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Why a "no-deal" Brexit threatens health and safety standards

Published date
The government's own papers show that crashing out of the EU without a deal would put our health and safety regulations at risk

As the government publishes its Brexit “no-deal” scenarios what does it all mean for health and safety? If recent developments are anything to go by we need to be worried.

Last year I wrote a report on the need to protect health and safety after Brexit regardless of the final deal. Since then negotiations between the EU and the UK have not exactly been going well, and in recent weeks the government has published a series of papers on what is likely to happen in the event of the UK leaving with no deal.

Three of those related to health and safety. The workplace rights paper focused on the impact on European Works Councils, the trading goods paper dealt with the problems of ensuring standards are met, including in areas such as protective equipment and machinery, while the most recent one, out this week, covers regulating chemicals, in particular the European regulations, REACH. There was also the publication of a “statutory instrument” that ensures that all existing health and safety regulation will continue to apply on day one after Brexit, even if there is no deal.

The common theme in the papers is that there is nothing to worry about and it will be business as usual, so you would think that there is nothing to be concerned over.

But if you look at what the papers actually say, they tell a different story. Let’s take the chemical regulations REACH as an example. REACH is a very detailed regulation. It took seven years to agree and is the most complex piece of EU regulation ever adopted.

REACH is not a list of “agreed” safe chemicals, it is a process aimed at trying to prevent the most dangerous chemicals being used (substances of very high concern) while also sharing information about the rest on issues like the safety controls needed.

Britain will initially accept all the existing registered chemicals and authorisations, but only those agreed before the UK leaves. The government paper specifically says that in a “no deal” scenario, “the UK would not be legally committed to medium or long term regulatory alignment with the EEA”.

Instead, the UK would set up its own “regulatory framework” similar to REACH. This means that chemical companies or importers would have to produce separate dossiers and go through the UK process as well as the EU one. This has huge implications for UK manufacturers who may no longer be able to sell into the European market and importers who will have to face new registration requirements. This is likely to have an impact on jobs in that sector, but there are also safety concerns. Within a short period of time we would have separate systems, with different chemicals approved and potentially even conflicting advice on controlling risks.

The REACH system is relatively open with a range of technical committees that allow trade unions and consumer groups to have an input. There is no mention of that in the UK paper and the campaign group CHEMTust says that the government does not propose any stakeholder involvement in the process. The government paper even talks about setting up a transitional “light touch notification process”. This is at odds with the European Commission approach as there are plans to strengthen REACH in the future.

It is clear that our safety laws are at risk of being weakened after Brexit, not only in the field of chemicals but generally. In October 2016 Theresa May promised that existing workers’ rights under EU law “will be guaranteed as long as I am Prime Minister” (how long that will be is anyone’s guess but certainly it is not a long-term assurance). Even the civil servants involved in Brexit work seem to be progressing on the basis that some rights should disappear once we leave the EU. The government's impact assessment on the EU singles out workers' rights as a potential area for "maximising regulatory opportunities” and analysed the expected effects of amending or cutting the Working Time Directive.

The reality is that unless there is an agreement with the EU that includes a commitment to match or exceed future EU regulations, it is highly likely that once any post-exit transition period is over Parliament will be free to re-write our health and safety laws and no assurances given by the current Government will be able to prevent that.

That is why we must ask for respect for EU health and safety standards to be at the heart of any future partnership agreement between the UK and EU to ensure that UK regulation remains, as an absolute minimum, at the level afforded to EU workers both now and in the future.

The best way to guarantee this would be for the UK to remain in the single market, which is why the TUC is calling for the government to change course before it’s too late.

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