Are you still reeling from yesterday’s shock revelation that the government has done no Brexit impact assessments on anything – zilch, nothing? That doesn’t mean the information doesn’t exist, only that David Davis has gone out his way to not ask for it.
Away from Westminster, every anxious industry and professional body is scenario-planning for worst and least-worst outcomes. But it’s not easy when the cabinet, in 18 long months since the vote, has never discussed the destination it is hurtling towards.
Today is the turn of the environmental health officers (EHOs) to peer into the fog of possible Brexit futures at their annual conference. Is the government taking the charabanc over the cliff edge, or will it swerve in time? The cabinet front-seaters trying to press the accelerator are manic deregulators, bonfire-of-red tape-arsonists. Their whole purpose in wrenching us out of the EU is give free rein to cowboy enterprise, liberated from the dead hand of health and safety, which they have always mocked and traduced.
EHOs are one of the great invisible anchors of civilization, the inspectors and guarantors of standards we have taken for granted all our lives. They rightly fear those standards are in grave peril. They warn that abandoning EU rules and relying on the World Trade Organisation will entail “acceptance by the UK consumer of food that doesn’t meet quality, composition, hygiene or standards of production” relied on for years.
Already their work has been sabotaged by austerity. Councils under 40% cuts have shed a third of their EHOs: England now has half as many as Wales and Northern Ireland. Inspections of food outlets have been severely cut back, along with checking for food fraud, air quality, landlords letting out high-risk properties, septic tattoo parlours, rats, cockroaches, animal and bee welfare, pesticides, bad antibiotics, noise, fumes, and risks of every kind. The protective covering between us and dangerous filth is growing perilously thin.
Researching our book Dismembered, on the shrinking state, I spent time observing a group of EHOs at work: they told me that on paper nothing has changed. Category-A, high-risk food outlets such as dirty chicken and kebab shops must by law be inspected far more regularly. And so they still are. How do they do that with a depleted staff? Easy – they rate fewer places as Category A.
In one transport café, I saw them find meat pies lying on the kitchen floor, out of the fridge, labelled “organic”, with no known origin, delivered for cash off the back of a lorry. Just as air quality reaches crisis levels, two-thirds of their air monitoring stations were shut because of lack of staff.
The Chartered Institute of Environmental Health feels it is peering over the possible abyss of a hard-Brexit, deregulated future, where no alignment with the EU means importing from elsewhere with lower standards, requiring more checks and certifications. It warns of already over-stretched capacity at ports checking just-in-time food arrivals, so any extra delay for new checks will leave food rotting on quaysides.
Public health laboratories are stretched to breaking point. Where will extra inspectors come from, with many fewer trainees now? Besides, many inspectors are EU nationals who may not stay.
They listen to the drumbeat of the deregulators with growing trepidation. “If we could just halve the burdens of the EU social and employment legislation we could deliver a £4.3bn boost to our economy and 60,000 new jobs”, the former international development secretary Priti Patel told the Institute of Directors. “The price of the food we eat is directly influenced by the barrage of regulations Europe imposes on farmers and producers.”
Boris Johnson claims the reason for our low growth is “because we’ve got too much regulation, too much stuff coming from Brussels”. The same chorus has come from Jacob Rees-Mogg, Chris Grayling, Dominic Raab and the rest.
The health and safety system already conducts dramatically fewer workplace inspections: inspectors can no longer pro-actively inspect, without an accident or complaint. That’s the triumph of decades of mockery of the “’elf and safety culture”, which the EHOs suffer too.
No, it’s not true that they banned conkers, hanging baskets, candy floss on sticks or flip-flops at work, or made trapeze artists wear hard hats. But those tales stick in the mind, like the lies Brexiteers peddled for decades against Brussels: straight bananas and fishermen in hair nets. As Trump shows, fake news campaigning scores so much better than dull facts. The Health and Safety Executive’s myth-busting website has to rebut such nonsense every week .
Away from the Westminster impasse over the interpretation of “alignment” versus “harmonisation”, those words have real-world effects touching every aspect of British life. Yet the meaning is deliberately ignored in the Brexit press, hidden from too many voters. No wonder Davis never called for impact assessments, knowing how grim they would be.
• Polly Toynbee is a Guardian columnist