Many of the UK’s regulatory agencies find themselves unable to enforce the rules due to budget cuts and declining staff numbers, according to new research.

The report examined losses in regulatory enforcement capacity across six areas including food, the environment, health and safety, and consumer protection.

Unchecked UK, a group supported by 40 organizations across society, has raised the issue before. In August 2019, it warned inspections of British safety, food, water, and air quality standards were declining with a fall in the budgets and staff of enforcement agencies.

A combination of budget cuts and lack of staff means businesses are going unchecked and breaches of the law are going unpunished, said the group.

Cross-sector impact
The latest report found a 51 percent cut in funding for the Food Standards Agency between 2009 and 2019, with a 24 percent reduction in staff numbers.

It also revealed a 49 percent cut in spending on health and safety by local authorities in England between 2009 and 2019, with a reduction of 54 percent in the number of local authority health and safety inspectors and a 60 percent cut in trading standards funding between 2009 and 2018.

Combined pressures of post-pandemic recovery and Brexit trade negotiations have the potential to accelerate the UK’s protection problem, in terms of a new wave of austerity, insufficient regulatory capacity, and a race to the bottom on standards, according to the report.

A National Audit Office (NAO) report in 2019 found food hygiene staff numbers had declined about 13 percent relative to the number of businesses operating between 2012-13 and 2017-2018. The amount of food standards staff also fell by an estimated 45 percent.

Speaking at the Chartered Institute of Environmental Health (CIEH) food safety conference recently, FSA chief executive Emily Miles said she was increasingly worried about the impact of local authority funding shortages on food safety.

Rules need enforcing
There has been a 38 percent decline in total net spend between 2009 and 2019 by local authorities on food safety in England, according to the Unchecked report. It also found UK labs for food testing fell from 17 to nine in the same period.

Emma Rose, from Unchecked UK, said rules and protections are only as good as the enforcement which underpins them and there needs to be a focus on prevention rather than cure.

“If they are not enforced, they are not worth the paper they are written on. The public protectors that help to keep us safe have been hit by a series of catastrophic budget cuts,” she said.

“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. It is vital that this government learns from past mistakes, faces the facts and figures, and takes immediate action to reverse the UK’s perilous enforcement gap.”

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