Most British citizens carry out their day-to-day lives shored up by a set of expectations about how things should be. We expect the food we eat to be safe, the toys we buy our children to be trustworthy, our transport systems to be decent. We expect the things we buy – from sofas to smartphones – to meet certain standards, without us needing to check. There is an expectation that ordinary activities such as card transactions, bank transfers and home repairs should take place safely and smoothly. This set of assumptions allows us to get on with our lives without thinking too much about why these things – for the most part – serve us well.
Behind the well-functioning systems that we have come to depend on, there is a chain of assurances that have been put in place to make sure that we can safely interact with the world around us. This carefully designed invisible network of checks and balances, guarded by designated public protectors, forms the backdrop to our everyday activities. Decent products dominate the market because most of their damaging counterparts are intercepted by trading standards officers. Decent food outlets are the norm because dangerous and dirty kitchens are shut down by environmental health teams. Trustworthy traders outnumber rogue operators, thanks to the efforts of enforcement teams to keep the cowboys in check. All these things are made safe, not by accident, but by design.
When this chain of assurances operates well, it does so invisibly, silently. As an environmental health officer recently put it to me: “A good day is one in which nothing happens.” This makes it all too easy to overlook the work of enforcement teams, who work ‘upstream’ to prevent catastrophe, rarely receiving the plaudits they deserve for upholding the rules we all depend on.
These rules have come into existence for a reason, carefully constructed over the years, mirroring sensible shifts in public opinion. This drive for common standards and good practice speaks to the Great British values that echo through hundreds of years of law-making. The 1833 Factory Act, which banned children under nine from working in factories, was driven by a widely backed public campaign. Labelling standards for baby food were introduced after campaigners pointed out that labelling requirements were more stringent for socks than they were for sausages. Can any of us now believe that it took until 1988, or that it required a public outcry, to stop sofas being made with flammable fabrics?
These rules are ours, we made them part and parcel of our modern democracy. A collective set of expectations about the kind of country we want to live in.
But the agencies who make sure that businesses are sticking to the rules are in a bad way. Years of cuts to the budgets of local and national enforcement teams, by more than 50% in some cases, have been matched by huge declines in staffing. Enforcement activities – from inspections and monitoring to sanctions and prosecutions – have fallen dramatically.
In the light of the UK’s growing ‘enforcement gap’, the protections we take for granted seem more fragile. Water and air pollution, environmental decline, food fraud, allergen mislabelling, animal welfare breaches, workplace accidents, counterfeit products, worker exploitation, financial fraud and scams: these things take on a greater significance when we realise that the agencies tasked with preventing them may no longer have the tools for the job.
This erosion of our public protection bodies has not taken place in a vacuum. Successive governments have moved to highlight the disadvantages of regulation, each scrambling to outdo their predecessors in their efforts to lighten the regulatory load on businesses. Chancellor Sajid Javid’s recent announcement of a ‘Brexit Red Tape Challenge’ is the latest in a long line of policies designed to reduce our regulatory stock. This approach has been accompanied by policy moves to overhaul the UK’s enforcement regime, replacing proactive inspections with risk-based inspections, and promoting regulatory self-assurance. While these policies certainly have the potential to benefit and streamline enforcement, they must not be used as cover for the political imperative to reduce regulation at all costs – regardless of the impacts on ordinary people.
The redesigning of regulation as a numbers game fundamentally misses the point. The job of good regulation and robust enforcement is, in part, to prevent the worst outcomes. And the very worst outcomes – pollution, poisoning, fire – are more catastrophic, costly and ultimately burdensome on businesses, citizens and the state than simply sticking to a set of well-made rules.
Calling for a bonfire of ‘red-tape’ – and for the paring down of the regulators that ‘wield’ it – is an easy drum to beat. But it has very direct consequences. Just a few weeks into the job, the new Natural England Chair, Tony Juniper, warned that the best of English nature is at risk due to cuts. Experts have warned that local trading standards teams are woefully ill-equipped to deal with a potential flood of toys, cars and electrical appliances into the UK after Brexit. In July this year it emerged that nearly 700 schools have been referred to the Health and Safety Executive because they are failing to safely manage asbestos on site. Track back, and we can see that proactive inspections for asbestos in schools were discontinued in 2011.
In fact, there is a substantial bank of academic literature on the positive indirect effects of regulation and enforcement. According to the (now defunct) Office of Fair Trading, trading standards services generate £6 of consumer savings for every £1. Every £1 spent on waste crime enforcement yields a return of as much as £5.60. For every £1 of budget, the contribution to the economy of the Food Standards Agency is around £1.50.
Our regulators and local authorities do an amazing job. But in order to survive in a policy environment which assesses the value of regulations primarily in economic terms, UK enforcers have had little choice but to internalise this approach. Truncated, hamstrung, compelled to reduce interventions, regulators must now act more like commercial organisations, always pushed to do more with less. The truth is that they will just do less, and our safety will be compromised as a result. And yet no-one has asked the British public if they are happy to make these sacrifices.
For most people, in fact, sensible rules are an integral part of what makes Britain a decent place to live. Never has it been more important to invest in our shared safeguards. To do this, we need to invest in the bodies that exist to defend them.
Emma Rose is Project Lead at Unchecked.uk