Friday, 27 February 2015

A Meeting with David Rees AM - Chair of the Health & Social Care Committee

‘Here we go again’, was the thought resonating through my mind as I stood outside the Senedd in a cold and windy Cardiff Bay. Having a last minute vape, I pondered the meeting that was about to come. A meeting with the Chair of the Health & Social Care Committee – and also the very first time that a Labour AM had agreed to meet with me. For that reason alone, I was not sure whether I was going to be going into a hostile environment or not.

Entering the Senedd, I went through the usual ‘Airport’ Security procedures and made my way in to announce my arrival. Then followed a 15 minute wait before I was finally collected and taken to a small meeting room deep in the bowels of the Senedd Building.

David Rees AM arrived, a few minutes later than planned due to an overrunning previous meeting. We shook hands and exchanged greetings and then we got right down to it. The silence that first greeted me led me to believe that this could be a hard meeting to get through. However, I needn’t have worried about that as it turned out.

I kicked off the meeting by explaining why I was there and why I think that Mark Drakeford’s plans for a Ban on Vaping in Enclosed Public Spaces are both flawed and wrong, quickly rattling through all the points I have raised many times in meetings with other AM’s. I also made a point of mentioning to David that he was the first Labour AM that had agreed to meet with me. This brought a smile to David’s face and finally the ice was broken.

David explained to me that he had been reticent to meet with me (at first) due to his intent to stay completely neutral to the issue as he knew it was eventually going to come before the HSCC anyway.

I informed him that I was not there to influence him. I just wanted him to understand why Drakeford’s plans are flawed and present the counter-argument and evidence which proved Drakeford’s plans to be flawed. I also presented David with a few examples of the kind of evidence I have in my possession. This included the recent article from Cancer Research UK which was highly supportive of eCigarettes, the ‘Vitality’ article on the ‘myths’ of eCigarettes (most of which are what Drakeford relies upon), Professor Linda Bauld’s excellent eCigarette article recently published in The Guardian newspaper, Derek Yach's recent article in The Spectator magazine (where he took the WHO to task), and Clive Bates' highly informative briefing on eCigarettes.

I made David very aware that I hold much more evidence such as this, but I was wary of overloading him with information, and that he was free to take away the information and read it at his own leisure. Whether he will do that I cannot say, but I sincerely hope that he does read the material provided.

The CRUK article in particular was discussed in detail as Mark Drakeford had quoted CRUK as an example in his initial introduction of the Public Health White Paper. I was at pains to point out to David about how CRUK’s stance on eCigarettes had changed over the last year as they reviewed the evidence. So much so that they were now supportive of eCigarettes rather than negative toward them as they had been only a year ago. This was, I suggested, evidence of how the science and the evidence was stacking up in ever greater levels in support of eCigarettes.

I also informed him how the Scottish Government have decided not to proceed (for the time being) with any Ban on Vaping in Enclosed Public Spaces having heard the evidence and because they also chose to publically engage with interested parties. This was in stark contrast to the way that Mark Drakeford had proceeded. I also reminded him that they had decided against banning Vaping in Westminster having reviewed the evidence.

Finally, I handed David copies of the response to the White Paper that were submitted by both ASH Wales and the RCP. David admitted that he had already seen the ASH Wales response, but that he had not seen the RCP response.

We moved on to discussing the responses to the White Paper from the general public. It was here that I was astonished to learn that whenever ‘templated’ responses are received, they are treated as just one response – just as if it has been received from one organisation. I disagreed with this view, but David assured me that is the way all consultation responses are collated – whether at Welsh level, or indeed at UK level.

So, the lesson to be learned from that is that people should NOT use template responses to consultations. Individually prepared responses (such as the one I had submitted) would treated as separate responses, but template responses are ALWAYS treated as a single response – no matter how many are received.

From here, I asked David to explain what the next steps are. This is where I learned a great deal about the process that will be followed.

The White Paper will not go to the HSCC until it has been formally published. David stated that it is expected (but not guaranteed) that this will happen before the Summer recess. At this point a ‘Call For Evidence’ will be issued publically.

The interesting part about the ‘Call For Evidence’ is that ANYONE can respond to this. That means Doctors, Scientists, Trade Bodies, Organisations and even individuals (including the general public) can respond with evidence for or against the proposals. This is something I had not previously known. I had always expected that only the AM’s involved in HSCC could call on individuals or organisations for evidence at this stage, however it appears that is not the case. To that end, I have been added to the mailing list at the Welsh Government so that I will be informed when the ‘Call For Evidence’ happens.

Stage 2 is where the HSCC collate the responses received during the ‘Call For Evidence’ and can then suggest changes, amendments or removals to the proposals.

At Stage 3 (if I recall correctly), AM’s can either agree or disagree on the content and/or refer it back to the HSCC.

Finally, Stage 4 is the point at which the Proposals are voted upon by the entire Assembly. No changes are allowed at this point. Whatever is contained in the proposed Legislation is either approved or rejected in a vote. That vote is on the Legislation (as it stands at that point) in its entirety. This means that an AM may only agree with parts of the legislation (for example, they may agree with Minimum Unit Pricing for Alcohol and with the Tobacco Register, but not with the proposals on eCigarettes), but must decide for himself/herself whether to vote to pass the Legislation as a whole, or reject it. If it is passed, it comes into Law, if it is rejected it fails.

If this sounds familiar, then it is probably because you remember how the process for the TPD in the European Parliament progressed. The White Paper in Wales will go through the exact same steps.

This sounded like a lot of steps to me and I queried David on the timescales. He admitted that he expects that the whole process would not likely get to Stage 4 much before March 2016. If his estimate is correct (and I have no reason to doubt him), then there is still a long way to go in this legislation.

As you may imagine, these discussions took quite a bit of time to occur and we did overrun the allotted time of 30 minutes by quite some way. However, I felt it was a very worthwhile meeting. David patiently listened to my ‘arguments’ against Mark Drakeford’s proposals on eCigarettes and enlightened me on how he see the whole process progressing.

I also informed David of the Breakfast Briefing that Professor Linda Bauld will be holding for the AM's at the Senedd on the 25th March 2015. I urged him to attend that briefing and to inform other AM's to attend.
I would like to thank David Rees AM for taking the time to meet with me and for the enlightening and friendly discussion.