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Exiting the European Union (Consumer Protection)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 6:53 pm on 25th February 2019.

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Photo of Sue Hayman Sue Hayman Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs 6:53 pm, 25th February 2019

Labour believes that this statutory instrument needs urgent modification to avoid disruption to UK businesses in the event of a no-deal Brexit. It shows insufficient understanding of how chemicals are actually managed in complex supply chains, and is therefore unworkable and will unnecessarily create supply disruption issues for UK businesses. Labour believes that continued participation in REACH is the surest way to avoid extra costs and burdens for business, to save jobs and to protect animal welfare, health and safety, and the environment.

The value of the UK chemicals industry cannot be overstated. The sector directly employs 88,000 people, and the industry is worth £6.4 billion to the UK economy every year. It is vital in the supply chain to many other sectors including automotives, pharmaceuticals and aerospace, as well as the production of everyday items such as cleaning products, clothes, and electronics. It is therefore extremely disappointing that we have only been given half a sitting day’s notice of this SI. It represents the second iteration that the Government have published, yet it does little to address the concerns with the first version. The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee said of this re-laid SI that it remains

“concerned that the Department has provided insufficient information on the possible impact of the proposed changes”.

Given the concerns expressed by the Committee, industry, environmental and animal welfare groups and the Opposition, does the Minister agree that the prudent thing would be to take this SI back to the drawing board?

I am particularly worried because I am told that the Health and Safety Executive lacks the capacity, resource, experience and expertise in such a complex field to carry out the functions that the Government propose to transfer from the European Chemicals Agency. As with so many public sector organisations, the HSE has suffered brutal cutbacks. Between 2010 and 2017, its budget was cut by 40%, so why does the SI contain confirmation of its funding? Will the Minister confirm today that funding and resources will be available to the HSE and the Environment Agency for them to perform the proposed duties outlined?

The SI also removes layers of supporting committees at EU level that help to ensure that decisions are based on the best scientific advice and that there is proper scrutiny and oversight. Those committees allow stakeholders from industry, non-governmental organisations and trade unions to collaborate in informing decisions and to ensure balance. In the SI, that is replaced with a duty for the HSE to seek external advice, but no formal committees of experts and stakeholders are being proposed to review and scrutinise the scientific knowledge relating to chemicals.

Furthermore, the SI establishes that the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will make final decisions relating to the status of particular chemicals, whereas the European Commission makes them at EU level. Although we hope it is unlikely that a Secretary of State will diverge from HSE recommendations, they are not explicitly prevented from so doing. We know that the current Secretary of State is notoriously no fan of experts, but he may have gone too far in asking us to grant him powers to override recommendations from the HSE.

As my hon. Friend Mary Creagh said, the Government initially said that they could cut and paste data from the REACH database. However, there seems to have been a significant rowing back from that, with current guidance indicating that companies will provide all the data. As the Minister will no doubt be aware, in order to have copied data from the REACH database, the UK would have needed a licence from the European Chemicals Agency. Will the Minister confirm what progress she and Government colleagues have made in acquiring permission to access the REACH database after 29 March?

Many UK-based companies do not own or have sufficient rights to use the data needed for registration, for a variety of complex reasons, including the fact that many REACH registration dossiers have been developed and submitted by consortia of companies under a joint submission agreement with specific and restricted access rights. A survey of 38 companies by the Chemical Industries Association found that 75% of them do not own the data that would be required for them to register chemicals under UK REACH. Does the Minister recognise that meeting the two-year registration deadline is an almost impossible and extremely costly task for many companies? Caroline Lucas asked about the current status of the IT provisions, and I was unconvinced by the Minister’s response that they will be ready and fit for purpose on exit day.

After Brexit, companies registered with REACH will no longer be able to sell into the EEA market without transferring their registrations to an EEA-based organisation. How many companies have taken such action to date, and what support has the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs provided to them? Given the likelihood that companies will have to duplicate tests already conducted if the Secretary of State cannot agree access to information in the REACH database, there is a real risk that animal tests would have to be reconducted. In evidence to the Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee, the Minister refused to rule out the idea that a UK REACH system would not lead to more animal testing.