Privatisation in the UK has cost lives, research suggests

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The UK’s privatisation of public services has led to an increase in the number of health and safety disasters which have caused multiple fatalities, according to new research from the University of Stirling.

The paper, published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, looked at the correlation between a rise in privatisation initiatives in an 18-year period, between 1979 and 1997, and an abnormal increase in disasters that caused several deaths.

The study, jointly led by Professor Andrew Watterson of the University of Stirling, and Professor Matthias Beck of University College Cork, shows the negative impact government-led privatisation initiatives can have on the health and safety of workers and the public.

The late 70s to late 90s saw years of sustained privatisation, where state-owned enterprises were increasingly sold or partially sold to the private sector, or where private sector organisations were contracted to provide former public services. This privatisation was, and continues often to be, accompanied by the removal or softening of regulatory requirements, such as health and safety rules, and the weakening of regulatory agencies through budget and staff cuts.

This period corresponded with a significant rise in the number of disasters, and resulting number of deaths, compared to other periods in the UK’s recent history.  The annual death rate was 322% higher than it was in the years from 1998 – 2007.

The research also made comparisons with other large European countries like Germany, France, and Italy. The UK had a disproportionate number of disasters and fatalities, in some cases twice as high as these countries for the same period. For example, the UK rate was 225% higher than that of Germany between 1979 – 1997.

'Technical disasters'

Researchers rigorously examined data of what are known as ‘technical disasters’ – disasters caused by the malfunction of a technological structure or human error in controlling or handling technology, as opposed to a natural disaster.

Trawling the World Health Organisation’s Emergency Events Database and analysing official literature, Stirling and Cork academics recorded disasters where 10 or more people were reported as killed, 100 or more people were reported as affected, a declaration of a state of emergency was issued, or where there was a call for international assistance.

Multi-fatality disasters during this time included the 1987 MS Herald of Free Enterprise ferry sinking, oil and gas industry explosions such as the North Sea oil platform Piper Alpha in 1988, and railways accidents such as the Clapham Junction crash in 1988.

More recent examples occurred where outsourcing and aspects of privatisation played a part in disasters for the public and workers, alongside a lack of health and safety regulations, inspection and enforcement. These include the Grenfell Tower fire and the scale of fatalities at care homes during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Public health and safety experts therefore believe privatisation, combined with weak regulation, inspection and enforcement, was a significant reason for several of these disasters. The profound effect on worker and public safety evidenced in this research should be seen as a deterrent to similar initiatives.

Professor Andrew Watterson is photographed indoors, the background is blurred. Professor Watterson is a white male and wears a green checked shirt, has white hair and a white beard and moustache. He is looking straight to camera.
Professor Andrew Watterson
Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport at the University of Stirling
This paper provides robust evidence of how this privatisation can cost the lives of both workers and members of the public, and in doing so exposes a serious health and safety failure in the UK’s recent history.

Professor Andrew Watterson, of the Faculty of Health Sciences and Sport at the University of Stirling, said: “The period of privatisation which the UK underwent during the 1980s and 1990s could be described as extraordinarily intense. This paper provides robust evidence of how this privatisation can cost the lives of both workers and members of the public, and in doing so exposes a serious health and safety failure in the UK’s recent history.

“Although several countries have experienced large-scale privatisation initiatives, relatively little was known about the impact of these. We believe this evidence should be seen as a deterrent to similarly extensive and aggressive initiatives, which we have recently seen called for by the UK Government. Further deregulation and cost cutting exercises for services which have a critical role to play in keeping us all safe could have serious consequences. This is also particularly pertinent when applied in less developed countries and could result in similarly high annual death rates.”

Professor Matthias Beck, of Cork University Business School at University College Cork, said: “Privatisation has affected workers, patients and community health and safety in areas right across UK society, from transport and construction, to hospitals, care homes and public utilities. When regulation, monitoring and inspection fails, each of these important services are at risk of multi-fatality disasters, and the two groups most at risk are workers and the public.

“When we think of a scenario where regulation and scrutiny is reduced and cost cutting is king, it perhaps comes as no surprise that this has led to a statistically significant increase in disasters where several people lost their lives.”

Researchers say the evidence uncovered acts as a stark warning for less developed countries, where infrastructure for key public services is being expanded. Experts believe developing and middle-income nations could fall victim to similar devastating outcomes, and evidence suggests should a disaster occur, they would be more vulnerable to more severe consequences.

The paper, Privatisation and Multi-Fatality Disasters: A Causal Connection Exposing Both Worker and Citizen Health and Safety Failures in the UK?, is published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health.