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What are the parties’ plans for workplace health and safety?

Chris Warburton · 3 December 2019

What are the parties’ plans for workplace health and safety?

This election could have far-reaching consequences for our health and safety regulatory system. That’s not just down to Brexit — the two main parties have very different attitudes towards regulation. Their manifestos have policies which could reconfigure our regulatory system for years to come.

Conservatives

The Conservative party manifesto doesn’t explicitly mention workplace health and safety — but it does have a lot to say about the new regulatory environment after Brexit.

Boris Johnson’s renegotiated withdrawal agreement provides the background to the Conservative manifesto.

The agreement relegated a commitment to maintain social and employment standards (which would include health and safety) from the withdrawal agreement itself (which is legally binding, although by no means watertight) to the political declaration (which is not legally binding).

The Conservative manifesto says that the UK’s future relationship with EU will “be one that allows us to … raise standards in areas like workers’ rights, animal welfare, agriculture and the environment”.

However, this misrepresents the way EU law works. Directives act as a floor, not a ceiling. Member states can opt to implement tougher requirements than those stipulated in directives. The government has had this power to raise standards all along.

Johnson has also criticised workers’ hard-won rights. For example, he said in 2014 that “the weight of [EU-derived] employment regulation is now back-breaking: the collective redundancies directive, the atypical workers directive, the working time directive and a thousand more”.

If the Conservative party wins power, it will hold a “Brexit red tape challenge” to “liberate businesses” from “overbearing bureaucracy”.

The manifesto says: “We will ensure that regulation is sensible and proportionate, and that we always consider the needs of small businesses when devising new rules, using our new freedom after Brexit to ensure that British rules work for British companies.”

Other policies include:

· creating a single enforcement body and “cracking down” on any employer abusing employment law (this will presumably be the new agency recently proposed by the government, which will not include the Health and Safety Executive).

Labour

If it wins power, the Labour party’s manifesto says it will “rip up” the deal recently renegotiated by the Johnson administration because it would “do such harm to workers’ rights … [and] give the green light to deregulation”.

It adds that Labour would push for a deal that includes “dynamic alignment on workers’ rights, consumer rights and environmental protections so that UK standards keep pace across Europe as a minimum”.

The party’s mini manifesto on workers’ rights promises to establish a royal commission on health and safety which will “make provision for stress, mental health, the impact of new technology and new materials, and ensure that injury, illness and death from work is reduced to the minimum”.

A new, unified “workers’ protection agency” (WPA) will be given “extensive” powers to inspect workplaces and bring prosecutions and civil proceedings on workers’ behalf.

It is unclear at this stage whether the Health and Safety Executive and local authorities’ workplace health and safety regulatory teams will be rolled into this agency.

We are concerned that rolling the HSE into the WPA could see health and safety regulation squeezed as it competes with other priorities.

If elected, the party plans to enhance the role and influence of trade unions in the workplace, such as by rolling out sectoral collective bargaining to agree minimum standards — including on certain health and safety matters — and strengthening protections for union reps.

Labour will also “consider how we could introduce ‘roving safety reps’ for workplaces”, something for which trade unions have long campaigned.

Roving safety reps — which only currently exist where employers agree — can inspect employers other than their own.

Labour’s other commitments include:

· tackling excessive working hours

· toughening the law against abuse and violence against public-facing workers

· requiring large employers to have flexible working

· introducing a maximum workplace temperature.

Liberal Democrats

Should the Lib Dems win power, they will “add a requirement for mental health first aiders in the Health and Safety First Aid Regulations”.

The HSE recently updated its guidance to state that employers should consider mental health in their first aid needs assessment.

The Lib Dems’ other commitments include:

· working through international bodies to ensure trade deals do not undermine human rights or developing countries’ ability to regulate businesses

· establishing a new Worker Protection Enforcement Authority to protect those in precarious work (it does not state which areas of law it will cover)

· making flexible working open to all from day one in the job.

Scottish National Party

The SNP’s manifesto points out that Boris Johnson’s renegotiated withdrawal agreement downgraded the commitment to maintain social and employment standards, saying it “threatens the fundamental rights that people in the UK currently enjoy”.

It adds: “Many Tories have openly said that they want to see the end of hard won rights that protect employment, the environment, health and safety.”

The SNP also says that, “pending Scottish independence, we will press for the devolution of employment law so that the Scottish Parliament can protect workers’ rights”.

Although the manifesto doesn’t mention health and safety law, the SNP has previously called for it to be devolved to Holyrood.

Green party

The Green party focuses on the role of trade agreements in driving up standards.

“Any future trade deals will maintain and enhance environmental and food standards and workers’ rights, minimise the environmental footprint of trade, make trade terms explicitly subject to environmental and human rights commitments,” the manifesto states.

The party will also “support employers to explore the benefits of offering menstruation and menopausal leave to workers”.

Plaid Cymru

Plaid’s manifesto takes aim at Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement because it “fails to guarantee workers’ rights and environmental standards”.

The party wants to stay aligned with the EU’s “high regulation standards” and says it will “work hard to ensure that any future trade policy will uphold social, health and environmental protections.”

Chris Warburton is the health and safety researcher at Prospect Union.