'Better Regulation': Better for whom?

Professor Steve Tombs
Sunday, 1 May 2016

This Briefing by Professor Steve Tombs places the spotlight on the lack of effective regulation of pollution, food safety and workplace health and safety standards in the UK.

An estimated 29,000 deaths each year in the UK are attributable to the effects of airborne pollution. Some one million cases of foodborne illness in the UK each year result in 20,000 hospital admissions and 500 deaths. Around 50,000 people die each year as a result of injuries or health problems originating in the workplace.

These staggering figures are probably underestimates. The litany of lives shortened and health impaired to which these figures bear witness are also largely avoidable.

Yet as Professor Tombs points out, the rate of inspection and enforcement actions for environmental health, food safety and hygiene, and health and safety have all been falling. In the case of health and safety inspections by local authorities, for instance, the average business can now expect to be visited only once in every 20 years.

This is not just a problem of infrequent inspections and lax enforcement. In the name of cutting red tape, governments of all political persuasions have, for over a decade, undermined independent and effective business regulation. Budget cuts under the austerity programme have compounded the problem. So too have moves to outsource and privatise regulatory and enforcement activity.

Private companies are increasingly involved in ‘regulating’ themselves. Taken together, Professor Tombs argues, these changes may ‘mark the beginning of the end of the state’s commitment to, and ability to deliver, social protection’.

We are taught that the greatest harms faced by citizens are crimes dealt with by the police, courts and other criminal justice agencies. Professor Tombs’ Briefing makes clear that this is far from the case.

The harms he writes about are the result of political and economic decisions. They are not random happenings. The story the Briefing tells is one of ‘avoidable business-generated, state facilitated violence: social murder. And, quite remarkably, it proceeds, daily – met only by academic, political and popular silence’.

This Briefing is a contribution to breaking this silence. It reflects the Centre for Crime and Justice Studies’ commitment to informing public understanding of the role and limitations of criminal justice processes, and to fostering a greater knowledge of the harms faced by citizens, and of how they might best be regulated and reduced.