BBC BLOGS - Nick Robinson's Newslog
« Previous | Main | Next »

Social responsibility

Nick Robinson | 08:53 UK time, Monday, 15 January 2007

Could tradeable fat permits be the answer to the nation's growing waistlines? Or how about booze permits to tackle the growth in alcohol abuse? The idea's an intriguing one and comes from a working group set up by David Cameron to look at how to make business more responsible. The group's just floating ideas at this stage but it wants the Tories to examine whether the methods being used to tackle pollution and climate change could also be used to confront other social ills.

So, just as airlines will soon be able to buy and sell permits to emit carbon, food and drink firms might be able to buy and sell them for producing fatty foods or intoxicating drinks. The aim is to give businesses incentives to move away from doing what's bad for society and do more of what's good and to rely less on government regulation.

The group proposes that firms that act responsibly could be rewarded by being regulated less. The ideas will be unveiled today at a summit on social responsibility - the Tory leader's Big Idea. He's determined to prove that it's a coherent alternative to what he dubs Labour's big government approach. He wants also to show that he's not been scared off by rows about chocolate oranges and padded children’s bras.

So far, social responsibility's not really flown as a big idea. It's been dismissed either as a headline-grabbing soundbite or mere exhortation to business and society to do more. What the Conservatives are trying to show is that there is a role for government in setting the framework for policy even if politicians themselves actually do less.

chips with curry sauce(thanks to flickr user Celie for the picture)PS. There will not be permits, I'm assured, for curried chips. I'm grateful for the messages of sympathy from those who've heard that a man in a pub threw the afore-mentioned culinary delicacy at me last week. The tale has grown somewhat in the re-telling so that many have wondered how I continued working after a plate of vindaloo was poured over me.

The truth is a little less exciting. A drunk in a pub in Rochdale (where I was filming opinions on the Act of Union - 300 years old this year) objected to my failure to take his views seriously and the decision of the landlady to throw him out. He returned to the pub, shouted at me for failing to bring the boys home from Iraq and chucked his chips with curry sauce in my general direction. The chips missed, the sauce hit leading to me spending the next day in Edinburgh apologising for the curious smell. You can see the report on the Act of Union on the 10 O'Clock News tonight. Look hard and you might see the curry stain.


How could a drunk have behaved so responsibly!?!

I am not sure if permits are the answer but getting companies and people tobe more socialy responsible would be a good thing. The problem being that you can't regulate for everything so we need better ways of getting companies to behave well.

Personally I would like consumers to realise that every time they spend money they are voting. They should use the power of their wallets and complaints to change behaviour. Consumer campaigns can move a lot faster than regulation or legislation.

Needless to say there is an article on my blog about consumer action.

  • 3.
  • At 10:21 AM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • Max wrote:

Tradeable fat permits will not be the answer to Britains waistline, because the problem is not in the actual firms themselves, but in the people who consume the products. How ever much or less the firms advertise for un healthy foods, people will still demand a high quantity of these foods. It is us who need the permits, which would decide how much of certain foods we can purchase. We should have a limit, an allowance, which would curb our eating habits. This would be beneficial for those who find it difficult shed weight and beneficial to the country as a whole. These permits could also be tradeable as the companies would be, which would also encourage people to not consume these unhealthy foods, as they would be able to trade them for the alternative money.

Those Liberal Democrats are always causing trouble.

  • 5.
  • At 10:36 AM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • Jill wrote:

This 'intriguing idea' has the potential for creating a huge administrative industry. Perhaps the common sense of the non-think tank people will prevail and this idea will be reborn more usefully just as another part of public education. After all, those who want to eat vilified foods every day will just go to whoever bought the permit. And strategic plans usually have inbuilt introduction plans running from 'innovative concept planned rejection' to something more practical. The question is: when will the more practical part be revealed?

