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Conservative Party Conference: What does it mean for chemical policy and Brexit?

The UK Conservative Party Conference this week was dominated by the major hurdles of Brexit, chiefly the Irish border, immigration policy and trade. However, chemicals continued to feature in discussions across the conference, from small fringe events on environment and trade up to the main stage address from Environment Minister Michael Gove.

CHEM Trust’s Kate Young at Conservative Party Conference

The deep divisions currently present in the Conservative Party are well illustrated by the debate on how chemicals should be regulated post-Brexit. The Prime Minister has called for the UK to attain associate membership of the European Chemicals Agency, ECHA and to remain in the EU’s world-leading REACH chemicals regulatory system.

As we have outlined previously, our analysis is that the Government’s White Paper proposals address only two of the three preconditions that we believe will be necessary for the UK to have a chance of this. The third precondition, staying within the EU’s chemical related laws, is missing.

As displayed at conference, the Party is in intense debate over what the ‘common rulebook’ of the Government’s White Paper should mean. The dispute boils down to what the UK is willing to concede to the EU, and this is exemplified in whether the UK will commit to following the chemical-related laws in order to stay within ECHA and REACH.

Support for REACH

At a fringe event on Brexit, Vicky Ford MP (and ex-MEP) declared the need for a level playing field to ensure free trade with the EU continues, arguing that consumers believe in environmental protections and consumer safety standards. She was clear that she doesn’t want to see these dropped post-Brexit, especially considering the important role the UK has had in creating many of them.

Similarly, Antoinette Sandbach MP asked conference attendees to observe the current state of trade globally, noting the cost the UK will have to pay for trade deals (CHEM Trust recently noted our concern at the listing of EU regulations on endocrine disrupting chemicals as barriers in a leaked UK-India trade review). Sandbach also highlighted the risks of a no-deal Brexit on chemical sector jobs in her constituency of Eddisbury, Cheshire, and across the UK.

REACH scepticism

On the other side of the debate, Priti Patel argued at an Institute of Economic Affairs event that she would like a common rule book that accepts existing EU regulations but with complete freedom to diverge following the UK’s departure from the EU. Department for Exiting the European Union Minister Dominic Raab also declared that the UK has ‘given enough in terms of non-regression’ and admitted that he cannot promise that the UK does not want to cut a competitive advantage from leaving the EU.

Jacob Rees Mogg MP directly cited REACH in his fringe speech. He claimed that although the EU system seems a good way to protect against competition from outside the EU, that it instead raises the costs of chemicals and prevents trade. We made our concerns clear in coverage of the event in ENDS Report:

Responding to Rees-Mogg’s comments, Kate Young, Brexit and chemicals campaigner at NGO CHEM Trust, said she found it “deeply concerning that Jacob Rees-Mogg considers the high environmental and health standards of REACH simply as non-tariff barriers that should be removed”.

Michael Gove calls for action on chemicals

Secretary of State for the Environment Michael Gove emphasised the need for action on chemicals in his main speech, stating that “we need more action to develop the technologies which will free us from reliance on harmful chemicals”.

CHEM Trust agrees with this need for action, but as we told ENDS:

“It is vital that a post-Brexit Britain continues to have an effective system to protect people and the environment from hazardous chemicals, and CHEM Trust’s analysis is that this is best achieved by the UK remaining within the EU’s REACH system,” she added

A choice for the UK

As negotiations intensify in their final stages, the Government must decide whether it is willing to commit to the third precondition – alignment with the EU’s chemical-related laws – in order to accomplish its desire for associate membership of ECHA. These laws, for example covering water pollution, factory emissions and health and safety, are crucial to safe management of chemicals.