A Crisis of Law Enforcement
As the global economy slides into a deep recession the hypocrisy of capitalist rhetoric is laid bare for all to see. The beneficiaries of the freeing of corporate activity from state control now call for state intervention (in the form of taxpayers’ money) to bail out the banks. And all because the government didn’t intervene to control the worst excesses of capitalist greed in the first place!
Amazingly, Gordon Brown is now proclaiming that markets must be moral and capable of “responsible risk taking”. Some nerve, coming from the politician who led the most irresponsible attack on business regulation in the UK. The same principles of de-regulation that applied to the financial markets have been applied to the regulation of safety at work, food safety, the environment and every type of damage that corporations do to society.
This is especially obvious when it comes to the punishment of employers who kill and injure their workers. Health and Safety Executive (HSE) prosecutions for health and safety crimes have been virtually halved in 9 years (they have fallen by 49%, see graph below). Enforcement notices - the on the spot notices that inspectors issue when they come across breaches of the law and unsafe practices – have fallen by a third (32%) in the last 9 years. Taken together, these figures represent a dramatic collapse in law enforcement in the workplace.
During the same period, there have been some equally dramatic changes in the inspection and investigation work of inspectors. Research by the Centre for Corporate Accountability shows that investigations of major injuries fell by 43% between 2001/02 and 2006/07. HSE inspectors now investigate just one quarter of the major injuries to members of the public that they investigated in 2001/02.
So what explains this dramatic fall in all types of investigation and action taken by health and safety inspectors? There are two main explanations. First of all, the HSE has been under attack by a series of budget cuts. In each of the years following 2001/02, it suffered real-terms cuts in government funding. This funding attack has exacerbated a situation that finds HSE grossly under-staffed. On 1 April 2002 there was a total of 4,282 staff and on 1 April 2008 there was a total of 3,399 staff (a 26% fall in 6 years!).
The second reason lies in New Labour’s attack upon the regulation of business. In 1997, when Labour came to power, it kept the Conservatives’ flagship Deregulation Unit going under the name the ‘Better Regulation Unit’. It became quickly apparent that things were not going to get better for the victims of corporate crime. Regulatory impact assessments (RIAs) were introduced the following year. RIAs are supposed to measure the costs and benefits of reforms on business, consumers, third-sector organisations and public authorities of all proposed policy and legislative reforms. However, the main function of RIAs in practice has been to minimise the costs of legislation upon business.
But it was early in New Labour’s second term of office that its plans for a reconstructed system of corporate crime regulation became fully apparent. A series of “better regulation” reforms led by Gordon Brown’s Treasury came to a head with the 2004 Hampton Review which was commissioned to consider how burdens on business could be reduced by promoting “more efficient approaches to regulatory inspection and enforcement”. The main recommendation was a cut in all inspections by a third across all types of corporate crime, including financial services fraud, food safety, environmental pollution and health and safety.
The Hampton Review and the reforms that followed have ensured that regulators are increasingly pressurised into prioritising the interests of business above the protection of the workforce. The Hampton Agenda not only undermines the agencies charged with regulating business, but by empowering business it disempowers workers.
This is not to say that the prosecution rate is the only measure of a safe workplace. The safest workplaces are those that are solidly organised and unionised, regardless of how much or little government regulators intervene. But prosecution rates are a strong indication of the relative strengths of employers vis-à-vis employees in a society.
At this moment of economic crisis, ordinary men and women are suffering a double attack. On one hand, our savings, pensions, and our homes are at risk, and on the other hand, so are the risks we face at work. The claim that businesses can be responsible risk takers is an insult to all of us facing the real risks of injury and death at work that are created by a free-market economy.
A more detailed analysis of this crisis in law enforcement can be found in a research report available to download at: www.crimeandjustice.org.uk/acrisisofenforcement.html
Hazards Campaign Challenges the Myth of the Safe Workplace
The Hazards Campaign, a network of resource centres and campaigners on health and safety at work has challenged the latest Health and Safety Executive published total of people killed at work. HSE claimed they ‘reveal a reduction in ‘number of people killed, injured or made ill by work during 2007/08’ and claim ‘229 people were killed by work.’
The Hazards Campaign challenges these figures claiming they drastically undercount the numbers killed in work-related incidents, do not include those killed by occupational illness, and grossly underestimate the numbers suffering from work-related ill-health. Hazards Campaign spokesperson Hilda Palmer said:
“This annual misrepresentation of the numbers killed by work could be called the ‘HSE myth of the year ‘. It contributes to the undermining of worker and public safety and the case for policies and resources to be allocated to tackling what is a massive cause of public ill-health, and masks the huge number of personal tragedies occurring every day. It also allows encourages a false sense of security by underestimating the real risk faced by workers and members of the public, and feeds into the nonsensical ‘elf and safety gorn mad’ media hype, and demands from business for deregulation, light touch regulation and cuts in the enforcement burden.
“As we head for global economic meltdown largely due to an uncritical acceptance that financial business could be trusted to do the right thing, we can see that deregulation and light touch regulation has brought us to the brink of disaster. We urgently need to learn those lessons from the financial sector and look far more critically at what’s really going on in our workplaces where more workers are being killed, injured and made ill, than the HSE headline figures suggest and we need more health and safety law and enforcement rather than less.”
The headline fatality figure quoted in HSE press release ‘229 people were killed at work’ fails to make clear that this refers only the workers killed in workplace incidents whose deaths were reportable to the HSE or local authorities, not those reportable to other enforcement authorities such as the police, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency or the Civil Aviation Authority. The 229 headline fatalities do not include:
The Hazards Campaign estimates the total number of people killed in work-related incidents last year as about 1,454 -1,606 which is 6-7 times the HSE headline figure.
But the iceberg of work-related ill-health is as always, the number dying each year due to occupational illnesses which the Hazards Campaign estimate as up to 50,000. This total includes:
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