  • 6.
  • At 10:37 AM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • chrissy wrote:

Isn't it up to individuals to control their weight? Help should be provided when the person decides to lose weight, but why limit the choices for everyone becuase some people are fat. Its also not really a social problem and if it is where is the pressure on anorexics or bulemics. Maybe the solution to all of these problems is up to the world of fashion and magazines to portray more realistc visions of beauty and all of society to display more understanding rather than judging people so shallowly.

  • 7.
  • At 10:46 AM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • Tony Hannon wrote:

Great story - it's a simple truth that the Act of Union doesn't curry favour with everyone!

  • 8.
  • At 10:47 AM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • Keith wrote:

At least it didn't happen in Edinburgh though, Nick - the stain from the infamous Edinburgh "sauce" (a mixture of brown sauce and vinegar, usually) would have been worse!

  • 9.
  • At 10:52 AM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • Duncan Smallman wrote:

In line with the Conservative mini-manefesto (I think brought out last August) the whole focus is money, equating people to just money. This I feel will not work nor really encourage people. The real thing that needs to happen is for everybody just to slow down and stop being so lazy i.e in home cooking. That is all. Anyway, thanks Nick for another very insightful blog. And though haven't seen the article yet I am very much in favour of the Act of Union: in a devisive world unity is the way.

  • 10.
  • At 11:09 AM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • Andy wrote:

Aaah..makes you proud to be Lancastrian!

Good grief! Is this finally an actual policy from David Cameron? I thought after all this time he'd have come up with something better than that.

Here's a radical idea; rather than permits and trading schemes for fatty foods, why don't they propose an education system that teaches young people what is healthy to eat rather than preparing them only to spend the rest of their lives as wage slaves.

Educating the masses? Perish the thought.

  • 12.
  • At 11:33 AM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • KP wrote:

So the idea is to make it more expensive to produce by making business buy permits ? The costs will be passed on to the consumer, so in the end it costs more to buy cakes , chocolates and crisps ? Sounds like a stealth tax to me. I expect a screaming headline : TORIES PLAN TO TAX CHOCOLATE. Not a vote winner in my opinion.

  • 13.
  • At 11:44 AM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • Ray B wrote:

David Cameron might to advantage read Macaulay on good government, words that are just as apposite today as when they were written over 170 years ago:

'Our rulers will best promote the improvement of the nation by strictly confining themselves to their own legitimate duties, by leaving capital to find its most lucrative course, commodities their fair price, industry and intelligence their natural reward, idleness and folly their natural punishment, by maintaining peace, by defending property, by diminishing the price of law, and by observing strict economy in every department of the state.'

It is none of Mr Cameron's business lecturing us on what we should eat or how wisely we spend our money. His business is providing an effective opposition, an area in which he and his shadow ministers have all the substance of shadows of shades. Small wonder that increasing numbers of voters feel little affinity with today's politicians and see no purpose in exercising their franchise.

  • 14.
  • At 11:50 AM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • Freddy wrote:

Max wrote: It is us who need the permits, which would decide how much of certain foods we can purchase. We should have a limit, an allowance, which would curb our eating habits.

Nice idea Max, but I can't see David Cameron viewing bringing back ration books as a vote winner. ;o)

  • 15.
  • At 12:00 PM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • J Courtney wrote:

Just read Camerons big new idea, is this a joke.

  • 16.
  • At 12:09 PM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • Dave McCarthy wrote:

One of the problems with this idea is that it will create a 'closed system' for alcohol and the like. This will create a restricted supply which, as any economist will tell you, will simply drive up the price. The answer really requires education of people to the dangers. This unfortunatly requires people to trust the message and with the amount of mistrust of government around at the moment it will require a massive change in the public mood about messages from Whitehall.

  • 17.
  • At 12:20 PM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • Nicky wrote:

It's very easy to say that we need to be teaching children how to eat responsibly, but very difficult to do when the culture within the home for many children is all about convenience and fatty food. Whilever kids are sent with a bag of crisps for breakfast to eat on the way to school, and money in their pocket for a trip to the chippy at lunchtime, the schools can bang on and on about healthy eating until they're blue in the face and it won't make even the tiniest difference.

