I beg to move,
That this House has considered the Eleventh Report of the Environmental Audit Committee of Session 2016-17, The Future of Chemicals Regulation after the EU Referendum, HC 912, and the Government response, HC 313:
I am delighted to be here with you, Mr Evans, and with so many colleagues to debate this vital matter. I am grateful to the Liaison Committee for granting the debate and to colleagues for attending. I look forward to good speeches and good debate.
Nine months after the Environmental Audit Committee’s report, the chemicals industry in the UK remains deeply concerned about the Government’s decision to leave the European single market and customs union and the impact that doing so will have on their business. Today, I will set out why our chemicals industry is the foundation stone of UK manufacturing; how the chemical regulation REACH—the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals—regulates the UK chemicals industry; and what the Government’s decision to leave the single market and customs union means in terms of jobs, trade, potential increases in animal testing, duplication of regulation and costs, the risk of tariffs and increased red tape.
Let us begin by looking at the chemicals industry. From the leaked Brexit economic analysis this week, we heard that chemicals is one of the five sectors that will be worst hit by leaving the European single market and customs union. Our Committee looked at that last year. The industry has a £32 billion annual turnover and provides half a million direct and indirect jobs across the country. Chemical clusters tend to be on coastal sites near to petrochemical sites because they are often connected by pipelines. Clusters are found in Hull, Teesside, Grangemouth and Runcorn—areas that have already been hit by industrial decline and capital flight, and where good, well-paid engineering jobs are not easy to come by.
The paints, adhesives, mixtures, polymers, plastics and dyes made by the industry are used in every aspect of our lives, including the car industry, aerospace industry, tech sector, energy sector and pharmaceutical sector—I could go on. They are the backbone of the nation’s manufacturing industry, and we rely on an integrated European Union supply chain. The UK no longer produces a number of important chemical feedstocks and is reliant on them coming in from the European Union.
The UK exports almost £15 billion-worth of chemicals to the EU each year. Chemicals is our second largest manufacturing industry and our second largest export to the EU after cars, but it is not getting the attention it deserves. It is not as glamorous; it is a Cinderella sector.
What is REACH? It is the EU’s regulation, agreed by this country about 10 years ago, which regulates chemicals and hazardous substances. It covers more than 30,000 substances bought and sold in the EU single market. It also covers products and articles such as the coating on a non-stick frying pan, flame retardants in sofas, carpets and curtains, and medicines.
Our chemicals inquiry came out of our inquiry into the future of environmental regulation after we leave the EU. People kept saying, “You need to look at the chemicals sector”, so we decided to do so. The inquiry found that, first and foremost, UK companies want to stay in REACH. They have made more than 5,000 registrations with REACH. Another deadline is looming—31 March—by which smaller tonnages of chemicals will have to be registered. By the end of March, UK companies will have spent an estimated £250 million on registering their products on the database. One concern raised in the inquiry was that smaller manufacturers, looking ahead at the potential of a hard Brexit, would baulk at spending £20,000, £30,000 or £40,000 on registering a chemical when that registration could fall exactly one year later, on exit day.
I congratulate the Select Committee and my hon. Friend on the report. I represent a constituency in which 7,000 manufacturing jobs are dependent on the chemicals sector and there are 1,250 jobs in chemicals companies. That exact point about the cost of registration has been raised by companies in my constituency. Some of them have spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on registering chemicals over the years, and they suggest that in the Brexit negotiations we should seek third-country status, so that our companies can continue to register within REACH. Does she agree that that would be one route forward?
I certainly do, and that was the route recommended in the report. The report was slightly curtailed—we had to rush it out in a form that was not as fine and detailed as we would have liked because of the early calling of the general election—but we were clear that that was the most pragmatic and cheapest route.
The looming deadline raises the threat of market freeze. If a small company decides not to register and just to run down its chemical feedstocks, when a big multinational manufacturer comes to apply that coating to whichever tiny aircraft engine part or car part requires it, the supplier—in some cases they are unique suppliers—might say, “We’ve run out of that stuff now.” We could see market freeze in the automotive and aerospace supply chains long before we leave the EU, because of that deadline and the lack of certainty about what will happen.
Leaving REACH puts at risk our trade in chemicals. The European Chemicals Agency has said that without an agreement to the contrary, all UK registrations will be invalid after exit day. Therefore, the jobs of my hon. Friend’s constituents and investment in their companies will all be put at risk. I will come on to talk about the threat from double regulation.
Secondly, the inquiry found that the chemicals regulation framework established by the EU through REACH would be difficult and—critically—expensive to transpose into UK law. It is not just a list of rules or restricted substances but a governance mechanism; it is an entire working body of parts. It involves data sharing and co-operation. For the UK to establish a duplicate system of chemicals regulation, as the Minister proposed when she gave evidence to us, will be expensive for us—the taxpayer—or the industry, or both.
Thirdly, after Brexit, REACH could become zombie legislation, which is no longer monitored, updated or enforced. When we debated the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, I tabled new clause 61 to try to remedy that by ensuring that we remained part of REACH. However, it is part of the difficult third of EU environmental legislation that cannot be neatly cut and pasted into UK law through that Bill. The Minister in response said that the REACH regulation is directly applicable, but that is essentially meaningless without the chemicals agency to govern and regulate it. We will end up having zombie legislation, duplicating regulation and potentially diverging from the EU, which could also be a bad thing for British business.
My hon. Friend did an excellent job on this report and is doing an excellent job of leading the debate. Does she share my concern that when the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs gave evidence to the Committee, it seemed to have only just started conversations with the chemicals industry about all these issues and how complicated they would be? It was almost on a learning exercise—doing its homework—long after article 50 had been triggered.
I did notice that. I went over the road to read the impact assessments that were not impact assessments, and it was good to read a secret document on the chemicals sector that quoted our Committee’s report heavily. There was some good analysis in there, but I was grateful to see that however thin our report was, the civil servants involved had looked at the evidence we had taken. It was certainly a very useful exercise.
The Government’s response to our report was pretty thin gruel—a couple of pages, and quite dismissive. That reflects what my hon. Friend says about the Government making it up as they go along. They are knitting their own policy as they go. There is nothing wrong with knitting, but we do not want something that ends up full of holes.
We put out the response because we wanted to see what the industry would do. It is fair to say that last year, when we were doing the report, the industry was perhaps more concerned about the impact of tariff barriers than it was about regulatory barriers. It was happy to give Government the benefit of the doubt, to believe what it was hearing and to accept reassurances, but as the exit day deadline heaves into view, that belief has been replaced by thorough scepticism and in some cases downright fear, particularly about the impact of a hard Brexit.
We put the Government’s response up on our Committee’s website and invited comments. The Chemical Business Association said,
“the Government Response to the EAC’s Report fails to…recognise the unique nature of the regulatory issues facing the chemical industry”.
Breast Cancer UK said,
“the Government’s response to EAC’s report is woefully inadequate. It fails to provide even an outline of how the Government will manage chemicals regulation post-Brexit.”
EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation, said:
“The degree of uncertainty in this area is causing concern not just in the chemicals industry but also very much among downstream manufacturing industries which are reliant on a wide range of substances and chemical formulations.”
That is why 20% of the 126 companies represented by the Chemical Business Association were looking at moving to the EU. We had that evidence almost a year ago, and it would be interesting to know how many of them have established presences in Dublin, Paris or Frankfurt.
On a recent visit in my Wakefield constituency I went to a bed manufacturer, Global Components. It is in Ossett, in what used to be called the heavy woollen district—the Dewsbury part of my constituency. I was not expecting to hear about Brexit, but the company told me that 90% of its products are imports, so it has been hit by the fall in value of the pound. It is finding it harder to recruit new staff and has delayed a major investment as a result of uncertainties over Brexit. Crucially, the foam it uses in its mattresses comes from a German supplier, and the price of that foam has risen by 30% since the referendum. Global Components is having great difficulty passing those costs on to its consumers.
The European Chemicals Agency has been very clear that without an agreement to the contrary, all UK company registrations will be invalid after exit day. No REACH means no licences. No licences means no market access. No market access means no trade. It is that simple. As one senior executive said to me, on condition that I did not say his name or his company,
“Brexit is a business-killing issue.”
If we leave the single market and the customs union, businesses will no longer have access to the database they helped to fund and build. UK science, testing, ingenuity, innovation and creativity helped to build the database. UK scientists are present in Helsinki. We helped to build the database, but now we are ripping ourselves out of it and we will no longer have the detailed safety information on all the chemicals that are handled and produced. Obviously, that is of great concern to my own trade union, the GMB, which represents workers in what can often be hazardous industries.
What choice is left to our constituents and companies? UK companies that want to continue to trade must set up what is called an only representative in the EU to re-register with REACH the registrations they used to have. That is absolutely absurd, and it is duplication. If those companies want to stay registered, they must set up somebody in a European Union member state and pay twice for something they have already bought. That is the height of absurdity. It is a huge duplication of costs, and it risks making UK chemicals and manufacturing uncompetitive. Companies could ask the importer to register themselves, but why would they do that? Why would they take on the cost and documentation? They will just switch to an alternative supplier, and that will be bad for British jobs, British growth and British businesses.
Does my hon. Friend share the concerns of businesses in my constituency? Even if the Government are able to say that existing registrations would continue to be recognised in both European and UK law under some form of deal—the Minister suggested in a letter to me that that was the Government’s preferred position—that would not offer any certainty about future registrations and might lead to businesses relocating out of the UK altogether.
I do share my hon. Friend’s concerns. UK industry is not waiting for the Government to sort this out; it is already voting with its feet on this issue, delaying investment and winding down operations. None of that is being announced. I asked one senior executive why not, and he said, “In all my years in this industry, I’ve never done a press release announcing job losses and closures. This is not something we want to talk about.” That is understandable, but we have also seen courage—in the case of the chief executive of Airbus, for example, who has talked about how manufacturing and competitiveness will be hit. Our debate goes into the detail underpinning that: what do we mean when we say that, and what will it cost in jobs?
I turn now to what was a touchstone issue during the passage of the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill: the issue of animals and animal testing. We might be able to stay in the registration, but will we be able to stay in the knowledge-sharing scheme? If we do not participate in European Chemicals Agency scientific committees or the forum for exchange on enforcement, we may need more animal tests to be done in this country—something that none of us would welcome. At the moment, UK companies registering chemicals within REACH must share data from animal testing. Other registrants access that data, which minimises the need to carry out and duplicate animal testing, but only participants in REACH have access to that data, so we could see an unwelcome increase in animal testing.
The REACH framework is built on co-operation between signatories. It contains obligations, oversight and control mechanisms. It requires freedom of movement of products between all signing countries. If we do not co-operate in that way, how will we ensure that human health and our environment are protected from chemical hazards, and how will we stop our country from becoming a chemical dumping ground?
As an aside, the Committee travelled to the US to see how it regulates chemicals. We were pleased to hear that the US, after 50 or 60 years of fighting the chemicals industry on the issue, has set up its Toxic Substances Control Act, although there was a question mark over its implementation with the arrival of the new regime under President Trump. We also heard that the EU’s chemical standard was seen as the global gold standard and was being used by the states of California and New York; that things such as babies’ bottles were advertised and marketed as meeting EU chemicals standards as a badge of honour and safety; and that the US chemicals industry had asked for that regulation to keep up and compete with European chemical products and articles.
We also heard that the de-regulatory lobbying and the Americans’ approach in this area had led to the absurdity of asbestos—a known carcinogen hazardous to human health—never having been banned in the United States. I am sure that the citizens of this country, whatever their thoughts when casting their vote for leave or remain, were not asking for an increase in animal testing, a decrease in jobs and the supposed freedom to follow a weaker regulatory regime.
The Government have said that they want to set up their own chemicals agency, but they really have to clarify what system of registering, monitoring and authorising chemicals will be used in the UK post exit. The clock is ticking. What is the plan? How will decisions be made after exit day? Will we be like Switzerland, which does not have access to the REACH database, or Norway, which does, through its membership of the European economic area? How does the Minister propose to protect our £14 billion export trade with the EU?
The Government’s 25-year environment plan promises a new chemicals strategy that will set out the Government’s approach as the UK leaves the EU. I hope we will not wait two and a half years for that new chemicals strategy in the way we did for the environment plan. The Government say that the new strategy will “build on existing approaches”. When will we see it? When will it be published?
Words and phrases such as “build on existing approaches”, “looking” and “monitoring” are a prime example of the “muddling through” that former Department for Exiting the European Union Minister Lord Bridges talked about in the other place on Tuesday. Although we are not clear about what will happen during the two years of the Brexit transition phase—if it is for two years; it will perhaps be longer—Lord Bridges has warned that it
“will be a gang plank into thin air.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 30 January 2018; Vol. 788, c. 1423.]
We must not force our chemicals industry to walk down it. Will the Minister clarify whether there will be a two-year transition period during which we will remain a member of REACH? Businesses need that clarity.
Let us look at the IT aspect of setting up our own agency. The European Chemicals Agency has a budget of more than £100 million a year and 500 staff to manage its database and monitor compliance. Will we still have our own agency? The Minister’s civil servant told our Committee that a new agency would cost tens of millions of pounds. Who will pay for that extravagant bauble? Will it be industry, which already has the double burden of re-registering the stuff they have already registered with REACH, and would then have to register again in a UK system—a triple whammy—or the taxpayer?
Several witnesses expressed concerns to the Committee about the Government’s poor track record in setting up IT projects. Setting up our own database will be expensive, and we have seen the beginnings of the taxpayer footing the bill for it. The DEFRA permanent secretary wrote to the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs on 18 January requesting a ministerial direction to approve a spend of £5.8 million between February and July this year on the delivery of a new IT system for registering and regulating chemical substances placed on the UK market, as part of the preparations for a no-deal Brexit.
