Considered in Grand Committee
My Lords, this draft statutory instrument was laid before Parliament on 23 June. As part of this Government’s ambitious international trade agenda, the United Kingdom signed a free trade agreement last year with the European Economic Area and European Free Trade Association countries, such as Iceland, Liechtenstein and Norway. This agreement included a chemicals annex as part of the technical barriers to trade provisions, which committed both parties to co-operate in the field of chemicals regulation.
This draft statutory instrument makes a provision for this chemical annex so that the Health and Safety Executive can share information on chemicals it holds, such as individual regulatory substance evaluations and risk assessments, with the authorities in those countries. The SI also allows the UK authorities to make use of information received from EEA/EFTA countries to help to ensure protection in the areas of health and safety, the environment and consumers. This sharing of information will promote greater transparency and understanding of our respective regulatory approaches and of chemicals safety. It will also help to create a greater understanding of the decision-making processes in the UK, which will build trust and confidence with EEA/EFTA countries, enhancing the robustness of decision-making, and thereby reduce regulatory costs for UK businesses wishing to place chemical products on the market in EEA/EFTA countries.
This SI also corrects minor outstanding deficiencies such as references to EU institutions in several pieces of retained chemicals law arising from leaving the EU, to ensure that the relevant chemicals regimes continue to operate effectively. There are no policy changes or changes to duties but, since it is such a technical instrument, I am sure that a brief summary of the changes will be welcomed.
The first of the three retained regulations to be amended is the GB biocidal products regulation, which governs the placing on the market and use of products that contain chemicals that protect humans, animals, materials or articles against harmful organisms such as pests or bacteria. It is in place to ensure these chemicals are safe for humans, animals and the environment while improving the functioning of the biocidal products market. This market covers a wide range of products, such as wood preservatives, insecticides such as wasp spray, or anti-fouling paint to remove barnacles from boats.
The second is the GB classification, labelling and packaging of substances and mixtures regulation, which ensures that the hazardous intrinsic properties of chemicals are properly identified and effectively communicated to those throughout the supply chain, including to the point of use, partly through standardised hazard pictograms and warning phrases associated with specific hazards, such as explosivity, acute toxicity or carcinogenicity.
The third amendment is to the GB prior informed consent regulation, which implements the UK’s obligations under the international Rotterdam convention and requires exports of listed chemicals to be notified to the importing country; for some chemicals, the consent of the importing country must be obtained before export can proceed.
In addition, this SI makes minor technical amendments to several pieces of EU-derived domestic legislation. The provisions for CLP, BP and PIC that I have just mentioned were brought into GB law from EU law but, during this process, some EU references within the legislation were not removed. The SI will ensure that these references are removed so that the CLP, BP and PIC provisions work as domestic legislation in Great Britain.
Finally, the SI will correct and update references related to EU exit in the Plant Protection Product (Fees and Charges) Regulations 2011 and the Biocidal Products and Chemicals (Appointment of Authorities and Enforcement) Regulations 2013. It will also clarify provisions in the Health and Safety and Nuclear (Fees) Regulations 2021 on fees payable for activities carried out by HSE as the competent authority in relation to biocides.
In conclusion, I take this opportunity to reiterate and emphasise that the changes this SI will make to retained and EU-derived chemicals legislation are minor technical amendments and make no changes to either policy or duties. I hope that colleagues of all parties will join me in supporting the draft regulations, and I commend them to the Committee.
My Lords, I thank the Minister very much for her clear introduction to what are at first sight some rather technical and dry regulations. Technical and dry they may be, but they are very important. They deal with matters of considerable import, not least to agriculture, as well as to horticulture, which is also a significant part of our economy. The clear and consistent labelling of chemical products not only to people who import and export them but to consumers across the world is of increasing importance.
I take what the noble Baroness says—that these are simply technical changes consequent on our withdrawal from the EU—but I have a few questions. Do the regulations simply return GB law—I will come back to the difference between GB and UK law in a moment —to the point it was at when we exited the EU? Do they in any way impact on the future convergence of information exchange about labelling standards? The wording of the explanation of the role of the HSE and phrases such as “enabling there to be a pathway” for the HSE are somewhat general for such a tight and specific subject, and I did not find that particularly helpful. Are the regulations simply maintaining the status quo as it was when we exited the EU, or are they the basis for continuing monitoring of our diversions or convergence with EU legislation in this matter?
