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Berniegate rumbles on

THE political scandal in Britain resulting from the announcement by the Labour government that Formula 1 will be exempt from a European ban on tobacco advertising continues to make headlines with Public Health Minister Tessa Jowell being summoned by the powerful all-party House of Commons European Legislation Select Committee.

The 16-member committee has the power to stop a minister taking proposals to Europe until they have been properly scrutinized. Jowell was questioned about the stance she will take on tobacco advertising when the European Health Ministers meet on December 4 and she continued to argue that the policy chosen is the best way to reduce the exposure of people to tobacco advertising while at the same time safeguarding the motor racing industry in Britain.

"We have made a judgment based on the evidence before us, not a judgment based on lobbying," she said. "We do believe that there is considerable leverage offered by a global, voluntarily-applied code - regulated by the FIA - in clamping down on what would otherwise be unregulated advertising."

Sports other than Formula 1 will have four and a half years in which to find money to replace tobacco sponsorship.

Jowell also warned that the directive which has been proposed could be "incompatible" with the European Union's commitments to the World Trade Organization.

The Committee decided that the issue should go before the whole House of Commons. Jowell will now have to answer questions in front of the European Standing Committee when it meets on December 2. This will be open to all members of parliament.

Later in the House of Commons, Conservatives demanded that Jowell withdraw her involvement in the tobacco sponsorship row after a newspaper revealed that her husband David Mills, still has links with motor racing companies.

Mills resigned as a director of Benetton Formula after Jowell was offered her current job in May but he remains a director of the TWR Group Ltd., which is involved in F1 with Arrows.

After Tony Blair's apology live on British television for the poor handling of the issue his outspoken Sports Minister Tony Banks jumped to his leader's defense. "The very idea that someone could come along and influence or buy Tony Blair is absolute nonsense," he said. "No-one in the country can believe that. My God, I mean, the man's so squeaky clean it's awesome. I find it quite frightening."

In an effort to convince the public that everything was above-board the government issued minutes of a 20 minute meeting which took place at 10 Downing Street on October 16 between Blair, FIA President Max Mosley, F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone, FIA aide David Ward and Blair's assistant Jonathan Powell.

Despite all these moves an opinion poll published in The Sun newspaper showed that the crisis has caused the Government popularity to dive with its lead over the Conservatives down 10% in the last three weeks.

According to the minutes of the meeting Mosley listed the countries around the world wanting to host Grands Prix and added that tobacco companies were involved in building circuits. When asked about this Mosley said that the minute should have read "assisting with the building of circuits".

Mosley's list of countries is believed to have included two in the Middle East (possibly Jordan and Lebanon), Croatia and South Africa.

Ecclestone argued that if F1 does not get tobacco money the technological breakthroughs generated by the motor racing industry will be lost and added that both German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi agreed that the anti-tobacco directive was impractical.

As the December meeting approaches Europe's Employment and Social Affairs Commissioner Padraig Flynn has warned that there is no chance of the EU ministers agreeing to exempt F1 from a ban - which means that entire tobacco sponsorship directive will fail and sports will go on being restricted only by national legislation.

Britain takes over the presidency of the European Union for six months, starting in January and it may be that a new directive will be produced in that period.

Anti-tobacco campaigners in Britain have counter-attacked against the government urging Blair to reconsider and accusing Mosley and Ecclestone of having "conned" the government.

"All the government needs is the courage to admit they got this wrong," said Sandy Macara, head of the British Medical Association. Macara called on the government to return to sanity and attacked the tobacco companies for exploiting "any chink in the armor" and fighting for their survival "as merchants of death."

Blair will meet representatives of anti-tobacco groups this week and they are expected to show him a report which claims that a ban on tobacco advertising would create more jobs than those that would be lost. The jobs would come because ex-smokers would spend the money they save from cigarettes in the entertainment industry.

The study, produced by the York University's Center for Health Economics and funded by Society for the Study of Addiction claims that only 8,000 jobs would be affected by a ban on tobacco advertising in F1.

Motor racing campaigners continued to argue that the ban would affect 40,000 jobs in the motor racing industry and cite the example of France, where a tobacco ban has wiped out all the French F1 teams except Prost Grand Prix.

Eddie Jordan waded into the argument last week, saying that although he did not start out with tobacco money without it he "wouldn't be able to employ some of the best mechanics in the world and I certainly wouldn't be able to employ Damon Hill."

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