Come on, we all knew a Tory government was going to abolish the FSA. It’s just we got the wrong one in our sights. How devious of them to lead us up the garden path like that!
While the incompetent Financial Services Authority (a watchdog steeped up to its dewlaps in responsibility for the banking crisis) has got off lightly with a root-and-branch reform instead of threatened abolition, the other FSA, the Food Standards Agency, which was threatened with root-and-branch reform but not abolition, is the one that is actually going to get the chop. Health secretary Andrew Lansley, we are told, will shortly announce that the organisation set up in 2000 in the wake of the BSE crisis will have its regulatory remit (safety and hygiene in the food chain) devolved to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), and its responsibilities for advising on public health and diet (primarily the obesity debate) given to the Department of Health (DoH).
The immediate aim is to save about £1bn by breaking up a department with 2,000 people and a budget of £135m. However, commentators on both sides of the food divide have been quick to discern a not-very-hidden ideological agenda.
With one stroke, Lansley has struck a lethal blow at the heart of nannyism. Even the food industry seems a little taken aback by the suddenness of the blow. And yet it is entirely consistent with Lansley’s promise – implicit in his decision last week to give industry a bigger role in Change4Life – to substitute “nudge” (persuasive technique) for cumbersome and expensive legislative coercion.
A happy by-product of this policy, so far as the food, soft drinks and alcohol companies are concerned, is that it puts them more firmly in the driving seat. We will hear no more of “traffic lights”, the simplistic but consumer-friendly food labelling system which the FSA has espoused with such zeal, much to the annoyance of Big Food. Similarly, I imagine the threat of a TV advertising watershed imposed on certain food and alcohol categories is definitively a thing of the past; and the medical caucus will – for now – be more hesitant about calling for an outright ban on the consumption of alcohol.
Critics of Lansley’s plan will no doubt point to the conflict of interest inherent in placing regulatory control within a department, Defra, which is also responsible for the supply side. One of the reasons for the FSA’s foundation as an independent body was the perceived inadequacy of MAFF (Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) – Defra’s predecessor – in dealing with the BSE crisis, thanks to its cosiness with farmers. But that’s one for the critics. For the food and alcohol sectors, the FSA’s abolition marks a famous victory, not least in the communications war.
UPDATE: Some furious back-pedalling by Andrew Lansley’s special adviser has led to the following terse statement being issued on the DoH website this afternoon: “No decision has been taken over the Food Standards Agency (FSA). All Arms Length Bodies will be subject to a review.” Meaning? The electric chair will have to wait, but it’s definitely (or should that be indefinitely?) Death Row for the FSA. Emasculation by innuendo. NICE next?