A fatal obsession

KayAndrews.jpgKay Andrews on changing the government’s mind-set on both deregulation and health and safety

The debate I’ve called in the Lords on Thursday, on deregulation and the role of enforcement, has been prompted by the terrible tragedy of Grenfell Tower.

But the debate won’t be about finding answers to whether, how or why regulation – among other failures – did not protect the residents. Rather, the context in which this preventable disaster occurred and what has happened since 2010 to our idea of a state that protects its citizens from harm while anticipating future risks. And the politicisation of de-regulation, in the context of cuts to local authority public services along with the complete disregard for the need for social housing and the rights of social tenants.   

Put another way, it is about the sort of country we aspire to be – particularly in light of the ongoing frenzy about Brexit and deregulation. The Prime Minister, in response to Grenfell, said that “the state has failed”.  What rubbish.

For the past seven years, the state has in fact continued to be dismantled by Conservative-led governments who have turned de-regulation from a pragmatic search for improvement into a definitive political ideology. A battle cry in pursuit of the leaner, meaner state. Regulation meanwhile, is constantly parodied as ‘red tape’  and a ‘burden on business’, despite the fact that it tamed the industrial revolution and has kept us safe since. 

David Cameron set the tone during his time at No10, by saying he wanted to “kill off the health and safety culture”. First there was the ‘one out, one in rule’, which then became ‘three out, one in’. By 2014, around 800 regulations had been abolished; and in 2015, Sajid Javid (then Business Secretary) claimed there had been savings of £10bn for business and promised the same amount again.

Despite all the effort and distraction that the ‘Red Tape Challenge’ has brought, there has been no review of the wider social or wider economic impacts of removing these regulations. Merely impacts on business. But various examples illustrate what is being lost, including where new homes no longer have to meet zero-carbon standards and self-employed workers no longer have rights to employment protection.

Both planning and health and safety have proved particularly vulnerable to deregulation. The planning system, local control and local well-being have all been significantly weakened by massive changes to permitted development and notions of ‘viability’ which defend profit margins against affordable housing. The Health and Safety Executive has been cut by 46%, and is now no longer allowed to conduct proactive inspections.

The loss of enforcement capacity is inevitable. Since 2010, a third of environmental health officers have gone and the poorest areas have suffered the deepest cuts. Enforcement and inspection levels across different industries, such as construction, have dropped. There is a mounting catalogue of impacts caused by the loss of expertise and resources.

Is it any wonder therefore, that 70 the leading health and safety agencies have recently told Theresa May that ‘enough is enough’, and that the mind-set and practices of de-regulation and non-regulatory action reflect an approach that ‘favours inaction’. They, rightly, see what happened at Grenfell as a turning point and have called on the Prime Minister to ‘scrap the governments approach to health and safety regulation’ and think again.  

Thursday’s deliberations are just the start of the broader debates we are set to have in the Lords on these issues. Not least because of Brexit, and alongside that the not-so-great Repeal Bill, throughout which we will also have to ensure we keep those effective European regulations which have made such a difference to a safer environment, safer medicines, and safer communities. 

Baroness Kay Andrews is a Labour Peer and a former Minister at the Department for Communities and Local Government

Published 12th July 2017

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