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Society, Politics & Law

‘Social Murder’: the realities of ‘Better Regulation’ in Contemporary Britain

Updated Friday 3rd June 2016

Is the 'Better Regulation' in areas like food safety, workers' health and pollution control slowly killing us?

social murder cartoon, society matters Copyrighted image Icon Copyright: Artwork by Catherine Pain © The Open University When one individual inflicts bodily injury upon another, such injury that death results, we call that deed manslaughter; when the assailant knew in advance that the injury would be fatal, we call this deed murder. But when society places hundreds of proletarians in such a position that they inevitably meet a too early and an unnatural death, one which is quite as much a death by violence as that by the sword or the bullet; when it deprives thousands of the necessaries of life, places them under conditions in which they cannot live - forces them ... to remain in such conditions until that death ensues which is the inevitable consequence - knows that these thousands of victims must perish, and yet permits these conditions to remain, its deed is murder just as surely as the deed of the single individual ...

So wrote Friedrich Engels in his classic 1845 book, The Condition of the Working Class in England. ‘Social murder’ refers to the systematic and routine killing of workers and citizens in the horror of the emergence of industrial capitalism. It was these conditions which forced the struggle for laws to regulate business and to mitigate much of their profit-driven, harmful effects. And so it is no coincidence that through inter- and intra-class struggles, the origins of a system of social protection through regulation as put into place in Britain during the 1800s.

Notwithstanding the long term construction of regulatory regimes in Britain since this period, this ‘social murder’ is not a matter of historical record. Indeed, the scale of contemporary harm remains significant:

In each of these areas, the majority of these deaths originate in profit-making businesses.

In a recent book and Briefing, I have attempted to examine what has been happening to enforcement in food safety, worker health and safety and pollution control more recently – specifically, since the roll out of an initiative under the rubric of Better Regulation, overseen by the second New Labour Government. In 2004, Sir Phillip Hampton was appointed by Chancellor Gordon Brown to oversee a review of Remit encompassed 63 major regulatory bodies - including the Environment Agency, the Food Standards Agency, the Health and Safety Executive, and the Financial Services Authority – as well as 468 local authorities.

Hampton’s subsequent 2005 report – Reducing Administrative Burdens: Effective Inspection and Enforcement – proved to be a turning point in the trajectory of business regulation and enforcement across Britain. It marked the consolidation of the establishment of what had already been termed ‘Better Regulation’, a formal policy shift from enforcement to advice and education, a concentration of formal enforcement resources away from the majority of businesses onto so-called high risk areas, and consistent efforts to do more with less. Notwithstanding the question begged by this initiative – who on earth would want worse regulation? – Brown summed up this new approach to regulation and enforcement pithily; these were to be characterised by “Not just a light touch but a limited touch.”

In this context, I collated data from 2003/04 in these three areas of social protection. Of course, 2003/4 marks the rolling out of the Better Regulation agenda, while this period is also marked by the 2007 financial crisis which was used, by the Coalition Government from 2010 onwards, to justify austerity – so it is likely that within this data there is evidence of both politics and economics at play.

Food safety and food hygiene regulation and enforcement is undertaken by Local Environmental Health Officers (Food). Between 2003/04 and 2014/15:

  • food hygiene inspections fell by 15%
  • food standards inspections fell by 35%
  • food prosecutions fell by 35%

Occupational health and safety regulation and enforcement is divided between a national regulator – the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) – and local regulators, Environmental Health Officers (Health and Safety). Between 2003/04 and 2014/15:

  • HSE inspections fell by 60% (to 2013/14)
  • HSE prosecutions fell by 35%
  • Local EHO total inspections fell by 69%
  • Local EHO preventative inspections fell by 96%
  • Local EHO prosecutions fell by 60%

Environmental regulation and enforcement is divided between a national regulator – the Environment Agency – and local regulators, Environmental Health Officers (pollution control)

Environment Agency officers engaged in national pollution control:

  • inspections fell by 52%
  • prosecutions fell by 54%

Local Environmental Health Officers enforcing local pollution control law:

  • inspections fell by 55% (to 2013/14)
  • notices fell by 30% (to 2013/14)

The trends in enforcement are staggering in that they all point in the same direction – enforcement across these three areas is in rapid decline. These are, I argue in the Briefing, the effects of Better Regulation; but, more latterly, they are also the effects of austerity, imposed by central Government since 2008/09. The latter has undermined enforcement capacities through reductions in budgets and loss of staff, the latter also meaning loss of expertise and specialisms cross regulators. Alongside these familiar changes to the public sector we have witnessed one more in the sphere of regulation – creeping privatisations of regulatory functions and, in some cases, at Local Authority levels, the wholesale privatisation of regulatory services.

It is in this context that it is worth recalling why regulation emerged – namely, to mitigate the worst effects of capitalist production. Yet in the last 15 years or so, it has become fashionable – even ‘natural’ - to deride regulation and those who enforce it. At the same time, the scale of deaths to which I pointed above continues – virtually under any political, popular or academic radar. But the story I have summarised here is not one of rules, regulations, red tape. It is a story about social inequality and avoidable business-generated, state facilitated violence; it is, to invoke Engels again, one of social murder.

This blog post is part of Society Matters. The blog seeks to inform, stimulate and challenge our understanding of this changing world and of our humbling role within it. Find out more about the blog and the team.
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