Politics Summary: Wednesday, March 24th

Smoking should be banned in cars, parks and playgrounds urge doctors.

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Twenty of the country’s most senior doctors have today called for smoking to be banned in cars, as part of plans to extend the smoking ban to protect children against passive smoking. In a letter to today’s Times, the doctors, who include 13 presidents of medical royal colleges, also call for smoking to be banned in all public places visited by young people, like parks and playgrounds.

They recommend a comprehensive strategy to cut adult smoking and children’s exposure to smoke both inside and outside home, which should include “tobacco price rises, media campaigns, more effective health warnings and better provision of smoking cessation services”. The letter coincides with a report out today by the Royal College of Physicians warning of the costs of passive smoking on children: “More than 300,000 GP appointments and 9,500 hospital admissions a year are caused by the effects of smoke on children, costing the NHS about £23 million. Paediatric health problems attributable to second-hand smoke include 20,000 cases of lower respiratory tract infection, 120,000 cases of middle-ear disease and 200 cases of bacterial meningitis.” The report also reveals about two million children are exposed to cigarette smoke at home – with a child twice as likely to take up the habit if a close family member smokes – and forty sudden infant deaths are caused by passive smoking annualy.

The Chancellor will promise measures for growth in today’s Budget, hoping to “unlock private sector investment” while targeting offshore tax evasion. The Guardian reports Alistair Darling’s optimism that the country can avoid a double-dip recession, but by continuing to grow its way out of the downturn with continued government support. “This budget isn’t just about securing our recovery, but critically it is about making the big decisions for the future,” he said yesterday. “I’m confident about the future, I think government can make a real difference. It can’t do it all itself, it needs people, it needs imagination, it needs flair – but government can make a difference to the future of our country for the next 10 or 20 years.” The Times reports that he will place nuclear and wind power at the heart of those efforts, using private sector investment to boost jobs and help harness the energy sources of the future, seeking to use government support for private companies as a key dividing line, “portraying Labour as safe custodians of a recovery that is as yet too fragile to trust to the Conservatives”. And the FT reports Darling’s plans to “announce punitive fines for taxpayers who hide money offshore in a Budget crackdown designed to protect at least £1bn of revenue under threat from evasion schemes”, adding he will “double the maximum penalty for offshore evaders to 200 per cent of the tax owed, under a series of measures that extends further a £5bn assault on tax evasion and avoidance announced in December’s pre-Budget report”. Left Foot Forward will be hosting a live webchat on the Budget from midday – sign up for a reminder.

Israel’s relations with its two closest allies came under renewed strain yesterday, with Britain expelling a diplomat and Binyamin Netanyahu threatening to block peace talks for a year. The diplomat, reports The Guardian, was expelled after Britain accused Israel of forging UK passports for the hit on leading Hamas terrorist Mahmoud al-Mabhouh in Dubai in January. David Miliband told the Commons the forgeries “were copied from genuine British passports when handed over for inspection to individuals linked to Israel, either in Israel or in other countries”, while The Independent reports the reaction of the Israeli foreign ministry: “The relationship between Britain and Israel is mutually important … We therefore regret the British decision.” Meanwhile Mr Netanyahu, reports The Times, held talks with President Obama in Washington late last night, defiant and uncompromising over the future of Jerusalem, having earlier told America’s most powerful pro-Israel lobby: “Jerusalem is not a settlement, it’s our capital … Almost half the Jewish population of Jerusalem lives just beyond the 1949 armistice line, five minutes from the Knesset … everyone knows that these neighbourhoods will be part of Israel in any settlement, therefore building in them in no way precludes a two-state solution.”

The justice secretary has unveiled proposals to curb “libel tourism” with plans for a “public interest” defence to protect investigative journalism. Jack Straw’s announcement, reports The Guardian, comes amid growing unease at what is described as the “chilling effect” of Britain’s libel laws. The proposed Libel Reform Bill, to be introduced after the election, would also prevent multiple defamation claims being generated by repeated downloading of the same story, and build on the findings of the libel working group established last year. On the need for a public interest defence, Mr Straw said: “A statutory public interest test which is clearly and simply expressed could help ensure that the work done by journalists, scientists and NGOs to investigate and inform the public can continue – while also preserving the right we all have to protect our reputations.” Michael Harris of the Libel Reform Campaign welcomed the news, but called for more changes in the law to stop corporations suing for libel except where there was “clear evidence of malice”, adding “comments made by bloggers online should not be actionable”.

And former Labour leader Neil Kinnock has described Stephen Byers, Geoff Hoon and Patricia Hewitt as a “repulsive” trio whose conduct has damaged the party’s election chances. He told The Times: “No one is going to mistake this for Labour conduct or Labour values. They are plain wrong, not just as adults but — even worse — as parliamentarians … If they had only disgraced themselves it would be sad. But they have inflicted harm on our party and that is repulsive.” All three have been suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party, alongside Margaret Moran, the disgraced Luton South MP who was forced to pay back £22,000 for the treatment of dry rot on her home in Southampton – neither in her constituency nor in London. Moran, who has been “off sick” since the expenses scandal broke ten months ago, was filmed looking bright and healthy on the Dispatches programme, offering her services to the fictitious company – even looking to start work before the general election while she was still an MP.

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