Wales region, and this took place on the 15th October 2014. Unfortunately, work has been very busy for me of late and only now have I found the time to write up what happened.

So, on a very wet and windy Wednesday afternoon, I found myself making the 50 mile trip down the M4 from Swansea to the Welsh Assembly in Cardiff Bay. I went fully prepared. I took hard copies of the responses to the Welsh Government Public Health White Paper that were written by the RCP and ASH Wales (both of whom OPPOSE the ban on Vaping).

I also took some print-outs of the Clive Bates response to the World Health Organisation's recent proclamations on eCigs, along with a few short pieces from luminaries such Prof West and Riccardo Polosa. Obviously, I have far more than just those pieces of evidence, but I didn't want to go overloading Mark with information. Lastly, I took a large selection of my personal eCig devices with me, and this caused quite a stir !!

I arrived at Ty Hywel (a building adjacent to the Senedd where the AM's have their offices) at about 3.40pm for my 4pm meeting. It was fortunate that I did as the first thing I had to do was go through Security. Anyone who has ever entered Welsh Government buildings will know that the Security is quite severe. There are usually 4 Security Guards present and also metal detecting machines for both people AND bags/luggage (exactly the same equipment you see at Airport Terminals). I walked through the metal detector fine. However, my bag did not. I openly laughed at the reaction of the Security Guard watching X-Rays of the contents of my bag.

Fortunately, and unusually for a Security Guard, they had a sense of humour. So when I told them I will show and explain what is in the bag, they duly gathered around. When I opened up my pouch containing a variety of Mechanical Mods, MVP, VTR, Vamo, ZNA-50 and a variety of tanks, RBA's and RDA's, it is fair to say that they were absolutely astonished.

The first questions was (of course), What are they ?

So, I probably spent the next 15 minutes showing off my collection of eCigs, what the different types could do, how one puts them together, how they are powered and so on. They were even very relaxed about me actually showing them in action. It is fair to say they were amazed at what they saw and learned. All of them admitted that they had never realised that eCigs came in such a variety and that, if I hadn't demonstrated to them, they would have had a hard time even recognising them as eCigs. When they asked why I had all of these, I explained that the eCigs were the very reason I was meeting with Mark Isherwood that day. The closing comment from them was along the lines of 'Well he is gonna get an education today' !!

Come 4pm, Mark Isherwood arrived down at reception personally to meet and greet me and we then retired up to th 2nd Floor Cafeteria for a Coffee and a long discussion.

Now I have to start by saying that Mark Isherwood is a very pleasant, knowledgable and congenial man. He went out of his way to put me at ease and made me feel very welcome. Whilst getting the coffees in, I got the chance to talk to Mark at length as to what his role is within the Welsh Assembly, and what motivates his work. For the record, Mark is on the Committee dedicated to disabled and social rights (he did give me the correct title for the Committee, but I can't remember it). Mark is also partially deaf himself, so much of his work is something he is personally very well invested in. Anyway, suffice to say that Mark's role crosses over somewhat with Darren Millar's role as Shadow Welsh Health Minister. Consequently, Mark is very 'on-the-ball' when it comes to eCigs as he talks with Darren Millar regularly.

So, getting down to business, I started chatting with Mark about the Public Health White Paper and my particular area of concern. Mark is well aware of the White Paper and it's contents so I did not have to bring him up to date. I started by asking Mark if he had seen any of the responses to the White Paper and was very surprised to hear that he had not. Mark told me that to the best of his knowledge, none of the other parties has seen the responses.

I presented Mark with the responses from the Royal College of Physicians and ASH Wales, and pointed him to the pertinent pages. Mark was very interested in the contents and asked how I had got hold of the copies. When I told him they can be found through a simple Google search, he was rather surprised. He also stated that it was doubtful that Darren Millar was aware of these responses either and if I was OK for him to share them with Darren. Of course, that was no issue for me.

When then spent a long time discussing what had happened in the Senedd the previous week when the White Paper was debated in the Senedd. We spent a long time picking apart Drakeford's arguments and when I offered opinions and evidence that contradicted what Drakeford had said, Mark was meticulous in writing down what I had said and making notes.

I picked up on Drakeford's anecdote about how seat-belts had been introduced and were evidence of the 'precautionary principal' and pointed that had Drakeford's view of the precautionary principle been applied to seat-belts, then it would NOT have resulted in seat-belts being introduced at all. It would have resulted in cars being banned. At this point, without prompting, Mark interjected by saying 'eCigs ARE the seat-belt'. This brought a huge smile to my face. Mark clearly 'gets it' in regard to eCigs.

