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       Hazards, number 161, 2023
JUST UNLAWFUL | Labour shortages expose the government’s sickening policies
We have historic levels of work-related ill-health, sick people dropping out of the labour market and crippling labour shortages. Yet the government plans an unprecedented cull of the nation’s safety laws. Hazards editor Rory O’Neill says the Tories’ deregulation fever will make us all sick.


It has been described as a ‘rights wrecking ball’ and the ‘EU bonfire bill’.
At a time when work-related ill-health in Great Britain is at an all-time high, the Conservative government has embarked on the biggest cull of core health and safety laws in history.

The Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Bill 2022 (REUL) would see 58 safety laws automatically ‘sunset’ on 31 December 2023, unless given an explicit reprieve by ministers (Hazards 160).

Prime minister Rishi Sunak’s faltering attack on EU-derived laws is a Brexit-infused sop to the right of his party and ‘leave’ supporters.  But his plan to demolish employment and safety protections is not finding favour with businesses, who have far more pressing concerns.

The TUC and the Institute of Directors last year urged ministers to withdraw the bill. And survey findings published in March 2023 indicated UK businesses strongly support health and safety regulations. They instead highlighted business fears over the government’s Brexit-inspired plans.

The research by Unchecked UK with support from the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents (RoSPA) and others, found seven in 10 (69 per cent) of the 2,000 businesses sampled are not willing to accept lower health and safety standards as part of REUL.

Regulation: what does UK business think? found fewer than a fifth of businesses cited excessive government regulation as the toughest issue facing them, with concerns around energy costs (70 per cent), inflation (65 per cent) and labour shortages (45 per cent) coming top of the worry list.

The bill failed to pass any of the basic checks required before a new law is introduced. A November 2022 report from parliament’s Regulatory Policy Committee excoriated the government’s impact assessment on REUL, finding it “was not fit for purpose”. Its rationale and options for regulatory intervention were “weak” and the cost-benefit analysis “very weak”.

Despite this, the government continues to persevere with the law to kill all laws without support from business, and neither the required legal nor cost-benefit justification.
Its strategy has been to say it is both removing entire tiers of European Union-derived laws while somehow preserving the rights, including core employment and safety protections, conferred by those laws.

It is claim that has not gone unchallenged. The government’s assertion that the legal cull will not remove employment protection has been demolished by employment law expert and Labour peer John Hendy. He told the Lords on 6 February 2023 “most employment rights and health and safety are EU law.”

The peer added: “We are talking about regulations on: management of health and safety, workplace health and safety, work equipment, PPE, manual handling, display screen equipment, carcinogens, biological agents, construction, safety signs, pregnant women, drilling, mining, chemical agents, dangerous substances, explosive atmospheres, fishing vessels, ionising radiation, lifts, machinery, biocidal products, major hazards, transport, working time, work at height, temporary and mobile worksites, explosive atmospheres, young persons, physical agents, noise, vibration, and offshore installation safety cases.”

He said the bill intended to eliminate EU-derived laws automatically at the end of the year would remove protections “in a puff of smoke without parliamentary scrutiny.”

Enforcing contradictions

Lord Hendy’s concerns are shared by occupational safety and health professionals and  inspectors.

The British Occupational Hygiene Society (BOHS), the workplace protection professional body, has said it is ‘concerned’ that ‘effective’ protections are listed as retained EU law to be repealed, restated or amended. BOHS chief executive, Professor Kevin Bampton said: “The UK fought the European Commission over decades to retain its unique and effective approach to health and safety management and the REUL Bill is likely to throw this all away.”

On 10 February 2023, the union representing Health and Safety Executive (HSE) inspectors wrote to the business secretary raising its ‘deep concerns’ about the government’s plan.

The letter from Prospect general secretary Mike Clancy to Kemi Badenoch, the secretary of state for business and trade, highlights dangers from REUL, including the impact on the regulation of hazardous industries and ‘fundamental’ employment rights, adding: “Also included are essential health and safety provisions, including in the nuclear sector, where we represent over 12,000 workers.”

Prospect members working at the safety regulator are already concerned the organisation is failing as a consequence of a long-term resources shortfall imposed by the Conservatives.

The union’s members at HSE walked out on 15 March 2023 after voting overwhelmingly for strike action. The budget day action by HSE inspectors came in response to a chronic lack of resources and low pay at the regulator.

