Competition: Spot the idiotic inconsistency

OILY PROBLEM David Cameron tries to grease UK-US relations in a post-BP sliming phone call to US president Barack Obama. But the prime minister also wants to remove legal 'burdens' on business - like safety and environmental regulations.

It’s a story that owes more to the ostrich than the oil covered pelican.

The 14 June screen grab from the front page of the UK Prime Minister’s website shows David Cameron in a phone call to US President Barack Obama, discussing the Gulf of Mexico oil spill calamity.

Cameron’s spokesperson commented: “The prime minister expressed his sadness at the ongoing human and environmental catastrophe in Louisiana,” adding: “President Obama said to the Prime Minister that his unequivocal view was that BP was a multinational global company and that frustrations about the oil spill had nothing to do with national identity. The Prime Minister stressed the economic importance of BP to the UK, US and other countries. The President made clear that he had no interest in undermining BP’s value.”

The disaster, which observers increasingly accept was a product of inadequate regulation, oversight and enforcement, has hobbled a major UK-based firm, caused incalculable economic and environmental damage, has strained relations between the US and the UK and has led for calls for directors of BP to face criminal charges.

There have already been less celebrated casualties, notably the 11 workers who died when the rig exploded on 20 April. Since then many workers involved in the cleanup operation – possibly hundreds – have fallen sick as a result of heat stroke, chemical exposures and other hazards.

Still, with the phone call over it was back to business as usual for the UK Prime Minister – pandering to the business lobby and announcing a review of health and safety legislation, the next headline on the 10 Downing Street website.

Commenting on the review, which forms part of a wider commitment to deregulation targeting all government departments and regulators, the Prime Minister said: “The rise of the compensation culture over the last ten years is a real concern, as is the way health and safety rules are sometimes applied. We need a sensible new approach that makes clear these laws are intended to protect people, not overwhelm businesses with red tape.”

Only there has not been a rise in compensation culture and businesses are not overwhelmed with red tape. Brendan Barber, general secretary of the UK trade union body TUC, said he was “surprised the government is addressing the ‘compensation culture’ again as successive reports show there is no such thing and claims have been falling over the past ten years.” He added: “This will not be an open and frank review aimed at achieving better regulation. Instead it is an attempt to undermine the already limited protection that workers have by focusing on the needs of business.”

The UK union leader concluded: “Businesses are responsible for a working culture that injures a quarter of a million workers every year and makes a further half a million employees ill. The review should by investigating this instead. Rather than focusing solely on the ‘needs of business’, the government should protect workers by increasing inspections and enforcement action against employers who put their staff at risk by ignoring existing laws, as well as introducing a legal duty on directors to protect their workers.”

Whether you are talking the mine deaths at Massey Energy, the refinery deaths at Texas City or the offshore deaths in the Gulf of Mexico, the common theme is a failure of responsibility and accountability on the part of companies. You can pair that each time with a failure of official regulation and oversight on the part of government.

Hand-wringing from Cameron and other political leaders over the “sadness” unleashed by BP, Transocean, Halliburton and the litany of deadly businesses from Union Carbide to Massey to McWane, is a seriously unsatisfactory alternative to protecting lives, livelihoods and the environment.

To do that governments must behave responsibly, and that means more than just demanding responsibility from business. It means less time spent appeasing regulation averse boardrooms and more time regulating them. What business calls “red tape” is for many workers their lifeline. Removing or not enforcing legal protections makes a government an accessory to the crime.

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