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Simon Haskel on worrying developments for the future safety and security of UK chemicals

REACH is the registration and testing database run by the European Chemicals Agency (ECA) that ensures chemicals are safe. The CE mark is a conformity assessed quality standard for the same purpose. This system has worked well for many years and has ensured a high standard of safety, security and comfort for the British public. It has also helped protect the environment by laying down how certain products should be processed, stored and disposed of. Enforcing all of these regulations is a large part of the cost and requires many years to train the staff, set up the system and process the data. 

Because it is working well, industry would like to continue with the same arrangements post-Brexit by seeking associate membership of the agency. Our government, presumably for ideological reasons, has said ‘no’ – with a plan for the Health and Safety Executive to both take over the existing registrations and process new ones. The ECA employs 600 people with an annual budget of £110million pounds.

This compares with a thirteen million pound a year budget for the proposed UK version, which will employ some 50 staff.  There will also be a new UK conformity assessed quality standard to replace the existing CE mark. Ministers have agreed that this would be a significant cost and burden to industry. And all for no gain to our safety and security – even though DEFRA have said the existing registrations held by UK business’ will be carried over. But the need to register with the UK system will remain and could become an additional bureaucratic barrier to our future trade with Europe.

In a letter to MPs, the government admits there will be significant additional burdens to the industry in having to comply with the UK system while insisting that the benefits of having control of our own laws outweighs the costs. People in industry say that many small firms may not be able to absorb the tens of thousands of pounds that might come with extra registering and testing.

Also, many details are held in confidential business arrangements and will require so called ‘letters of access’, which again come at a price.  Data sharing could remove the need for these letters because the information is on record at the ECA in Helsinki. A draft agreement seeks to conclude such a deal by the end of next year, but the government admits there may be difficulties. One medium sized firm that I know would have to register over 400 products. A spokesman for BASF, meanwhile, said their UK company had about 1,200 substances to register and the cost would be about £60million pounds.

I have also learnt that people in industry are now worried about the breakdown in trust caused by the manner in which the EU negotiations are taking place. As a result, the UK system may not be recognized - forcing businesses to maintain registrations in both the EU and the UK to avoid both supply chain difficulties and the risk of making some products commercially non-viable. 

Ministers say their priority is maintaining jobs, as the threat of mass unemployment looms. One way to do this is to seek and ensure associate membership of the European system and so rebuild our relationship with our EU neighbours. Doing so would also allow industry to concentrate on recovery and the financial problems that many companies now face.

Lord Simon Haskel is a Labour Peer. He tweets @simon_haskel

Published 16th September 2020

Out of reach

Simon Haskel on worrying developments for the future safety and security of UK chemicals

Philip Hunt on Covid's wider impact on the NHS

The pandemic within which we now live our lives has seen Britain’s health service at its very best, with the public full of praise for the dedication and selflessness of staff.

Yet as the crisis looks set to continue through the coming winter, with Covid on the rise and the inevitable threat of a flu outbreak, the NHS faces considerable uncertainty about when and how it will resume anything like a normal service. The five-year ‘Long Term Plan’ (LTP) launched to much fanfare in 2019, now looks to be in considerable jeopardy.

When Covid first hit our country, the NHS was already suffering a shortage of doctors and nurses – as well as the worst four-hour wait performance in A&E since figures were first collected. And corresponding failures on key targets for cancer, GP appointments and hospital treatment merely emphasised the impact of pressures across the piece.

This vulnerability was behind the government’s first panicky response to Covid during the original lockdown in March. Huge efforts were put into preserving NHS capacity to deal with patients affected by the virus. Much else, however, had to go and the BMA have since warned that the shutdown of most non-Covid services has left a large backlog of related care.

Two million people are waiting more than 18 weeks for hospital treatment, with the NHS Confederation estimating that the waiting list for routine procedures could reach 10 million by the end of this year. The Royal College of Physicians, meanwhile, have warned that patients health will have deteriorated to the point where they will need far more extensive treatment than planned.

Alongside this, patients with cancers are at risk of surgery being postponed or undetected because they could not get tests; and many with mental health conditions have missed direct contact with health professionals. The NHS, therefore, has a major task to get normal services back on track let alone implement the LTP.

Ministers have set much store by the five-year programme, which aims to bring in a new service model that gives patients more options, better support, and joined up care. It also aims for GPs to extend the range of convenient local services; and envisages a further expansion of treatment centres to support those with learning disabilities and mental health conditions.

