UPDATE UK: Portman Group backs Baroness Coussins in Lords dispute
Drinks industry body the Portman Group has leapt to the defence of former chief executive Baroness Coussins over her active role in shaping drinks labelling legislation in the House of Lords.
Jean Coussins' role as an alcoholic drinks industry consultant, in addition to her previous position at Portman, and her active participation in debating drinks legislation in the UK House of Lords was highlighted by the Financial Times newspaper today.
Debate has broken out in the UK this week over conduct in the House of Lords, the upper chamber in the UK Parliament, after undercover reporters for the Times newspaper taped Lords speaking of how they received money to lobby for certain interests.
The Portman Group strongly rejected the suggestion that Coussins, made a Baroness in 2007, had compromised her role in shaping legislation.
Coussins left the Portman Group in September 2006, but has continued to act as a paid consultant to the industry, including for several companies, such as Brown-Forman.
Parliamentary records, freely available, show that Coussins has tabled amendments and taken part in discussions on alcoholic drinks labelling legislation in the House of Lords.
In one amendment, tabled on 1 May 2008 and relating to guidance for pregnant women on drinks labels, Coussins argues that the words 'government warning' should be replaced with 'government advice'.
Referring to the use of the word 'warning' on cigarette packets, Coussins said: "It cannot be a warning, partly because we do not know enough for it to be as bold as with smoking." A number of other Lords subsequently agreed.
In another proposed amendment on the same subject, Coussins argued that spirits miniatures should not have to carry warnings/advice for pregnant women. She later withdrew this.
The records show that Coussins, a strong supporter of self-regulation for the industry, openly stated her drinks industry interests several times when speaking in the Lords.
She also said that she had received help on her labelling legislation amendments from the Wine & Spirit Trade Association and the British Beer and Pub Association.
There is no suggestion that Baroness Coussins received direct payment to table amendments, which would clearly be in breach of the code of conduct for the Lords, drawn up in 2002.
Some Lords and MPs have called for a tighter code this week, however.
Several members of the Lords have drinks industry connections, according to Parliament's Register of Interests.
These include: Lord Bilimoria, the founder and chairman of Cobra Beer; Lord Sheppard of Didgemere, who is listed as vice president of the Beer and Pub Association; Lord Watson of Richmond, who is a regular paid consultant to The Coca-Cola Co; Lord Gould of Brookwood, who is listed as a member of the PepsiCo advisory board; Lord Hollick, listed as paid director at Diageo and Lord Fellowes, a paid non-executive director at SABMiller.
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