Will the Minister tell the House what that £5.8 million will pay for, the total estimated cost of the new agency, the total estimated cost of the new database and how much it will cost every year to run the system? How many staff will be needed and what happens to them if the Government negotiate to stay in REACH, as the Under-Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), told Parliament could happen only this morning? How will we recruit the best people to a job that may not be there in a year’s time?
The UK’s chemicals sector will see its costs treble: it will re-register with REACH, thereby losing the money it spent first registering with REACH, and will also have to register with a new UK regime. However, the pain will not stop there. Leaving the customs union will compound that pain. As well as the regulatory barriers, the risks of tariffs and customs red tape on chemicals could cost companies dearly. A Chemicals Industry Association Brexit survey suggests that tariffs on imports could be in excess of £350 million, while re-exporting could cost £250 million.
Ministers often fail to understand that intra-company trade is a significant percentage of those imports and exports. We import things from the EU to make the wings of an Airbus aeroplane in Alyn and Deeside and then export them to Toulouse, where they are fixed on to an aircraft. Those are intra-company imports and exports, and customs and tariffs and paying more money to import and export such things will make British industry non-competitive.
When I first asked the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs how he planned to regulate chemicals after the UK leaves the EU back in July, he said, “Better”, and sat down. However, 20 months after the referendum, things are much worse. I hope I have explained why “better” is simply not possible. Remaining close to REACH is not only unavoidable—it is desirable, pragmatic and sensible. Staying in REACH is the right thing for jobs, British growth and British investment, and the majority of our inquiry’s witnesses supported continued membership of REACH. The Green Alliance said:
“The REACH regime is the most advanced in the world, protecting citizens and the environment from tens of thousands of chemicals.”
Our Committee recommends that the UK remains in REACH. It is the passport to a global marketplace. UK companies do not care whether that passport is blue or brown, so long as it does not kill jobs and investment. Leaving REACH could mean lower environmental or safety standards than in the EU, exposing UK workers, consumers and the environment to greater risks. Leaving REACH places huge additional financial burdens on the chemicals industry and the UK taxpayer to comply with two different sets of regulations. Leaving the customs union creates the added danger of tariffs.
I look forward to the Minister’s response to colleagues’ speeches and to hearing how she will provide the certainty that our businesses and our constituents rightly crave.
It is a privilege to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I am afraid that I may have to leave early to travel back to the frozen north. I appreciate your indulgence in that.
I congratulate my colleagues on the Environmental Audit Committee on producing the report. I have become a devoted environmentalist since serving with my colleagues on the Committee. I am a farmer, and partly an organic farmer, and as I said to the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) the other day, I once owned a vegan food manufacturer, of all the bizarre things. However, I am also a beef farmer. I seem to be crossing the divide.
The report was written largely before I joined the venerable Committee, which is so ably chaired by the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) with her typically collegiate approach, which I very much enjoy. Not being the author of the report, I will be brief. The report recommends that the Government take a pragmatic approach to the UK’s relationship with the EU’s single market for chemicals, and in particular that it should seek to remain a participant in the registration process for those chemicals.
I represent Gordon, the constituency with the biggest oil and gas footprint, so hon. Members will see how difficult it is for me to be on the Environmental Audit Committee. However, I see oil and gas as part of the solution, not part of the problem. The oil and gas industry is clearly a massive feedstock supplier to the chemicals industry, which employs 157,000 people. To put that into perspective, the oil and gas industry employs 320,000 people, down from 460,000.
The UK could decide to follow the regulatory decisions made through REACH—the regulation on the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals—or to take a different approach while still allowing UK companies to sell their products in both the UK and the EU, thanks to continued data sharing. Oil and gas is an international, dollar-denominated industry; 60% of oil and gas exports are outside the EU. Oil and gas should be an example to other sectors of how there may be good things outwith the EU. UK oil and gas, a bit like the UK chemicals industry, sets EU standards and has done for the 40 years during which it has been producing. The Government indicating that they have no intention of aligning the future UK system of chemicals regulation with that of the US is welcome news. However, the experience of the US in providing consistent regulation across the country, rather than allowing variations from one state to another, could be a model for the Government should the UK decide to establish its own system. I say that because we have UK-wide frameworks and we will be maintaining the single market within the UK.
As I am not the author of the report, that is how brief I am going to be.
I am delighted that the hon. Gentleman has spoken on the report, and it has been fascinating to hear about the oil and gas industry, but does he agree that the experience in respect of, in particular, worker protection in that industry has been potentially much weaker outside the UK? I am thinking of the experience of Deepwater Horizon and some of the environmental degradation in the Niger delta in particular. Those are not models that we would wish to follow in our own oilfields, where we want workers and, of course, the environment to be protected.
That is a very interesting point. The UK and Norway are obviously the two biggest oil and gas producers, by a long way. UK regulation has set EU regulation for the last 40 years; and interestingly, the EU is currently trying to put through regulation that Norway will not accept, because it feels that its regulation is already higher. I am therefore very optimistic that the oil and gas industry in the UK and in Norway will continue to set standards. It will be interesting to see how the UK chemicals industry will set international standards and have an effect on the EU going forward.
I look forward to greater participation in the Environmental Audit Committee, and I hope that the next time I stand here I am a signatory to its report.
As always, it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I am grateful for the opportunity to speak in this debate. I congratulate the EAC on its report and my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) on her very clear and detailed explanation and defence of its recommendations, which I entirely endorse.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Gordon (Colin Clark). He had no need to justify his position as both an MP for a constituency with oil and gas interests and as someone with an interest in the environment. If we dichotomise those two very important issues, we do a disservice to the country. The oil and gas industry remains important; it will not disappear overnight. We need to work hard to reconcile those two key interests as much as we can.
This topic is critically important. I am chair of the all-party group on the chemical industry, and this report is of great interest to me and to the all-party group. I reinforce the point that the chemicals sector directly contributes £6.4 billion to the UK economy each year and employs approximately 88,000 people—in all the areas that my hon. Friend outlined but also in areas such as the south bank of the Humber, where it is a critically important employer.
As has been pointed out, 60% of our chemical exports go to the European Union, and 75% of our imports in this sector come from the bloc. We must recognise that the chemicals sector has an important impact on all manufacturing sectors—in my constituency, for instance, we have the steel sector, which is an important downstream recipient of chemical products—and therefore the knock-on effects of regulation in this sphere will be profound and felt far and wide.
I congratulate my hon. Friend on the brilliant work that she has done in chairing the APPG and ensuring that the voice of the chemicals industry is heard loud and clear in this place. Does she agree that the issue is not just upstream but downstream chemicals, affecting things as diverse as kidney dialysis chemicals and machines, artificial limbs and so on? It spreads right out into the medical industry as well. We do not want there to be unintended or unforeseen consequences, because chemicals really do network out into every nook and cranny of our lives.
