Time up for deregulation?

In the wake of the Grenfell Tower fire and of the open letter (21 June) sent to the Prime Minister from those with an interest in safety - including the British Safety Council – that called for a stop to deregulation, the House of Lords debated last week one of the most contested topics of the day: do we need to call time on the deregulation agenda and pejorative references to ‘red-tape?’

Though two-thirds of the chamber vanished into House of Lord’s golden wings when Baroness Andrews (Labour, pictured below) introduced the debate ‘Impact of deregulation on public services, health and safety,’ those remaining hung on her impassioned words as she asked: “has the universal principal of government that every citizen should have the basic right to safety and security been replaced by a political ideology where the minimum will do?” It was clear she thought the answer to that question was ‘yes,’ an attitude that needed to change quickly to avoid a repeat of the horror of Grenfell Tower.

Her argument was clear: reduced resources for regulators and a culture of suspicion and outright hostility to regulation threatens this basic right. Noting the open letter issued by the British Safety Council and others, Baroness Andrews saw the debate as an opportunity for members to make a positive case for regulation, a challenge taken up Lord Stunell (LibDem) who questioned the whole idea of red-tape and of the ‘one in three out’ approach.

In the context of complex sub-contracting in the building industry, he made the point that regulation was urgently needed to establish a co-ordinating function to prevent people avoiding their responsibilities. Lord Shipley (LibDem) pointedly added that “health and safety is not red-tape” and questioned the savings made by cutting red-tape since 2010.

Lord Hunt of Kings Heath (Labour) echoed this view and accused 40 years of political culture that lazily dismissed regulation as red-tape as ‘ridiculous.’ In his view in many cases it is not deregulation but de-enforcement that is the problem. With a reduced inspectorate – whether environmental health officers, HSE or LA inspectors, or others – then those who flout regulation get away with it, thereby undermining any belief in the equality of regulation.

Unfortunately, according to Lord Hunt, when employers are punished for following the rules, it is often the rules that are blamed. However it is such rules, Lord Smith of Finsbury (non-affiliated) reminded everyone, that have cleaned up our air, land and sea in recent years; it is regulation that gives form to trust and actually encourages innovation.

So the debate hinged on two big issues concerning the (recent) past and future: austerity and Brexit. Austerity and cuts to enforcement bodies concerned Baroness Crawley (Labour) who noted that a loss of trading standard inspectors is storing up problems for the future. Lord Best (Crossbench) feared that austerity has seen – in the context of housing regulation – “the pendulum swing too far towards deregulation.”

On Brexit, Lord Hunt noted the irony that in bringing EU law onto UK books, it is likely that some “32 new public bodies will need to be created to regulate these laws.” Baroness Young of Old Scone (Labour) feared that post-Brexit, the motivation for Government to implement standards will be reduced, and gave the example that fines levied by the EU for breaches to water quality in the Thames (due to sewage), finally pushed the UK Government to support the Thames Tideway Tunnel.

The debate ended with the views of Lord Prior of Brampton (Conservative), the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. He agreed with the debate that it’s about better regulation, not less but he saw the value of the red-tape challenge to keep regulation up to date.

He admitted that it’s a judgement call if the pendulum has swung too far towards deregulation over recent years. He did not get drawn into debates on Brexit or austerity, but did say he would be happy to meet safety bodies to discuss the topic.

The debate was held on Thursday 13 July. To watch the full session, click here for Parliament TV.