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       Hazards, number 139, 2017
Power grab: Brexiteers queue up to call for safety protections to go
The removal of legal protections demanded by prominent Brexiteers will just make the economy more lawless not more productive, unions have warned. And, says Hazards editor Rory O’Neill, some of the most ardent Tory supporters of Brexit have workplace safety laws at the top of their hit list.

An Economists for Brexit report laid bare the deregulatory motives behind the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union.

The ‘Too much regulation’ section in the August 2017 report, by free market advocate Tim Congdon, blaming the failings of the British economy on excessive red tape, claims Britain could make savings by cutting paid holidays, rest breaks and limits on night work. Congdon is also vexed by EU directives “to ban substances and manage processes”.

But Elena Crasta, the TUC’s Brussels-based European officer rebutted Congdon’s claims. “The TUC is all for a better performing UK economy, but regulation has benefits as well as costs, and there are much better ways to promote competitiveness than taking away protections for workers, consumers and the environment,” she said.

“Congdon’s over-riding argument is that EU regulation has reduced UK productivity, although it doesn’t seem to have had that effect on other countries in the EU which are more productive: the UK lags France by over 20 per cent and Italy by 8 per cent.”

She said “low pay and austerity have more to do with low productivity than ‘red tape’,” adding: “What we need now is to protect jobs, employment rights and livelihoods. The best way to do this is not by continuing to peddle myths about ‘too much regulation’, but by staying in the single market – according to the IFS [Institute for Fiscal Studies] that alone would be worth 4 per cent more in GDP.”


The early recognition that wholesale safety deregulation had set the scene for the 14 June 2017 Grenfell Tower inferno (Hazards 138) appears to have had little lasting impact. Even before the inquiry into the tragedy started on 14 September, Conservative MPs were queuing up to demand a cull of safety rules as part of Brexit. TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson criticised the Conservative government’s “sickening” attitude to regulation. He said: “Every single time a politician anywhere in the world talks about the idea that red tape burdens business, we have to remember the human cost. Grenfell shows us that.” A Hazards Campaign ‘We love red tape’ postcard campaign has seen the prime minister deluged with paper and online messages.

Withdrawal symptoms

Pro-Brexit Conservatives appear to include most of the most rabidly outspoken proponents of deregulation of workplace safety. Unite revealed in June 2017 that newly installed Brexit minister Steve Baker has lobbied the government to weaken asbestos laws, calling in 2010 for a government inquiry into the issue.

The union said it was concerned by the minister’s ‘alarming’ position and said the government must provide ‘cast-iron guarantees’ that asbestos regulations – based on EU directives - won’t be watered down. Unite said it wants assurances the Brexit minister will not use his position to weaken asbestos laws, bypassing effective parliamentary scrutiny.

Unite assistant general secretary Gail Cartmail said: “It is alarming that an MP who holds such extreme views on asbestos has been given such a sensitive position. It demonstrates the prime minister is more interested in appeasing hardline Brexiters, rather than the welfare of workers.”

In August 2017, Tory peer Lord Harris argued Brexit is a good thing because it will mean the end of safety laws that protect young people from long working hours. The retail tycoon, who is estimated to be worth more than £100m, said leaving the EU would help young people “because we’ll have more freedom of laws,” adding “we can only keep our staff on for 35 hours a week, I think it is now.”

He’s wrong. The European Working Time Directive sets a 48 hour weekly limit, and workers can opt-out.

TUC digital content editor Niamh Ní Mhaoileoin responded that working time law is “not a restrictive regulation or an attack on business, it’s a common sense law that protects people from being forced to work unhealthy hours.” She added that despite Theresa May’s promise to ensure that workers’ rights are fully protected and maintained, “time and again, senior Tories have undermined that promise, couching their support for Brexit in attacks on workers’ rights.”

She concluded: “As Tories continue to publicly denounce workers’ rights legislation, vague promises from government simply aren’t good enough. Working people need a concrete guarantee that their rights are safe from the likes of Lord Harris.”


A dramatic drop in the number of fire safety officers in England since 2011 is leaving the public at risk and the remaining workers under ‘intolerable’ pressure, unions have warned. Unions FBU, Unite and UNISON were commenting after it was revealed the number of the specialist officers carrying out inspections of high-risk buildings to ensure they comply with safety legislation fell from 924 to 680 between 2011 and 2017. The fall in the staffing in fire services has been mirrored by a decrease in the number of inspections and enforcement notices, which are issued when a building violates safety regulations.  In 2010/11, there were 84,575 audits in England, compared with 63,201 in 2015/2016 – a drop of 25 per cent. The number of enforcement notices fell at a much faster rate, with fire services reporting a 45 per cent reduction over the same period, according to Home Office figures. Concerns have heightened since the Grenfell Tower disaster, linked to unsuitable cladding and leading to a costly nationwide removal programme.

