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Exiting the European Union (Consumer Protection)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:05 pm on 25th February 2019.

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Photo of Patricia Gibson Patricia Gibson Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Consumer Affairs) 7:05 pm, 25th February 2019

This statutory instrument seeks to ensure a high level of protection for human health and the environment, including the promotion of alternative methods for assessing the hazards of substances, as well as the free circulation of substances, while enhancing competitiveness and innovation. Of course, it is necessary that the European Union regulation concerning the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals, which took more than 14 years to develop, continues to work effectively in the UK. This statutory instrument will give the UK an independent capability to control the manufacture and import of chemicals into the UK and to understand the hazards and manage the risks connected to their manufacture and use.

However, as we have heard today, this is not a straightforward undertaking. Under the UK proposals, all transferring UK registrants need to submit registration data to the UK agency for a two-stage process potentially lasting up to two years. The Minister saying, 30-odd days from the Brexit date with no deal looming large, that staff are being recruited and that they are waiting to see if IT systems can go live is not particularly reassuring, given the complexity of this undertaking.

All of this underlines that the regulation and supply of chemicals is yet another of the long list of areas of huge complexity in the Brexit process, and we can see that prior to Brexit, those writing things on the sides of buses gave no thought to such complexities. As the Minister has pointed out, chemicals are woven into the very fabric of our daily lives. These last-minute statutory instruments are a desperate attempt to cover up the lack of forethought given to the complexities of Brexit. If the Prime Minister could assure us that she would simply not countenance a no-deal situation due to the damage it would cause across the UK, we would not have last-minute scrambling to deal with matters of such profound importance as those covered by this statutory instrument.

A report released on 7 February by the House of Lords Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee raised significant concerns about the draft regulations. It found insufficient information on the expected impact, with no financial analysis of the potential costs to the chemicals industry, particularly in relation to the cost of obtaining data needed to register a chemical with UK REACH and the prospect of initial compliance possibly doubling. The Committee also raised concerns about the ability of UK companies to maintain access to the EU market unless they move their registrations to an EU member state.

It recently emerged that the threat of a no-deal Brexit has already prompted more than 50 chemicals companies to move regulatory approvals from the UK to the EU. The companies, which have operations in the UK, have applied to use EU regulators for critical authorisations to protect their ability to do business legally. Their current authorisations would become worthless if there were no transition arrangement following 29 March—the current Brexit date—according to data provided to The Guardian by the European Commission. That matters because this industry is worth billions of pounds.

Chemicals registration is one of the main areas in which the National Audit Office has found that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is wholly unprepared, and there is a risk of disruption to the UK’s chemical manufacturing industry that DEFRA simply cannot address on its own. A negotiated settlement would permit UK chemical manufacturers to export their products to the EU, but without a deal that will not be possible as the registration of products with the EU will cease to be recognised by the EU. In a no-deal scenario, UK chemical manufacturers would no longer be able to export their products to other member states. Recovering market access would be a lengthy process, and it cannot even be started until the UK leaves the EU.

Yet again, we are seeing more complex Brexit aspects for industry that this Government are seeking to scramble to deal with at the last moment. It honestly looks to me as though the Government are acting like an errant pupil who, having forgotten to do their homework, is trying to complete it on the bus on the way to school. This is not good enough. We need a proper extension of article 50 to give this House the proper time to deal with the chaos into which we have been plunged by those who have taken us to the abyss with Brexit, ignoring electoral law to buy the referendum result they wanted and now, having fled the scene, leaving others to deal with the horror left behind. That is why we need, at the very least, an extension of article 50, instead of this House being threatened with a terrible deal or no deal at all.

The matter before us is important and extremely complex, and it should not be dealt with in a short debate on a statutory instrument like some kind of footnote. Yet sadly, this has become the new normal, as a collective madness seems to have gripped too many Members of this House. While I understand that what the Government are doing today is necessary, this is a most unsatisfactory process.