Response to Adam Smith Institute

The Adam Smith Institute is not capable of serious debate, Professor Steve Tombs writes in response to misplaced criticism of his latest briefing

Professor Steve Tombs
Sunday, 01 May, 2016

It's a pleasure to have the Adam Smith Institute comment so closely upon my work, even if in so doing it marks that work only at a Grade F, with the somewhat damning advice, "must try harder".

However, on slightly closer inspection of the review, I'm not too sure how seriously I should take that assessment of its quality.

The Briefing at issue starts with the historical observation that regulation and enforcement were put in place as a result of inter and intra-class conflict, over the past two centuries, to mitigate the devastating effects of industrialising capitalism.

As I also noted there, these effects are not a matter of historical record. If there are some 100,000 deaths per annum as a result of work, pollution and unfit food each year in the UK – I say 100,000 not 80,000 as contained in the Briefing, since last week Defra revised upwards its estimates of early deaths due to air pollution from 30,000 to 50,000 – then surely this merits some considered judgement.

In fact, what we get from the hardly objective Adam Smith Institute – unregulated free market hand capitalism, anyone? – is a piece that assesses this state of affairs as "Yah! Boo! How Terrible". In those words, the think tank of the invisible hand reveals itself as not capable of serious debate.

Since it's rather odd to be criticised for not doing something in a Briefing which I never set out to do therein – demonstrably linking a decline in enforcement capacity to an increase in risk – I'll restrict myself to a few  brief comments.

Increased deaths, injuries and illnesses are difficult to gauge because we know that most of the data in any of these areas is simply not robust enough to track trends over relatively short time scales.

How many of us who suffer some form of food poisoning which we link to something we've eaten or bought from a fast food outlet or supermarket business actually report that to the local authority? A very small percentage I think it's fair to say.

Moreover, which of us knows that we are being subject to airborne pollutants that will shorten our lives as we go about our daily business – or, even if we did, could link a specific pollutant to its specific profit-generating source?

We also know that the majority of workplace injuries and work-related ill-health never get reported. So the state of data in this area makes it very difficult to undertake the X causes Y type logic that would satisfy the intellectuals at the Adam smith institute.

Of course, what we can do is point to specific cases of death, injury or illness associated with an obvious form of non-compliance with law that would have been picked up by an inspection had there been one.

Radio Five Live, which today broadcast on issues covered by the Briefing, interviewed Debbie, a woman in Kirby whose 10 year old daughter was hospitalised with salmonella poisoning. She was one of over 50 people in the area who contracted the illness after eating food from a takeway. Contrary to Food Standards Agency statutory guidance, the business had not been formally inspected in 2 years.

Finally, the equation of lesser enforcement with greater risk seems likely even on a common-sense level. Consider this. The average workplace regulated by a local authority health and safety inspector is now statistically likely to receive a visit from an inspector once every 20 years. I would imagine all of us, however civic minded and potentially law abiding, would be less likely to buy a train or tube ticket if we knew we would only be checked that we had it once every 20 years.

The increasing non-enforcement of law seems likely to equate to more widespread law breaking, and, in the areas with which my Briefing is concerned, greater risk. Intuitive, common-sense? I think so.

Not that common-sense is something that is readily associated with the free marketeers at the Adam Smith Institute.