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UK health and safety regulations break international law

Published date
In 2015, the Government pushed through a law that exempted a large number of self employed people from the protection of the Health and Safety at Work Act.

At the time the TUC ran a strong campaign to try to stop it. We pointed out that it would be confusing, and down-right dangerous.

This was not just the position of unions but almost everyone else as well. IOSH who represent safety professionals condemned the proposals outright while even the EEF and CBI both said that the proposals were “not fit for purpose”. In fact it was clear that there was no real support for what the Government was doing from anyone, and downright hostility from most.

The Government managed to get away with reducing the level of protection because the self-employed are not covered by the European “Framework Directive”, which is the regulation that sets minimum standards that countries have to comply with. This is an omission, but regardless of that most countries do cover the self-employed and the European Commission have advised countries that they should.

At the time we did point out to the Government that there were other international laws that the UK had signed up to that did cover the self-employed including those of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Council of Europe – in particular the European social charter – a legally binding counterpart to the European convention on human rights.

Well this week, two and a half years later, the UK decision has been looked at by the European committee of social rights, the monitoring body of the 47-nation Council of Europe and it is pretty damning. The decision is available here and it clearly states that “the situation in the United Kingdom is not in conformity with the European Social Charter on the ground that all self-employed and domestic workers are not covered by the occupational health and safety regulations.”

The charter states that “All workers have the right to safe and healthy working conditions.” and article three lays down how they must have regulations and enforcement to ensure that.

The report makes interesting reading. It points out that “there have been several government reviews of health and safety during the reference period. These found there was no case for radically altering the existing legislation.” It also states that as long as employed and self-employed workers are normally exposed to the same risks they must be covered by health and safety regulations.

Well the UK has broken that requirement, both in terms of the self-employed and also domestic workers, who the Government has always refused to give legal protection to.

So what happens now? We have a clear ruling that the government is not in compliance with a legally binding charter that they have signed up to.

Sadly, probably nothing. There is no mechanism to force the Government to obey its responsibilities under the Charter. The other Council of Europe Charter, the European Charter on Human Rights, has been enshrined in UK Law, but not the Charter of Social Rights. This means that they will continue to deny millions of workers the protection that the UK Government promised to uphold.

This is particularly important at the moment because, if we end up with a situation where Britain no longer has to abide with the EU regulations on health and safety after Brexit, the only protection we are likely to have is that afforded by International regulations like those of the Council of Europe and the ILO. However they have already made it clear that they are not going to make the Charter of Social Rights enforceable and, of the 13 ILO conventions on health & safety, Britain has ratified 3, and even they are not directly enforceable in the UK courts.

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