I agree. That is why chemicals are considered one of our key foundation industries that is of profound importance to the UK economy in every respect. On that basis, it is imperative that we get this right; on that, at least, I hope that we all agree.
The Environmental Audit Committee made several very sensible recommendations as part of its inquiry. However, in their response, the Government have given very little away about policy proposals. Nine months later, and with the Brexit date looming on the horizon, I, alongside the sector, the members of the Committee and Parliament more generally, remain deeply concerned by the lack of clarity.
What do we know and what do we not know? Against the Committee’s explicit advice, the Government are attempting to use the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill to give Ministers the power potentially to create a new UK-based regulatory body to replace REACH. The industry has made it abundantly clear that replacing REACH would be costly and over-bureaucratic. It would also potentially limit important access to data, as my hon. Friend pointed out, and to scientific collaboration, a point made powerfully by the Royal Society of Chemistry.
REACH represents the gold standard in international chemical regulations, and there is no appetite at all in the industry for degrading regulatory standards, I am pleased to say. What is more, if companies are to continue trading with the EU, compliance is, in the words of the Chemical Business Association, “non-negotiable”. Failure to comply means no market access and therefore no trade, as my hon. Friend pointed out.
As I said, creating a body like the one that we are discussing risks costing the public purse and taking a huge amount of time, simply to add another layer of bureaucracy for no practical purpose whatever. After all, substances requiring evaluation or authorisation will already have achieved that status by complying with REACH by this year’s deadline of 1 May. I ask the Minister these questions directly. Will she urge the Government to reconsider their approach to chemicals regulation post Brexit? Can she assure the industry today that we will remain in full regulatory alignment, both in the transition and in the long term?
Another area causing immense concern relates to the registration process. The Committee recommended that “as a minimum” the Government should ensure that the UK retain the registration element of REACH. The Government even acknowledge that any company wanting to trade with the EU will have to engage with that element of REACH. So why leave it? In the short term, companies need assurance that REACH registrations made before May 2018 will remain valid post Brexit, because otherwise, why bother, why do it? Millions of pounds have already been spent on registrations. The Chemical Industries Association says that if companies have to re-register everything because of Brexit, the cost will be in the region of £350 million. That is not pocket money; it is a significant sum that could have a serious impact on the industry.
The uncertainty is enormously problematic for companies, which need REACH registrations to operate but are reluctant to make the payments in case they become invalid. That dilemma risks an exodus of companies from the UK to the European Union—to other member states—and has already led a number of companies to spend vast sums of money opening up offices on the continent.
My hon. Friend is making a brilliant point. As she sets it out, I am struck more and more by the fact that the Government like to talk about sound finance, but actually our own chemicals regime 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.
Does she agree that many of the only representatives of American firms based here are now having to—or will have to—shut up shop and set up in other countries? Not only are our own companies moving out into the European Union, but companies from third countries, which use the UK as a springboard into that integrated European market, are also going shopping and setting up elsewhere.
I agree with that latter point. On the first point that my hon. Friend made about ideological indulgence, I find it enormously frustrating that we are set not only to spend large sums of public money to achieve satisfaction and indulge ourselves ideologically but to ignore the voice of business. I find it startlingly difficult to comprehend why what has always seen itself as the party of business is ignoring those very important voices—I just find it absolutely unbelievable.
Two years after the referendum, I still find it hard to reconcile my understanding of the party of Government. I have always respected it as a party that has always listened to the voices of those who make the wealth that keeps this country going, but is no longer doing that—all in the name of a project that will damage the country’s economy in the long term. I find it absolutely astonishing, I have to say.
I ask the Minister what she is doing to give clarity to business in this area. Should businesses continue to make REACH registrations and will these registrations remain valid post-Brexit, or at the very least during the implementation period? Have her Government colleagues broached these subjects with their European counterparts during negotiations? I think we need to know—Parliament has a right to know this.
Does the Minister acknowledge that the easiest way to resolve these issues would be to stay in the single market and, as a consequence, to remain within REACH? That is the easiest way forward. It is the way forward that the chemicals industry prefers, and it would solve so many problems. I look forward to the Minister’s response and hope that she can provide some clarity.
It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr Evans. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) on her brilliant job chairing this inquiry. When we first started taking evidence I thought, “How on earth are we ever going to get our heads around such a complex subject?” I have to confess that I might have got 50% of the way there, but I am pretty sure that she got 100% of the way there and it is a credit to her. I think we saw that in her speech.
It is unusual that both environmental NGOs and the chemicals industry think that the structure of REACH is about right. It is one of the most sophisticated chemicals regulations systems in the world, and if the Government are planning to leave its protective framework—I do not think they should—they need to clarify as a matter of urgency what will replace it. Not doing so is not fair on the industry. If the Government do not get on with the job, we are going to be left in limbo.
As my hon. Friend said, when we talk about chemicals, we are talking not just about things that are obviously chemicals—the sorts of things you keep under the sink, such as bleach or cleaning sprays—but the chemicals that are present in every product and activity. Chemicals are in car engines, in the paint on cars and in our carpets; I had never thought that carpet dye was a chemical. We are exposed to countless chemicals in every facet of our lives, and they are all controlled by REACH. They are all part of the system. It should therefore be of the highest priority to ensure that chemicals continue to be properly managed after we leave the EU, not least because of the potential harm that improperly regulated chemicals can cause to the environment, and human and animal health. There is another debate to be had about chemical use in the developing world, for example, where things happen that we would not tolerate here, but that is a question for another day.
Everyone has heard of the American case made famous by the film “Erin Brockovich” in which 370 million gallons of chromium-tainted water leaked into the local water supply and dramatically increased the levels of cancer in residents. More recently, in 2008, tributyltin—a paint used to cover the hulls of boats—was outlawed in Europe after it was found to be extremely toxic to both humans and the marine environment, with the World Health Organisation reporting a 20% to 40% increase in the risk of certain types of cancer after regular contact with the substance. That shows us the importance of regulation and vigilance.
I thank my hon. Friend for her speech, and for the brilliant contribution she makes to the Committee. I am sure she was far more than 50% of the way there in this inquiry. If she did not feel that way, she certainly did not let on. I know that the inquiry was difficult. Does she agree that information sharing and knowledge sharing are a really important part of the REACH regime? This stuff is all around us and the evidence only builds up gradually, in bits and pieces, because we do not conduct controlled experiments on ourselves to see what gives us cancer—that would be unethical. The information emerges over time, and we are often ignorant of the damage that a chemical is doing to our body. When that gets out, there is always a vested interest that does not want it to be banned, changed or removed. That is why REACH is the global gold standard.
That is absolutely right. I do not think I need to add anything to that. My hon. Friend has told us, in a nutshell, why it is so important to be vigilant and on top of things—almost ahead of the game—in terms of what is being brought onto the market. If we are not, there could be quite devastating consequences that we might not discover for years. New chemicals are being manufactured continually, so we cannot rest on our laurels.