Limited repeal?

The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill – known as ‘the Great Repeal Bill’ – passed its first parliamentary hurdle in a 11 September 2017 Commons vote. The TUC had earlier warned this blueprint for the repeal of European Union laws could put workers’ rights in jeopardy.

TUC general secretary Frances O’Grady said the Bill, which brings EU laws – including workers’ rights and the major safety regulations – into UK law, “is a Downing Street power grab. The PM promised to protect all workers’ rights after Brexit. But there is nothing in this Bill to stop politicians shredding or watering down our rights in the future.”

She added: “Nobody voted for Brexit to make life harder for working people. That’s why any deal with the EU must ensure that workers’ rights in Britain don’t fall behind the rest of Europe.”

The Bill will give the government powers to repeal and amend existing rules – powers that will apply to employment, safety and equality laws. The TUC argues the Bill should include non-regression clauses guaranteeing that the new powers cannot be used to repeal or dilute legal protections.


The Economy After Brexit, Economists for Brexit, August 2017.
Protecting health and safety after Brexit, TUC, May 2017.




Unions oppose savage attack on workers’ rights

Unite has called on Theresa May to “reassure the UK's workers that their rights will not be savaged” by hardline deregulators on the Tory benches and the party’s manifesto pledge to further reduce red tape.

Unite general secretary Len McCluskey said “we start this process with little faith that the Tory party can be trusted with our rights and living standards. That is why prime minister Theresa May must state what comes first; her party's dogmatic determination to destroy regulations (Hazards 124), as restated in the manifesto on which she recently stood, or her earlier pledge to protect workers' rights? We urge her to make it abundantly clear today that it is the latter.”

He added: “We were promised that coming out of the EU would mean taking back control. Instead it looks like it is the government who will be taking all the control, taking unprecedented powers to sweep away vital laws and protections at a whim.”

The Unite leader said “there are too many on the Conservative benches itching to use Brexit to destroy a whole raft of protections and who will waste no time in attacking vital laws like the working time directive. A measure that is not ‘red tape’, but essential protection for workers and the public alike. Our roads are safer, for example, because under EU law lorry drivers must rest.”

UNISON general secretary Dave Prentis said: “The rights of people at work must stay protected. It’s not enough to safeguard them until Brexit, when all bets are off.” He added: “Parliament – not the government – should decide how EU regulations are transferred into UK law and preserved for the future.”


Austerity implicated as life expectancy rise stalls

Rising rates of life expectancy are grinding to a halt in England after more than 100 years of continuous progress, a leading health expert has said, adding that poor living and working conditions could be among the factors responsible.

University College London (UCL) expert Sir Michael Marmot said he was “deeply concerned” by the situation, calling it “historically highly unusual”. He said it was “entirely possible” austerity was to blame and said the issue needed looking at urgently. Using Office for National Statistics projections for babies born since 2000, Sir Michael, who has advised both the government and World Health Organisation on health inequalities, showed the rate of increase in life expectancy had nearly halved since 2010 in England.

Sir Michael, who is director of the Institute of Health Equity at UCL, said the statistics showed the growth in life expectancy was “pretty close to having ground to a halt”. He explained social factors such as education, employment and working conditions and poverty all affected life expectancy by influencing lifestyles.  And as austerity was placing pressures on these factors, they may in turn be influencing life expectancy – something reflected in the large gulf between how long the richest and the poorest can expect to live.

A July 2017 report in the British Medical Journal found the reductions in health inequalities achieved by a Labour government initiative that ended when the Conservatives came to power in 2010 were now being reversed. The authors note the Labour strategy “may have reduced geographical health inequalities in life expectancy, and future approaches should learn from this experience. The concerns are that current policies are reversing the achievements of the strategy.”

The health consequences of the sharp growth in insecure work were highlighted in July 2017 with the publication of the government commissioned Taylor Report (See: Bad job: Insecure work review 'not the game-changer need). Unions have added their voice to the TUC’s call for “a proper crackdown on bad bosses who treat their staff like disposable labour” going beyond the Taylor Report’s recommendations, adding ‘good work’ couldn’t be left to employer goodwill.

Institute of Health Equity: www.instituteofhealthequity.org

Ben Barr, James Higgerson and Margaret Whitehead. Investigating the impact of the English Health Inequalities Strategy: a time trend analysis, British Medical Journal, volume 358, 27 July 2017.

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Power grab

The removal of legal protections demanded by prominent Brexiteers will just make the economy more lawless not more productive, unions have warned. And, says Hazards editor Rory O’Neill, some of the most ardent Tory supporters of Brexit have workplace safety laws at the top of their hit list.

Withdrawal symptoms
Limited repeal?

Related stories
Unions oppose savage attack on workers’ rights
Austerity implicated as life expectancy rise stalls

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Vote to die
Deadly business

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