Thursday, August 28, 2008

‘Responsibility deals’ and the parable of the bears

The new Tory plan to fight obesity was announced yesterday by Andrew Lansley (whose name I sometimes think is suspiciously close to being Angela Lansbury, but never mind that).

It involves the use of something called a “responsibility deal”:

Participants in Responsibility Deals would be drawn from businesses and business-representative bodies, NGOs and the voluntary sector, academic institutions, regulators, government bodies and investors. They would tackle important societal issues by agreeing on a shared understanding of what the issue is, what needs to be done and who will do what, and by when.

The idea is that these deals will get businesses to do nice things (stop advertising alcohol to teenagers, cut the fat content of food, recycle more, cut carbon emissions, etc.) without the need for government coercion. Regulation will only be a “last resort”.

Good performance within the terms of a deal would be rewarded with “a lighter regulatory touch”.

But companies will get to say what demands – sorry, requests – should reasonably be made of them, and the NGOs and other participants will be pressurised into doing more themselves and demanding – sorry, requesting – less than what they think is right:

The process would be discursive and companies would therefore have the opportunity to argue their case for why certain expectations were realistic or otherwise. The process will also be designed to bring pressure on other parties to play their respective roles and focus on outcomes over ideology.

Involvement will be voluntary, but if businesses don’t want to take part, it will “reflect poorly” on them: they will be asked to “clarify or explain their position should they not wish to contribute”. This obviously sounds very tough indeed.

However:

Business involvement should not be over-complicated, since this would increase costs and the likelihood of non-participation.

And:

Representatives of British communities as a whole would be taking responsibility for ensuring that the right conditions are present to drive change.

You might think that this all seems a bit woolly, that it amounts to getting businesses to specify what the government is allowed to ask them to do, and that if they then do that, they get allowed to do other things that the government previously didn’t want them to do, and if it doesn’t work out then excuses will be preferred to actual blame. It might seem preposterously toothless and designed to let businesses get away with as much as possible while creating the impression that they, and the Tory government that lets them get away with it, are socially responsible.

The finding of our review is that many companies would welcome Responsibility Deals.

No kidding.

But wait! There is, after all, the possibility of regulation if a deal doesn’t work. But this is mentioned only as the “last resort”. Companies may well act more responsibly without regulation, but the threat of it if they don’t play ball must be real – otherwise they’ll not do anything that endangers profits. This threat will be pretty much empty coming from a minister ideologically opposed to regulation, who has personal responsibility for making sure the ‘responsibility deals’ they have brokered work, or at least are seen to be working, or at least are seen in their own narrow terms to be working. The minister will have a strong incentive to negotiate and then monitor and then renegotiate each deal in a way that they allows them to claim success. Regulation will only follow from their public admission of personal failure. Not a credible threat.

But even this provokes fear, or at least the public affectation of fear, from business. Richard Lambert, Director-General of the CBI, has said:

The proper role of government is to create certainty in the market and maintain a clear distinction between compulsory regulation and voluntary action. Where necessary, the government should regulate clearly and enforce the regulations strongly. There is a risk that responsibility deals would confuse this issue, by being almost a form of regulation by proxy, and would lack credibility.

See how even these tame, voluntary, nominal checks on corporate behaviour are received! “Regulation by proxy”! Toothless this may be, but the business lobby will keep punching it in the mouth to make sure no teeth can ever develop.

The parable of the bears

The Minister for Ursine Defecation convenes a group of bears and other forest-dwellers to discuss the issue of bears shitting in the woods. The squirrels voice their dislike of this happening where they’re trying to forage for acorns, and ask for it to stop. The bears listen politely, and then say: “We’re bears. We shit in the woods.” The minister asks if there’s any way the bears might be able to shit somewhere else. The bears growl.

The squirrels nervously suggest that the bears might consider shitting only in certain designated parts of the woods, not right next to where all the oak trees are. The bears flex their claws. The minister thanks the bears for taking on the squirrels’ point of view, and offers the bears the option of being allowed to eat ramblers if they’ll consider not shitting near the oaks where the squirrels are foraging.

The bears um and ah, and say it’s only fair if the squirrels make some concessions too – for instance, that tapping noise they make as they break into the acorns is pretty annoying. The squirrels sigh, and say that they’ll leave their acorns in water overnight to soften them up – the taste will suffer, but it’ll reduce the noise. A responsibility deal is agreed.

Six months later, the group reconvenes (beginning with a minute’s silence in memory of the dead ramblers). The squirrels complain that the bears are still shitting near the oak trees, but the bears protest that most of them – bar a few laggards – have relocated their shitting. Indeed, the red meat from the ramblers is giving them constipation, so there is (in real terms) less shit than in previous years. The minister diplomatically remarks that official figures from Ofshit won’t be published until the end of the year, so it would be premature to make any negative assessments of the deal.

The minister then goes off and cuts down all the oak trees near where the bears live. The squirrels are forced to relocate to a less desirable and increasingly overcrowded part of the woods, but one in which there are no bears. The key outcome of the responsibility deal has been achieved! The bears make a large donation to the Tory Party and, while the minister is promoted to become Secretary of State for Leopard Spot Alteration Prevention, they continue to shit in the woods.

2 comments:

Tom said...

Don't you think "A light but effective touch" sounds like something from a sex manual? Not that I'm familiar with the language of sex manuals.

anticant said...

Good grief! What utterly inane PC twaddle. Are these people really going to form the next government? Heaven help us...