'Social murder' kills thousands each year

Sunday, 1 May 2016

Thousands of British citizens are dying needlessly each year because of the government’s failure to tackle food poisoning, health and safety breaches and pollution, a new report from the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies claims today. The report – Better Regulation: Better for whom? – by Professor Steve Tombs of The Open University, argues that lax regulation and weak enforcement has created avoidable business-generated, state-facilitated ‘social murder’.

Each year, the report notes, some 29,000 deaths are attributable to airborne pollution. A further 50,000 people die as a result of injuries or health problems originating in the workplace. Food poisoning leads to some 20,000 people being hospitalised and 500 deaths each year. These staggering figures, Professor Tombs points out, are probably underestimates. They are also largely avoidable.

Just last week, the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee called for the government to take urgent action to tackle the ‘public health emergency’ of thousands of pollution-related deaths each year. The Conservative chair of the Committee, Neil Parish MP, said that ‘Poor air quality is damaging the UK’s environment and harming the nation’s health’.

Successive governments have undermined the independent inspection of business over many years, the Better Regulation report points out. An average business can now expect a local authority health and safety inspection only once in every 20 years. Between 2004 and 2013, there were:

  • 34% fewer food standards inspections and 28% fewer prosecutions
  • 53% fewer health and safety inspections and 40% fewer prosecutions
  • 56% fewer environmental health inspections and 40% fewer prosecutions.

More recent figures, not included in the briefing, show that between 2004 and 2015, at Local Authority level, there were:

  • 35% fewer food standards inspections and 35% fewer prosecutions
  • 69% fewer health and safety inspections and 60% fewer prosecutions
  • 55% fewer environmental health inspections and 30% fewer prosecutions.

Recent years have also seen the privatisation of regulatory and enforcement activities, and a shift to business self-regulation. But as the diesel emissions scam currently engulfing Volkswagen and other motor manufacturers, or the recent scandal over horsemeat in food tell us, businesses cannot simply be trusted to act in the public interest without robust, independent, state-backed regulation.

That said, and as the report documents, the cumulative trends away from regulation and enforcement may ‘mark the beginning of the end of the state’s commitment to, and ability to deliver, social protection’.

Professor Steve Tombs, author of the report, said:

‘This is not about rules, regulations and red tape. It is about lives lost and shortened and the health of communities, workers and consumers made poorer.

‘This is avoidable business-generated, state facilitated social murder. And quite remarkably, it proceeds daily, met largely by political silence.’

Will McMahon, Deputy Director of the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies, said:

‘The public is led to believe the greatest harms faced by citizens are dealt with by the police and courts. Professor Tombs’ Briefing makes clear that this is far from the case. The harms he writes about are not random happenings but the result of political and economic decisions. Policy makers need to urgently address the radical reduction in local authority inspections and enforcement’.