Undoing Social Protection

Steve Tombs, The Open University

 

It’s going to come to the point where it’s going to affect the residents, the local population, in many ways we are at that point now, public health and protection is being eroded.” Environmental Health Officer, Merseyside

 

Making Regulation Better

 

In 2004, Sir Phillip Hampton was appointed by Chancellor Gordon Brown to oversee a review of 63 major regulatory bodies as well as 468 local authorities. His subsequent report proved to be a watershed in the trajectory of business regulation and enforcement across Britain.  The report formally established a concept of ‘better regulation’ which entailed, notably, a policy shift away from formal law enforcement.

 

The effects of this initiative have been staggering. Between 2003/04 and 2014/15:

 

  • Food hygiene and food standards inspections fell by 15% and 35% respectively, while there were 35% fewer food prosecutions.

 

  • In relation to occupational health and safety, inspections by both the national regulator, the Health and Safety Executive, and local health and safety inspectors, fell by 69%; national prosecutions fell by 35%, whilst local prosecutions fell by 60%.

 

  • Local Environmental Health Officers enforcing pollution control law undertook 55% fewer ‘Part B’ inspection visits and issued 30% fewer enforcement notices.

 

The trends in enforcement are staggering in that they all point in the same direction – enforcement across these three areas is in rapid decline. But if these clearly are effects of ‘Better Regulation’, they are also effects of austerity policies.

 

Better Regulation and the Local State

 

In order to assess what this combination of the politics of better regulation overlain by austerity have meant on the ground, I interviewed 35 local authority front-line inspectors  across 5 local authority areas in Merseyside (Knowsley, Liverpool, Wirral, St Helens, and Sefton) during 2014 and 2015, as a way of examining the state of their enforcement capacities across food, pollution control and occupational health and safety.

 

In the context of business regulation and enforcement, Local Authorities are a particularly appropriate site of analysis – in the three spheres of social protection at issue here, the vast bulk of enforcement occurs at this level. Meanwhile, this is also the place where funding for regulation and enforcement has been reduced the most. Thus, from 2009/2010, local government funding from Westminster came under pressure. Indeed, of all the cuts to Government departments between 2010-2016, the Department for Communities and Local Government has been impacted most of all.  Moreover, analyses of the distribution and impacts of these cuts indicate overwhelmingly that they impact most heavily upon poorer Local Authorities. As one calculation in 2014 put it, “Councils covering the 10 most deprived areas of England – measured  according to the index of multiple deprivation – are losing £782 on average per household, while authorities covering the richest areas are losing just £48 on average. Hart district council in Hampshire, the least deprived local authority, is losing £28 per household, while in Liverpool District B, the most deprived area, the figure is £807”.

 

Perhaps the clearest finding in my interviews across five Local Authorities was that each experienced significant reductions in staffing, notably in the latter part of the period under scrutiny.  In every Local Authority, the numbers of front-line inspectors had fallen significantly between April 2010-April 2015. Overall, total numbers across the three functions fell by over 52% – from 90.65 FTEs to 47.78 FTEs. The declines were across all functions and Authorities, with health and safety inspectors falling most starkly; indeed, in two authorities, Liverpool and Sefton, by 2015 there were no dedicated health and safety inspectors, while at the same date there were no pollution control inspectors in Knowsley.

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Sonae UK’s controversial chipboard plant in Knowsley. Image courtesy of Dave Jacques.

 

Inspectors were in no doubt what these cuts in staffing meant. As one told me, “It’s going to come to the point where it’s going to affect the residents, the local population, in many ways we are at that point now, public health and protection is being eroded”. That view was mirrored almost exactly by another who told me: “We’re at the point where there is no flesh left, this is starting to get dangerous, a danger to public health”.

 

With fewer staff, it is hardly surprising that the inspectors I interviewed raised the issues of a long-term decline in inspection; a long term decline in the use of formal enforcement tools, and a decreasing use of prosecution. Time and time again, inspectors told me of increasing obstacles to the ability to prosecute. These obstacles included: a lack of staff time; fear of losing cases; lack of support from Legal Services departments to prosecute; and an increased political risk (“flak”) in prosecuting. Moreover, these types of responses are indicative of a political context for regulatory enforcement where the idea of regulation is under attack, and are a powerful illustration of how discourses and policies at national level can translate into barriers to enforcement at local levels.

 

While all of the local authorities had seen reductions in staff, this did not just mean a loss of overall resource, but the loss of a particular kind of resource, that is, expertise and experience: redundancies did not only mean that staff were not replaced but a loss of specialist expertise, alongside pressures for regulators to become generalists. As one  inspector put it, “it’s the experienced staff who have gone, so we have lost numbers and expertise”.  In fact, the shift from regulators being specialists to generalists was one consistent theme across the interviews, referred to by numerous respondents and in every authority: “People have had to become generalists”; “most of them are just thankful they’ve still got a job”.

 

The End of Social Protection?

 

Taken together, the trends set out above may mark the beginning of the end of the state’s commitment to, and ability to deliver, social protection. What began as a neo-liberal policy turn to ‘better regulation’ then become turbo-charged under conditions of austerity, where the state claims that it cannot afford to enforce law, and where business must be left to generate recovery. The subsequent institutionalisation of non-enforcement of law sends a green light to business that its routine, systematic, widespread social violence is to be tolerated, allowing private business to externalise the costs of its activities onto workers, consumers, communities, the environment. It further diminishes the quality and longevity of lives of those with the least choice about where they live, what they do for a living or where they buy foodstuffs. And it adds a further dimension to our understanding of the multi-dimensional violence of austerity – even if the story documented in this article is one which attracts little or no political attention.  In short, we are witnessing in the UK the transformation of a system of regulation – a system of social protectionwhich has existed since the 1830s. And, despite its political framing, this is not a story about rules, regulations, nor red tape, nor about the demands of austerity. It is a story about social inequality and avoidable business-generated, state facilitated violence: that is, social murder.

 

Steve Tombs is a contributing author in ‘The Violence of Austerity’ where he writes on Undoing social protection. The book is available to buy from Pluto Press:

http://www.plutobooks.com/promo_thanks.asp?CID=AUSTERITYCOOPER