Inside Track by John Harrington Self-regulation is all the rage these days. Despite the appalling acts committed by some members of my profession in recent years, David Cameron yesterday stated his opposition to Lord Leveson’s call for an independent, legally-binding press watchdog. The Prime Minister told the Commons: “We should, I believe, be wary of any legislation that has the potential to infringe free speech and a free press.” In a spooky coincidence, Lord Leveson’s report emerged one year to the day after the Government’s Department for Business, Innovation & Skills (BIS) rejected calls from MPs for a statutory code governing the pubco/tenant relationship, favouring instead a “toughened” self regulatory regime. BIS said at the time: “Particularly in the current economic climate, the imposition of additional burdens on business must be considered extremely carefully. The possibility of unintended consequences, including damage to businesses, British jobs and the UK economy from even the best legislation in such an area should not be underestimated.” These are two very different reasons to keep faith in self regulation, but they both point to one fact: this Government will do whatever it can to avoid statutory interference in the conduct of businesses. In terms of Leveson, Cameron’s stance threatens to cause further rupture in the Coalition, with Nick Clegg openly calling for new laws to curb the worst excesses of the media. Of course, the stakes are far less high for the pubco issue, which struggles to gain much traction in the popular press and is never going to be near the top of the Government’s to-do list. A much greater concern here than PR is the burden of implementing a statutory code of conduct. The Government’s experience of trying to implement a legally-binding grocery code adjudicator has shown how difficult and time consuming such a move can be - plans for an adjudicator were included in the Coalition agreement in 2010, but the bill bringing it forward is still in the early stages of the Parliamentary process. BIS appeared to wash its hands of the pubco issue in September when a spokesman told M&C Report’s sister title Publican’s Morning Advertiser that the self regulation commitments “had been achieved”. The department even seemed happy to ignore simple facts, insisting that the agreement to create a Pubs Advisory Service has been fulfilled, even though organisations involved in implementing PAS had yet to finalise the deal. Ironically, the fallout from the Government’s comments has added fresh pressure on the industry to make progress on its commitments. Earlier this month Business Secretary Vince Cable told the Business, Innovation & Skills Committee that he would be writing to those involved in the self-regulation deal demanding details of what action has been taken by 23 November. “I am as concerned about this as you are,” Cable told MPs. Concerned he may be, but Cable and other senior Government figures have said similar things in the past with no moves on legislation. That’s not to say that this isn’t a serious situation for the industry, and pressure can only grow on the trade if it’s shown to have fallen short of its commitments. But for my mind, tenanted pub companies can be reassured by the fact that Government is looking for reasons not to add fresh regulatory burdens to businesses rather than excuses to do so. A more serious fallout may be felt elsewhere. Next year is set to be an exceptionally busy one for trade lobbyists as they target breakthroughs on beer duty and VAT. The industry will also be hoping to influence the recent alcohol consultation. Just as Government wants reasons for not bringing forward extra legislation, it’s also eager to find reasons not to offer much-needed help on tax, so the sector could be hampered by suggestions that it still can’t get its own house in order. Nobody ever said self regulation is easy, but the tenanted pub industry can take comfort that the wider industry has shown that it’s far from impossible. Speaking at our Tenanted Pub Company Summit in the summer, a number of senior figures were asked to name a self regulatory system that had proved successful. None came up with a satisfactory answer, which was a surprise, seeing as for my money the industry has one of the best around in the Portman Group. Bar the odd controversy - the naming of Kalashnikov Vodka and Charles Wells’ cocktail pre-mix Sex on the Beach spring to mind - the drinks watchdog, funded by producers, has been remarkably successful in ridding shelves and backbars of irresponsibly-marketed alcohol. An even more relevant example is the Responsibility Deal. Although several companies in the sector have expressed concern about some of the details, the progress achieved by the series of voluntary agreements on public health have been significant. It’s heartening that the new Health Secretary this month gave his commitment to the policy in a letter to signatories. One senior industry figure recently complained that the Deal has been all stick and no carrot, with no advantages for operators in terms of tax or regulation. For me, this misses the point. The ‘carrot’ is the fact that Government has chosen not to act, to bow to pressure from campaigners for a ‘fat tax’ or put the commitments on a statutory footing. Events of the last few days have cemented the idea that this is a Government - or, at least, a Prime Minister - that wants to avoid the statutory route as far as possible. While it can’t rest on its laurels, this is unambiguously a good thing for the industry. Whether this translates into good headlines for the sector is another question entirely.