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UK politicians debate EU chemical laws and Brexit; it is argued that new UK chemical regulation would be an “ideological indulgence”

On Thursday 1st February, UK politicians gathered in Westminster Hall to debate the future of UK chemical regulations after Brexit. A strong case was made for the business, health and environmental benefits of staying in the EU’s world-leading chemicals regulation system REACH.

The Chair of the House of Commons Environmental Audit Committee (EAC), Mary Creagh argued that creating a separate UK regulatory system was an ‘ideological indulgence’. However, the government Minister responsible for chemicals, Thérèse Coffey, reiterated that the UK is not planning to stay in REACH after Brexit.

Following on from the EAC’s report on the future of chemicals regulation after the EU referendum, which was published in April 2017, the debate in Westminster Hall highlighted the significant threats to both human health and the economy involved in leaving REACH.

The debate opened with a persuasive speech from Mary Creagh MP, Chair of the EAC, where she explained with clarity and in detail how leaving REACH might put British people’s health at risk, have a “killer” effect on the chemical industry and could lead to more animal testing, as well as being very expensive for tax payers. Mary Creagh MP also added that creating a new UK chemical regulation “starts to look more like an ideological indulgence, an extravagance, with, of course, other people’s money—taxpayers’ money and the chemicals industry’s money”.

Angela Smith MP, Chair of the All-Party Group on the chemical industry, highlighted concerns about the lack of policy proposals and clarity from the Government almost a a year after the EAC inquiry.

Additionally, John Mc Nally MP from Falkirk, pointed out: “If the unthinkable occurs and no agreement is hammered out between the UK and EU, are we then a UK out of EU REACH? Chemical registration-related data sharing would cease to exist. That would be utterly disastrous for businesses and their investments, and they would have to reapply all over again. It would be an absolute nightmare for us to go through”

Theresa Coffey’s responses to the many questions directed to her during the debate were very disappointing. In spite of the strong call to remain in REACH from different sectors of society, the Minister stated once again that the UK will not stay in REACH but, she added, through the provisions set out in the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, the UK will bring into law the same regulations that put REACH into effect.

However, as CHEM Trust has argued many times, due to the centralised nature of EU chemicals law, it is not possible for the UK to simply amend REACH to make it work in the UK. REACH is managed by the European Chemical Agency (ECHA) in Helsinki, including the world’s most comprehensive database of chemicals safety and uses. The UK would lose access to this database – and the expert staff of ECHA – if we did not stay in REACH.

The Minister also clarified that a ‘Chemicals Strategy’, recently announced in the UK Government’s 25-year Environment Plan would not be published this year, meaning that uncertainty about UK chemicals policy will continue.

Concerns about the future of chemicals regulations have also been raised by the UK House of Lords during last week’s second reading debate on the EU ‘Withdrawal Bill”. Baroness Jones of Whitchurch stated: “We will also be seeking guarantees regarding our continued involvement in the European institutions which have provided effective monitoring and enforcement of environmental standards (…) Another example is the REACH chemical regulation, which sets safety standards for trading and usage across the EU and stops toxic dumping”.

CHEM Trust’s Executive Director, Dr Michael Warhurst said:

 “It’s now almost a year since article 50 was triggered, yet in spite of the strong arguments made by environmental and health organisations, as well as industry, the Government is continuing to argue that the UK should leave REACH.

The Government should follow the recommendations of the EAC, environmental groups and UK businesses and do what is best for the health of the British people, the environment and the economy: stay in REACH”

For further information, see our Chemicals & Brexit web page.