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June 29, 2016

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Opinion: Brexit could have major impact on H&S law

By Jerry Hill, Safety, Health and Environment specialist at NatWest Mentor

Now that the voters of the UK have opted to leave the EU, triggering Article 50 will start the two year window to reach an agreement on the terms of that withdrawal. With David Cameron resigning and a successor not expected to be in place until Autumn, the initial signs are that this negotiation will not begin until a new Prime Minister invokes Article 50, which will begin the Brexit process.

In time I would expect this referendum result to lead to a huge shake-up of our health and safety (H&S) laws as EU legislation and directives have had such a major influence on UK legislation over the past four decades. Most of our H&S laws are either directly or indirectly imposed from Brussels with UK statutory legislation created to comply with these EU directives.

Nothing is going to happen overnight but the long term affect could be significant. Initially, we will need to get through the set two year period in which existing EU legislation would remain, unless the Prime Minister (whomever he or she might be) chooses to try and negotiate a deal first, or the period is extended.

Returning to the present day, to retain continuity and predictability until alternatives can be drafted and agreed, some EU-derived H&S laws could be re-made as UK laws in the short term. In the longer term the UK Government could amend or water down this legislation but that will depend on how we re-negotiate our future within Europe.

Should the UK opt to remain a member of the European Economic Area, as Norway has done, we would likely remain subject to EU rules on social legislation, free movement of labour and would have to pay a contribution to the EU budget. UK law would also be subject to oversight by the European Free Trade Court, a division of the ECJ. However, objection to these issues was a key focus of the Leave campaign, so although such an outcome is possible, it currently seems politically unlikely.

If the UK opted to become completely independent of the EU then we would no longer be directly affected by any of its regulation and our courts would not be subject to the ECJ. However, until all EU-derived legislation could be reviewed, it is likely that UK versions of it would be put in place as an interim measure.

It would then be down to our Government to decide which aspects of H&S legislation it wanted to keep, amend or scrap entirely. In five years’ time, the way our laws in this area are introduced in the UK could certainly look very different.

This fundamental change in how laws will be initiated could have the potential to benefit employers here – as many within the Leave campaign had argued, an EU withdrawal could result in less bureaucracy and restrictions on employers. However, depending on the priorities of a future Westminster Government, it could equally favour employees if there was a greater focus on enhancing safety measures across UK workplaces, exceeding the laws that are in place in other European jurisdictions.

What is clear is that, for better or for worse, the decision of the UK electorate to leave the EU could have profound implications on H&S law. While we are unlikely to see and major impact in the short term, over time we could emerge with a fundamentally different regime compared to our European neighbours. Whether this will favour workers or employers will very much depend on the priorities of successive UK Governments.

thumbnail_Jerry Hill

Jerry Hill is Safety, Health and Environment specialist at NatWest Mentor.


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Shaun Brennan
Shaun Brennan
7 years ago

Hopefully a lot law will carry on in the same vain, one law I would like to see go that is confusing everyone though is CDM 2015 and bring back 2007. Which worked and people understood it, but we had to change it because it was based on the European Mobile Construction Sites Agreement and we were told it had been gold plated by the UK. Britexit may have a lot to answer for but it may also be a godsend!!!!!

Paul Webber
Paul Webber
7 years ago

What a refreshingly independent view. Very well articulated Jerry.

David Forfar
David Forfar
7 years ago

A very clear and concise overview Jerry and I think most of us would agree with your analysis. However, I believe this matter is likely to result in major changes to the laws given the current upheaval in our political system. With a higher liekelihood of a more right wing conservative government likely to favour business rather than safety related factors, a labour party in turmoil showing no signs of challenging this any time soon and the bigger threat of the UK falling apart altogether with Scotland more than likely to become independent and the lesser likelihood of Northern Ireland… Read more »