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Either we're at war, or all in it together, not both

Posted by Katherine Trebeck Senior Researcher

16th Jan 2012

Our Prime Minister has kicked off 2012 by announcing a pledge to half the amount of red-tape and calling health and safety laws a 'monster'. This is part of a promise he made last year to wage 'war' on the enemies of enterprise.

Hardly appropriate language, in that he is implicitly equating bureaucrats with other targets of government 'wars' - terrorists and drug dealers.

The reason why this language jars so badly is that there seems to be an assumption that what's good for business is automatically good for us all; that we just need to work for the best interest of businesses, elevate their interests above all other concerns and all will be fine. It is that easy, apparently.

But this assumption is trickle-down economics at its laziest and least effective.

Cameron's declaration of a 'war on the enemies of enterprise' also assumes that impositions on business (such as health and safety laws) are inherently a bad thing and accordingly that businesses should be as unencumbered by social concerns as possible (that is, as much as the people will tolerate).

Sadly, and dangerously, in reality this risks undermining rules and regulations that keep our businesses humane. Laws that ensure acceptable levels of minimum pay, safe working conditions and prevent exploitation. As Ha-Joon Chang reminds us, child labour is outlawed because as a society we see it as abhorrent. Yet our continued tolerance of poverty-wages - to the extent that we essentially subsidise them through the in-work tax credit system - suggests we're still all too intimidated by businesses.

Of course we need jobs, and of course we need enterprises to deliver the goods and services that meet our needs.

But surely we as a society (and perhaps even our political leaders...?) are sophisticated enough to understand that we need to be a bit more nuanced in calling for growth, business, jobs. We need good jobs, jobs that mean a movement out of poverty, jobs that allow employees to balance their caring responsibilities and community engagement, jobs that deliver progression and skills.

And we need good quality enterprises doing good quality activities that match our vision of what sort of society and economy we want to be and that deliver social and environmental sustainability. And of course, enterprises that pay their taxes.

So we need to be less precious about businesses, and just a wee bit more demanding about what sort of activities they undertake and the way they carry out their activities (for example, through community benefit clauses in procurement, through how we reward and invest and through the social and regulatory structures in which we allow them to operate).

Let us never, ever forget that the economy should be the servant of the people, not the other way around.

This article was originally published on Oxfam's UK Poverty Post.

Blog post written by Katherine Trebeck

Senior Researcher

More by Katherine Trebeck

Katherine Trebeck