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Robert Sinclair: A tale of two regulators

The Food Standards Agency’s handling of the horse meat scandal has provided lessons for our FSA

Robert Sinclair MM blog

I like the old proverbs. They come from a time when people had time to consider the human condition, not just rush to blog or tweet. From when being considered and interesting when writing was more important than being first.

You can take the horse to water, but that does not mean that it will drink, with apologies to the real quote. However when the horse hit the fan in our supermarkets and in the food of the vulnerable, in our hospitals and schools, the food industry engaged with both speed and clear action. Shelves cleared, testing rushed through, apologies and promises abounded.

The FSA looked like an effective regulator. The Foods Standards Agency had its industry working with it to protect consumers and preserve their trust.

With an annual budget of circa £120m, it looks like a very cost effective beast. In comparison with our own FSA, soon to be FCA it certainly appears to measure up.

In the gap between this article being written and its publication we will have seen the proposed Business Plan and Budget for the new beasts that will replace the FSA.

What will be part of the “big debate” will be their value for money.

In the world of food it was the quest for value that drove the horse to market. The continual drive by retailers to force down supplier prices meant the details on how this was achieved were ignored.

In the world of regulators it is worth looking at the food FSA for how it can be done. How can one group that is responsible for ensuring I do not contract salmonella or something worse cost less than a quarter of what it is now costing to run the financial FSA, never mind what the new PRA and FCA combined costs will be.

Why is the chief executive of the Food Standards Agency worth less than half of the remuneration package of the new head of the Financial Conduct Authority?

Sure financial institutions might damage my wealth, but with systems that mean the industry clears up its own manure, with FOS and the FSCS, surely I can be forgiven for being sceptical.

We need a good food regulator and I would like a good financial regulator.

So in the quest for value, what else is missing?

As an outsider, it looked to me as though the firms that had ridden into horse trouble wanted to make sure that they dealt with the issue, not be dragged there by their regulator.

The FSA has been telling the Treasury Select Committee that one of its biggest problems is getting firms to acknowledge their short-comings and deal with the issues.

Too often banks and insurers engage legions of lawyers to frustrate the regulator by hiding behind the law, rather than wanting to do right.

In food we all can transfer where we buy very easily. So food retailers care about their image. But in financial services, moving supplier is more than a three day event, with barriers erected to make it difficult.

Perhaps the new regulator could make this easier, so make it genuinely important that firms keep their image. The recent Which? Isa mystery shopping showed all the same excuses that are always trotted out when the big firms are found wanting.

A new partnership between the financial regulator and its firms seems to be order of the day.

Robert Sinclair is chief executive at the Assocation of Mortgage Intermediaries


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