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Rethink the Bill

With the Government’s Retained EU Law (REUL) Bill, do we really want to sacrifice our excellent reputation for health and safety? asks Peter McGettrick, British Safety Council Chairman

The UK has built an excellent record for health and safety over many decades.

I know this, both through my work for British Safety Council and in my role leading Turner Townsend’s advisory business, working with many major infrastructure projects around the world.

Britain led the way – we wrote the rule book. So why would we want to rip it up now?

In 1974, this country passed the UK Health and Safety at Work Act. We have built on its broad principles in the years since with more detailed regulations, many of which were brought in after 1990 when we belonged to the EU.

Whether we now need, or want, to have this raft of EU-based regulations is the question posed by the Government’s REUL Bill.

If passed, this legislation 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, with some leeway for one or two departments. The Bill also hands Ministers extraordinary general powers to remove regulations in the future.

Lord Hendy KC recently said: “Most employment rights to health and safety are EU law. All a minster has to do is sit on his hands and all these vital protections, hitherto enjoyed by our 30 million workers will disappear in a puff of smoke without parliamentary scrutiny. That’s unacceptable and it also appears to be a flouting of the obligations we undertook to maintain and implement health and safety laws.”


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, and threatens to put our health, safety and the environment at greater risk.

UK 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.

There are certainly 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 ‘duty holders’ – 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 want the REUL Bill to either 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.

During Committee stage, in the House of Lords, Peers were at pains to extract detail from Ministers about what exactly they plan to do with the many thousands of EU laws on the Government’s dashboard. Even more importantly, how they plan to decide whether to keep, change or wipe them from our statute book.

How about the Work at Height Regulations? We know they save at least 30 lives a year, do we lose those if others on asbestos could prevent many thousands more?

Or will the Government’s assessment of the ‘totality’ of the regulatory burden mean that, in fact, only regulations which ‘benefit’ the economy will be kept while others protecting workers and consumers’ rights must be sacrificed?

The Government must rethink its approach and allow much more time for the process of reviewing the thousands of regulations at stake. It took five years for it to replace EU agricultural policy alone, so why does it think it can deal with the rest in just 12 months?

If it does not, I fear the chaos, confusion, and real and unnecessary future harm.

About Sarah OBeirne

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