Shake up at Drinkaware over industry links

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Alcohol education charity Drinkaware has announced ‘radical’ changes to its governance arrangements and a number of new appointments, following an independent audit of its effectiveness. The industry-funded charity has long been the subject of criticism over its perceived lack of independence.

Drinkaware has published a formal response to the 2013 audit, which was overseen by Guy’s and St Thomas’ NHS Foundation Trust chair Sir Hugh Taylor. The audit was critical of the charity on a number of issues including lack of an evidence base – ‘both to inform what Drinkaware does and to evaluate how it does it’ – and perception of industry influence, ‘resulting in a suspicion that Drinkaware is not truly independent of the alcohol industry’. It also described ‘weak stakeholder engagement’, leaving the organisation isolated within the wider alcohol harm reduction community, and lack of clarity over its mission and purpose.

‘Drinkaware is seen by non-industry stakeholders as lacking independence from its funders, and some are sceptical that it truly wishes to encourage responsible drinking behaviours,’ said the audit document. ‘Industry stakeholders are aware that these perceptions exist and are frustrated that their efforts to meet their corporate social responsibility obligations are undermined by Drinkaware’s lack of credibility with the public health community.’

While recognising the ‘inevitable tensions’ facing an organisation ‘with the remit and funding base’ of Drinkaware, the report wanted to see ‘substantial changes’ to the way it operates – in terms of funding, governance model and the way it carries out its core activities. It called for a restructuring of the board to include more lay trustees and the development of more positive relationships with non-industry stakeholders and health organisations.

Drinkaware now states that ‘almost all of the auditors’ recommendations have been accepted and have either been implemented or are in progress’, including commissioning independent research to inform strategy, improved transparency and forging new relationships with the public health sector. It also says that, while trustees have approved changes to the organisation’s governance – including a smaller board with no specific quota of industry professionals – the audit ‘found no specific evidence of inappropriate influence’.

Former Department for Work and Pensions permanent secretary Sir Leigh Lewis has been appointed as the new chair, and there are also three new trustees. ‘The announcement of our formal response to last year’s audit and the major changes in the governance of Drinkaware represents its “coming of age”,’ said outgoing trust chair Derek Lewis. ‘The new board structure and governance arrangements represent best practice in not-for-profit organisations and will ensure that Drinkaware is equipped to play an increasing role in tackling alcohol harm in the UK.’

Independent audit panel chair Sir Hugh Taylor called the developments – in particular the new governance arrangements –‘very positive’.

Full response and audit report at drinkaware.co.uk