MPs have launched a scathing attack on the government’s Responsibility Deal, claiming voluntary agreements with the food and drink industry are proving inadequate in the battle against the nation’s alcohol and obesity problems.

The powerful health select committee called on the Department of Health to draw up plans for regulation, without which, they claimed, the policy of ‘nudging’ companies towards healthier policies was doomed to failure.

The move will be regarded as a major blow to health secretary Andrew Lansley, who launched the Responsibility Deal in March and has so far resisted pressure from the health lobby for moves toward minimum pricing on alcohol and a so-called fat tax.

A report from the committee admitted “partnership with commercial organisations has a place” but added: “Those with a financial interest must not be allowed to set the agenda.”

It says: “We do not oppose the exploration of innovative techniques such as ‘nudging’ where it can be shown, following proper evaluation, to be an effective way of delivering policy objectives.

“The committee were, however, unconvinced that the new Responsibility Deal will be effective in resolving issues such as obesity and alcohol abuse.”

In response the DoH defended plans to work with the industry, claiming it was a much quicker way of getting results than the regulatory path.

“As the committee acknowledges, a great deal can be achieved by working jointly with business and other organisations to improve public health,” a spokesman said.

“We believe collective voluntary effort can deliver real progress quickly. If we are to find new ways of supporting people to change their behaviour and achieve real sustained improvements in public health, we need to work in a broad partnership with public health, voluntary and commercial organisations.”

Shadow public health minister Diane Abbott said the report was “a damning indictment” of the deal. “It’s been completely ineffective,” she said. “They haven’t made any real progress in government action to tackle obesity and alcohol misuse.”

The Food & Drink Federation denied the deal was allowing the industry to set the agenda. “The Deal provides an important platform for debate and action across a range of stakeholders, within which industry can build on its record of achievement in key areas such as product reformulation and labelling to make a real contribution to improving public health,” a spokesman said.

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Editor’s Comment: Fixing the obesity epidemic is as hard as fixing the euro (22 October 2011)
Government calls on industry to slash calories (14 October 2011)
‘Obesity is the new smallpox’: Lansley’s global rallying cry (20 September 2011)