At least this is taking a completely different look at some of our biggest social issues, and giving food producers the incentive to use better quality ingredients in their meals has got to be something that's worth looking at.

  • 18.
  • At 12:25 PM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • PJ wrote:

Robinson, if you buy into this 'permits for alcohol & fatty foods production' you're a bigger fool than I thought you were. Unlike the highly contentious case of CO2 there is no argument that the production of either causes any harm whatsoever. The dangers are in the overindulgence in these substances by individuals. That's their problem, not ours. A permit trading system implies Government licensing and by extension a restriction on the granting of those licences or the permits would accrue no value - there would be no market. Very simple supply & demand economics.
Assenting to a system like this sets a precedent for a Government to assume licensing powers over any and every legitimate activity of its people. If you have bothered to read any history you will realise that it would effectively return us to the mediaeval guild system. What's next? A licence to mill grain or dye cotton. They wouldn't even need to draft legislation - just translate it from the original Latin.

  • 19.
  • At 12:28 PM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • TF wrote:

Why bother creating new versions of problems that have already proven themselves to be (at best) disproportionately costly to solve?

With respect: business costs do not drive business behaviour. Revenues drive business behaviour. The drug trade has taught us that already.

Costs do not drive human behaviour. At best, taxes only have a distorted affect on people's behaviour. Otherwise London wouldn't be as over-populated as it is.

'Sin taxes' become stealth taxes and the difference between a poll tax and a council tax quickly blur as the council tax gets older. Post-code lotteries and school performance tables do little for raising the national average of anything.

From the 'ridiculous' parallels of 'make heroin illegal and then no-one will buy it' (and similar: Prohibition, last time I checked, had failed to positively affect american society) to the more fundamental problems of the arbitrary line between foods that are or are not fatty ... it's easy to tell if something contains alcohol but how do you categorised yoghurts between fatty categories?

And how are they going to manage the growth in 'stock' of such permits over time? Inflation based lowering of the price of permits? Or raising? Both have valid arguments for why they should be implemented. Do the companies get more permits if/when the population of the country grows? Do they get more permits if they advertise more responsibly? What would 'responsible advertising' in this context be? Clearly, the questions of impelementation would make this a farce.

People eat (and sometimes over-eat) fatty foods because the medium and long term cost of those actions do not seem to outweigh the short term benefits/value/utility/whatever. Besides: there are individuals in this society who do not need their challenges in life to be entrenched by a government's fixation with pandering to the societal norms that only further underline how hard it is face a life of anorexia!

If people wanted their 'future's more than their 'present's then they wouldn't 'generate' as much of a market for unhealthy foods by making short-term focussed purchase decisions.

What is a government to do: spend the time/energy on education; local cultural development; aide/enhance contextualising this culture in the wider EU and global contexts and deal with future-threatening problems like insufficient housing ...

  • 20.
  • At 12:31 PM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • AJS wrote:

What rot! Permits will never work.
Put a big TAX on Saturated Fat.
A true "Fat Tax" would work.
If crisps and snacks had to comply with large
tax bills then cheap crisps would become "Good for you". Even companies like Walkers are producing lower fat crisps now. It is only the "Cheap" or "Hyper market" brands that need to be reduced in fat now. Companies
like Tesco, ASDA, etc.., have the clout to force the market that way by only buying lower fat crisps and snacks.
As for alcohol and resposibility, you cannot change the nature of people. It is down to the pubs and clubs to keep them in line and most night clubs control alcohol for their own protection. A few Pubs do to but most just want the money.
A permit here would only work if it were enforced. The police will not do this. THey have enough to deal with as it is. This would mean yet another 3rd party eforcing the rules and do you want to be asked for you license to drink by yet another "Traffic Warden".

  • 21.
  • At 12:32 PM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • Andrzej wrote:

KP correctly identifies the likely effect on the cost of fatty foods of a permit scheme a la carbon trading. Until now I didn't think of the Tories as being into stealth taxes.

