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Health and safety reform? What could we expect from a new Labour Government?

Overall there is very little reference to what Labour’s ambitions are in respect of the future of health and safety law in the UK.

Labour’s Manifesto includes a sharp focus on Britain’s “outdated employment laws” which they say are “not fit for a modern economy” and sets out their “Plan to Make Work Pay: Delivering a New Deal for Working People”. This includes the promise to introduce legislation within 100 days to strengthen workers’ rights. The Manifesto also includes brief mention of their plans to improve building safety through regulation, but overall there is very little reference to what Labour’s ambitions are in respect of the future of health and safety law in the UK.  

Even when you drill down into the detail of Labour’s Plan to Make Work Pay, the focus is very much on banning zero hours contracts and extending employment law protections for staff. However, one major change which is referenced is the proposed move towards a single status of “worker”, ending the three-tier system for employment status, (employees, self-employed and workers). They will consult on how this framework will work in practice, but if changes are introduced this will have ramifications within the health and safety arena.

Pursuant to section 2(1) of the Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974 employers have general duties to their “employees” to ensure their health, safety and welfare at work in so far as is reasonably practicable. Employees are defined as “working under a contract of employment” and there are various legal tests which have been developed to ascertain whether or not a certain relationship amounts to a relationship of employment. The degree of control exercised over a worker, the financial realities of the situation and whether or not the person uses their own equipment are amongst the relevant factors which will be considered. The move towards having just two categories of worker, the employed and genuinely self-employed, will inevitably mean that duties under the HSWA are owed to a greater number of workers with responsibilities to ‘ensure’ their safety at work and comply with all the associated health and safety regulations.

Another change mentioned in Labour’s Plan to Make Work Pay is the introduction of the “right to switch off”, meaning that homes do not become 24/7 offices which can seriously impact workers’ mental health. They suggest that they will do this by introducing similar models to those which already exist in countries like Ireland and Belgium. It is understood that in Ireland there is an implied right to disconnect through legislation which specifies that workers should have a minimum of 11 hours rest at the end of a working day. In Belgium there is a specific right to disconnect and turn off work phones outside of working hours, but this only applies to some workers within companies employing more than 20 employees. It is therefore unclear what model Labour would be proposing to introduce and whether it would apply to all workers across all industries.

Labour also commit within their Plan to Make Work Pay to review and modernise health and safety legislation and guidance so that it is fit for the modern workplace. It is unclear exactly why Labour believes that current legislation falls short of the mark, but it makes the point that in a number of sectors people are required to work in temperatures which are unacceptably high, and also mention protecting those experiencing the symptoms of long Covid. Labour also makes reference to their plans to work with trade unions and other stakeholders in conducting this review to support the wellbeing of workers and their long term physical and mental health.

Perhaps one of the biggest changes that Labour have raised in their Manifesto is the creation of a Single Enforcement Body with trade union representation which will be able to undertake targeted and proactive enforcement work and bring civil proceedings to uphold employment related rights.

There is more detail about this new body within Labour’s Employment Rights Green Paper which notes that the Health and Safety Executive and local authorities have lost funding of more than 50% in the last decade with workplaces now likely to be proactively inspected every 250 years. They say under resourced and over stretched agencies have struggled to enforce health and safety regulations, leading to preventable deaths and millions suffering stress, depression or anxiety. Labour say that they will establish and properly fund a Single Enforcement Body which will be given extensive powers to inspect workplaces and bring prosecutions and civil proceedings on behalf of workers. Labour also state that they will make sure there are enough inspectors to undertake unannounced inspections and follow up on anonymous reports.

In summary, if Labour win the General Election there will be some changes likely to follow which will impact on employers, including the protections which will be afforded to a wider pool of ‘workers’ and the creation of a new enforcement body with extensive powers to conduct inspections and commence proceedings. However, based on the Manifesto and Labour’s Plan to Make Work Pay, it seems unlikely that there will be any root and branch changes in respect of how health and safety is regulated in the UK, and certainly nothing as ground breaking as the introduction of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 which still underpins the whole system having been introduced 50 years ago by a previous Labour Government.

For further information please contact our health and safety solicitors.

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