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MPs call for post-Brexit UK to remain as close as possible to EU’s main chemicals law REACH

The UK House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) has today published the report of its inquiry on chemicals regulation after the EU referendum, which particularly focussed on the EU’s world-leading REACH system for regulating chemicals. The EAC criticise the UK Government’s lack of openness about its post-Brexit plans, and point out that most respondents want the UK to remain ‘as closely aligned to REACH as possible‘.

In CHEM Trust’s view the EAC has done the UK a service by carrying out this inquiry, but we believe that they could have been more explicit in calling for the UK to ask the remaining EU states (the EU27) to include full participation in REACH in the planned post-Brexit Free Trade Agreement (FTA). The EU27 has given clear indications that they wish the UK to retain EU environmental standards.

Effective chemicals regulation is essential in order to protect people and the environment in the UK from hazardous chemicals. Our recent report highlighting how chemicals in food and consumer products could harm brain development in children concluded that it was important for the UK to remain within the REACH system, as this is the best process for identifying and controlling chemicals of concern.

CHEM Trust submitted written evidence to this inquiry, and our Executive Director Dr Michael Warhurst was called to give oral evidence in the inquiry’s first evidence session on 7th February.

The EAC’s main conclusions

  • The chemicals regulation framework established by the EU through REACH is difficult to transpose directly into UK law. Writing EU regulations into UK law could not be done simply by having a line in the “Great Repeal
    Bill” deeming REACH to apply in the UK. REACH was written from the perspective of participants being within the EU, with much of it also relating to Member State co-operation and mutual obligations, oversight and controls, and freedom of movement of products.
  • Companies face significant uncertainty over the validity of current REACH registrations after the UK leaves the EU: the Government must clarify their position on the future regulatory framework as a matter of urgency. Companies face significant costs relating to the upcoming REACH registration deadline in May 2018, yet it is unclear whether these registrations will remain valid once the UK leaves the EU in 2019. This uncertainty may already be having an impact on long-term investment decisions by companies.
  • In deciding the future of the UK’s relationship with the EU’s single market for chemicals, the Government should take a pragmatic approach. The most important element of REACH, which the Government should seek to remain involved in as a minimum, is the registration process for chemicals. Most of our respondents, from both environmental and industry perspectives, wanted to stay as closely aligned to REACH as possible. Involvement in registration would allow UK companies to share testing data with EU companies, sharing costs and allowing them to enter the market without double registration, even if the UK adopts higher standards of chemicals protection.
  • Establishing a stand-alone UK system of chemicals regulation is likely to be expensive for both the taxpayer and for industry. The Government did not provide us with detail of their scenario planning, although they did admit that the cost of taking on the roles currently provided by the European Chemicals Agency could be in the “tens of millions” of pounds.
  • The experiences of the US as it introduces an improved system of chemic
    als regulation could be useful for the Government when planning the UK’s approach
    . The US is in the process of updating its federal chemicals regulations following the introduction of new legislation in June 2016. Federal agencies are currently developing their new approach to the assessment and regulation of chemicals, and the experiences of the US in developing its own system may prove useful to the UK.

The full EAC report is available here.

CHEM Trust’s response to the inquiry report

CHEM Trust’s Executive Director Dr Michael Warhurst commented on the inquiry’s conclusions:

“The EAC is right to criticise the lack of information from the Government on its plans for the crucial issue of chemicals regulation after Brexit, and it is good that the committee did this inquiry, given that the Government has not been open and consultative in this area.

The Committee also makes clear that there is considerable support across all stakeholders for the UK to stay within the EU’s REACH regulatory system – it is not perfect, but it is the best in the world. Any attempt to create a new UK system would be both much more expensive and much less effective than REACH, threatening the protection of people and the environment.

However, CHEM Trust is disappointed that the Committee does not say more about the option that we view as the most realistic way of keeping an effective regulatory system, which is that the UK asks to remain fully part of the REACH system in a future Free Trade Agreement with the EU. There are strong indications that the EU27 would be receptive to such an approach, with both the EU Parliament and the EU27 governments having stated the importance of the UK continuing to match EU environmental standards.

The Committee suggests that the UK might just be able to be involved in the REACH Registration system, but we would view this as unrealistic, as the EU27 has spoken against ‘cherry picking’ in the Brexit deal. Such an approach would not mean that the UK public, workers and the environment was not automatically subject to the same level of protection as the rest of the EU. This could lead to chemicals, products and processes that are banned in the EU being used in the UK, as we become the ‘dirty man of Europe’ again.

Finally, we do not view the US system as a viable model for the UK, as it is considerable less effective than REACH, and also UK industry trades far more with the EU than with the US.”

Signs that the EU27 are keen for the post-Brexit UK to retain EU environmental standards

There are strong indications that the EU27 governments and the European Parliament are keen to get the UK to match EU environmental standards in any post-Brexit Free Trade Agreement; these science-based standards are generally the best in the world. This approach was clear in the first speech from the European Commission’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier, in the European Parliament’s first Resolution on Brexit, and in the developing EU 27 negotiating position:

Speech by Michel Barnier, Chief Negotiator for the Preparation and Conduct of the Negotiations with the United Kingdom, 22 March 2017, “The Conditions for Reaching an Agreement in the Negotiations with the United Kingdom”:

“We agree with Theresa May when she recently called for a “bold and ambitious free-trade agreement”

“Yes to the ambition! But this ambition also applies to social, fiscal, environmental and consumer protection standards, which European citizens rightly support.”

European Parliament Resolution of 5 April 2017 on “negotiations with the United Kingdom following its notification that it intends to withdraw from the European Union“:

“Stresses that any future agreement between the European Union and the United Kingdom is conditional on the United Kingdom’s continued adherence to.. the Union’s legislation and policies, in, among others, the fields of the environment, climate change,.. social rights, especially safeguards against social dumping…”

European Council (EU27) “guidelines following the United Kingdom’s notification under Article 50 TEU“, agreed on Saturday 29th April:

“Any Free Trade Agreement….must … encompass safeguards against unfair competitive advantages through, inter alia, tax, social, environmental and regulatory measures and practice”

 

Update, 2nd May 2017