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Divergence or continued alignment?

March 2020
by Roger Bibbings

What is the case for divergence of UK health and safety legislation from the requirements of EU Directives?

Britain has one of the best work safety (although not occupational health) records in the world. The Prime Minister says he wants to ensure that in future our standards are better and not worse than Europe’s. But he does not want Britain to be to be bound arbitrarily by EU requirements in this and many other fields.

What is not explained sufficiently however is that EU Directives in this, as in many other areas, do not prohibit Member States from introducing their own national requirements which exceed EU ones. EU measures are designed mainly to ensure ‘the approximation of laws of Member States’ to a series of common minima which must not be avoided in practice in order to prevent businesses gaining an unfair competitive market advantage.

Contrary to a continuing right wing mantra about health and safety being ‘a burden on business’, review after review commissioned by Government has shown that UK health and safety standards (which are underpinned by a requirement for proportionality to risk) help to prevent harms to workers and the public as well as to avoid costly business interruptions due to accidents and ill health incidents. Good health and safety laws help to promote UK business efficiency and effectiveness.

In the field of safety standards for goods, substances and equipment there is already an aligned system of basic requirements which flows through the British Standards Institution, CEN (the European standards body) and the International Standards Organisation (ISO). If you want to sell equipment into Europe it has to be CE marked. If you want to export to China they now work to these CEN standards too. And many of these standards are replicated worldwide via ISO. Indeed, in practice, BSI plays a leading role in ISO.

The laws of physics, chemistry and biology, which determine assessment of risk and the adequacy of safety and health measures, are global (cosmic even!) and know no national boundaries. The rights of workers and others to be effectively protected from the hazards of work are recognised internationally. All that varies from nation to nation are the appetites of their governments for better safety and health performance.

If, as the PM says, he wants the UK to maintain that performance in future there is nothing to fear from the UK not diverging from the EU or indeed the international consensus on safety requirements. But by cutting ourselves off from law making in Europe in this vital area, not only would we be acting quite illogically, we would be reducing our ability to bring our acknowledged national expertise to the table in future discussions.

In a globalised world, divergence on minimum safety and health requirements – and just for the sake of being different – makes no sense whatsoever. It only makes sense if the real aim is to reduce standards.

Is the PM telling the truth? On that one people will probably look more to his past performance than his intimate knowledge of the matters at stake.

Roger Bibbings,
Brackenfield.

Roger writes this article in a personal capacity