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3rd May 2016

EU referendum and the impact to health and safety

On the 23 June the decision will be made as to whether Britain will remain within the EU. Whether we decide to stay or leave, the outcome will have a significant impact on UK businesses and organisations, with current employment and health and safety regulations at risk of being revised.

At present, our employment and H&S legislation regime is a combination of law derived from the UK and law formed from EU directives. A prime example of an EU derived legislation that has been implemented in the UK is the Working Time Directive, which governs our holidays, breaks and rest periods.

However, some of our existing regulations are a mixture of both UK and EU law, such as the Modern Equality legislation. With origins in UK law with the Sex and Discrimination Act of 1975 and the Race Relations Act of 1974, the legislation is an adapted version of the two acts, modified to meet EU requirements and modern expectations.

If a majority electorate votes for Britain to part ways with Europe, then we would have a remaining two-year notice period where existing EU-derived legislation would continue to apply.

Even after this time, the short term wouldn’t see many changes to our law, as the process of drafting and agreeing new legislation will take time. It may be that EU-derived laws will need to be re-made as UK-laws, where some aspects no longer apply but complete diminishment would be unsupported.

If the UK did become independent, we might negotiate membership with the European Trade Organisation (EFTA) in order to continue close trading ties with European states. This would mean that we would continue to be subject to a number of social and employment laws that are enforced by the European Free Trade, which works in a similar way to the European Court of Justice.

Political realities are likely to limit changes to legislation if the UK were to become totally independent. The government will want to keep as much support as possible in order to remain popular and in power. If there were to scrap regulations that protect working people, it is likely to be poorly received.

Alternatively, if Britain decides to remain with the EU there will be a renegotiation of treaty terms, including setting specific targets to reduce the burden on key businesses in key sectors. Potential cuts in costs for SMEs and micro enterprises could mean a watering down of existing employment and H&S regulations, a decision that will need to be weighed up against potential adverse political consequences.

Whatever the result may be, it’s inevitable that changes to workplace legislation will follow. Leaving the EU could give the UK the authority it needs to shape employment and H&S law, however it is likely that political considerations will prevent any radical changes, at least in the short term.

In Scotland the situation could prove more complicated, as the current SNP Government has indicated that if the UK leaves the EU against the wishes of Scottish voters, a second referendum for Scottish independence may be triggered. Possible implications that are best left to consider after June’s referendum.

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