Out of reach

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

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