  • 22.
  • At 12:37 PM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • Jake Long wrote:

Once again, politicians playing at social engineering. What is the difference between cameron and blair.

Let's just hope that Brown is different otherwise we're doomed.

  • 23.
  • At 12:40 PM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • Mark Gray wrote:

I really despair of the level of economic literacy in this country when I hear nonsense like this from the Tories.

The idea behind tradeable permits is that there is a total emission ceiling, some portion of which is available through a market mechanism to buy or sell. BUT in order to do all of that you need close supervision to ensure actual emissions are in line with permits supplied through the market, you need good information in markets for emissions so that the supply price of permit tonnes acurately reflects demand and supply conditions, and you need real competition in the markets with the derived demand for carbon-creating inputs.

Translate all of that into chocolate bars and you get a mess, Nick. Will Mr Cameron be creating a Confectionary Industry Fat Inspectorate to seek out off-permit fat use? Will he be encouraging greater competition through more vigorous policing of anti-competitive practices? Will he be publishing a daily 'fat gramms permit price' through a regulatory office?

Thought not. This is toy town economics from a toy town opposition party.

  • 24.
  • At 12:55 PM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • David Evans wrote:

It's good to see creative thinking on issues like this coming out of the Conservatives. I'm taking a moment to reflect on a Conservative party suggesting ways of modifying business behaviour for social purposes through legislation.

It feels good.

  • 25.
  • At 12:57 PM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • Pete L wrote:

If this is the best that the already 'policy-lite' Tories can come up with I wonder if they will ever win a General Election again! On the one hand they criticise additional bureaucracy for business, and then propose even more with this permit scheme.
Without doubt we are becoming a nation of fatties, but if the government is to tackle the problem it has only three options: -
1. Lecture the nation
2.Legislate to change our eating habits, or
3. Tax to influence eating habits.

No option is attractive, but taxing fatty, salty, sugary foods may be the only workable option. I'd love to think there were better viable options ... but I've not heard any so far.

  • 26.
  • At 12:59 PM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • Chocaholic wrote:

I'm really getting fed up of all this. I'm in my 20's, and quite frankly stuff my face with whatever I can get my hands on. I'm a really bad chocaholic, back my own muffins, sticky cakes etc, and can't resist my chinese take away & chip shop chips. One day, if I can afford to, I might make my target weight of 8 stone...

Regarding the last point about the Act of Union, isn't it funny how the leaders of the three main parties all have Scottish surnames? Whereas Brown and Salmond could easily have been surnames on the English side of the Act of Union. See:

  • 28.
  • At 01:10 PM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • Oliver wrote:

I don't see permits as a beneficial way of improving health. What is needed is less stick and more carrot for the companies involved.

Yes, to a certain extent, I control what goes down my throat but if it is between various unhealthy options and other unhealthy options then what option do I have?! Why not offer subsidies to companies providing real alternatives.

  • 29.
  • At 01:15 PM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • bill rees wrote:

Camerons permit idea for food is another bit of useless spin.I thought he was against red tape this idea would be a nightmare.Yesterday he told us he was sorry for having a AGA COOKER and will turn it off.How much longer is the London Media going to string along with such rubbish news items.

  • 30.
  • At 01:15 PM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • Liz wrote:

The term "social responsibility" actually masks a lot of different ideas. They generally share the sense of avoiding inflicting harm on people (or the environment) against their will. Not exposing your employees to dangerous conditions? Fair enough. Trying to reduce pollution? OK. Holding manufacturers accountable for some people's refusal (often wilful) to look after themselves? Um, no.
Worker conditions in the 3rd world, water scarcity--these are important issues. Legislating for the numpty who won't/can't practise self-discipline--trivial, and trivialises the idea of social responsibility.

