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Make quangos more accountable, urges BHA chief executive Bob Cotton

17 February 2010 by
Make quangos more accountable, urges BHA chief executive Bob Cotton

If the multitude of quangos survives the next Government, the industry must have a greater influence on how they operate, says
British Hospitality Association chief executive Bob Cotton
It's now favoured practice in government to devolve the administration of many regulations to agencies. These agencies - or quangos - have both power and influence, yet if the next government is Conservative, many may well not survive. What of those agencies that directly affect the industry - VisitBritain, regional and local tourist boards, the Food Standards Agency, the School Food Trust - and those that less directly affect it such as the Low Pay Commission and the regional development agencies?

Quangos may fulfil a public need - without them, direct administration by government departments would make Whitehall even bigger - but they need to be given a clear remit. If not, industry loses out.

The development of tourism in England, for example, has been greatly hindered - not enhanced - by the varying roles of VisitBritain, VisitEngland and Visit London, along with regional development agencies and the regional tourist boards for which they are responsible.

If we add in VisitScotland and VisitWales, as well as the Northern Ireland Tourist Board, we have more than 20 organisations, some more knowledgeable and enthusiastic than others, which are responsible for encouraging tourism in, and to, various parts of the UK. Is this really a sensible structure?

The weakness here is the relationship between the regional tourist boards and their regional development agencies. Some of the agencies are enthusiastic about tourism and are investing time and money into the industry - Yorkshire Forward for example. Visit London, too, is a success story but that's financed directly by the Mayor's office. Thankfully, Boris Johnson accepts the value of tourism to London.

That's in sharp contrast to the present governmental financial squeeze on VisitBritain. Here, even the National Audit Office confirms that the organisation is highly efficient and provides value for money - strange then, that government is cutting its funding.

You certainly can prove that tourism pays. Nevertheless, this did not prevent the closure of the Heart of England Tourist Board, which only goes to show that tourism comes way down the list of some regional development agencies. How can that be when the board covered such prime areas as Stratford and the Cotswolds? Now VisitEngland has been set up, but without the necessary finance to make its presence felt fully.

There is confusion, too, with the Food Standards Agency (FSA) which is not, at present, the most popular organisation in the industry's eyes. Another agency! More regulations! No accountability! What the FSA doesn't have is what it most badly needs - industry confidence. Its botched attempt to introduce a "Scores on the Doors" star rating scheme for food hygiene inspections has still not yet been resolved, even though Scotland had introduced a perfectly acceptable - and workable - system in 2008 which the FSA chose to ignore.

Some local authorities have gone their own way and introduced their own "Scores on the Doors" star rating scheme. In London, local authorities are still desperate to force caterers to display the notice publicly.

The FSA's latest incursion is to urge caterers to introduce calorie-counted menus in the belief that consumers will choose more carefully if they know how many calories they are eating.

A pilot scheme has just been undertaken which the FSA claims has shown that any issues for businesses in providing calorie labelling "could be overcome with relative ease". This is somewhat disingenuous, especially as Trading Standards Officers called to account one major restaurant company unwittingly displaying incorrect calorie counts.

In fact, the time and the cost required to introduce a system is far more significant than the FSA indicates and it is not yet proven that consumers actually want it - or even take notice of it. At present, calorie-counting dishes is voluntary but what happens if there is insufficient voluntary take-up? The scheme has all the hallmarks of a statutory imposition. As very few, if any, independent restaurants will have the time, money and know-how to introduce such a scheme voluntarily, a statutory regulation to enforce it might well be the end result, despite current protestations to the contrary. More regulations!

It is true that the FSA is consulting, but the industry is never sure that it actually listens to what it is being told. Certainly, the FSA refused a plea by the British Hospitality Association to reconsider its decision not to adopt the well-tried and well-accepted Scottish scheme for food hygiene inspections, despite being urged to do so by its senior staff.

Yet other agencies and organisations appear to work well and in consort with the industry. Despite initial opposition by the sector, the Low Pay Commission's decisions on the national minimum wage in recent years have been largely reasonable; there is clear consultation and the industry feels that its voice is heard and respected.

The School Food Trust, with chef Rob Rees as chairman, is also bringing some sense and good influence to the schools meals sector.

So, if quangos are to survive, how to make them more useful? In the case of tourism, it's confused thinking and muddled organisation that's holding the sector back. In the case of the FSA, it's a matter of industry confidence - or lack of it - that makes its work more difficult. If they survive the next Government, the industry should surely have a bigger influence on how they can best operate.

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