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Exiting the European Union (Consumer Protection)

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 7:39 pm on 25th February 2019.

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Photo of Alex Cunningham Alex Cunningham Labour, Stockton North 7:39 pm, 25th February 2019

My constituency is home to some of the most complex international chemical companies in the world. It is a foundation industry that depends on smooth trading arrangements with the rest of the world—not just the EU—but from what I hear from the sector, it is clear that, as others have said, significant gaps remain in this statutory instrument. That is making the companies particularly nervous in relation to the movement of chemicals between the UK and other countries for all manner of manufacturing.

The Minister seems to think that a cosy chat, sitting down with the industrialists, is going to sort this, but it will not. The Chemical Industries Association tells me that while there is a limited two-year transition to register chemicals currently manufactured in the UK, there are no transitional arrangements in the SI for chemicals currently being imported to the UK from non-UK suppliers through third party-based representatives. In practice, that would mean that existing registrations would cease to exist, bringing a halt to imports from non-EU countries to the UK manufacturing sector after March.

Another concern expressed by the CIA is that there is no level playing field for all existing registration holders. As my hon. Friends the Members for Workington (Sue Hayman) and for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) said, the current approach in the SI forces existing EU suppliers to use a UK representative, and I add that they have to register within six months whereas all other existing duty holders have two years. For one UK-based multinational company, that will affect 400 chemicals that it is importing into the UK. It will inadvertently put UK importers, including those on Teesside, at a competitive disadvantage if they are unable to obtain information directly from the suppliers to register themselves. The CIA tells me that the process could be a lot more simplified and avoid additional compliance problems if all existing registration holders, including UK representatives of EU suppliers, could benefit from the two-year transitional arrangements. I hope that the Minister will consider that transition period very seriously indeed.

The Chemical Industries Association also says that the proposed timeframes are absolutely impossible to comply with. There are various timeframes to submit information to the UK regulator—120 days, 180 days and two years—all of which are unrealistic given that EU REACH provided 10 years to register and other global REACH regimes provide a much longer timeframe with a much smaller portfolio of substances.

In particular, the level of initial information that should be submitted within 120 days goes far beyond basic. To put this into context, that amounts to over 100 pages of information, including a detailed breakdown of composition for every chemical currently being manufactured or imported into the UK. Given that the objective is to confirm that a business legitimately owns an existing registration, the initial information needs to be kept to a minimum. I am told that the alternative would be to extend the existing timeframe to minimise the impact on businesses, who will have a number of Brexit-related challenges to overcome.

This brings me to the conclusion—we in the Opposition share this view—that the SI remains unfit for purpose. When we consider how many companies, goods and jobs are affected by it, we can be more than nervous about how it fails to provide the reassurances needed by industry. I had previously raised these shortfalls with the Prime Minister after one of her many EU discussion sessions and in my speech on the EU agreement, but there were no answers from the Prime Minister or the Minister answering the debate that day, and there have been no answers from this Minister today either. It is time they came up with answers.

I really feel that the Government ought to take this away today, listen again to what the sector has to say and come back to the House with those companies satisfied that they can do business under the regime that the Minister is proposing. Anything short of that and I believe we will be in a game of riding roughshod over the concerns of some of the biggest companies in the world—companies who I fear will take their investment and jobs elsewhere, as some of them already are doing, if they are forced to live with the chaos predicted. That is not good for the chemical industry, it is not good for Britain, and it is certainly not good for Teesside either.