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Cuts strangle regulators so they cannot enforce the rules

Slashed budgets leave regulations to ‘rot on the statute books’ say campaigners
29 October 2020 , Katie Coyne

Food safety, health and safety, and environmental checks have been slashed by more than 40% with staffing levels cut by well over a third over the past decade, according to a new report.

Unchecked UK, which campaigns for checks and balances, said successive cuts have created a situation so dire that many regulators are “no longer fit for purpose” and can’t enforce the rules protecting the public. Expertise and knowledge are being lost, which cannot be replaced easily.

Loss of enforcement and capacity are examined across six areas in the report, The UK’s enforcement gap: 2020, covering food, the environment, health and safety, consumer protection; employee rights; and open spaces.

The report found funding for the Food Standards Agency was cut by 51% between 2009 and 2019, with a 24% reduction in staff. Local authority health and safety experienced a 49% cut in spending over the same period, and a 54% reduction in the numbers of health and safety inspectors.

Funding for Trading Standards was cut by 60% between 2009 and 2018. 

Author Emma Rose argued that it is time to “close the enforcement gap” and return to policymaking focused on prevention rather than cure. She said: “The public protectors that help to keep us safe have been hit by a series of catastrophic budget cuts. 

“They have seen their reputations tarnished by efforts – from successive governments –  to rid us of ‘red tape’, and they have been forced to oversee the deterioration of the regulatory areas they are tasked with protecting.

“This report shows that eroding regulatory enforcement is a false economy. Now more than ever, with the spectre of COVID-19 still dominating everyday life, we know the value of shared rules, and of the institutions that defend them.”

One anonymous ex-regulatory agency staffer is quoted in the report saying: “The way forward, for the deregulators, is to reduce the resources of the regulators. Strangle and eviscerate – then regulations just rot on the statute books.”

Even harsher cuts have been experienced by Natural England, which had its budget slashed by 72% in the decade to 2019, plus a 20% reduction in staffing. The Equality and Human Rights Commission saw its budget cut by 74%, and staffing levels cut by 61%. Road maintenance in London experienced a 106% increase in annual budget shortfall over the same period.

Whistleblowers quoted in the report:

“We now enforce the COVID-19 Regulations locally. We observe businesses, give advice and take enforcement action. We are getting high numbers of calls from concerned workers, but we need more funding to effectively do this work alongside everything else.” Environmental Health Officer

“All the old, traditional public health problems that date right back to the birth of local government are still there, but now there are new challenges. Technology can help, but it’s not the same as ‘boots on the ground’, nor does it have the human touch people want - to advise, to reassure.” Environmental Health Officer

“The public know what they want: safe food, clean air, good safe homes to live in, a clean environment with clean air and safe water. Environmental Health Officers ensure that all of these things happen.” Environmental Health Officer

“The Health and Safety Executive has faced huge cuts over the last decade. This has impacted both enforcement and effectiveness. We were told to cut proactive inspections – which we did – and this obviously makes it harder to catch workplace abuses, such as the Leicester factory scandal.” Ex Health and Safety Executive staffer

Reductions in resources for food reg enforcement 2009-2019:
  • 38% fall in local authority total net spend on food safety in England
  • 52% fall in LA total net spend on trading standards services in England
  • 60% fall in staffing for food standards across England, Wales and NI
  • 53% fall in food standards meat hygiene inspectors in England and Wales
  • 59% fall in LA food product sampling in England, Wales and NI
  • 39% fall in FSA unannounced inspections (2013-19)
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