Friday 30 September 2016

Nanny State status a result of politicians who want to be seen 'doing something'

Published 31/03/2016 | 02:30

There has been a push in Ireland in recent years to get such a tax introduced
There has been a push in Ireland in recent years to get such a tax introduced

News that Ireland comes a very high fourth place in a new survey of 'Nanny State' culture across the EU will not come as a surprise to those who criticise the increasing level of paternalism in our government policy, and the growing official appetite to intrude into more and more aspects of our consumer and social behaviour.

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In tandem with this, we have an increasing dependency on the State in terms of direction, social planning and, of course, social protection - formerly described as 'welfare'. In the media, and especially on daytime radio, there is an endless stream of experts and quango representatives looking for new laws, surveys and regulations, - and, of course, more resources (i.e. public money) to further their busybody activities and 'social improvements'.

The EU Nanny State index, compiled by the Institute of Economic Affairs in London, in partnership with EPICENTRE (the European Policy Information Centre), confirms Ireland's position in the frontline of such regulation.

This is without even factoring in new measures, like proposed calorie counts on restaurant menus, a controversial sugar tax and ridiculous notions like reducing the playing of jingles on ice-cream vans to prevent children over-eating ice cream and getting obese.

This latter proposal is not a made-up joke, but was in fact made some time ago by a Senator, who also proposed a ban on public displays of Mixed Martial Arts, before backtracking. Meanwhile, another Senator, Lorraine Higgins of the Labour Party, has been advocating a bill to restrict name calling on the internet and social media - a laudable aim, perhaps, but one that has serious implications for free speech.

It seems that there is no end to the things that politicians want to legislate for and control in our lives, from our consumption of products to the way we express ourselves and raise our children. A former Green Party TD has even proposed limiting the number of cafés that can open within a certain distance of each other in some areas. Not McDonald's, mind, just cafes.

The Nanny State Index is the first comprehensive evaluation of paternalistic lifestyle regulation in Europe.

Using 32 criteria related to food, soft drinks, alcohol, tobacco and e-cigarettes, the survey identifies the best and worst countries to eat, drink and smoke in.

Ireland's fourth place is just behind the UK, which is not a surprise given how slavishly we follow British legislation in many different areas, notwithstanding our recent celebration of 1916 and the sovereign distance that we are supposed to have come.

However, it is almost a surprise that we are not ahead of the UK, given that Ireland has been a 'poster child' for regulation and sin taxes. It led the way with the public smoking ban and has been to the forefront of forcing cigarettes into plain packaging.

Many will welcome these measures on health grounds, but it seems that enough is never enough for the authorities, with smokers forced into virtual seclusion to partake of their (still legal) habit - and so far unable to avail of the 'reduced risk' smoking products which the Government appears unwilling to give them the alternative of.

This is a strange approach, and a hypocritical one, given that the government gets so much tax in actual cigarettes.

It is the same with alcohol, where the State takes over 50pc of the retail price in tax, despite preaching about its ills.

And the same prohibitive approach as was used on cigarettes is now focused on alcohol, with a mooted ban on the low-cost selling of alcohol in supermarkets, as well as a proposal by the Oireachtas health committee to raise the price of wine so that no bottle can be bought for less than €10, for 'public health reasons'.

This is an utterly unfair sledgehammer approach which punishes the many for the sins of the few. Plus, there is also absolutely no evidence that such punitive pricing will improve public health. Wine drinkers are hardly the problem end of the drinking culture. The experts must surely know this, but they press ahead regardless with what seems like yet another Nanny State edict, seized upon by attention-seeking politicians and quangos.

There is no doubt that are problems to do with alcohol in Irish society, and most of us welcome the broad measures taken by the government to curb its often reckless consumption and promotion.

However, a blunt-instrument measure, such as making take-away wine or beer more expensive, is ineffective and grossly unfair - preventing ordinary people from availing of bargains at a time of recession, an experience probably unknown to our well-heeled political culture.

But many of these measures are clearly more about public relations strategies rather than genuine conviction, and are more about political image than substance or effectiveness - and about being seen to be 'doing something'.

The growing Nanny State issue is very important, as it goes to the heart of those who believe that the State, and government, should be tackling almost all of our problems, and those who believe that too much personal and parental responsibility is already being taken away.

Ultimately, it's about the big government approach that is too costly, intrusive and ineffective.

Irish Independent

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