A Conservative peer has given a highly critical assessment of her experience of working with the Department of Health on public health campaigns.
Baroness Buscombe, a former chief executive of the Advertising Association, was instrumental in planning the Change4Life campaign, the social marketing initiative launched in January 2009 to tackle rising levels of obesity.
Speaking at a King’s Fund panel debate on the coalition government’s “Big Society” approach to public health, she said she regretted involving the previous health administration in the Change4Life campaign, criticising the DH for wasting time and public money, and being afraid of the private sector.
She said the Business for Life group she helped set up in 2007 – comprising advertising agencies and the media – had pledged £200m towards a national marketing campaign to tackle obesity ahead of the London Olympics.
Former prime minister Gordon Brown and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) had been “immensely supportive” of the idea, she said.
She added: “But they wanted to bring in the DH, which on the surface seemed entirely sensible. How naive was I.”
She claimed the DH was “appalled at the idea of doing something” with the DCMS, was “terrified” of involving the food industry, and would not link the campaign to the Olympics because “sport was elitist”.
Baroness Buscombe described working with the DH as like going “uphill in treacle”, adding that “it would have been easier to lose the will to live”.
She said: “[The] DH magically came up with £75m and put consultants in charge of managing us, and the overall campaign. The unnecessary waste of time trying to get through lack of trust, unnecessary add-on costs to the taxpayer and waste of time trying to keep everyone on board was ridiculous.”
She also criticised the DH for making it “so obviously a government campaign”.
“I wanted a movement without labels, like Make Poverty History – no finger pointing, no nannying and no massive DH expense on consultants etc,” she said. “We had £200m and a whole lot of positive input from business, genuinely wanting to do the right thing.”
“Government mustn’t dictate. Government is there to enable, full stop,” she added.
The DH is yet to respond to the comments.