OUT OF THE ZONE In the US, President Joe Biden (centre) has prioritised safety enforcement, clamped down on child labour and given new protection to immigrant workers. Recently elected Australian premier Anthony Albanese (right) has introduced an industrial manslaughter law and strict controls on deadly silica. In Britain, Rishi Sunak is taking an axe to safety laws and protections for immigrants and victims of modern slavery.

Sarah Taylor, an acting HSE principal inspector and 14-year-veteran, explained: “In terms of experienced inspectors, they’re leaving HSE in droves. The lack of staff is affecting every aspect of our work. Morale among the inspectors who remain is rock bottom because we’re all so tired.”

Saying HSE inspectors “can’t afford not to strike”, she added: “The impact for experienced inspectors who have stayed, is that you’re dealing with more and more of the heavy stuff, the fatalities and the serious life-changing injuries. That’s the day job now for a lot of our inspectors and it’s just draining.

“We are still out inspecting and investigating as much as we possibly can, but the amount of work we’re delivering, particularly on starting new investigations, has fallen off a cliff because there’s nobody left to do it.”
HSE safety inspections are in freefall.

A Unite freedom of information request last year revealed inspections in construction, Britain’s most dangerous sector, had declined by 31 per cent in less than a decade.
In 2013/14 the HSE undertook 11,303 proactive (unannounced) construction inspections but the figures for the last full year, 2021/22, revealed that just 7,793 inspections took place.

By contrast, prime minister Rishi Sunak has said he will increase immigration raids on workplaces by 50 per cent this year.

Trade unions condemned the government’s attempts to ‘pit’ workers against each other, and called for an end to migrant worker exploitation.  A January 2023 joint statement from the TUC and 20 national unions, coordinated by the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, said these hostile policies are putting migrant workers at increased risk of abuse and exploitation.

Labour shortages

Figures released by HSE in November 2022, show 1.8 million workers reported work-related ill-health in 2021/22, the highest figure on record, resulting in 8 million lost working days.

Workers are struggling. Work-related stress, depression and anxiety affected over 900,000 workers, up over 10 per cent on the previous all-time high.

Office for National Statistics figures for the period up to October 2022 show the number of working-age adults out of the labour force due to long-term ill-health has risen to a record of almost 2.5 million.

As labour shortages bite, keeping workers healthy would also be good for the economy.

The government’s Spring budget on 15 March 2023 did announce a plan to consult on an expansion of occupational health services (OHS) and other measures “to support people back into work, to work more, and to prevent them falling out of work”.

What have you planned for 28 April? “Last year, unions secured recognition that a safe and healthy work environment is a fundamental right for workers, said Owen Tudor, of the global union confederation ITUC. “This has given a new impetus to organising for health and safety – a crucial part of union action. This year’s International Workers’ Memorial Day is dedicated to this core union priority.” www.28april.org

But removing legal safety protections is just one of the government plans that run directly counter to this objective. The government also wants to compel GPs to sign fewer sick notes for workers.

Doctors in Unite, which represents GPs and NHS doctors, said it believes that it is a fundamental duty of doctors to be allowed to record people as sick or able to work solely based on their medical condition and not on arbitrary government guidelines.
Suggestions that quotas could be imposed on how many sick notes a doctor could issue is entirely at odds with medical ethics, it added.

Doctors in Unite chair Coral Jones said: “Government policies undermining the NHS and social care while increasing social inequality are making people ill. Forcing sick people back into work smacks of a Victorian workhouse mentality and the medical profession will not be party to such an anachronistic approach.

“We will continue to act as advocates for our patients, assessing their health objectively and with care and compassion and will certify them fit or unfit for work according to these criteria alone.”

A better strategy would be to create a universal occupational health service (OHS). At the moment, only about 50 per cent of workers have access to OHS, with those in the most insecure and dangerous work more likely to miss out.

“If the government was serious about reducing long-term ill health they would create a national occupational health service, whose purpose was to protect the health of workers throughout their working lives,” Dr Jones said.

Instead, the workforce is facing a double hit, with many overworked because of Brexit-induced problems with labour supply at the same time basic protective employment and safety legislation and its enforcement is up for the chop.

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We have historic levels of work-related ill-health, sick people dropping out of the labour market and crippling labour shortages. Yet the government plans an unprecedented cull of the nation’s safety laws. Hazards editor Rory O’Neill says the Tories’ deregulation fever will make us all sick.

Enforcing contradictions
Labour shortages

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