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Why the ‘Brexit Freedoms’ Bill must be changed – or scrapped

Mike Robinson, Chief Executive

Mike Robinson, Chief Executive | British Safety Council

4 min read Partner content

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 UK 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, and many of these were brought in after 1990, at a time when we belonged to 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 piece of legislation, if passed, would set a deadline using a ‘sunset’ clause, allowing all EU-derived regulations to be wiped from the statute book from that point, 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.

It has been called the ‘Brexit Freedom Bill’. And many people who voted to leave the EU, quite rightly, want to know when they will see the UK start to reap 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 securing the health and safety of people during and after construction projects. The recent Building Safety Act 2022 (BSA) will soon be supported by new secondary legislation which imposes additional requirements on ‘dutyholders’ – as identified by the CDM regulations – when working on higher-risk residential buildings.

But take CDM away (as could happen under the REUL Bill) and where does that leave health and safety in construction? Could a founding principle of the UK’s 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 place on the market. Having left the EU, the UK Government created a UK version, so companies which export into Europe must already comply with both EU and UK regulations.

Remove UK REACH entirely (as could happen on 31 December 2023) 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, on the basis that it would be too damaging and risky to go ahead with it. More time needs to be given for scrutiny and decisions like this, and 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 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, injury, and ill-health 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, of 31 December 2023, for all EU regulations to be automatically repealed unless a Minister decides otherwise.

Mike Robinson is Chief Executive of the British Safety Council

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