Steven Poole rightly points out the dangers of deregulation, and how new rules are so often only introduced following disasters (The deregulation game, G2, 21 June). This is a very real and poignant matter for me, given the deaths of my daughter and her friend on a level crossing in December 2005. After years of lobbying about the dangers – and Network Rail’s (and its predecessors’) failures to act on them – change took place and a major programme began to improve safety at crossings.
Poole points out that “the very phrase ‘health and safety’ has become a joke”. People roll their eyes and shrug and the jokey “elf and safety” has become part of the language. It has enabled those with power in government and the private sector to cut corners and get away with it, on the basis that extra rules will not go down well.
We need a major change in attitudes to health and safety. It must become ingrained as a serious matter. Joking about it should become as unacceptable as joking about racism, sexuality and disability.
The elephant in the room not mentioned in Steven Poole’s excellent article on deregulation was the de facto deregulation facilitated by the government’s savage cuts in local authority spending. Councils were inevitably going to respond to these cuts by reducing the resources available for statutory duties where cuts would be less likely to create an immediate outcry, such as regulation enforcement. It would be naive to think that a government obsessed with deregulation would not have been fully aware of this. This week’s news of tower block cladding investigations provides grim evidence of the effects of this strategy, if any were needed.
Chichester, West Sussex
As long ago as 1840, when rapid expansion forced government at least to consider some degree of regulation of buildings, Thomas Cubitt gave evidence to the select committee on the health of towns. He warned that, without rules and regulations, builders would put up houses crammed into smaller and smaller spaces. “I am afraid a house would become like a slave ship, with the decks too close for the people to stand upright.”
Polly Toynbee was right to insist on the need for regulation (They call it useless red tape, but without it people die, 20 June). And they couldn’t, in 1840, even imagine 24 storeys high.
Steven Poole provides an excellent account of the right’s professed hatred of regulation and red tape, but this ideological hostility only seems to apply to big business and the private sector.
By contrast, the last three decades have seen the public sector crushed under regulatory burdens and tied up in red tape, often in a bizarre attempt at making schools, hospitals, the police, social services and universities more efficient, business-like and accountable. Talk to most doctors, nurses, police officers, probation officers, social workers and university lecturers, and one of their biggest complaints will be the relentless increase in bureaucracy imposed by Conservative (and New Labour) governments since the 1980s.
Instead of focusing on their core activities and providing a good professional service, many frontline public sector workers are compelled to devote much of their time and energy to countless strategies, statutory frameworks, regulations, codes of practice, quality assurance procedures, government targets, action plans, form-filling, box-ticking, monitoring exercises, and preparations for the next external inspection.
A major reason for public sector workers quitting their profession, taking early retirement or suffering from stress-related illnesses is the sheer volume of bureaucracy that Conservatives (and New Labour) have imposed during the last 35 years. This bureaucracy, almost as much as underfunding, is destroying the public sector, impeding efficiency and innovation, and driving frontline staff to despair.
Your article on red tape is correct – rules and regulations have enhanced safety and health, and stopped many an exploitative practice. However, the most dangerous “red tape” is wrapped around our tax laws. The incomprehensible density and technicality of the UK tax system allows the rich and well advised to dance around inside a baffling box of reliefs and avoidance measures. If we want a fair, balanced and more equal tax system, then we should rewrite tax law to make it much simpler and as transparent as possible. Industry and the wealthy will moan for a while, but they’ll adapt quickly. Advisers will complain bitterly, but the tax system should not be used as an employment-generation machine. Ultimately, we would see lower tax rates and higher tax takes – surely the objective of all governments?