Does the departure of Andrew Lansley as secretary of state for health herald a return to zealous regulation by the government?
No prizes for guessing the biggest casualty of David Cameron’s Cabinet reshuffle this week. But with the departure of health secretary Andrew Lansley, what will happen to his policies?
Few politicians in recent times have managed to put such a personal stamp on their turf as Lansley, in charge of the Tory health machine for eight years.
While the new man, former culture secretary Jeremy Hunt, may have been brought in primarily to sort out the mess surrounding the implementation of his predecessor’s hugely controversial NHS reforms, the shake-up has wider implications for the food and drink industry - both in terms of the government’s relationship with it and the level of legislation it’s likely to be subjected to.
Leading figures question what Lansley’s departure means for the Responsibility Deal, his contentious partnership with companies to tackle issues like obesity and alcohol abuse. Health groups this week signalled their intention to use his exit as a catalyst for the Deal to be scrapped.
Lansley was the driving force behind the Deal, which ran into trouble before it was even launched last March, when health bodies including the BMA, Alcohol Concern and Diabetes UK walked out.
Cameron, who now has a grateful Hunt - spared the axe despite the revelations of the Leveson Inquiry - to do his bidding, has shown of late an appetite for a tougher approach. There’s his strong support for minimum alcohol pricing for one, and he has also indicated that government will at least investigate plans for a “fat tax” on high-calorie food and drinks.
Obesity: Oversaw big reductions in trans fats, more reformulation and smaller portions
Alcohol: Agreed deal to take a billion units off shelves, but failed to halt minimum pricing
Salt: Set tough new targets for 2012 that many companies are expected to miss
Labelling: Got McDonald’s et al to sign up in 2011 to out-of-home calorie labelling. Persuaded Tesco to agree to front-of-pack traffic lights
Cigarettes: Spearheaded display ban and launched consultation on plain packaging
The government is poised to launch an inquiry over the former. Meanwhile, the Academy of Royal Medical Colleges is expected to release a report shortly slating the government’s record on obesity. One member, Professor Simon Capewell, last month accused Lansley of a “dereliction of duty” in public health, saying the Responsibility Deal was akin to “putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank”.
Health committee MPs have also sunk their teeth into the Deal but it was the increasing divide with Cameron - once a major ally - that did for Lansley. Not only did Cameron and Nick Clegg unravel many of his NHS plans, he was humiliated by the PM on minimum pricing.
On the very same day this March that Lansley announced he’d signed up leading retailers and suppliers to plans to remove a billion alcohol units from the shelves, Cameron declared a regulatory clampdown on cheap booze. Lansley had opposed the move, arguing the voluntary approach could achieve results much faster than regulation.
Success of voluntary approach
The virtual elimination of trans fats, reductions in salt intake and measures on out-of-home calorie labelling are among the big successes of this voluntary approach, which also underpinned his Obesity Strategy, launched last October, resulting in food companies and supermarkets pledging to remove five billion calories from the national diet.
The Grocer revealed last week that a new pledge on fruit of veg is currently being negotiated.
Lansley’s approach had many fans in the industry but he has was also urged by the likes of the BRC and the FDF to slow down the number of pledges and widen the scope to those many companies in retail and the hospitality sector seen as being “let off the hook” .
He was also slammed for not doing enough to prove the effectiveness of the measures he introduced - and in other cases for going too far.
Several leading companies admitted in July that they were going to spectacularly miss their 2012 salt reduction targets, although others were on course. Lansley had been due to spearhead new talks with the industry about salt reduction, talks that now fall to Hunt.
“One of the biggest issues for us is to try to convince the government that it needs to incentivise companies that help drive policies like its health agenda and Lansley had bought into that,” says Andrew Opie , director of food at the BRC. “He was quite unique to have such an interest in public health and the worry is whether that will continue under Jeremy Hunt.”
The hope is that like Lansley, Hunt will advocate voluntary participation, says Fiona Dawson, MD of Mars UK, who served as a member of Lansley’s higher-level steering group.
“My strong hope is that Jeremy will continue with the approach that has achieved progress far quicker than could ever have been achieved by legislation,” she says. “Andrew was a terrific supporter of the work, but it’s important to recognise that so are all the companies taking part and there’s been no indication , so far at least, that the government will change direction.”
A source at another leading food company suggests the importance of Lansley is overstated. “Ultimately it doesn’t really matter what the secretary of state wants as much as what our customers want,” he says. “It just so happens that recently government policy has chimed with ours. We will do what market forces dictate.”
But leading health campaigners warn they will be agitating for a new approach. “It’s a chance to try to take policy from outside the scope of the Responsibility Deal and widen the debate on the government’s policy on public health,” says Malcolm Clark, coordinator of the Children’s Food Campaign.
How amenable Hunt is to their demands will depend on how much time he spends on the NHS reforms that became so bogged down under Lansley - and how much appetite he has for a food fight.