Regulation Races to the Bottom

David Whyte and Steve Tombs: Image courtesy of 16 May 2012 How does the coalition continue to get away with peddling such nonsense? David Whyte and Steve Tombs explore.

Commentary icon16 May 2012|Comment

David Whyte
David Whyte

Professor of Socio-legal Studies, University of Liverpool

Steve Tombs

Professor of Criminology, Open University

David Whyte and Steve Tombs: Image courtesy of

16 May 2012

How does the coalition continue to get away with peddling such nonsense? David Whyte and Steve Tombs explore.

By Steve Tombs and David Whyte

The IER’s recent conference ‘Reviewing Löfstedt: What Now for Safety at Work?’ asked questions about the current government’s persistent undermining of workplace safety, on the same day as the Queen’s Speech. Andrew Miller MP arrived for the afternoon session of the conference to announce to delegates that the very first paragraph of the Queen’s Speech issued a government promise to “limit state inspection of businesses.”

Miller, a member of the Cameron-appointed Löfstedt inquiry into health and safety at work expressed his dismay that the government was abusing the conclusions of the report to launch an all out attack upon the enforcement of health and safety law. However, the mood of the conference in the morning had been clear: that although the Löfstedt review had essentially supported the status quo, it had also reinforced some key pillars of the government’s deregulation agenda.

Under this government, guarantees about the safety of our work, the air we breath and the food we eat are looking ever more precarious. Since the election of the Coalition, we have been subjected to a constant barrage of mythology about those guarantees being a “burden” on business. Recall that Cameron’s New Year’s 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 gone 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 how the Coalition continues to get away with peddling such nonsense.

If we broaden our focus from health and safety regulation to include environmental protection and food safety (precisely the types of inspections that will be limited in a proposed new law), we find that inspection rates have already been pushed to their lowest limits. 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 67%. In the same period, food safety inspections by local authorities have fallen by 31%.

The 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, prosecutions for health and safety offences have halved and prosecutions for food safety and food standards violations have fallen by 33%.

We are continually being told that Britain is setting the highest standards in health and safety at work. But our workplace safety record is consistently rated in the bottom half of OECD countries. Eroding regulatory inspection regimes will certainly push standards even lower in this race to the bottom.

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.

An earlier version of this piece appeared on Our Kingdom

A detailed publication by Steve Tombs and David Whyte on this topic – Regulatory Surrender: Death, Injury and the Non-Enforcement of Lawcan be purchased here.

David Whyte will be speaking at the second Reviewing Lofstedt event in Liverpool on May 22nd 2012 alongside a varied programme of expert speakers.

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David Whyte

David Whyte

David Whyte is Professor of Socio-legal Studies at the University of Liverpool. He has written several publications on health and... Read more »

Steve Tombs

Steve Tombs is Professor of Criminology at the Open University. He has previously written publications covering health and safety issues... Read more »