UK Chemical Industry: Regulatory Divergence

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 5:01 pm on 26th February 2020.

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Photo of Ruth Jones Ruth Jones Labour, Newport West 5:01 pm, 26th February 2020

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr Sharma, and I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Bill Esterson for having secured this important debate. I also welcome the Minister to her new position; I know she takes a keen interest in green issues and in waste, and I look forward to hearing her response on chemical regulation in a post-Brexit UK. I expect it will be very interesting.

This has been an informative debate. Obviously, we have experts in the room: I bow before their expert knowledge, which has brought things together much more coherently for me. I will leave the Chamber with much more knowledge than I came in with, for which I thank the Members who have spoken.

One thing that we already knew before coming here was that our departure from the European Union would change how we do business, how our country functions, and how we ensure that chemical regulation in the UK is going to be fit for purpose in the years ahead. Although this may seem like a niche issue, it has been clearly articulated that chemical regulation is going to have a wide impact on the UK as a whole, so we must take that on board and make sure we deal with it carefully. We on the Opposition Benches echo the concerns of the chemical industry and the Royal Society of Chemistry. On this and many other issues, we ask the Government to be wise and careful when it comes to diverging from the standards and regulations that consumers, industry and our global partners have come to expect here in the United Kingdom.

As we have heard, chemicals manufacturing supply chains are well established, with materials often crossing the channel several times for some of the most complex products. Even the most minimal tariffs that would apply if the Government crash us out with no deal, combined with the requirement to respond to separate regulatory regimes and the need for documents to precede foods at borders, would have a negative impact on future manufacturing supply chains and strategies in the UK.

The Government are starting their approach to the coming months from the negotiating position that there will be no dynamic alignment with EU regulations in a new UK-EU trade deal, and have indicated that divergence will feature heavily. I am particularly concerned that the Government have not indicated an intention to seek close co-operation with the European Chemicals Agency. Regulatory divergence has the real potential to severely impact the quality and strength of public health and environmental protections. We should be levelling up, not cutting ties.

As the Royal Society of Chemistry and others have said, it is important for the Government to be conscious of divergent sources of data. Harmful divergence could occur if the evidence base is not harmonised, so a new and binding legal agreement is needed in order to continue sharing commercially sensitive data between authorities in the UK and the European Chemicals Agency.

I reiterate to the Minister and to Members on the Government Benches that hurried divergence, done in order to pretend to the British people that everything will be done and dusted by the end of 2020, will be dangerous and reckless. If all we see are quick, short-term economic international trade wins or speedily rolled-out innovations, the people out there will know what the Government are up to. I do not want lowered environmental protections or a risk to public health in Banbury, in Newport West, or in any other part of our United Kingdom.

I share the concerns of my colleagues on the Opposition Benches, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Sefton Central, for Stockton North (Alex Cunningham) and for Stretford and Urmston (Kate Green), as well as those of Dave Doogan —it is a shame that his constituency does not also begin with an “S”; that would have been much more alliterative—about the economic impact on British industry if divergence leads to negative consequences for our ability to trade products with the European Union.

The Government also need to be careful about what their approach means for business and industry, because they could land up doubling the burden on business and industry through masses of extra regulation. For example, the REACH regulation refers to the EU regulations on chemicals, as has been clearly articulated by all Members who have spoken this afternoon. The extra cost to UK businesses of duplicating EU REACH in the United Kingdom after the transition period is estimated by the Chemical Industries Association to be in excess of £1 billion, without any environmental benefit and potentially forcing duplicate testing. We call on the Government to do all they can to avoid that sort of duplication and deliver the essential solutions required to grow the environmental, social and economic performance of our country.

I pay tribute to the Chemical Industries Association for its work on this issue. It has made clear that securing a deal with the European Union that guarantees tariff-free trade, regulatory alignment and access to skilled people continues to be of critical importance for the chemical industry, which will rely on our future relationship being as frictionless as possible.

I hope the Minister will address many of the concerns highlighted today, particularly about the willingness to inflict damage on our industries through a policy of divergence. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Sefton Central for having brought this issue before the House, and look forward to working with him and the sector on this important issue in the weeks and months ahead.