The UK’s enforcement gap: are business activities being left unchecked? by Emma Rose

Emma is the head of Unchecked.uk. She has worked as an environmental and public health campaigner for organisations including the Soil Association, Compassion in World Farming and the Sustainable Food Trust. Previously, she ran the Alliance to Save our Antibiotics.


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Our day-to-day lives are underpinned by the expectation that certain things will operate safely and smoothly, without requiring any input from us. This set of assumptions forms the backdrop to many ordinary activities. We believe our card payments will be secure. That our food is safe, our water is clean, and our trains, planes and buses are decent. We trust the medicines we take and the products we buy. We trust in the safety of our homes, and our children’s schools. We expect the UK’s natural spaces to be protected and maintained for our enjoyment. 

But in truth, the hidden heroes who look after important areas of everyday life - such as our food, the environment, product safety and rights at work - may not have the right tools for the job. Local authorities and national regulators are the keepers of our standards, tasked with the important job of ensuring that businesses and other operators are doing what they say they’re doing. However, research from Unchecked.uk, a new campaign from The Ecology Trust which includes Wen as a ‘supporting organisation’, indicate that UK enforcers are in a pretty bad way.  

Environmental watchdogs are no exception. From 2009/10 to 2016/17, the budgets of the Environment Agency (environment and business division) and Natural England have fallen in real-terms by 62% and 66% respectively. Staff numbers have fallen by 22% and 21% respectively. 

This has had a material impact on enforcement. Nearly half of Sites of Special Scientific Interest haven’t been checked by Natural England in the last six years. Almost much every measure of enforcement activity at the Environment Agency has fallen, with total prosecutions of businesses by the agency falling by 80% from 2009/10 to 2016/17. Checks on permitted sites have plummeted. The number of illegal waste sites which sprung up in 2017/18 exceeded the number that were shut down by the Environment Agency, by a factor of more than one. Monitoring and testing have also been scaled back, with water pollution sampling falling by about a third in this period. 

How do we know that the decline in enforcement activity is not simply due to positive shifts in business behaviour? While there have certainly been improvements in some areas, many trends are moving in the wrong direction. Bird crime is widespread; over the last six years there have been over 550 illegal attacks on birds of prey in the UK. One third of farmers are currently non-compliant with England’s water protection laws. Serious pollution incidents in the UK from the farming, water and waste sectors are a weekly occurrence, and only one in nine of the big water companies are performing to standard. Clearly, our environmental protection infrastructure is falling short.

This story can be told across the spectrum of public protection. The watchdogs that look out for our interests - from the food we eat, to the products we buy, to the green spaces we cherish - have been cut to the bone.And, as Unchecked’s case studies show, the real-world costs of this are dear.

This erosion of our public protection bodies has taken place alongside efforts by successive governments to reduce regulation, in order to lighten the regulatory load on businesses. The political project to ‘Stop Telling Businesses What to Do’ has gone hand-in-hand with substantive efforts to cut back on inspections. Since the 1970s countless government reviews have emerged like a series of set-pieces, all similarly styled - “Lifting the Burden”; “Building Businesses Not Barriers” - and all outlining the need to reduce checks on business activities. Inspections, like regulations, have been redefined as a ‘barrier’ to the growth of decent British businesses who would like to be left alone, thanks very much.

At Unchecked, we think the erosion of UK enforcement capacity is putting ordinary people and the environment at risk. In a letter to The Times this morning, we were joined by 20 organisations, including Wen, in flagging our concerns around this dangerous approach.

Over the coming months, we’ll be digging deeper into the UK’s ‘enforcement gap’ and exposing the implications of this for people and the environment. We’ll be collecting and sharing the stories of people who have felt the impacts of weak enforcement. And we’ll be making the case, alongside our supporting organisations, for proper investment in the bodies that keep us safe. 

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