From the TUC

Responsibility Deal – Gone but not mourned

15 Dec 2015, By

The Government has now admitted that the “Responsibility Deal” which they set up in 2010 to deal with health issues is to be quietly left to disappear. In the words of the Government spin doctors, the deals have been “parked”. These deals, which covered public health priorities such as alcohol, food and exercise, were seen as the alternative to regulation.

One of the areas the Responsibility Deal covered was work and health. By getting employers to sign up to “Pledges” our workplaces would be transformed into a vehicle whereby employers would help their workers become healthier.

When the first workplace pledges were drafted in early 2011, I commented that they made no mention of involving the workforce or their representatives, and so may be seen as being paternalistic. There was also nothing on work organisation or work-life balance, which are key to improving health at work.

Of course the biggest problem was that the Government say them are being a substitute for forcing employers to do anything. The work and health pledges covered areas such as mental health, where the biggest problem is workplace stress and there is a clear case for strong regulation and enforcement action, but the pledge did not even mention the HSE Stress Management Standards, or the legal requirements on protect the health of the workforce. At the same time employers could sign any of the pledges and then simply, do nothing. The Responsibility Deal was more about PR and, as such, had virtually no impact on the lives of workers on the ground. Many of the companies which signed up to the pledges already had workplace health programmes.

The problem was not only with the health and work pledges. There were even bigger problems with some of the other ones, in particular those relating to food and alcohol. After the 2010 election the new coalition Government was under pressure  from campaigners and the media to introduce new legislation to curb the twin problems of obesity and problem drinking. There was a need for clear labelling of food products and reduced fat, sugar and salt content. There was also pressure for minimum pricing of alcohol and an end to some of the irresponsible special offers in supermarkets and pubs.

In 2012, most of the major food firms, supermarkets and high street chains agreed a series of voluntary pledges with the Department of Health in which they committed to playing their part in trying to ensure that Britons consume 5 billion fewer calories a day. At the time many health organisation said this was a cop-out and the Government needed to regulate. The BMA said “ tackling these problems by relying largely or exclusively on personal responsibility, ‘nudging’ individuals and corporate social responsibility is inadequate. It is also likely to entrench existing inequalities.

The BMA was proved to be right. Researchers found that, while companies were signing up to the pledges, they were doing nothing practical or effective and, during the first two years of the pledge, calorie intake appears to have increased. The only area where there was a decrease was in salt, but that was simply a continuation of an existing trend. In fact every single supermarket failed to meet the targets within the responsibility deal for reducing salt in processed meats. After the research was published, the Children’s Food Campaign, said: “This damning assessment of the current responsibility deal cuts through the Department of Health’s spin and shows up the initiative for what it is: more about positive PR for companies than effective, evidence-based new interventions to improve our diets.”

The same is true of alcohol where the main research body, the Institute of Alcohol Studies, stated “The pledges are not based  on evidence of what works, and were largely written by Government and industry officials before the health community was invited to join the proceedings.  Furthermore, there are no hard outcomes attached to the pledges, which rely heavily on evaluation by the industry.

Since the pledges were agreed, researchers have shown that the companies are not even implementing their own limited promises. On labelling, a study published in the journal Addiction this year showed “overall, alcohol labels very frequently fall short of best practice, with poor legibility and clarity a particular problem.

So where does the Government go from here? I have no doubt that in the new year we will see new proposals from the government on alcohol, fat and sugar. I have also no doubt that they will be negotiated by the industry in advance rather than be developed in partnership with the outside experts in the field. That means that the guiding principle will be to allow the supermarkets and manufacturers to continue to pull the wool over our eyes and pretend they are doing something.

But what about the workplace? I doubt whether there will be any replacement for the Responsibility Deal on work and health. When the government said they were going to “park it”, I think they meant at the bottom of a disused mine and covered with concrete. The tragedy is that there is a lot that employers can do to improve the health and well-being of their workforce. A lot of it does need regulation and enforcement (stress, MSDs, bullying at work, long hours etc.), but other initiatives around encouraging healthy eating, reduced drinking and more exercise can also help, and are often welcomed by the workforce. Now that the Responsibility Deal is finished hopefully they will look at supporting and funding joint initiatives in the workplace between unions and employers around the Governments priority areas such as obesity, smoking, alcohol, and mental health, while also ensuring that employers provide workplaces that do not make us ill, or overweight, or stressed in the first place.

We don’t have to wait for the government to act before trying to make our workplaces safer, instead you can use the new TUC guide on achieving well-being through work.