Since the beginning of Labour’s second term in 2001, a relatively un-noticed government campaign has pushed the deregulation of worker safety far further than Margaret Thatcher ever dared.
Under the auspices of an ever changing array of Cabinet Office units, the “Better Regulation” agenda has undermined the authority and the morale of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), seriously challenging its ability to investigate and prosecute employers who kill and injure their workers.
The work of HSE and its over-burdened inspectors is crucial.
Though definitive figures are hard to come by – which in itself tells us something about political priorities – you are more than twice as likely to be killed as a result of a work related injury than you are to be a victim of homicide in Britain.
And you are more likely to end up in hospital as a result of an occupational injury than you are as a result of “violent crime”.
From the early years of New Labour’s second term, it became apparent that it was gearing up for a full scale attack on safety enforcement.
The ground was laid through a series of “conkers bonkers” tales in the tabloids. Apparently health and safety had gone mad – with stories of conkers in playgrounds and window cleaners’ ladders being banned, while Tony Blair spoke of the girl who sued the Girl Guides Association because she burnt her leg on a sausage.
The myths of the compensation culture, of party-pooping regulators, and of a “risk-averse” culture seeped into political and popular discourse.
In policy terms, a Health and Safety Commission (HSC) internal document from March 2004 noted that “there has been deregulatory pressure from within government to reduce burdens on business… HSE has responded positively”.
In the same month the Treasury under Gordon Brown launched the Hampton Review. The report was published a year later.
It called for a reduction of the “burden” of inspections by up to a third (across all regulatory agencies, this would equate to one million fewer inspections), recommending that regulators make much more use of “advice” to business.
Around the same time, the Cabinet Office’s Better Regulation task force published its own review of regulation, Less is More: Reducing Burdens, Improving Outcomes.
This proposed the crudest of mechanisms for controlling the regulatory “burden” – a one in, one out approach, with any new regulations accompanied by the withdrawal of existing ones.
The Commission launched its own review of regulation in July 2005 under the rubric of “a debate on the causes of risk aversion in health and safety”.
Its draft “simplification” plans, published four months later, promoted a “risk-based, targeted approach to enforcement” that was to be supported by a 33 percent reduction in inspections.
With very little publicity or indeed opposition, the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act was passed in November 2006, with its key aim of enabling “delivery of swift and efficient regulatory reform to cut red tape”.
The act, which applied across the board to all regulators, established a principle of profit before safety in regulatory law.
Section 1 of the act created a remarkable new power for ministers to make an order that removes from government a “regulatory burden” – defined in the act as a “financial cost”, an “administrative inconvenience” or “an obstacle to efficiency, productivity or profitability”.
The new Regulators’ Compliance Code, published earlier this year emphasised that regulators “should recognise that a key element of their activity will be to allow, or even encourage, economic progress”’.
The government has promoted the Hampton “burdens on business” agenda with spurious references to global competitiveness. However, the real prize for business is the further marginalisation and demoralisation of regulators.
From 2002 onwards, the HSE began to experience a gradual, real terms decline in resources and a reduction of frontline inspectors. In the Field Operations Directorate, the largest division of the HSE, this meant a reduction of inspectors by more than a quarter.
According to the latest confirmed data, the numbers of notices issued by HSE inspectors to improve workplace conditions or to stop dangerous work fell by 40 percent between 2001-02 and 2005-06. And prosecutions for health and safety offences fell by an astonishing 49 percent between 2001-2 and 2005-6.
We are witnessing a collapse in enforcement at every stage – from inspection to investigation to the use of notices and prosecutions.
These trends have attracted little or no political attention. But the crisis in enforcement should be a major public scandal.
It is surely noticed by some – for the collapse in enforcement is sending a clear, calculated message to corporate criminals that, under New Labour, they will be even freer to kill and injure with impunity.
Steve Tombs is professor of sociology at Liverpool John Moores University. David Whyte is reader in sociology at Liverpool University. This article summarises the authors’ report A Crisis of Enforcement: The Decriminalisation of Death and Injury at Work, by the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies. The report is available at » www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/acrisisofenforcement.html