Death before expense

March 21, 1997

Lucy Neville-Rolfe, director of the cabinet office deregulation unit, cautions against "expensive" over-regulation in response to crises or disasters (THES, March 14). Yet again a convenient smokescreen is thrown up to cover the wholesale political drive to business-friendly deregulation.

Neville-Rolfe is echoing the sentiments of the former minister in charge of deregulation, Neil Hamilton. Commenting on the Marchioness (51 fatalities) disaster he bemoaned the Pounds 3 million estimated costs of regulation as "disproportionate", since there previously had been "only 29 deaths in similar circumstances". "After all, risk is an essential part of life," he told BBC Radio Four (Opinion, 1993).

The Lyme Bay canoeing tragedy (four fatalities) resulted in an historic first, the jailing of a company director on a charge of manslaughter as a result of a health and safety offence. Here, unlike the Herald of Free Enterprise trial, it proved possible to identify the "controlling mind". Subsequent regulation covers activity centres, the "costs" of which are purported to outweigh the "benefits". The government advisory body in these matters, the Deregulation Task Force, has described such regulations as "a vivid example of disproportionate regulation", calling for their postponement or outright repeal. Roger Freeman, the minister in charge of deregulation, has aired the proposal that such provisions be subject to "sunset provisions" ie, a periodic fading away.

Business has never borne the full costs of disasters. It is primarily the victims, the state welfare services and ultimately the insurance industry who bear the costs. Neither regulation nor penal sanction has been adequate to the disasters since the late 1980s which have resulted in over 500 deaths. The Law Commission has proposed a new crime of corporate killing which would make it far easier to jail individual company directors. The prospects of the current administration passing such a law were always remote. Over to you, Mr Blair.

Charles Woolfson

Research training organiser, department of social sciences, University of Glasgow

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