As we continued chatting on this subject, I could clearly see that Mark is most definitely on the side of Vapers. In fact, it soon transpired that Mark is a pipe-smoker (he was also vey interested to learn that there was such a thing as an e-pipe and that he would have to look them up). He told me how he disagreed with the smoking ban and that it should have been left to individual premises as to whether to ban smoking. Consequently, he also clearly saw the benefits of Vaping and that it should be left alone. I showed him my eCig collection and asked how on earth anybody could confuse my vaping gear with a tobacco cigarette. Mark's response was that my collection of eCigs looked more like 'a surgeon's toolkit' !!

It is fair to say that Mark agrees with Vapers wholeheartedly.

Now, when we first met and Mark explained what his work entailed, it was very clear that Mark is a very learned person in regards to the Human Rights Act. So I decided to test out a theory I have, that could well form the basis of a legal challenge to any ban on vaping in public spaces.

The Human Rights Act explicitly states that it is 'illegal to disciminate against anyone of the basis of race, religion, creed etc'. It also states that it is illegal to discriminate against political of social groups unless there is evidence of harm. I stated that Vapers are a social group and that as there is no evidence of harm, then surely under the Human Rights Act vaping cannot be banned in public spaces as it is an act of discrimination.

Mark had a long think about that question before finally admitting that he believes that I am correct in that assertion. So this is something I think I may need to follow up on with somebody of the legal profession (if the worst comes to be).

Following on from that, I then discussed with Mark some of the consequences that would happen were vaping to be banned in Public Spaces. I asked Mark if he would know how to use any of my eCigs without instruction. He admitted that he probably would not. So, I then explained how ALL reputable eCig vendors take the time to explain and demonstrate how their devices work before selling them to the public. That included how they could try different flavours and nicotine strengths until they found the combination most satisfying, as the satisfaction with an eCig is the most important aspect in keeping people off lit tobacco. Finally, I explained that if Vaping was banned in public spaces, then vendors would not be able to do this function and that many of them would close. Consequently, would that amount to 'restraint of trade' ?    Again, after a long pause, Mark agreed that it must amount to restraint of trade, but that of course he is not a lawyer.

We carried on chatting for some time in total agreement with each other, but very quickly time was running out as Mark had an appointment with somebody else at 5pm.

So we closed by my asking Mark for his advice on how we should proceed and how we can influence other AM's, as I had previously told Mark that he is the first of many AM's we hope to meet with in the coming weeks. Mark is very aware that the Lib-Dems are also opposed to any ban on vaping, but was not so sure about Plaid Cymru. I drew his attention to the fact that I have never heard Plaid Cymru Party Leader Leanne Wood comment on the subject, but that another Plaid Cymru AM - Elin Jones - appears to be cautiously opposed to any vaping ban.

Mark's advice was very good and covered the following points:
  • Target Labour AM's as they are the ones that can bring most pressure to bear on the First Minister - Carwyn Jones. His advice is that Carwyn Jones is the one man that can force Drakeford to stand down. The more pressure that is put on the FM from Labour AM's, the more likely he is to listen
  • If Labour AM's are turning down requests for meetings on this subject, then turn up at their Surgeries, which are held in their local consituencies on a monthly basis. Turn up at those Surgeries and pointedly bring the subject of eCigs up with them and make them answer on their opinion and views. If they won't listen, then remind them that they will NOT get your vote if they continue to oppose eCigs and remind them that there are many more Vapers in the constituency with the same view
  • Meet Plaid Cymru AM's and ensure they are firmly onside. Show them the evidence just as I had shown it to Mark
  • DON'T give up. The more of a pain in the ass we can be to non-responsive or negative AM's, the more likely they are to get fed up and agree to listen. Once they are listening, show them the evidence. Make them see. After all, they will be wanting your vote in 2015

In conclusion, Mark stated that the Conservatives as a group were all opposed to further infringement on civil liberties and believe in the public being free to make their own lifestyle choices. Consequently, they OPPOSE any ban on vaping. Mark also stated that he will be meeting with Darren Millar to discuss what had transpired between us. Above all, Mark reaffirmed that we have his support in this fight, and that he is happy to receive further evidence in support of our petition against the ban and that he will share everything he receives with Darren.

I will close this blog by personally thanking Mark Isherwood AM for agreeing to meet with me and taking the time to discuss these issues.

Mark Isherwood AM, you are a Gentleman and I was very pleased to have met you. Thankyou !!!

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