It is impossible to know what chemical regulation will look like in the future, so to transpose current standards without supplying the surrounding infrastructure would be an approach that was totally unfit for purpose. It is not a case bringing in a law and then putting it into operation in the UK, as has been said—such a law would be out of date almost immediately. As we have heard, the infrastructure that is required to regulate chemicals is extensive. REACH manages tens of thousands of chemicals, with an estimated 140,000 chemicals present in the EU market, and 33 new chemicals are awaiting evaluation.
When we were in the United States, we discussed the time-lag—how long approval can take. I think the US system has been improved now, but, at one point, if a chemical had not been assessed and approved within, I think, six months, it automatically got approval by default. That seems a dreadful way of going about things, and I think that the US has introduced new legislation on the matter fairly recently. We want an efficient and speedy but absolutely thorough system that can get these new chemicals on the market or reject them as required.
The UK has the second largest number of REACH registrations in the EU. It is important to remember that REACH is a relatively new creation; it did not come into existence overnight. It came into force in 2007, after many years of preparation, and there are 600 people working on it at the European Chemicals Agency. There is a suggestion that we could create a British REACH. There was some laughter in the Environmental Audit Committee when the Minister coined the acronym BREACH, because it is probably not the best name for our own chemicals regulator. If we were to create BREACH, it would be impossible and absolutely foolish to try to replicate the work of REACH, when there are 600 people already working on it and we could seek to be part of it. Trying to duplicate that work would require the investment of a huge amount of time, resources and expertise.
We know that DEFRA has suffered from budget and staffing cuts over recent spending reviews. It has so many competing priorities—it seems to be about to release a new plan or strategy every other week—so I do not see how it could take on this task as well. We cannot match the pooled resources of all the EU member states. If we try to operate with a reduced capacity and a pared-down scheme for regulating and managing chemicals, the negative impact on the environment could be huge.
Hundreds of chemicals are classified as toxic to marine life under EU harmonised classification. That includes 1,045 chemicals that are classified as very toxic to aquatic life, 933 chemicals that are classified as very toxic to aquatic life with long-lasting effects and 405 chemicals that are classified as harmful with long-lasting effects. I use the marine environment as an example because, as people will know, it is a passion of mine. The organisation Blueprint for Water estimates that, even with the stringent regulation that is in place at the moment, at least 27% of total ecosystem losses are due to chemical pollution. Reduced capacity could further expose humans and animals to numerous cancers, disrupted reproduction, immune dysfunction, DNA damage and deformities, to name just a few concerns.
There is also the problem of persistent pollutants, called bioaccumulators, which build up inside cells or environments over time, meaning that humans, animals and the natural world are still exposed to them today. The negative impacts are felt only when a certain threshold of accumulation is passed, and that could be many years after their use begins. Bioaccumulation often occurs through food chains, with those at the top suffering from the worst exposure—in most cases, humans are at the top of the food chain. Polychlorinated biphenyls, which were once widely used in electrical products, paper and flame-resistant coatings, are a prime example. It took many decades, pre-REACH, for a ban to be finally implemented, and during that time people were regularly exposed to dangerous carcinogens. Surely, it is better to take a pragmatic approach and attempt to stay in REACH. Although it is not perfect, it has, as I said at the start of my speech, the support of both sides of the equation: the vested interests in the chemical industry, and those who seek to protect the environment, humans and animal welfare.
REACH is being constantly updated, and it has had 38 amendments since its creation. UK companies would have to continue to comply with REACH if they wanted to continue to trade with the continent. As we have heard, even if only a small component of a product—with a car, for example, it could be the paint, the seats or any of 101 different elements—is manufactured in the UK, that small part may well have to comply with REACH. The UK Chemicals Stakeholder Forum recorded that there was a
“clear consensus that businesses did not want to see a weakening of environmental standards”,
and that the industry wants to maintain access to REACH after we leave the EU.
REACH is also closely connected with the EU’s classification, labelling and packaging legislation, as well as the more general EU health, safety and environmental legislation. Just as “chemicals” includes a wide variety of substances, so too does the body of regulation that is required to adequately govern them. If we leave REACH, it is not just a case of replacing it; the UK would need to offer up a substitute for EU regulations, including the sustainable use of pesticides directive, the biocidal products regulation, the industrial emissions directive, the bathing water directive, the drinking water directive and the urban waste water treatment directive, to name just a few. They are all interconnected.
The UK has signed up to a number of sustainable development goals that bind us to regulate chemicals properly and not to support a drop in standards. They include ensuring that by 2020 we use and produce chemicals in ways that do not lead to significant adverse effects on human health and the environment; and, by 2030, reducing the number of deaths and illnesses from hazardous chemicals and air, water and soil pollution and contamination, as well as improving water quality by minimising the release of hazardous chemicals.
That strays on to the turf of another Environmental Audit Committee report on the sustainable development goals and how we can implement them in domestic policy. Again, we were not particularly happy with the Government’s response, and I am sure we will continue to pursue the matter. Despite the obvious risks and uncertainties that face both the chemical industry and the health of the public and the natural environment, the Government’s response to the EAC report was disappointing and rather lacking. I urge the Government to commit to and implement the Committee’s recommendations, because the cost of failing to act, and of not being adequately prepared for when we leave the EU, is too great. In the Government’s election manifesto they promised to be
“the first generation to leave the environment in a better state”
than they found it, but achieving that is incompatible with their current approach to chemicals regulation, and with any regulatory system that does not adequately protect humans, the environment and animals to the extent that REACH does.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans.
I take this opportunity to thank the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) for securing this crucial and topical debate. Some interesting and intriguing points and concerns have been raised. The hon. Lady has already said that she feels as though the Government are treating the chemicals industry as a Cinderella industry. Her point about zombie legislation was not lost on Members, and her detailed knowledge of this subject is admirable.
Other Members made clear their concerns about the loss of jobs and the possibility of animal testing, which raises another unnecessary problem that we would have to deal with. Many other important questions are as yet unanswered. It was good to hear that the hon. Member for Gordon (Colin Clark) might cross the divide—that intrigues me—but it was reassuring that he has already become a devotee of the EAC. The hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith)—
The hon. Gentleman is one of the very few people who have got the pronunciation right.
Am I? If I can say “Auchtermuchty”, and so on, it is fairly easy.
The hon. Lady raised the importance of getting the transition right and reiterated that we need policy certainty on this issue. The modesty of the hon. Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) and her understanding of the complexity of this inquiry is to be admired. She is without doubt a very able and knowledgeable MP, as I have learned.
It has been a privilege to be a member of the Committee, as it is to follow the hon. Lady. As well as benefiting from my deeply committed and knowledgeable colleagues, I have relished fighting on issues that I am passionate about. Highlighting the need to protect our precious environment against pollution on a local, national and international level has been my mission. From the scourge of plastic microbeads and nurdles on our beaches, to plastic fibres from clothing that poison our waterways, the Committee has shone a light on environmental issues that the public want and need to know about. The Committee has successfully alerted corporate giants to their responsibility to communities and to the wider world that we share. We have never shirked asking difficult questions. I wish to acknowledge our Chair, the hon. Member for Wakefield, and I am sure that my colleagues want to do the same. In my opinion, she provides the best model for the operation of a successful Committee.
