Toxic Chemicals: REACH Agreement

– in the House of Lords at 2:51 pm on 23 November 2005.

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Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs 2:51, 23 November 2005

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether progress on addressing the issue of bio-accumulative, toxic and persistent chemicals in the environment will be adequately addressed by the proposed Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals agreement.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

My Lords, once agreed, REACH will put in place a comprehensive system for identifying and dealing with substances of very high concern. Uses of these substances, including those that are persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic, will be covered by an authorisation process. The object of the authorisation process is to ensure that the risks from substances are properly controlled and that these substances are eventually replaced by suitable substances or technologies, with the aim of reducing risks to human health and environment.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply because it perhaps gives your Lordships an example of what Europe has achieved. I am sure that the Minister would agree that, for the first time in generations, we have a chance to drive down the number of hazardous chemicals in our children's bloodstreams. Will the UK therefore use its presidency to broker an agreement at the Council of Ministers on mandatory substitution, so that if a safer alternative chemical is available, hazardous chemicals will not be authorised?

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

My Lords, I am delighted that the noble Baroness has asked this question because if we succeed at a special meeting of the council on 19 December in getting the REACH proposals accepted by the member states, that will be a considerable achievement. The current regime for chemicals is flawed, bureaucratic and slow. In too many circumstances, it is ineffective. More than 40 laws, more than 100,000 substances and almost 40 years after the EU started to address the issue of chemicals, we still have not got there. We must get there by 19 December

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

My Lords, the noble Baroness knows that, as far as authorisation is concerned, there are some minor differences between the views of the European Parliament which were expressed at First Reading last week and those of the council as we can ascertain them. We are determined to see a settlement reached by the end of our presidency.

Photo of The Earl of Selborne The Earl of Selborne Conservative

My Lords, I apologise for interrupting the Minister; I thought that he was about to sit down. Does he agree that while it is clearly unacceptable to have in the environment more than 100,000 untested chemicals that pre date 1981, which is the case at the moment, it would be equally unacceptable for much more testing than would be required to take place simply to deal with chemicals of high concern? If there is to be more testing, there are clearly implications for animal testing and competitive issues. Increased testing should apply only to those chemicals which he mentioned as being of high concern, as rated by the European Standards Authority.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

My Lords, the job of the presidency and the Commission in this case—the presidency's purpose is to assist the Commission to reach an agreement—is to keep a sensible balance between the needs for human health and those of the environment, which perhaps have not been taken seriously enough in the chemicals field up to this point; and to make sure that the chemicals industry in Europe, which employs hundreds of thousands of people, is able to continue to do the work that means that people can lead better lives.

Photo of The Countess of Mar The Countess of Mar Crossbench

My Lords, while I would be the first to acknowledge that chemicals have saved a lot of lives in the world in recent years, they have also damaged a lot of lives. Will the shenanigans that went on in the European Parliament last week—when the views of the chemical companies clearly dominated those of human health and the environment—not carry through to the final decision on REACH?

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

My Lords, I do not often disagree with the noble Countess, but on this occasion I do. I was in Strasbourg for two and a half days last week, and can promise her I saw no shenanigans whatever. What happened over those two and a half days was that when the voting came, the decision of the European Parliament was in line with what the Commission wants and what member states want. If anything, the differences were—as I said to the noble Baroness—in the direction of more environmental concerns as far as authorisation was involved. There has certainly been no giveaway to the chemicals industry or anything else. At the moment we are on track for a balanced agreement that everyone should be proud of.

Photo of Lord Hylton Lord Hylton Crossbench

My Lords, has there been any progress in replacing methyl bromide in horticulture, and in preventing the routine use of antibiotics in animal feeding stuffs?

Photo of Lord Turnberg Lord Turnberg Labour

My Lords, if the welcome proposals in REACH are pursued fully, will they not result in an enormous increase in the amount of animal testing? This would be problematic.

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

My Lords, it is certainly an issue. One of our key objectives in the UK for REACH is to ensure that animal testing is kept to a minimum. Although REACH will, as my noble friend says, mean an increase in the number of substances that would need to undergo tests, any animal testing will be kept to a necessary minimum through maximum use of non-animal test methods which are being developed at the moment, and through data sharing from the important part of REACH that we introduced—one substance, one registration. Data sharing means that animal testing will not have to be duplicated.

Photo of Lord Pearson of Rannoch Lord Pearson of Rannoch Conservative Independent

My Lords, what estimation of the cost of the REACH directive is there, both in its human form and animal application?

Photo of Lord Bach Lord Bach Parliamentary Under-Secretary, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) (Farming, Food and Sustainable Energy)

My Lords, I cannot give the noble Lord any costs. If REACH is effective, is passed and becomes the norm, there will be a huge improvement in the way we—the EU—approach the chemicals industry. This is a problem that has concerned both industrialists and environmentalists for many years. If we continue as we do, the costs will be very high.

Photo of Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer Spokesperson in the Lords, Environment, Food & Rural Affairs

My Lords, if we are going to discuss the question of cost, is not the cost to the National Health Service here and to the health services in every other country enormous, in terms of rising cases of all sorts of things associated with hazardous chemicals?