Whilst the UK left the European Union on 31 January 2020, the transition period resulted in very few practical changes last year. With the transition period ending on the 31 December 2020, new rules governing the UK’s relationship with the EU took effect. In terms of health, safety and environmental law, few businesses will have seen much change so far.
Historically a significant quantity of EU law was closely connected to UK domestic legislation and it would have been impossible to simply re-write it all before the UK left. Therefore, the majority of EU law has been retained in domestic legislation at least initially and it is only over time that we may see a divergence. The enabling legislation which facilitated the retention of EU rules was the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. Whilst the UK government is free to amend legislation relating to health, safety and the environment (as well as other areas) the freedom is limited in respect of Northern Ireland due to the Northern Ireland Protocol.
Whilst the EU has introduced a significant amount of health, safety and environmental legislation, the UK has also been instrumental in developing its own rules. For example, the key piece of safety legislation, the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, was a piece of domestic legislation which has significantly improved health and safety in UK workplaces over the last four decades. In fact, the UK is one of the safest places to work in the EU and to a large extent this is as a result of the 1974 Act. The incident rate for fatal injuries at work places the UK fifth best in Europe with Lithuania, France and Romania being the worst.
Much of the EU retained legislation is around chemicals regulation such as the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals (REACH) and the classification, labelling and packaging of substances (CLP). The Prior Informed Consent (PIC) regulation which administers the import and export of certain hazardous chemicals and places obligations on companies who wish to export these chemicals, is also retained together with biocides, pesticides and plant protection products.
Domestic legislation has been introduced and amended to remove references to the EU in the form of EU Exit regulations. To date the UK government has issued more than 600 of these types of regulations making approximately 80,000 changes to UK laws. For example, the Health and Safety (Amendment) (EU Exit) Regulations 2018 amended a raft of safety legislation removing references to EU Directives and replacing them with references to domestic law. In the environmental field, the Environment (Legislative Functions from Directives) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019 was published which transfers a series of legislative functions which are currently conferred by EU Directives upon the European Commission, to be exercisable instead by public authorities in the UK, so that they can be exercised at national level after the UK leaves the EU.
As already stated, most of the health, safety and environmental rules which businesses must comply with will stay the same as the UK government has retained most of the EU rules and transferred them into domestic law. However, there has been suggestions of relaxing regulation to encourage business development although the post Brexit agreement with the EU makes reference to maintaining a level playing field.
With public opinion strongly in favour of initiatives to combat climate change, it is highly unlikely that the government will consider diluting environmental legislation. In fact, with the eyes of the world on the UK hosting COP26 later this year in Glasgow, environmental laws are only likely to be strengthened in future.
With the UK’s impressive workplace safety record compared to other European countries, it is also unlikely that health and safety laws will be watered down. There was a public backlash when it was revealed that the government were looking at changing labour laws following Brexit and any focus on health and safety would likely receive the same public concern.
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