I, too, was on the trip that the hon. Lady mentioned to America prior to last year’s election. The Committee visited Washington DC to meet various agencies, senior academics and scientists. We were told by one of the scientists there that they had already had 100,000 companies registered in Ireland. That immediately raises concerns, and it reinforces what has been said today. We were all warned that Brexit threatened our membership of REACH and would result in disastrous consequences for our industries and economies. I was also warned that the Scottish Government’s competencies in environmental matters were facing an existential threat.
The chemicals industry is an economic linchpin, and we heard grave concerns from senior people who fear that Brexit may result in deteriorating standards if REACH is compromised. REACH has been widely described as the most complex piece of legislation ever undertaken in the EU’s history, and around 30,000 chemicals are registered under it at present. I think that in the UK something like 6,500 are registered under it at the moment. Meanwhile, as has been said, its membership is a passport to the global chemicals marketplace.
REACH standards are recognised by regulatory regimes worldwide. That enables exports worth £14 billion every year across the EU. By May this year—the looming deadline for registering chemicals under REACH—UK companies will have spent an estimated £250 million on the process over the past 10 years. 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.
Let me turn to my homeland, Scotland. The Scots chemical industry is a truly international and invaluable part of the Scottish economy, second only to our thriving food and drink industry. It is a major exporter that delivers outstanding GVA and has shown remarkable resilience in these turbulent economic times. I believe that the most recent Office for National Statistics figures show that the Scottish sector maintained double-digit export growth between 2014 and 2015, before the recent weakening of the pound. Surely that success cannot be allowed to face uncertainty. As we know, the sector is acutely sensitive to any tariffs or barriers that would make exports less competitive. We must also think of the vast numbers of people employed in the sector, as has been said—more than 10,000 directly in Scotland and six times that figure indirectly—in an array of jobs ranging from manufacturing, sales and marketing to logistics. Chemical sciences account for 33% of all Scottish manufacturing.
The regulation system achieved through REACH allows us to protect our environment and therefore human health. Industry and the public—our constituents —cannot afford to wait for the UK Government to act on these issues. Industries will still need to meet EU regulations after we leave the EU if businesses are to continue trading, so why is the Government’s position so vague? We are painfully aware that prolonged uncertainty could cost the taxpayers of this country millions of pounds and leave our exports in disarray.
I believe wholeheartedly that membership of REACH is vital to allow unhindered movement of medicines and drugs post-Brexit. Yet when they were asked by the Environmental Audit Committee to take a pragmatic approach to the UK’s future relationship to the EU single market for chemicals, the Government gave a meaningless response that held no answer. That is simply not good enough. As for Scotland, its continuing transition to a low-carbon energy country must be allowed to continue. It is important for everyone that that approach is seen as a way forward for the environment. Everybody here has asked questions; we now demand some answers.
I am delighted to serve under your chairing, Mr Evans. It is good to see the Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, the hon. Member for Suffolk Coastal (Dr Coffey) back in her place; I fear that we may spend some time in statutory instrument Committees, including on this topic. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh), Chair of the Committee, on a thoughtful presentation. I do not intend to repeat much of it, because I think that the Minister has got her train of thought and will be answering some of her points.
I commend my hon. Friends the Members for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith) and for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy) for their speeches, and my hon. Friend the Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), who made an intervention. The hon. Member for Gordon (Colin Clark), although he is no longer in his place, made a good contribution, and the hon. Member for Falkirk (John Mc Nally), who spoke for the Scottish National party, also raised numerous pertinent points.
The report is good and, I must say, pithy. I enjoy Select Committee findings when they can be read within a relatively short time; I always think that the shorter they are, the better the quality. That would be fine, except that the Government’s response was even shorter and, I am afraid, not as pithy, in the sense that it did not get to the point of things, except one bit, which I will ask the Minister about. The Government say:
“The government will use the Repeal Bill (The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill) to convert EU law into UK law and use the powers to amend REACH, as well as other related chemicals regulation to make them work properly in the UK.”
Can I assume from that that REACH is still the preferred methodology for dealing with chemicals? That is important. As far as I understand it, this is an interesting issue, because the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is only one part of it, and the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy also has a strong interest. I gather that the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy has more or less intimated that he also wants some continuation of the relationship to REACH. Is that our starting point? That is my question for the Minister, because all other factors follow from that. The issue is important. Interestingly, this excellent paper from the House of Commons Library on Brexit and the environment uses REACH as an example of the implications, because it will have a pretty big impact on our industry, but also on how we feel safe with chemicals.
The report preceded the general election, even though the Government’s response came after it, so we must consider something a bit more recent—the 25-year environment plan, in which three pages are allocated to chemicals. It makes some clear commitments. On page 100, the Government commit to four actions. The first is:
“Publishing an overarching Chemicals Strategy to set out our approach as we leave the EU.”
When? The second is:
“Exploring options to consolidate monitoring and horizon-scanning work to develop an early warning system for identifying emerging chemical issues.”
How will that be done? The third is:
“Considering how we will address tracking of chemicals in products to reduce barriers to recycling and reuse whilst preventing a risk from harmful chemicals.”
Who will do that? If not Government, will it be done in partnership? The fourth is:
“Working internationally to strengthen the standardisation of methods that assess chemical safety in support of the mutual acceptance of data to identify and share information on emerging concerns and new approaches to risk assessments.”
If not REACH, what could it possibly be?
We have already talked about double registration, the impact on jobs and investment and the possibility of relocation. All four of those actions impinge closely on how the industry will evolve, so it is important for the Minister to give us at least some way forward on how the Government are tackling them. Like my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Wakefield, I read the previous Brexit impact assessment—are we allowed to call it an impact assessment now? Like everyone else, I do not know whether the Minister has seen the one on chemicals; presumably it would have been referred to in the latest documentation, which we have been debating this week. It is important to know that the industry will feature, because it is important.
In terms of where we are, it is not just a question of the chemical industry. As my hon. Friends have made clear, it is about how that locks into all sorts of other industries, such as the food chain, health and medicines and animal welfare. That is important, because every time I sit next to someone from those industries, all they say to me is, “Is there any certainty? Is there any way we can make decisions? We don’t know what we’re going to do, because we get nothing but confusion. We need some clarity.”
It is not just about the industry. My hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East discussed some of the implications when things have gone wrong. I mention organophosphates, to pick up an issue after not having been here for some time. I am dealing with a constituent who suffers from organophosphate poisoning. It has nothing to do with the Minister—it predates both her Government and mine, although it involved mine—but we all know that when regulation goes wrong, people suffer. For someone facing the repercussions of OP poisoning, it is awful. That is why we must get this right. It is a matter of human safety and, eventually, someone’s life experience, so it would be good to know that this issue is at the top of DEFRA’s agenda, and that the Department is talking to BEIS to ensure that we get it right.
