Abolition of FSA will give food industry more shout

July 12, 2010

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.

Nannyism: Out of fashion

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?

MPs bank on the FSA regulatory model to beat binge-drinking

January 8, 2010

I seem to remember Oliver Cromwell once tried to ban mince pies. Reading the recommendations of the long-awaited House of Commons health select committee report on alcohol abuse, I get the impression that a number of our MPs have been infected with the same joyless dedication to futile causes as Cromwell’s not-so-merry men in the Long Parliament.

Do they really think that putting a minimum price of 50p on a unit of alcohol will help to staunch binge-drinking? Ireland levies still higher taxes than us on alcohol, yet is the biggest binge-drinking nation in the EU (Luxembourg maybe excepted).

Do they really think that introducing a 9pm watershed ban for TV advertising will do the trick for under-18 year olds (as if most are tucked up in bed by then, have never used a PVR, or heard of internet protocol TV)?

Do they really think they have any effective power over what messages go onto off-shore social media websites?

Do they really think the ultimate solution is to take regulation out of the hands of the Advertising Standards Authority and the industry-funded Portman Group and place it with a “Financial Services Authority (FSA) style body”? As if there were no very deep irony in that suggestion?

Sadly they do. It is the “FSA” proposal in particular that sums up the committee’s retrograde, quixotic thinking. Retrograde, because it suggests that statutory regulation is the way forward, when all the momentum in advertising regulation over the past few years has been achieved through toughening up self-regulation and creating a partnership between industry and government. Change4Life and Business4Life provide an illuminating example of how this concordat has worked in another contentious sector. Yet it is no isolated instance. The drinks industry itself is engaged in an identifiably similar  partnership with the 5-year Drink Aware programme. These new proposals simply throw a spanner in the works of self-regulation, with unsettling implications for the broader marketing community.

The committee’s argument for departing from the new orthodoxy seems to be that alcohol is a special case demanding rigorous vigilance of the sort uniquely provided by the statutory regulator overseeing financial services. Which planet have all these MPs been living on recently? The FSA is a discredited body. It showed itself to be corrupt and ineffectual as one of the “tripartite” regulators of the UK financial system during the late credit crunch. Although it has since been radically overhauled under new chairman Adair Turner, reform may earn it no more than a stay of execution. The Conservatives, who seem increasingly likely to form the next government, have made it clear they intend to abolish the FSA and roll a number of its functions into the Bank of England.

No matter. The probable trajectory of most, if not all, of these proposals is into the waste-paper bin of history, for the reason mentioned above: an imminent change of government. Cursory examination of Tory policy on this matter (the Public Health Commission) suggests that Cameron and co will attempt to streamline regulation in the food, soft drinks and alcohol sectors into a single policy framework guided by a so-called Responsibility Deal with the relevant industry sectors. In other words, they are wedded to the concept of self-regulation, albeit of a more vigilant, effective variety. Ah yes, you may object: aren’t you missing the point? The House of Commons health committee is an independently constituted body of MPs which owes no allegiance to the Government of the day. Its proposals are likely, therefore, to hold as much authority under a Conservative government as a Labour one. Well, yes and no. The MPs themselves may be relatively independent backbenchers, but the complexion of the committee, and who chairs it, is indirectly influenced by who is in power. Which will have an ideological bias on any future recommendations it arrives at.

I’m not, of course, suggesting that alcoholism and binge drinking aren’t serious social problems deserving government intervention. On the contrary, some of the committee’s suggestions are clearly constructive. Certainly more of the industry’s estimated £800m a year spent on advertising and sponsorship could be usefully channelled into the promotion of public health. Other ideas, however, are pure lunacy. The recommendation, for example, that no event should be sponsored by a drinks advertiser if more than 10% of its attendees are under 18 would have a disastrous impact upon music festivals and, more importantly, sport  – if ever implemented.

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