Running a country isn’t easy. The relentless pressure of making difficult decisions at speed means that mistakes will occasionally be made. But if you are ideologically committed to doing the wrong thing then they will happen a lot more frequently.
Unfortunately, the latest incarnation of the British government is driven by some daft theories that sound attractive to their supporters but don’t work out in practice. One of them is the simplistic idea that what is really needed to get this country moving forward is to get rid of pesky regulations and let business have a free hand.
The track record of what actually happens when regulations are deliberately weakened or removed is not impressive. It turns out that quite a lot of rules were put in place because they are genuinely necessary and it causes a lot of harm when they are removed.
Pesky regulations: the Grenfell Tower fire
Take, for instance, the need to control the standards to which buildings are constructed properly. When they first came into office, the Conservatives listened to heavy pressure from industry lobbyists that were making large donations to their party and decided to weaken building regulations and allow developers to hire their own regulator. The consequence was the Grenfell Tower fire.
Some 72 people lost their lives because it was a bit cheaper to fit cladding that burned easily and the inspectors lacked the power to stop that happening. The bill to retrofit homes to repair the damage is expected to amount to over £4bn. Even in terms of cold hard cash, removing effective controls over building standards resulted in a huge economic failure not an economic success.
Years after the fire there are still thousands of people trapped in homes that they can’t sell because they can’t afford to correct basic construction errors that an independent building control officer employed by the local council would have spotted and stopped. I am sure they will take great comfort from hearing that Michael Gove has finally got around to admitting failures in regulation were to blame. Without admitting that he was part of the government that inspired those failures.
Pesky regulations and environmental protection
A naïve faith in the wonders of stripping away regulations also lies behind horrible problems that have occurred lately off the North Yorkshire coast. This government decided that they couldn’t think of a better way of developing the North East than to declare a freeport in Teesside. The whole idea of freeports is to speed up development by weakening the normal controls over things like environmental protection. Within weeks, dredging was underway that was meant to usher in a bright new future for a part of the North that badly needed it.
Unfortunately, the dredging went straight into industrial waste and much of it ended up dumped into the sea. That waste contained pyridine. Pyridine at very low concentrations kills crabs and lobsters. When those creatures started washing up all along the Yorkshire Coast the government tried to blame the deaths on an algal bloom that no one had actually spotted.
Then they put in place an inquiry that blamed the deaths on a new disease. That once again no one had actually spotted. The government inquiry just made up a fictional disease rather than properly investigating the possibility that larger quantities of pyridine were being released than was admitted.
The fact that the deaths had only begun when the dredging began and the risk that lightly supervised dredging work might have released a lot more poison than was actually reported is still being actively denied. Meanwhile, the fishing community off the North Yorkshire coast has had its economic future ruined and environmental damage has been done that could take a decade to reverse.
Lowering EU standards
All of this might lead a sensible government to be cautious about what rules it decides to dump without thinking carefully about the consequences. Instead, the British government is busy changing the law to allow ministers to remove more than 3,800 separate regulations that our country followed when it was part of the EU. Parliament will not be allowed to vote on these changes to British law.
The government is betting the country’s future on turning us into the place that makes the least reliable products and provides the least trustworthy services in Europe. Our elected representatives won’t be allowed a say.
One of the main justifications put forward for Brexit was that it would restore the sovereignty of the British parliament. Now that sovereignty is being brushed aside and it will not even have the chance to express an opinion on major changes to British law. All that will be required to change important laws that apply in Britain will be the signature of a government minister.
Clearly there are some people who think that there is no one more trustworthy and less likely to be over influenced by wealthy lobbyists than a minister in this government. The rest of us are entitled to be seriously concerned about the consequences.
What could possibly go wrong?
How will Britain’s companies export to Europe if they are producing goods to different standards? How can we be confident that Britain’s financial traders aren’t busy stoking up another huge crash if they are working under light regulations? How do we know the new house we buy will be safe, the burger doesn’t contain condemned meat, the water our kids paddle in won’t be full of sewage, or the transport we are using is safe to use?
No one likes unnecessary rules and pointless regulations. But no one can check the reliability of every product and service we use. At a time when the government itself isn’t exactly known for its high standards and its professionalism the public needs to be able to rely on powerful independent regulators properly controlling standards in this country. Instead, we are about to be left with untrustworthy ministers making decisions in the quiet of back rooms without any parliamentary scrutiny under heavy lobbying from those who make money from lowering quality.
What could possibly go wrong?