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Exiting the European Union (Consumer Protection)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:31 pm on 25th February 2019.

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Photo of Caroline Lucas Caroline Lucas Green, Brighton, Pavilion 7:31 pm, 25th February 2019

It is a real pleasure to follow the Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, Norman Lamb, and my colleague the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee, Mary Creagh. If I was worried about this statutory instrument before I came into the Chamber this evening, I am even more worried now. As a general point, I cannot help but point out that it is simply extraordinary that 32 days before exit day and the end of the article 50 deadline, the Government are only now seeking to pass this vital secondary legislation. This statutory instrument should in theory provide an absolutely minimum protection to human health and the natural world in the event of a catastrophic no deal. It is now almost three years since the referendum vote, the last-minute rushing through of these vital laws is unforgiveable.

The protections offered by REACH and other EU-led regulatory regimes are not nice optional extras; they are the basics of a system designed to keep people healthy and to protect the environment not just in the UK and the EU but across the world. They create a common rule book and they set higher standards. Let us be clear: if the UK leaves the EU without a deal, without even a deal on chemicals, it will immediately lose access to REACH with seriously adverse consequences. In that scenario, the UK would lack a functioning system to regulate the use of chemicals.

One example, as we have been hearing, is that there is not yet a functioning UK-based IT system to replace REACH. That is truly, truly shocking. DEFRA has apparently spent £5.8 million on that new IT system, but it is not yet able to say whether it will be functioning by exit day. Anyone involved in public procurement and IT systems will tell you that if you are not quite sure three weeks from a particular deadline, then, actually, you are sure—it is not going to be ready in three weeks. DEFRA also confirmed that the Health and Safety Executive will run the database. As others have observed, however, the HSE has had a decade of cutbacks and staff losses. It is unclear whether it has the capacity or expertise to deliver. We need much greater clarity about the IT system. The Minister said earlier that a judgment would be made about it later this week. I urge her to bring a statement to this House, so we know whether that IT system will be up and running. If it is not, this House has a right to know that. We also have a right to know whether there is sufficient recruitment of staff at the HSE. What guarantees can she give that those staff have the relevant expertise and skills?

Aside from not yet having a functioning UK-based system, if we leave the EU without a deal we lose access to vital information on thousands of chemicals held in the REACH database. All that data is subject to copyright. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, British companies would need to obtain permission to get that data back. The burden on the UK chemical industry would be huge, costing vast sums of money to either re-register the chemicals here in the UK, or, if unable to obtain key data, to re-test chemicals. Both of those processes would require using a yet-to-be-online IT system. What, if any, assurances can the Minister give to the thousands of companies across the UK who rely on REACH to operate their businesses? Will she admit that a no-deal Brexit and crashing out of REACH would represent a catastrophe for the UK chemicals industry?

We have heard figures about how important the industry is to the UK economy as a whole. It is the UK’s second-biggest manufacturing industry, after the food and drink sector, and it employs half a million people in the UK. Some 61% of chemical exports went to the EU in 2017, with a value of £18 billion, and 73% of chemical imports came from the EU. UK companies hold 12,449 REACH registrations. To put that in context, that is 13% of the total. That includes about 5,700 substances, 26% of the total, and 1,773 companies, which is 12% of the total. Trade in chemicals is highly integrated with the rest of the EU. Complex supply chains mean that products often cross the UK-EU border multiple times. We simply cannot afford to be playing games with the livelihoods of thousands of workers in the chemicals industry. The Government absolutely must be in a position to provide those assurances now.

Those serious questions about our readiness to leave the EU aside, this SI, as others have said, contains a number of serious flaws. Many have been pointed out by a number of parliamentary Committees, both here in the Commons and in the other place, and they need to be addressed urgently. I just want to summarise a few of them again very quickly.

The SI confirms that the chemical regulation will be administered by the Health and Safety Executive, but does not commit to a budget or provide any assurance that the HSE will be equipped with the necessary skills and capacities. The working budget for the European Chemicals Agency is €100 million a year, compared to the roughly £2.2 million the HSE currently spends regulating chemicals. Given the recent budget cuts to the HSE, it is worth noting that it took the EU five years to fully staff the European Chemicals Agency. As it stands, DEFRA has not provided any analysis of the additional resources that the HSE, the Environment Agency or DEFRA itself might need to develop a UK-led chemical regulatory system.

Secondly, as the Chair of the Environmental Audit Committee set out, the new system proposed in the SI strips away layers of supporting committees at EU level that are hugely important. They ensure decisions are based on the best scientific advice. The SI removes article 76, which establishes a committee for risk assessment, a committee for socio-economic analysis, and a member state committee

“responsible for resolving potential divergences of opinions on draft decisions”.

Those committees allow for stakeholders from industry, non-governmental organisations and trade unions to help inform decisions. In this SI, all of that is replaced by a duty on the HSE to seek external advice, but no formal standing committees of experts and stakeholders to look at the scientific knowledge relating to chemicals.

That is simply not good enough. We need clear and accountable processes for industry, civil society and academia to feed into this process. Decisions cannot be made in a dark room without scrutiny and oversight. There are obvious changes that should have been made already, but even then serious questions remain about what the Government have been doing to prepare for leaving the EU.

I just want to echo the shadow Secretary of State’s concerns about animal testing. The idea that we would gratuitously redo tests, with all the pain and suffering of animals that that would include, is simply not conscionable. But that is what we would have to do if we cannot agree access to information in the REACH database. That would be senseless, needless and unacceptable. The EU referendum vote was not a mandate to increase animal suffering. What assurances can the Government provide to ensure that animal testing will not expand in the case of a no-deal Brexit?

This SI represents what is, in reality, a catastrophic failure on the part of this Government when it comes to Brexit. It is an example of how crashing out of the EU without a deal represents a huge blow to UK industry, as well as to vital protections for human health and the natural world. As well as making the changes outlined by the Environmental Audit Committee and the Lords EU Select Committee, the Government must urgently take no deal off the table.