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Overburdened (once every forty years)

Yesterday's Queen's speech foregrounded a commitment to 'freeing up' Britain's businesses from health and safety legislation. But with Britain rapidly heading to the bottom of the OECD's national rankings for workplace safety, the effects of deregulation could be far from liberating. 

Tacked on at the end of the very first paragraph of yesterday’s Queen’s Speech was a government promise to "limit state inspection of businesses.” 

Innocuous as it sounds, this phrase contains a promise that profoundly threatens the health and wellbeing of all of us. And yet it passed by virtually unreported, under the radar of all of the major news bulletins.  

We have come to expect – and take for granted - the guarantee that our workplaces, our environment and safety of our food comply to a minimum standard of protection.  And yet, this is not how business representatives or the government see it.  Since the election of the Coalition, we have been subjected to a constant barrage of mythology about those protections being a “burden” on business. Recall that Cameron’s New Years priorities for 2012 were the Olympics, the Queen’s Jubilee, and to “kill off the health and safety culture for good” - to rid British business of an “albatross” that was “costing them billions of pounds a year”.  

Yesterday’s promise to limit inspections is the latest stage in the Coalition’s promised major shake up of business inspection, following Nick Clegg’s longstanding promise to question if regulators are still necessary.  All of the apocryphal stories of ‘elf and safety goan mad’ (many of them originating in a mixture of government and Daily Mail populism rather than fact) have had the drip drip effect of creating an illusion that we are “over-regulated”.

Yet when it comes to the most fundamental protections of our health and our lives, the figures simply don’t stack up. Indeed, the figures are so stark that they make us question both the integrity and the sanity of the Coalition.  

Take the main sources of regulatory protection from business activities: workplace health and safety, environmental protection and food safety.  In the past ten years, inspections by the Environment Agency have fallen by 60%. In the Health and Safety Executive annual inspections of businesses by its biggest section have declined by more than 2/3rds.  The average business can now expect a visit less than once every forty years.  

In the same period, food safety inspections by local authorities have fallen by 31%.
he effect on the way that the worst offending businesses are punished for risking our lives has been equally dramatic.  Prosecutions in the Environment Agency have fallen 27% since their peak in 2005; in the past decade years, prosecutions for health and safety offences have halved and prosecutions for food safety and food standards violations have fallen by 33%.

n comparison to other OECD countries, our workplace safety record continues to race to the bottom.  When the Coalition took power, Britain was 20th out of 30 OECD countries rated for safe workplaces, and we are continuing to slip down this league table.

This is hardly a picture of an over-regulated business sector.  It is yet another measure of the Coalition’s ability to look like a rabbit caught in the headlights of this recession.  As part of a craven to business, knee-jerk, attempt to deregulate us out of recession, this proposal threatens irreversible damage to a quickly deteriorating safety net of social protection.

Steve Tombs is Professor of Sociology, Liverpool John Moores University; David Whyte is Reader in Sociology, University of Liverpool.  They are authors of Regulatory Surrender (Institute of Employment Rights , 2010) 

About the authors

Steve Tombs is Head of the Department of Social Policy and Criminology at the Open University and focuses on the incidence, nature and regulation of corporate crime and harm, particularly the regulation and ‘management’ of health and safety at work, and has published widely on these matters. He was also a Chair (1999-2009) of the Centre for Corporate Accountability and has continued to work with the wider Hazards Movement, the Institute of Employment Rights and the International Campaign for Justice in Bhopal.

David Whyte is Professor of Socio-legal studies at the University of Liverpool. He contributes regularly to openDemocracy and has written for The Guardian, The Herald, The Age and Red Pepper.  His most recent book is The Violence of Austerity (Pluto, 2017, edited with Vickie Cooper).

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