I have a series of questions. I will go through them quickly, but they are important. First, the European Chemicals Agency, the current chemicals regulator, has extensive databases. Are we talking to the ECHA about how we could still access those databases after exit day? Secondly, I have already referred to the overarching chemical strategy. Is there a timetable? I know that it has been said that it will not happen until after exit day, but there must be some clear steer on what the timetable is. Thirdly, will the Department be transparent and publish what it is doing and thinking about how those procedures will be taken forward?
Chemistry World published a story—whether it was a leak or an inspired story—that said that Government had set aside £5.8 million for an IT system to look at the registration and regulation of chemicals. Can the Minister confirm that? Is that in addition to REACH or a replacement?
I have mentioned the Business Secretary’s view that REACH is something we need to build on rather than replace. It would be useful to know whether the Department is talking to BEIS about how that will happen.
The Department’s research is hopefully now focused on this issue. Does it have sufficient civil servants and sufficient expertise? Is it drawing in other outside expertise? It is very important to draw together to ensure that whatever the outcome, we get this right.
Finally, can the Minister assure me that there is no intention to lower standards? The bottom line is that it cannot be any worse, for the reasons that we have discussed: people suffered when we got it wrong, and the industry needs stability and security. The Minister has plenty of time to respond, and I look forward to hearing her answers.
I remind the Minister that it is customary to allow a couple of minutes at the end for Mary Creagh to sum up.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Evans. I congratulate the hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) on securing this debate and I thank her Committee for its report.
The Government recognise that the UK chemicals sector is vital to the economy and to many other industries, often leading the way in research and innovation. Not only is it our second largest export industry, but it is a key component in almost all our other huge sectors. As the hon. Lady explained, chemicals are in many of the products and processes that we use. I am fully aware of the extent to which they can be in everyday products, and indeed in medicines and elsewhere.
The Committee’s inquiry took place nearly a year ago and we replied to it in July. I note that the Committee invited comments on our response. I have continued to meet the industry, and across Government, engagement with the industry and stakeholders will continue. I recognise that the principal concern of the industry—to ensure that existing REACH registrations remain valid—has not changed.
I also recognise that trade associations and other organisations have continued to call for the UK to stay in REACH. As I have explained elsewhere, given the principles set out by the Prime Minister in her Lancaster House speech, we will not stay in REACH per se but, through the provisions set out in the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, we will bring into law the regulations that put REACH into effect. That is important because the continuity will provide an effective regulatory system for the management and control of chemicals to safeguard human health and the environment. It will also minimise any market access barriers for UK companies trading with the EU.
It has been suggested that we are not listening to the voice of business, but I humbly point out that the Government are listening to the voice of the people by respecting the referendum result. It was reiterated throughout the 2016 campaign that a vote to leave was also a vote to leave the single market.
I differ on the point that people voted to leave the single market. Nevertheless, I am sure the Minister just said that the Government will do their best to minimise any lack of access to the European market. Is that not an acknowledgement that there will be some damage to the industry if we leave REACH and have to set up our own regulatory regime?
The hon. Lady will recognise that our future relationship is still a matter for negotiation. Phase 1 has happened and we are moving into phase 2. Having exactly the same regulation the day before and the day after we leave the European Union will minimise market access barriers for UK companies trading in the EU.
We agree that ensuring the continued validity of REACH registrations is a critical issue and fully recognise the investment that UK companies have made in the REACH registration process. We are clear that we want existing registrations, authorisations and approvals to remain valid in the EU and UK markets, which is clearly in the interest of businesses operating in the UK and the EU. That recognises the complex compliance activity that takes place through supply chains. As the hon. Member for Wakefield pointed out, it is not just about sales between companies but about the movement of goods through the supply chain within a company.
We want to avoid the unnecessary duplication of compliance activities undertaken by businesses prior to exit. That was set out in the Government’s position paper, “Continuity in the availability of goods for the EU and the UK”, published in August 2017, which also set out our principles for maintaining the availability of goods after exit.
It is likely that some products will be undergoing testing, registration or authorisation processes at the point of exit. For such cases, given the ambition for a close future relationship, the body carrying out the assessment should be permitted to complete it and the results should be recognised in UK and EU markets. That would be in the best interests of businesses across Europe, and I encourage them to work together to support that pragmatic outcome.
Although it would not be appropriate to pre-judge the outcome of the negotiations, we will discuss with EU member states how best to continue co-operation in chemicals regulation in the best interests of the UK and the European Union. That extends to aspects of knowledge sharing—it would be ideal to continue that work through the negotiations. For example, the EU is highly reliant on the expertise of the Health and Safety Executive in the assessment of chemicals, particularly biocides and pesticides.
I am aware that the guidance that the European Chemicals Agency published on its website about the UK’s withdrawal from the EU has caused concern. That guidance reflects the EU’s view of what would need to happen if there were no future relationship between the EU and the UK. It does not, of course, take into account potential negotiated outcomes and I am pleased to note that that has now been acknowledged on the ECHA website. As hon. Members may be aware, the guidance has recently been updated to reflect issues about the transfer of registrations and authorisations.
We have increased resources within my Department, in the HSE—a body sponsored by the Department for Work and Pensions—and in the Environment Agency to work on chemicals policy and prepare to deliver an effective regulatory regime after we leave the EU. We have established a joint programme of work with HSE to deliver what we need to have in place for day 1. I work with ministerial colleagues across Government from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the DWP, the Department for Exiting the European Union, the Department for International Trade and the Treasury.
We are also planning for a non-negotiated day 1 outcome to have a functioning chemicals regulatory and enforcement system. We are now scoping and designing what such a system would look like, including an IT system to replicate REACH. As the hon. Member for Wakefield pointed out, that includes the budget that has been released so far to scope that system.
On leaving the EU, our regulatory system and laws will be identical to those of the EU. There could be opportunities to consider improving the regulatory system to maintain standards in protecting the environment and human health. That is why we have considered the regulatory approaches of other countries, including those that are largely modelled on REACH.
Although we will not be part of REACH, there is an opportunity to work internationally to strengthen the standardisation of methods that assess chemical safety in support of the mutual acceptance of data to identify and share information on emerging concerns and on new approaches to risk assessments. In a global world where we share chemicals and have several existing chemicals conventions, it makes sense for our regulatory authorities increasingly to share that information to ensure that we have greater compliance and convergence in understanding and recognising the benefits and hazards that chemicals can pose. I do not see any reason why we cannot have that ambition once we leave the EU.
After the dreadful experience of the Rural Payments Agency’s IT system, will the Minister confirm whether the IT system to replicate REACH has already been commissioned? Will it be put out to private contractors or done in-house within government?
