Future Chemicals Policy

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Mr. Meacher: Data sharing between companies is important in preventing unnecessary duplication, which increases the number of animal tests. The test packages under the REACH system should also be proportionate. One can always ask for endless amounts of new data, but the data collected should be adequate for the purposes and no more. Once collected, the data should be made freely available so that everyone is not required to carry out the same test.

There is the question of commercial confidentiality, which will apply in some cases. Unfortunately, however, in other cases it might be used as an excuse for not making data available in some cases. We must understand that the animal testing will be substantial, as our estimate is that a base set of information might require the use of 168 animals and 42 fish. Whether the testing is in excess of 100 tonnes or of all 30,000 chemicals, the figures will be large. They should be minimised as far as possible, and we are in strongly favour of data sharing and proportionate and reasonable common-sense data packages.

Mrs. Janet Dean (Burton): What can be done to increase public awareness of the chemicals that are in food? I welcome the Government's commitment to greater information to the public and echo the comments of the hon. Member for Ludlow (Matthew Green) about limiting animal testing. What plans are there to give the public more information about the contents of food?

Mr. Meacher: It has long been a policy of the British Government that there should be greater availability of information to the public about chemicals. Chemicals have an important function in the economy and society, but increasingly people want to know what they are imbibing, and we think that they are entitled to know that. We need to go beyond current EU strategy in this respect, so that manufacturers and downstream users provide comprehensive information to consumers and workers—those who are exposed to the chemicals in the course of production are also very important.

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Information should be available, including on request. We are talking about information on the package, bottle or whatever the container is. Of course, that has to be agreed. A long string of Latin names would not mean much, but it is possible to have a protocol that sets out the level and degree of specificity of information in a clear, reasonable and common-sense manner. We will consider that. The REACH system will certainly ensure that more information is made available about the properties of hazardous substances.

One objective of the process is to restore confidence in the chemical industry and perhaps in Government as providing people with the information that they want. That is not a burden, but should be part of an outreach to the public to assure them that they have nothing to fear from the process, a risk assessment has been made and full information is available as they need it.

Mr. Mark Hoban (Fareham): I refer the Minister to the explanatory memorandum of 23 March 2001. Paragraph 18 refers to the cost of testing and indicates that the most recent estimate—I accept that this is more than a year out of date—is 2.1 billion euros, but that that is likely to be an underestimate. Will the Minister give us an idea of what he currently believes will be the cost of testing?

Mr. Meacher: Yes, I am pleased to do so. There have been many estimates, and I do not think that any is totally reliable. The assessments differ widely, and I will not say, ''You pays your money and you takes your choice.'' People should look at the sources and make a judgment as to which they believe is most trustworthy. I do not think that any of the assessments is dishonest, but they differ significantly.

The business impact assessment estimates the direct costs to be £900 million to £4.4 billion, which I think is consistent with what the hon. Gentleman said. The White Paper issued by the Commission estimated the costs at £1.3 billion over 11 years, which I think is also roughly the figure that he quoted in euros. The Government, in our partial regulatory impact assessment, estimate the cost to UK industry to be about £400 million.

When we talk about costs, however, it is important to remember that a cost-benefit analysis has another side to it: the benefits that will come from the policy. The regulatory impact assessment also established that the benefits to human health in terms of occupational exposure might be about £1.3 billion over 10 years. We are not talking about only a burden or cost; substantial benefits will arise from the policy. Those are the best figures that I can offer the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Peter Viggers (Gosport): In supporting the proposals, I have one point to put to the Minister. Paragraph 43 of the regulatory impact assessment says that

    ''small firms will on average produce proportionally fewer chemicals, and will export to fewer countries . . . Thus, the costs are unlikely to be disproportionate.''

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That shows a misunderstanding of the fact that larger companies will easily be able to set up regulatory procedures that comply with the regulations. Smaller companies that export irregularly, however, will have to endure disproportionate costs and invest a disproportionate amount of time in complying with the regulations. I cannot think of a clever way of getting around that, but does the Minister, and what are his thoughts?

Mr. Meacher: The hon. Gentleman makes a fair point. Undoubtedly, large companies are generally in a better position to be able to comply with regulatory requirements within the terms of their budgets. Many small and medium-sized enterprises find that more difficult. Larger companies are primarily involved here, although some key niche smaller companies have obligations under the REACH system. Such companies are best assisted if they can share the costs of providing information for the new system. In other words, providing that information themselves maximises their exposure, but if they can find a way of combining with other companies in their trade sector to provide the information jointly, the costs would hopefully be substantially reduced. The Government are certainly concerned to see that happen. Like all systems, this is designed to protect public health and the environment, not to burden business and cause problems. If we can find a way of reducing such burdens, we will do so.

Dr. Vis: If the chemicals policy is in place, new members of the EU, too, will have to stick to it. Will they be given a period of grace, or will they have to adhere fully to it?

Mr. Meacher: Any accession countries must adhere to the rules of the club. There is no question of any reduction of their obligation. It is understood that some countries may find that difficult, and it is a matter of negotiation as to whether there should be a transitional period for them so that they can achieve the full rigorous requirements of the environmental acquis. However, there is no question of them being given any exemption from this or any other EU measure.

Matthew Green: I welcome the Minister's commitment to ensuring that companies share information on tests once they have been carried out. However, I am also concerned that some other firm in Europe may already have gathered much of that information, which may be unavailable to other firms for the time being. Without that information being known, unnecessary tests may be carried out on chemicals that have already been tested elsewhere. What steps are the Government likely to take to ensure that we have gathered as much information as possible before there is any new testing of chemicals?

Mr. Meacher: I am sympathetic to that point. I would like to see a pooling of information, although that will not readily happen unless some regulatory force drives it. It is a matter for the Commission or the international chemical companies in the United States, Japan and the EU to agree that information should be pooled before further information is sought so that there is a clear understanding of what repository of data is already available. I am keen to see that.

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However, I repeat that it is one thing to discuss the pooling of information with companies. Many of them would adhere to that, but further regulation is required if it is to be comprehensive. We need to raise that issue when we see the Commission proposals, or indeed to lobby the Commission before it produces its proposals.

Sandra Osborne (Ayr): What steps will be taken to ensure that EU policy is integrated to take account of international aspects in the safe use of chemicals?

Mr. Meacher: The policy must be undertaken internationally. We are talking about 30,000 chemicals, and only a handful have been properly risk assessed under the sort of management system under discussion. It is not possible for any of the three countries or continents—North America, Japan or the EU—to do the job alone: it must be done on a co-operative basis, and the International Council of Chemical Associations is closely co-operating. The EU is not attempting to work alone, but on the basis of allocating responsibility for risk assessment between the three main blocs and the companies within them.

Mr. Hoban: In response to my earlier question, the Minister referred to the benefit side of the White Paper and the regulations before us today. May I draw his attention to a document received earlier this week—a regulatory impact assessment sent by his former colleague, the hon. Member for Southampton, Test (Dr. Whitehead)? It states:

    ''There are no health and safety benefits to the UK . . . There are no cost savings . . . There are no direct benefits to human health or the environment''—

all that for a measure estimated to cost between £1.4 billion and £15.5 billion in year one. I find those costs more overcooked than undercooked, because of the flimsy methodology in the assessment. The 10-year costs are estimated at between £11 million and £36 million. The regulation is therefore costly, yet it will provide no benefits—health and safety or environmental—to this country.

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