Secondly, there are specific references to Northern Ireland. The Explanatory Memorandum at paragraph 7 talks about the biocides regulation and makes particular reference to products that would be imported into Great Britain. I think it draws a distinction between products that will be imported into Great Britain and thence into Northern Ireland and, in similar fashion, the other way round. We are back to the vexed and as yet unresolved question of the Northern Ireland protocol and the Northern Ireland border. This is a really important subject because, as we know, agriculture is a significant part of the Northern Ireland economy. If we do not have clarity and consistency with other parts of the EU on biocidal products and chemicals, that must pose a significant risk.
Finally, towards the end of her introduction the Minister referred to cost. Can she say what the estimated cost to UK businesses will be in terms of the increased costs of maintaining regular exports to EEA and EFTA countries, and the estimated increase in import costs for products from those countries? I would be very much obliged if she answered some of those points.
My Lords, I thank the Minister for her introduction to these regulations and for explaining them. I confess that I read both the regulations and the Explanatory Memorandum more than once, and stopped only when I realised that every successive reading was adding nothing to my understanding or indeed knowledge of the subject in question. So, I appreciate her summary.
I thank the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, for some great questions. She is absolutely right that, while they seem dry, questions such as the easily comprehensible labelling of dangerous objects could hardly be more important in terms of protecting life and limb. I will ask some questions, and I apologise in advance if they are basic. However, I trust that the Minister has cavalry behind her who can assist should that be necessary.
As far as I can understand it—I know that the Minister will correct me when she responds if I have got it wrong—the instrument appears to do two main things. First, it provides for the creation of an information- sharing gateway so that the Health and Safety Executive can disclose information that it is required to disclose under the terms of the trade agreement between the UK and the EEA/EFTA. My first question is: what is it? What will the gateway look like? Is it a process or a piece of software? Is it online and is it secure?
The second question is fairly obvious: what will it do? The Explanatory Memorandum says:
“HSE needs a power in order to share information such as individual substance evaluations and risk assessments that it holds on chemicals to assist the UK in meeting its obligations on regulatory co-operation contained in the Chemicals Annex of this trade agreement.”
Can the Minister give me an example—I am a bear of very little brain—of some information that the UK is required to disclose as a result of this trade agreement which is in the gift of the HSE and which it currently does not have the power to disclose but, as a result of this regulation, will then be able to disclose?
Can the Minister also tell us where the information is coming from? She mentioned information coming from EFTA or EEA trade partners, but are we also talking about information that British firms have supplied to the HSE in the ordinary run of business? I am interested in the line of liability and the control of the data. Whose data is it, who controls it and where will it end up?
What are the limits on disclosure? Regulation 3 sets out three “permitted purposes” under which this information can be disclosed:
“to ensure health and safety … to ensure protection of consumers”
“to ensure protection of the environment.”
That is pretty broad. Given that it is that wide-reaching, can the Minister say what the boundaries are for disclosure and whether there will be any monitoring of the HSE’s decision-making in relation to it? Since the received information can be used only for a permitted purpose, what will be in place to monitor the use after the information has been disclosed?
There is a lot of amending and repealing going on here—amending the biocides regulation, amending and repealing two EU directives. How can you amend and repeal things? Do you amend them and then repeal them? I suppose it would not make any sense the other way around, but perhaps the Minister can shed some light on that. There was also amendment of the CLP regulation, the PIC regulation and related retained legislation
“to ensure the regulations continue to operate effectively.”
At this point I had completely lost any sense of which regulations were being enabled to operate effectively.
I am trying to get at what the end state is—the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, put it much more crisply. Where will we land once all this amending and repealing has happened? Are we back where we were before Brexit? Are we in a parallel space to where our EEA/EFTA trade partners are? Are we on some different diverging path? Where will we land? Also, can she assure us that, once all this amending and repealing has happened, the legislation—both retained and secondary—relating to health and safety in chemicals will be fit for purpose?