  • 31.
  • At 01:21 PM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • Grant wrote:

Supply-side measures for goods will never work as well as for services - as the government cannot completely control the supply. In the case of air travel - I cannot bypass the regulated suppliers by sumggling, but in the case of alcohol this would be straightforward. (I would encourage Mr Cameron to study 1920s Chigago for more information on this)

The only way to tackle alcohol consumption is to attack demand - why do people feel the need to get blind drunk every weekend in this country? However I fear that may be difficult - and a clever-sounding 'interesting idea' is so much easier to come up with

  • 32.
  • At 01:23 PM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • Alan Thompson wrote:

Food, fat, sugar, salt and so forth is one thing - and here I fully expect stealth taxes; but alcohol?
I remember a time when it was more than a landlord's license was worth to allow patrons to become so drunk they were a nuisance, offensive, incapable and so forth. And, is it not still illegal for persons under the age of 18 to obtain alcohol? Enough law to control it all surely! But do the police have the manpower and budgets? I suspect not, spending all their time lifting revenue from anarchistic motorists!

  • 33.
  • At 01:32 PM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • Mark wrote:

Perhaps if the European mind's penchant for social engineering reaches the point where "vindaloo" is rationed through a system of government credits, even drunks will think twice before throwing some of their own allotment at media political pundits. By the way, why haven't you brought the boys home from Iraq yet? It certainly wasn't for lack of trying as you made your public petition directly to the President of the United States. Perhaps it would have been more convincing had you had your own plate of curried chips handy at the time to throw at him. Still, I think the British should stick to throwing least in pubs.

  • 34.
  • At 01:36 PM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • Anthony Jaynes wrote:

With all that's happening at Westminster and around the world, why is it that the BBC's Political Editor can only find this topic to blog about. Talk about dumming down, or was it an instruction from Conservative Party HQ as a smoke screen to avoid blogs about defections to Ukip.

  • 35.
  • At 01:42 PM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • Nick Thornsby wrote:

Sounds intriging indeed Nick. What I am more bothered about is the fact that you have been to Rochdale and I am here and I never saw you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

So disapointed Nick!!!!!

Let is know if you are coming back!!

  • 36.
  • At 01:59 PM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • Harry wrote:

Am I dreaming? What is this ridiculous idea? No wonder the tories are losing supporters to UKIP!!

  • 37.
  • At 02:43 PM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • John Galpin wrote:

Perhaps we should weigh the customers at the supermarket checkout and adjust bills by an index of how overweight they are with rebates for anorexics to get them to eat more?
Or perhaps a similar weigh in at the check in for flights? I have always been somewhat mystified that I have to pay for an extra couple of kilos luggage and then have to squeeze into the space left by someone who is 50kgs heavier than me spilling into my seat who isn't charged a penny extra for their excess.
This could even be extended to garage forecourts where the per litre cost of fuel could be adjusted to the weight of the vehicle!

Perhaps I'd better shut up before someone thinks I'm being serious and gives me a fat lip, tax extra.

  • 38.
  • At 03:06 PM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • martin wrote:

I can hear Gordon slobbering already, a tax he hasn't thought of yet. I expect to see VAT on fatty foods put up to 30% in the next Budget

  • 39.
  • At 04:15 PM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • gary elsby stoke-on-trent wrote:

So why haven't you bought our lads home from Iraq, Nick?

Is there any chance you can drop the interest rate and organise a win for Stoke City this weekend?

Yours hopefully,


  • 40.
  • At 04:19 PM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • John wrote:

The idea of the permits is very sensible, and I think that there are many areas in which it could be applied.
I think that one of the problems in the obesity issue is that everyone is looking for something or someone else to remove the responsibility from themselves.
If you are fat, stop eating so much rubbish, and get some exercise like the rest of us. Stop looking to someone else to bail you out of the hole that you have dug yourself into.
Why is everyone looking to the government to take responsibility for this? Have they got no pride in themselves?