The system is at the stage where we are waiting for an aspect of the business case to be signed off. I have met the new Minister responsible for the Health and Safety Executive—the Minister for Disabled People, Health and Work, my hon. Friend the Member for Truro and Falmouth (Sarah Newton)—and work is ongoing between our Departments and the HSE.
The most relevant environmental principle to chemicals regulation is the precautionary principle, which is embedded in international conventions relevant to the regulation of chemicals, such as the Stockholm convention on persistent organic pollutants, to which the UK will continue to be a signatory in its own right. The Secretary of State has announced that we will consult on how we will incorporate various environmental principles and governance mechanisms, and we are carefully considering our proposals at the moment.
As the hon. Member for Stroud (Dr Drew) noted, we recently published our 25-year environment plan, in which we acknowledged that chemicals provide substantial benefits to society, but their widespread use in industry, agriculture, food systems and homes has led in some cases to pollution of land, water, air and food. We will publish a new chemicals strategy to tackle chemicals of national concern. The new strategy, which will build on existing regulatory approaches, will set our priorities for action and will detail how we will achieve our goals. It is intended to support collaborative work on human biomonitoring, address the combination effects of different chemicals and improve how we track chemicals across supply chains. I am not able to set out a timeline, but I certainly do not anticipate that the strategy will be published this year, because our main focus is implementing a smooth transition and continuing existing regulations.
We also need to consider the domestic market within the United Kingdom. REACH currently gives us a consistent framework across the UK, and we would like that consistency to continue. We have already started discussions with the devolved Administrations on a future chemicals framework across the UK.
Let me tackle some other questions raised by hon. Members. Is REACH the preferred methodology for chemicals regulation? In our international discussions, as I told the Environmental Audit Committee, we are not minded to take the United States’ approach. We think that REACH has shown its worth. As has been pointed out, a lot of chemical companies were not necessarily its greatest fans when it was introduced but are now embracing it. When I discuss the matter with Ministers from Brazil and other countries, it is clear that they are trying to get the best of all worlds, which is what we need to ensure for ourselves as we go forward. I have spoken to Switzerland, and I think officials have had discussions with South Korea. A lot of countries are taking a REACH-style approach but may not be replicating it in every detail.
On early warning and horizon scanning, I hope we can set out our approach in more detail when we publish our chemicals strategy. In answer to the question about sufficient expertise, I must point out that the HSE is the responsible authority and there is no reason to doubt its expertise; I commend it for its work in support of the chemicals industry.
I fully understand hon. Members’ concerns about bureaucracy, which is why we are in negotiations. I am afraid that I cannot give hon. Members an update on where we are, because phase 2 of the negotiations is yet to start; I fully understand the uncertainty that that brings. I have engaged with stakeholders. We have seen only representatives becoming part of networks or opening branch offices in different countries or a presence in the European Union. As I told the Committee, from my experience of working in multinational companies, I fully expect them to be contingency planning, but that does not mean that they will be abandoning this country all of a sudden. Far from it: the size of the market in this country, not only for chemicals but—as has already been explained—for many other manufacturing sectors, absolutely means that they will keep a permanent presence in the United Kingdom.
I do not anticipate any new approaches to risk assessment. The precautionary principle is well embedded in what we do. As I have articulated, we will be bringing different regulations into law, as will the devolved Administrations. We sit on committees now and we hope to retain those links in the future, but that is a matter for the negotiations.
The hon. Member for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green) raised third-party country status. We still need to consider and negotiate elements of that. The approach set out by the Prime Minister on behalf of the Government, in which not being governed by the European Court of Justice is a guiding principle in what we do, still applies, so some assessment is still needed. Bioaccumulation is among the matters that we intend to cover in our chemicals strategy.
Let me assure hon. Members that ensuring we have a regulatory regime that continues to be effective is a very important part of my portfolio, but my top priority has been a smooth transition. As I am sure hon. Members recognise, I cannot answer questions today about exactly what our future customs arrangements with the rest of the European Union will be. However, I am highly conscious that we want to help business to continue to be successful, and I would like it to get certainty as quickly as possible. I am sure that I have disappointed hon. Members today by not being able to do that, but I will move on to the next phase of negotiations shortly.
I reiterate that we will do all we can to ensure a smooth transition and a successful industry for years to come. I saw the hon. Member for Stroud and members of the Environmental Audit Committee yesterday. I am sure that broad consideration of the environment in different ways and across different industries will continue, quite rightly, to be a key topic for debate in Parliament.
I thank Environmental Audit Committee members present—the hon. Members for Gordon (Colin Clark) and for Falkirk (John Mc Nally), and my hon. Friend the Member for Bristol East (Kerry McCarthy)—for their support, along with the Minister’s Parliamentary Private Secretary, the hon. Member for Taunton Deane (Rebecca Pow). I certainly feel that the Committee is waking up, having been a sleeping giant on the Committee Corridor; it is finally finding its voice.
I agree with the Minister that her response was very disappointing. Based on what she is offering the sector, I think the verdict is “Must try harder”. She has told us that the chemicals strategy will not be published this year, which is deeply worrying. She is not offering continuity, as she said, but rupture and multiplication of uncertainty. She is in danger of sounding complacent when she talks about only representatives setting up in other countries. These are the people through whom business flows, so if they leave, the business leaves with them.
The Minister says no, but we can have a debate about that. She talks about setting up a database with £5.8 million of our money, yet she says that a business case has not yet been developed for it.
May I add some information? Clearly the system will cost more than £5.8 million. That is part of the release of money.
How much will it cost?
We do not have a final estimate for the budget, because the system is still to be finalised. That is why the business case still needs to be assessed.
This looks like a release of initial moneys to scope out and make the business case for the rest. I wonder about DEFRA’s capacity to deal with this. DEFRA has lost 5,000 civil servants in the past seven years.
The ECHA website states:
“Only a mutual agreement between the EU and UK authorities can change this date”,
meaning 30 March. It also states:
“It is the European Commission that conducts the withdrawal negotiations with the UK Government under a negotiating mandate…ECHA is not party to these negotiations.”
We face the uncertainty of whether there will be a transitional period, how long it will be and what will happen, and then the further uncertainty of what will happen afterwards. Lord Bridges said that the transition period was set to be one of “muddling through” and
“a gangplank into thin air.”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 30 January 2018; Vol. 788, c. 1423.]
The Minister says that when people voted in the referendum, they were voting to leave the single market. Daniel Hannan, her Tory MEP colleague, said that only a madman would leave the single market. Well, I am afraid the Minister’s party seems to have been taken over by the madmen. We need a sensible, rooted debate based on the reality of people’s lives and the reality for businesses in this country, not constant reassuring words that give solidity to mere wind.
Question put and agreed to.
That this House has considered the Eleventh Report of the Environmental Audit Committee of Session 2016-17, The Future of Chemicals Regulation after the EU Referendum, HC 912, and the Government response, HC 313.
[Relevant document: Written evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee, on The Future of Chemicals Regulation after the EU Referendum, reported to the House on 24 October 2017, HC 389.]