Thursday, 13 September 2012

Warning: deregulation can be bad for your (political) health


The news that the Coalition Government is 'lightening the load of regulation', or 'tearing up the rules' on that dreaded bugbear, health and safety, should send a shiver down every spine.

It's often called an attempt to 'kick-start growth', which is strange, because the Business Secretary himself (responsible for deregulation) absolutely rightly points out that our present crisis has absolutely nothing whatsoever to do with too much government, and everything to do with the great big black hole that sits where consumer demand should be.

It's even more odd because the risk of political catastrophe are very high when you're meddling with this sort of thing. But an eerie silence hangs over the whole political battlefield, rather like Conservative and Liberal Democrats' head-in-the-sand attitude to the swingeing cuts to (for instance) disability benefits that are about to hit every MP's caseload and consciousness like a rocket.

Remember BSE, the 'mad cow disease' whose true impact and extent among humans we still await with some trepidation? The whole scare did enormous political damage to the Major administration in the 1990s, indelibly seared on the public consciousness when the Minister responsible was shown feeding his daugher a burger in an apparent attempt to still public worries about the disease (above). Some of it was self-inflicted via a bizarre and self-defeating 'empty chair' protest at European Union level, but more of the public anger was directed against an official culture that erred on the wrong side of public safety, and leant over towards the farming industry just about as far as it could. Until shoving offal into the food supply turned out to be a really, really bad idea. Former Prime Ministers had to run for cover. The Opposition of the time had a field day.

All this because Ministers wanted to pose as fearless opponents of a nebulous and mythical 'health and safety culture' - whatever that is, when 20,000 people die every year from an injury or disease caused by their work. In the 1980s, that meant cutting corners on what was in meat pies. Now, it means stopping health and safety inspections of (for instance) nightclubs - places that are often packed, incendiary and dangerous, as any number of nightclub disasters demonstrate.

One day public and commentariat will note that there are historical reasons why we have regulations in the first place - rooted in past disasters, the lessons of yesterday, and the risks that we used to take and began to think were unacceptable.

In the meantime, I'd watch out and be a bit more careful if I were you. I wouldn't visit many subterranean wine bars, and if you go to any clubs, do have a look round at the fire exits, won't you?

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