The UK is known for its record on health and safety, but the Government seems hell-bent on ripping the rug out from under this.
In 1974, the Health and Safety at Work Act established the broad-based principles that our current approach still rests on. These have then been built upon in following decades with more detailed regulations, many originating in the European Union (EU).
Whether we now need, or want, to have this raft of EU-based regulations is the question posed by the Government’s Retained EU Law Bill (or REUL for short).
This legislation, if passed, would set a deadline using a ‘sunset’ clause, allowing all EU-derived regulations to be wiped from the statute book, unless a Minister decides that they want to retain, amend, or replace them. As it stands, that deadline is 31 December 2023. The Bill also hands Ministers extraordinary general powers to remove regulations in the future.
You might have heard it called the ‘Brexit Freedom Bill’, and many people rightly want to know when they will start to see the benefits of Brexit.
Yes, there are areas of our current regulations where improvements could be made, but also big risks with the Government’s current approach.
Take construction and building safety. This has long been recognised as a higher risk industry. The Construction (Design and Management) Regulations 2015 (CDM), based on an EU directive, creates a framework for health and safety during and after construction.
The recent Building Safety Act 2022 (BSA) will soon be supported by new secondary legislation which imposes additional requirements on ‘dutyholders’ – as identified by CDM regulations – working on higher-risk residential buildings.
But take CDM away, and where does that leave health and safety in construction? Could a founding principle of the new BSA crumble away even before the Act is fully implemented?
Or chemicals. The EU’s REACH regulations govern the way businesses identify and manage risks of substances they manufacture and market. Having left the EU, the UK Government created a UK version, so companies which also export into Europe must comply with both EU and UK regulations.
Remove UK REACH entirely and are we really going to leave it up to individual businesses to decide for themselves whether to include safety advice on their products, and not determine how they do this?
Some things just need to be set out in black and white. Which is why we called for the REUL Bill to ether be changed or scrapped. More time needs to be given for scrutiny and decisions like this, and we need a more collaborative approach between government, businesses and unions to build on and improve what is currently in place.
No other country has ever gone about letting its laws just evaporate in this way. This Bill would effectively create a ‘black hole’ for businesses to have to navigate themselves. I do not object to the Government taking time to improve and build on the laws that we have. What I do not want to see is a ‘wild west’ being created which leads to a race to the bottom.
Deaths at work continue to fall, as the latest HSE figures show, and big strides have been made in terms of worker health. Without a solid floor of regulations, my fear is the great reputation the UK has built as a leader in health and safety at work could slip away and our already weak productivity will suffer along with people’s health and wellbeing.
I believe REUL is potentially the most dangerous (from an accident and injury prevention perspective) piece of legislation that has ever been proposed by any government and will result in workers being exposed to greater risk; the Government simply must rethink the deadline in its legislation for all EU regulations to be automatically repealed unless a Minister decides otherwise.
Mike Robinson FCA is Chief Executive of the British Safety Council
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