To give the Minister a bit of time, I will summarise the questions. What is the gateway? What information will go through it? Can we have an example of it? Where does the information come from? What are the limits on the information that can be disclosed, given the very wide-ranging parameters in the regulations? Where will we land once all this has happened? I am very excited to hear her reply.
I thank the eloquent noble Baronesses for their questions. As they say, this is a very technical piece of work, but I will do my best to respond. My cavalry is working very hard to ensure that I can do so with accuracy. I thank both noble Baronesses for contributing to this debate. In closing, I will try to deal with some of the issues. If I do not, noble Lords know that I will go away and do my homework to get the answers they deserve.
The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, asked about the Northern Ireland protocol. This instrument makes no changes in relation to Northern Ireland beyond correcting references in EU-derived domestic legislation to EU law which should reference the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland and ensuring that the definition of “export” in the GB PIC regulation clearly captures the removal of chemicals from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, as intended.
The noble Baroness also asked whether the regulations simply return GB regulations to their state when we left the EU. The CLP regulation has been retained as domestic law and now establishes a GB CLP system that is independent from the EU CLP regulation. It is therefore necessary to ensure our regulations no longer make deficient references to EU institutions or their processes and authority. These proposed changes ensure the last remaining references to the European Commission and its delegated powers to make amendments to specified articles and annexes are removed from the retained GB CLP regulation.
The noble Baroness, Lady Barker, referred to the biocidal products regulation, or BPR. The regulations were brought into GB from EU BPR, but during this process, as I have said, some EU references within the legislation were not removed, so the changes in this SI ensure that GB BPR works as a piece of domestic legislation.
The noble Baroness also asked about estimated costs. There will be no costs to businesses arising from the regulatory information-sharing arrangements in the UK-EEA/EFTA trade agreement. The corrections to the retained chemicals regulations are to address deficiencies and inoperabilities. They allow the regulations to function as originally intended and do not have any financial implications.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, challenged us on what the information-sharing gateway will look like. It will be mostly regulatory information held by the HSE or parties to agreements, so it will be information on risk assessments—not confidential business info. Trade data will be for the Department for International Trade.
The noble Baroness, Lady Sherlock, raised the issue of disclosure. The GB PIC regulation implements the UK’s international obligations under the Rotterdam convention on the prior informed consent procedure for severely hazardous pesticides. The regulation establishes a system of export notification and information exchange to allow countries to make informed decisions about the chemicals they import. The GB regulation has been retained as domestic law, and now establishes a GB PIC export notification system that is independent from the EU PIC regulation.
The SI amends references to the Taxation (Cross-Border Trade) Act 2018 in the definition of export in GB PIC to ensure that it clearly captures removal of chemicals from Great Britain to Northern Ireland, as intended. Disclosure of information is subject to data protection regulations. Another example of disclosure is regulator-to-regulator information on our approaches to regulating anti-fouling paints, which remove barnacles from boats.
I hope I have covered the questions. If I have not done so to noble Lords’ satisfaction or there are some outstanding, I give my word that I will write with the information. To conclude, this instrument will give HSE—
I shall not press the Minister any further now. She has helpfully described what the regulations are intended to do, but she has not helped laypeople such as the noble Baroness, Lady Barker, and I to understand what the end state will look like as a result of them. For example, she said that through removing deficiencies, we will have an independent GB CLP regulation process. It is great that it will not be deficient any more; I have no idea what it will look like, and I realise I should. If possible, when she writes, given the complexity of the regulations and the question, if she could describe the end state, we would be very grateful.
I am very happy to commit to doing that, subject to agreement from my officials. We are fine.
To conclude, the instrument will give HSE the power it needs to share regulatory information it holds on chemicals to assist the UK in meeting its obligations on regulatory co-operation contained in the chemicals annexe to the free trade agreement with the EEA/EFTA countries. This removes the barrier which was stopping information sharing under the free trade agreement, which would have been detrimental to HSE making informed decisions about the chemicals being imported and exported. By also correcting the outstanding deficiencies related to EU exit, we will ensure that retained and EU-derived domestic chemicals legislation continues to operate effectively. Therefore, I commend the instrument.
Committee adjourned at 5.18 pm.