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Chemicals Strategy

Volume 837: debated on Tuesday 30 April 2024


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government when they intend to publish the chemicals strategy to which they committed in their 25-year environment plan of January 2018.

My Lords, protecting human health and the environment from the risks posed by chemicals is a priority of the Government. The Government will meet their commitments on chemicals set out in the Environmental Improvement Plan 2023. The short delay in publishing the chemicals strategy is due to the new Secretary of State being more ambitious with its scope. We continue to engage regularly with industry, we have a draft strategy just here, right behind me—I do not want to do a spoiler alert—and we aim to publish it very shortly.

My Lords, it is now over six years since the chemicals strategy was first promised, to set out the UK’s approach post Brexit to ensure that chemicals are safely used and managed, with the promise of a world-class system. However, this month, Hazards magazine published data on workplace exposure limits for chemicals, which found that not a single new protective workplace exposure limit has been introduced into Britain since the UK left the EU. Worryingly, in 10 instances, the British standard was weaker than the new EU occupational exposure limit. Can the Minister confirm that when the strategy is finally published, it will urgently address this in order to reassure our British workers?

This is a complex area. I entirely agree with the noble Baroness’s thoughts and will take them back to the department to see whether we can get that included if it is not already there.

My Lords, the Minister characterised the delay with the strategy as a short delay. Let us talk about another delay—the delay in publishing the 2023-24 UK REACH work programme. The Minister is relatively new and will not be aware of the saga of his department’s regulating and authorising the use of chemicals. The Minister sitting beside him, the noble Lord, Lord Benyon, has suffered it rather more. That annual work programme was published 10 months late. This is a vital document for the chemical industries to work out what they need to do to meet safety and regulatory concerns. Will the Minister promise that the 2024-25 report, which is due in the summer, will be published on time?

Again, the noble Lord raises a very good point. This is serious stuff which needs to be adhered to in great detail, so I will take his comments back and ensure that we strive much harder this year to get that report out on time.

My Lords, antimicrobial resistance is a major global health problem, including in the UK. What are His Majesty’s Government doing regarding surveillance for antibiotics and their residues in aqueous environments and to reduce the contamination of those aqueous environments with antibiotics and residues, which can spread and facilitate the development of antibiotic resistance in humans and animals?

Antimicrobial resistance has been raised a number of times in the House. I have had several meetings with the noble Lord and his colleagues, talking about the UK’s success story in this area. Antibiotic use has been reduced by more than 50% over the last five years. However, there is more progress to be made and the noble Lord raises a series of very valuable points, which I will write to him on.

Does my noble friend agree that if we do not get some of these things out pretty quickly and the European Union goes on improving its situation, many people will ask whether there was any point in taking back control in the first place?

That is certainly an interesting perspective but not one that I would agree with, I am afraid. Now that we have left the UK, we will follow the best—

I think that your Lordships spotted my mistake. We will follow the best scientific advice and adopt the most appropriate approaches for the UK.

My Lords, is the Minister aware that firefighters have a cancer risk that is conservatively estimated to be two to three times higher than that of the general population and that one key factor in that higher risk is the presence of “forever chemicals” in firefighter foams and PPE? Can the Minister confirm that consulting with the FBU on issues such as regular health checks, and a strategy to mitigate and, ideally, prevent that risk, is in that draft updated strategy that he has next to him? Does he agree that dithering and delays in this strategy cost lives?

The noble Baroness is quite right. Forever chemicals are a serious concern. They are linked to a number of different firefighting products—the foam and chemicals that come out of the extinguishers present a particularly serious issue, and not only to those who are using them, for that product gets inextricably linked to the environment around it. A number of issues which will come through in the strategy are in place to address that.

My Lords, how long do the Government plan to keep granting emergency exemptions from the ban on neonicotinoid pesticides? When are they planning to ban these dangerous substances permanently?

My Lords, as the noble Earl knows, restrictions preventing the general use of three neonics in agriculture have been in place for several years. The Government continue to support these restrictions and have no intention of reversing them. A neonic seed treatment, Cruiser SB, is allowed to be used on sugar beet in England only if yellows virus is predicted to pose a threat to that year’s crop. This decision is not taken lightly and is based on a robust assessment of the environmental and economic risks and benefits.

My Lords, in the last four years, the EU has added 31 substances to its list of substances of very high concern and has banned eight substances on that list outright. The UK is reported to be considering adding four to its equivalent list of substances of very high concern, by 2025 at the earliest. Analysts have suggested that this is because of either the Government’s general reluctance to regulate or the lack of Civil Service capacity. Will the Minister change either of those two factors?

I believe there might be choices other than the two that the noble Baroness highlights. One is that not all those substances are necessarily being, or will be, used in the UK; therefore, banning them seems in no way appropriate. However, I take the noble Baroness’s point and will look into it further.

My Lords, since leaving the EU, we have the freedom to phase out the most harmful and persistent pollutants. Are we on target to eliminate the use of polychlorinated biphenyls next year?

My Lords, I always get the impression that chemicals regulation is at the bottom of Defra’s in-tray. Its performance since Brexit has been atrocious. I also get the impression that the Government’s strategy now is to lighten the burden on industry by reducing the amount of information that is put on UK REACH, but that has a lot of other effects. Can we not get to a point where we save real money for the UK chemical industry, which exports into the EU, by finding a pragmatic way—I mean pragmatic—to align with EU REACH, so that the industry can really perform, export and save a huge amount of money; in fact, billions of pounds?

The noble Lord raises a bigger point, and this is exactly what the chemicals strategy aims to achieve. I hope that when it is published, and it will be shortly, the noble Lord will be satisfied.