There has been a backlash against the idea of light-touch regulation since the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire in west London. But what does it actually mean, and how did it become acceptable in the first place?
For years, society has chosen to protect its citizens by regulating business and providing a framework of protections for workers. These laws and regulations have been policed by inspectors.
Most of the protections are based in some way on the idea of reasonable practicability. This is a balance of what is practicable – what can be done – against what is reasonable. What is reasonable is a judgement of whether the cost of the protection is proportionate to the harm it prevents.
It would not be reasonable to spend £10,000 in order to prevent a paper cut. The key element is that this judgement is not based on cost or the affordability for any single business, but whether it is reasonable for society. In the extreme, what is a life worth to society?
Light-touch regulation is premised on the idea that:
- business is essentially benevolent and will protect its employees and the public because it is the right thing to do.
- the prospect of bad publicity and subsequent reaction of the free market will act as a sufficient lever to deter business from getting it wrong.
If you accept this, the logical conclusion is that it is unnecessary to have regulators acting on behalf of society. And, it could be argued, enforcing regulations will, in practice, only burden the businesses we should be encouraging.
The introduction of light-touch regulation, then, was based on the myth that labour and health and safety protections, among others, are a burden for business. A burden that is expensive. Too expensive.
Austerity then got added to the mix, based on the myth that society is poor. Just as businesses were arguing that it was all too expensive for them, austerity came along and helped them.
Austerity says that society cannot afford social and labour protections because they cost too much money. So it’s OK for businesses not to pay to protect people – they are caught, just like the rest of us and, well, society is poor, isn’t it?
Your life is worth less under austerity.
Austerity also tells us that society cannot afford a public sector. We can no longer afford regulators. (The HSE now has 20% fewer regulatory inspectors than it did five years ago.)
The result is that financial constraints have become the underpinning factor in any decision about the things that should be in place to protect us all.
Can we afford the guard for that machine? Can we afford enough staff to make sure people do not burn out? Can we afford inspectors to enforce the law? Can we afford the right cladding for our buildings?
But the question now is becoming: “Can we afford not to?”
It shouldn’t have taken a disaster to reach this point, and we mustn’t forget what happened.
Light-touch regulation and austerity are two sides of the same approach. It is an approach that weakens the protections for all of us.
Neil Hope-Collins (pictured above) is one of the HM Inspectors working for the Health and Safety Executive and chairs the Prospect branch there. He sits on Prospect’s national executive and chairs the union’s science, engineering and sustainability advisory committee