But for an NHS convulsed by the immediate pressures of a pandemic and a huge waiting list, the challenges are immense. So, there is an urgent need to deal with the immediate capacity issues, tackle the treatment backlog (with an emergency plan), and then recharge the LTP. 

On the positive side, the NHS will be able to build on some of the lessons learnt during the crisis.

For patients, remote appointments have worked well and suggest that unnecessary visits to hospital and GPs could largely be avoided in the future. Many organisational barriers to providing integrated care were swept away in a matter of days. Staff have been very flexible and quickly retrained to perform other roles. And local leaders are taking decisions that would normally get referred up the bureaucratic chain of command. A big lesson for our national bodies to take to heart.

While wartime analogies have been thrown about like confetti over the past six months, but at least one could prove useful. The origins of the NHS lay in the Beveridge report, which Nye Bevan and the post-1945 Labour government then built on. If ever we needed a second Beveridge it is now – with perhaps this time a view on sorting out social care. Sadly, Boris Johnson and his colleagues show no sign of having the will and wherewithal to think on that scale, or the leadership and competence to deliver.

Lord Philip Hunt of Kings Health is a Labour Peer and former Health Minister. He tweets @LordPhilofBrum

Published 13th September 2020

Best laid plans

Philip Hunt on Covid's wider impact on the NHS

Wilf Stevenson on the latest attempt to get a Trade Bill through Parliament

Trade has long been a key component of our success as a nation. Yes, the balance between physical goods and provision of services has shifted significantly in the last decade or so. But as Adam Smith pointed out in the 18th Century, a high standard of living and relative prosperity depends on what our native talents and competitive advantages allow us to produce and sell – both at home and abroad.

As the EU transition period comes to an end, and the UK regains responsibility for its own trade policy, you would expect the government of the day to do two things. First, set out its long-term vision in the form of legislation. Second, reveal detailed policies to secure growth, protect rights, safeguard supply chains, and tackle global challenges. Doing so not only shows intent and purpose but helps build public, and indeed market, confidence – something that matters even more in uncertain times, such as now.

The Trade Bill that gets its second reading in the Lords on Tuesday does none of this. The government describe it as a “continuity” bill and says that its limited scope is to ensure the UK continues to benefit from the Free Trade Agreements negotiated by the EU.  It has tried and failed with this argument before and will do so again. Should it get Royal Assent, the Bill as it stands means UK trade policies will be determined with less scrutiny and debate than currently happens within the EU. Ministers, meanwhile, will be free to negotiate future deals by using archaic Royal Prerogative powers, with almost zero parliamentary accountability. 

No other major trading country prevents its elected representatives from reviewing and agreeing their trade policies. And no other area of public policy in the UK is off-limits to both the Commons and Lords. Our democratic system depends largely on checks and balances on the executive being exercised by both Houses. 

When considering the predecessor Trade Bill in 2019, Peers made some 30 amendments – covering employment, food and environmental standards, customs arrangements, Northern Ireland, and future EU collaboration. As the then Minister put it: “no legislation passes the scrutiny of this House without being improved. This is unquestionably true here.”

But those changes have been stripped from the current Bill. Even the government’s own amendments on gender equality and reporting to Parliament are gone. During the Commons debates, MPs expressed wide support for new scrutiny arrangements, but they were rebuffed. Our Labour colleagues proposed amendments to formally involve the devolved governments; protect current standards on animal welfare, the environment and food quality; and guarantee rights and protections for working people and the NHS within future trade negotiations. While Ministers rejected all of these and more, Labour Peers and others will challenge those decisions during the Lords Committee stages.

We believe strongly that the government needs to establish appropriate parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals, whether this is significant changes to the existing EU ones or new free-standing FTAs. The International Trade Select Committee and the Lords’ new International Agreements Committee should have early access to and the right to propose changes to negotiating mandates; receive ongoing negotiations reports; and the powers to make recommendations for the final approval of trade treaties and agreements. We must also ensure that consumers, trade unions and wider civil society, and the nations and regions of the UK are fully engaged in trade policy. 

Trade will continue to play a vital role in our country’s economy, beyond both Brexit and the devastating effects of the Covid pandemic. The government should welcome Labour’s offer to help get this Bill right and at the same time recognise that involving Parliament, the devolved administrations and wider society will significantly strengthen its negotiating hand. 

Wilf Stevenson is Shadow International Trade Minister in the House of Lords. He tweets @WilfStevenson

Published 4th September 2020

Trading strategies

Wilf Stevenson on the latest attempt to get a Trade Bill through Parliament

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