  • 41.
  • At 05:01 PM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • Rob wrote:

Certainly an idea worth discussion,

Regarding peoples view that 'we should educate children better instead' perhaps you'd care to explain why despite the near 40 years its been well established and publicised that smoking is bad for you ( to put it mildly) children and young adults continue to do so?

A flaw in the education system? It is an easy target after all, or further evidence that social responsibility isn't a bad idea?

Didn't realise you were responsible for leaving our troops in Iraq Nick, How very forgetful of you ;)

  • 42.
  • At 05:53 PM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • Anonymous wrote:

What a good idea think of the yield on the Glasgow favorite "deep fried Mars Bars".
When I was young in the war we were glad to get any food at all and were generally healthy but somewhat hungry on occasions.
I grew up learning that a varied diet was the best for good health.
If you are in a cold climate plenty of fat is the best source of calories necessary for survival.
The current level of obesity is youngsters could be due to the lack of organised PE and games.

  • 43.
  • At 06:29 PM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • Derek Barker wrote:

Nick an irresponsible day?"i would liken it to black wedensday REMEMBER WHEN THOSE FAT CAT TORIES WERE LEFT WITH THAT ROTTEN SMELLY STAIN WHEN THE ERM CRASHED"Nick i hope the lesson here is a drunken man and politic's really do make a messy curry.

  • 44.
  • At 10:49 PM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • P Turner wrote:

Its far too easy to blame the government for so many social problems. Society creates its own anti-social behaviour, therefore it is ultimately society to blame, not the government.

Society should take responsibility for its own actions. Instead of licensing fatty foods and alcohol, how about issuing licences to people to certify them 'responsible' to consume them without affecting others or their environment?

  • 45.
  • At 10:57 PM on 15 Jan 2007,
  • Charles E Hardwidge wrote:

Some good comments, here. Do less, cook better. Vote with your money. These are both worth drawing out. By developing an ordered and harmonious approach, from your home, to your family, and extending out from there, it provides regular opportunities to be mindful of your choices. Gentle and continuous application can replace bad habits over time.

Organisation, time management, and sound money are not new ideas. They are accessible to everyone, rich or poor. There’s clear and accessible books available on all of these, and by applying their lessons you can consciously improve the quality of your life. In time, these same lessons may help form a foundation for developing a successful business.

I’m not sure I want to comment on Cameron’s latest brainwave. It sounds persuasive and novel but that’s as far as I’m prepared to go. The reason for this is twofold: I’m in no hurry and have my own plans. I believe in quality of action and relationships, and would rather develop myself and a business along those lines first. Anything else is a distraction.

If business is no good, start your own. Go on, what’s stopping you?

  • 46.
  • At 01:03 PM on 16 Jan 2007,
  • Mark wrote:

Seems rather odd that a drunk at a bar would recognize BBC's political editor. Are political editors in Britain such public personna that they are readily identifiable like famous entertainers and athletes even to the inebriated? It seems more likely that there was some bragging going on to suggest such an attack. Maybe even some exaggerating. Maybe even a bit of blarney. Would a political editor not tell the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth when his inhibitions are inhibited? Could a political editor tell so convincing a tale that it would leave no doubt he is the logical target for a plate of take-away curried chips by an irate voter? Mr. Robinson, you now at least know who your true constituents are. Good thing for you that you won't have to face them for re-election next time at the polls. Tony Blair owes you one. It's not every day someone from BBC takes one for the Gipper.

  • 47.
  • At 05:51 PM on 16 Jan 2007,
  • MLS wrote:

Fat taxes etc are ridiculous.
Human nature will be human nature. We all have our own consciences and know what is right or wrong. It is more important to empower people with the knowledge of what is right or wrong, allow them to make a decision on what health regulations to set, maybe by national poll if it a serious problem (eg passive smoking), and fine the companies for not adhering to health regulations...
I think that people should not be controlled but should have some form of control over decisions that are made.

Banning advertising of fatty foods might meant that less attention is paid to these foods. Out of sight, out of mind. WBR LeoP

This post is closed to new comments.

BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.