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Briefing: IOSH sees ‘Secret Seven Go Missing’ from King’s Speech

The first King’s Speech in 70 years was delivered on 7 November in Parliament. Those hoping to hear a planned legislative agenda that would deliver decent living and working conditions, while creating work that’s good for societal wellbeing, have been disappointed. IOSH believes that economic growth, high productivity and good quality employment need to work together, and sees only a series of missed opportunities in the plan for the last parliamentary session before the next General Election. In this briefing, the IOSH Policy team highlights how anticipated developments in seven key areas were completely absent from the King’s Speech.

 Modern slavery Bill
At the Queen’s Speech in 2022, and following the recommendations of the independent review of the Modern Slavery Act, the Government announced a new Modern Slavery Bill that would strengthen the contents of modern slavery and human trafficking statements and create the mechanism for a public registry. IOSH believes that enhanced transparency across supply chains and high-quality reporting are crucial to the multi-faceted response needed to help eradicate labour exploitation.

Gradual transition to a green economy
IOSH sees a passed-up opportunity here to deliver net zero and mitigate climate change; yet more importantly, a missed chance to prepare the UK workforce and workplaces for the transition to a net-zero economy and a just green transition. Ahead of the COP28 climate change conference, it was expected that the Government should lead on net zero. Instead, the King’s Speech has seen robust commitments made for the oil and gas sectors to the detriment of demands for a new human right to a clean, healthy and sustainable environment to be put into UK law.

Employment Bill
A year ago, IOSH’s Chief Executive Vanessa Harwood-Whitcher wrote to the then-newly elected Prime Minister Rishi Sunak to stress the importance of the Employment Bill to the drive to protect, maintain and reinforce health and safety standards. Yet, the King’s Speech failed to include the long-awaited and much-needed Employment Bill; this despite the six private members’ bills that have recently been presented to enhance and protect workers’ rights. This omission means we must now wait until after the General Election for any progress, posing a threat to the UK labour market for the short- to medium-term. Many countries have been looking to the UK Government’s lead for its workers’ rights and occupational safety and health standards, meaning the effects may be felt beyond the British Isles. Hopes for a default right to flexible working patterns and new safeguards for gig economy and zero-hours workers had been pinned on this Bill.

Draft Mental Health Act Reform Bill
With the ONS reporting low levels of personal wellbeing (life satisfaction and happiness) and high levels of anxiety in the UK, Labour Market data shows that, while just 4.2% of those aged 16-64 are unemployed, a concerning 20.9% are economically inactive (those not seeking work and/or unable to start work). IOSH regrets seeing a lack of appetite for conducting a necessary reform of the Mental Health Act. Mental health inequalities and mental ill health have a strong work-related component, but the Government looks to have opted to freeze the agenda on their commitments to reform the mental health system and also the agenda for promoting positive mental health in the workplace and citing it as a driver in achieving a healthy and productive workforce.

Mandatory human rights due diligence legislation
IOSH sees a strong global impetus towards upholding corporate liability for human rights violations across business operations and across their supply chains. This has led to the adoption of legislation in France, Germany, Norway and the Netherlands, and more recently at the European level. This is an area in which the UK Government must demonstrate its renewed leadership on business and human rights to level up the playing field for responsible businesses. Regrettably, despite intensive demands from businesses and investors, there would still appear to be no plans to make this mandatory, due to there being existing legislation that holds businesses to account on human rights.

Artificial intelligence (AI) specific laws
His Majesty announced, “My Ministers’ focus is on increasing economic growth and safeguarding the health and security of the British people for generations to come”. Yet he failed to mention any AI-specific laws at this stage. Newly announced Bills which will be areas of focus for IOSH, and which will impact occupational safety and health, however, include the Automated Vehicles Bill. As manifested in our response to the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles’ call for inputs, IOSH believes that legal safety requirements need to incentivise a better understanding of the use of the technology and its potential risks, as well as the opportunities they bring. Liability associated with self-driving vehicles covers the whole lifecycle from design, manufacturing and deployment, adoption, implementation and maintenance to the end-of-life of these technologies.

Promotion of trade and investment with economies
IOSH believes this Bill to promote trade and investment presents an opportunity for strengthened due diligence. As the UK Government continues to be active in negotiating a number of free trade and investment agreements, this promotes favourable circumstances for reaffirming commitments to help protect and enforce labour rights, improve working conditions and advance the agenda on occupational safety and health provisions. The recently signed accession protocol to be part of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) can be instrumental in addressing excessive hours of work, denial of sick leave, a lack of occupational safety and health training and occupational safety and health. More generally, ILO Conventions and OSH management principles need to be embedded as basic requirements for all future trade and investment policy to support socially responsible trade and sustainability.

IOSH believes these seven highlighted areas would improve workers’ lives and rights for millions of people, and so will continue to urge the UK government and the main political parties to include the Employment Bill – along with advancements in mental health, modern slavery, trade, AI and other occupational safety and health related matters – in their manifestos ahead of the next General Election.