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June 3, 2024

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What did the 2019-2024 Parliament mean for workers’ health, safety, and wellbeing?

The British Safety Council (BSC) provide their view on the current Government’s progress in health, safety and wellbeing, but also on what may need renewed focus.

With another session of Parliament now prorogued, and a General Election called for 4 July, it’s only natural to reflect on what a Government, on what a Parliament, has been able to achieve.

At the start of the 2019 Parliament, few would have been able to predict the series of events that would soon follow – from a global pandemic to armed conflict in Europe – and come to shape much of how we now live and work.

Throughout the life of this Parliament,180 Government Bills and hundreds of Private Members’ Bills became law. Members of both houses made thousands of written and oral contributions, spent countless hours debating all manner of topics, and provided tens of thousands of amendments to legislation.

Taking a step back from the politics of Parliament, it is right for us to ask what this Parliament has meant for the health, safety, and wellbeing of workers. Alongside this, we should ask, ‘What fell by the wayside?’ 

Government business

houses of parliamentLet’s begin by taking a whistle-stop tour of the Government Bills, passed during this Parliament, that impact worker health, safety, and wellbeing – starting with the most recent.

In 2024, the Government paved the way for autonomous vehicles on British streets, through the Automated Vehicles Act, hinting at the important role that artificial intelligence (AI) will play in building the societies (and workplaces) of the future. Whilst not directly linked to worker health, safety, or wellbeing, we know that the technology of the future (as it has in the past) will shape both how we work and where we work. For this reason, it’s important that our legislation (and our legislators) are considerate of how technology, automation, and AI can be harnessed to make workers safer, healthier, and happier.

Through the Worker Protection Amendment (to the Equality Act 2010) we’ve, quite rightly, seen increased duties placed on employers to reduce workplace harassment. The Workers Act (2024) established new statutory entitlements for those on atypical contracts to seek more predictable employment terms.

We’ve also seen the introduction of minimum service levels through the Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act 2023 and the Employment Relations (Flexible Working) Act 2023 paved the way for employees to request flexible working hours, times, and locations.

Further reading: New flexible working legislation – what does it mean?

As 2023 drew to a close, the sunset clause in the Retained EU Law (Revocation and Reform) Act expired, meaning all non-reviewed (or removed) EU law remained on domestic statute books. The retained EU law process would come to be replaced by the Government’s SMARTER regulations framework. We also saw the introduction of the Carer’s Leave Act, in recognition of the outstanding (and often overlooked) work that unpaid carers do.

In 2022 we saw the introduction of the Building Safety Act, which formally created the Building Safety Regulator, in the wake of the tragedy at Grenfell Tower. This Act established not only a new regulator but a new regime for high-rise and high-risk buildings. The Environment Act (2021) brought in new targets for Air Quality. These were met with criticism as they fell short of the World Health Organization’s guidelines and the Ministerial and other Maternity Allowances Act (2021) meant that female Government Ministers would receive maternity pay for the first time in history; which was widely welcomed as an overdue step towards pay parity.

Private Members’ business

Several Private Members’ Bills now on the statute books deserve an honourable mention:

Receiving Royal Assent on the final day of this Parliament, the Paternity Leave (Bereavement) Act 20241 now provides a statutory right to bereaved fathers, automatically granting day-one paternity leave if the mother of their child dies. This legislation also applies to those with whom a child is placed or expected to be placed for adoption.

From a diversity and inclusion perspective, the British Sign Language Act 20222 makes provisions for the facilitation of British Sign Language by Government Departments, an all-important step in ensuring that Government services (both for employees and members of the public) are, rightly, inclusive for the deaf community.

Also from a diversity, equality, and inclusion perspective is the Down Syndrome Act (2022)3 that requires the Secretary of State (for Health and Social Care) to give guidance to certain public bodies about how to meet the needs of people with Down’s Syndrome.

What fell by the wayside

In the course of a single Parliament, we have seen the introduction of legislation – made up of Government and backbench business – that seeks to reduce and remove barriers to entry, that begins to reflect the changing nature of work in their deliberations, and which demonstrates an understanding of the need for (and the public support for) a regulator to respond to the risks around high rise buildings. Whilst each of these holds innate value some much-needed legislation has fallen by the wayside.

Having been seemingly absent from the King’s Speech in 2023 (but having featured heavily in the Queen’s Speech in 2022) legislation to tackle the evils of modern slavery did not make it onto the Government’s agenda. This legislative inaction fails to get to grips with the scope and the scale of this issue, which sees over 50 million people4 in indentured servitude around the globe; of which an estimated 130,0005 are here in the UK.

Only a strong legislative foundation can pave the way for an effective response to the issue, which allows for the allocation of requisite resource and which paves the way for multi-lateral agreements that seek to make modern slavery a thing of the past.

Another noted absence was legislation to improve air quality. Despite the provisions contained within the Environment Act (2021), there has been no standalone legislation to improve the quality of the air we breathe. Many would agree that, in practice, the Environment Act’s response to air quality amounted to no more than tinkering around the edges; failing to challenge this issue head-on.

We know that an estimated 7 million global deaths6 every year are linked to the quality of the air that we breathe, and up to 40,000 people die prematurely each year in the UK. The causation between higher levels of particulate matter and worsening health outcomes is clear to see, with spikes easily attributed to cooking materials (gas and hard fuels), car exhausts, and poor ventilation (allowing particulate matter to build up).

We know that outdoor workers, alongside many others, face the daily brunt of bad air. Government-led legislation could have improved outcomes for thousands of outdoor workers and made the UK a world-leading nation in improving the quality of the air we breathe.

This article was first published by the BSC, to read their full Health, Safety and Wellbeing manifesto, click here. 

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