Stupidly, I had begun to think that nothing politicians did would amaze me any longer. But I had reckoned without the efforts of health minister Anna Soubry and HMRC.
In May, in a reply to the chair of the European Union Committee, the minister stated that “over the last decade the UK government, led by HMRC, has had great success in tackling illicit tobacco in the UK”.
Perhaps naïvely, I had always thought the Conservatives were the party of small business, financial competence and law and order. Ms Soubry is a Conservative minister in a coalition government led by the Tories. Yet I see no evidence of true commitment to tackling the problems of illegal tobacco (or indeed alcohol) from either government or HMRC.
The definition of success adopted by Ms Soubry is clearly at odds with mine. It is ironic that austerity has created a situation that government has singularly failed to do, in that it is austerity that is massively discouraging smokers from buying legitimate, legal cigarettes from independent retailers.
“Tobacco is now offering criminals ridiculously easy pickings”
Unfortunately there is another effect: these same smokers are now driving further rapid increases in demand for criminal cigarettes and tobacco, whether smuggled or counterfeit.
In the real world, we see immediate and persuasive evidence that this diversion to illegitimate and uncontrolled sources is growing faster than ever.
The consequences are huge. Independent retailers’ single largest category is tobacco and while achieving low profitability, it is still an important part of the mix. Yet it is now offering criminals ridiculously easy pickings and profits - why rob banks when this trade is so lucrative?
The treasury, desperate to balance the books, is losing at least £3bn in revenue on tobacco and anything up to £2bn on duty defrauded beers wines and spirits. And last but by no means least, there is clearly a huge public health and youth smoking issue in these illicit sales.
This government seems obsessed with introducing measures that are ill thought-out and totally ignore the self-professed requirement for legislation to be evidence based. Just consider the “dark market” and plain packaging for tobacco, and the minimum unit price and multibuy restrictions on alcohol.
Wouldn’t common sense dictate that a real and sustained effort to tackle the twin evils of illicit tobacco and alcohol once and for all would massively support small business while restricting organised crime proceeds, narrowing the deficit and improving public health?
Surely it is not beyond the ability of government to effectively do so?
Steve Parfett is chairman of AG Parfett & Sons