The government has chosen the 40th anniversary of the Health and Safety at Work Act to make one of the most dangerous changes since the legislation came into effect in 1974.
It has decided that Britain’s 4.3 million self-employed people should no longer be subject to the provisions of the Act unless they also employ people or are on a prescribed list of occupations.
This is a huge step backwards, and one that could lead to a big increase in deaths, injuries and ill-health.
Self-employed people have always been covered by safety law. They have a fatality rate well over twice that of employed workers and their actions can also kill or injure other people through carelessness or negligence. When they do they should be treated just like anyone else.
If this provision in the government’s Deregulation Bill comes into effect it will mean that any self-employed person not on its prescribed list won’t be able to be prosecuted if they kill or injure someone because of their negligence. Incredibly, even if they are discovered to have been acting dangerously, there will be absolutely nothing that safety inspectors, police or the courts can do. If they are not on the list, they have no legal duty.
This is virtually a licence to kill. It will be a green light to cowboys and incompetents to cut corners and take risks — not only with their own lives but also with ours.
The government has claimed that there is no requirement to cover the self-employed under European law.
It is true that some European countries do not cover self-employed people under health and safety law, but these countries normally have much stricter negligence laws.
Ministers also claim that they are simply implementing a recommendation from a review of health and safety law by Professor Ragnar Lofstedt.
But he only recommended that the self-employed who pose no risk to themselves or others should be exempt.
That recommendation bears no resemblance to the current proposal, which is that all self-employed people are outside the law unless they are on the prescribed list.
The government has produced a draft of the prescribed list that it wants to use and it is a complete mess.
For a start it excludes most of manufacturing, transport and the docks. It’s also not clear even in those sectors which make the list which jobs are included.
For example, in construction it’s not easy to tell whether self-employed plumbers, electricians and carpenters who work in peoples’ homes are covered.
Yet among the most recent workplace fatalities, 17 were self-employed people, six were in sectors not on the government’s draft list and many more were in sectors where it was unclear whether they were covered or not.
Both the self-employed, and the public, need protection. Many self-employed people work long hours and often need support and assistance on how to work safely. Often they are in dangerous jobs or have little grasp of English.
Six out of 10 Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants living in Britain last year were working as self-employed.
The government says that it is making the change to reduce the “burden” of regulation.
That it sees the requirement to work safely in this way speaks volumes. The reality is that the present system does not impose any burdens on anyone.
Those self-employed whose work poses no risk to others or themselves have no need to do anything.
Only if they are creating risk is there any duty to do anything and usually that is just taking a common-sense approach to safety.
All the government’s proposals will do is create confusion. People who are genuinely self-employed will have no idea about their responsibilities, while employers will be even more likely to employ workers on bogus self-employed contracts in order to try to get round their legal responsibilities.
Frances O’Grady is general secretary of the TUC.
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