Future Chemicals Policy

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Mr. Meacher: I now have in front of me the document to which the hon. Gentleman referred. It states:

    ''There are no health and safety benefits to the UK, although there may be some indirect (unquantifiable) benefits due to information exchange (notification of imports of chemicals banned or severely restricted in other countries). It is envisaged that there will be some health and safety benefits to those countries outside the EC who are in receipt of the chemicals listed in Annex 1.''

It is perfectly fair for the hon. Gentleman to quote the document, which is a statement from a former recent member of the Government. The Commission's own document, however, rightly points to the better management of chemicals and the prevention of chemical contamination of the environment and the reduction of the impact of exposure on human health.

Considerable gains are likely to result from a better understanding of chemicals—particularly of the persistent, bio-accumulative and toxic chemicals, the carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic to reproduction chemicals and the endocrine disrupters. Everyone fingers those as potential candidates for the authorisation process. If we could carry out the scientific work to establish that that was justified, the

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removal, phasing out or restricted use of those chemicals would unquestionably benefit human health and the environment. It is difficult to cite a specific figure—I am merely quoting the Commission—but benefits are likely.

Mrs. Dean: Would international co-operation also involve the exchange of information about testing? More information about what tests have been done on products should further reduce the need to use animals for testing purposes.

Mr. Meacher: Absolutely. We are keen to see a maximum exchange of information, not just within the UK or the EU, but worldwide. That must be achieved through agreement. With the agreement of member states, the Commission can regulate within the EU, but cannot require chemical companies in Japan or North America to provide the information. Overall, it is a sensible way to proceed. The UK is probably the country that is the most sensitive to animal testing. I believe that we are right and that others should be more concerned. We would press for procedures to minimise animal testing or any form of cruelty or ill welfare to animals above what is strictly necessary for the purposes of the REACH system.

Mr. Sayeed: We are debating a strategy for a future chemicals policy. Will the Minister tell the Committee how, after this debate, discussions will progress? How will the conclusions become law? Will it be through a directive or some other means, and what will be the time scale for that? I am particularly worried about the proposed deadlines for registration. The earliest is 2005, which is a very short time from today let alone from the point at which, if we have to go through the full legislative process, the regulations may become law. Instead of setting a date, would it not have been better to stipulate that registration had to commence a certain period after the regulations became law?

Mr. Meacher: I am as keen as the hon. Gentleman for progress to be made. The Council conclusions on the White Paper called on the European Commission to present its main proposals for a new regulatory framework by the end of 2001. Proposals are not now expected until the end of this year, so there has already been slippage of roughly a year, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we will work closely with the Commission in developing its proposals.

The delay does not indicate that the Commission is losing interest or is not making the required effort, but simply that the task is huge. It may be very necessary, but it is a huge task to conduct a scientifically rigorous and accurate assessment of 30,000 chemicals. A lot of work needs to be done to get the system right. We are keen to press for proposals as soon as possible.

Of course the existing regulations will be enforced until they are replaced by the new legislation—there is no vacuum. However, given the time it takes for the chemicals to go through the existing substances regulation, it will be necessary to have a sensible transitional arrangement to avoid wasted effort. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that I am the first in Government to say that this is a very slow process and we should use all means to speed it up—without any compromise in scientific rigour, of course.

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p5>Matthew Green: I notice that the Government, in the motion, recognise

    ''the implications for the competitiveness of the European Union chemical industry''.

They want to take account of that. We have heard about the potential cost and the benefits of the measure to society as a whole, and I am among those who see its benefits. However, I am keen to know what assessment has been done of its effect on the competitiveness of the European chemical industry compared with chemical producers in other parts of the world.

Mr. Meacher: We are trying to achieve a purpose that I hope is universally accepted—better protection of human health and environment—but in a way that does not undermine, and might possibly enhance, competitiveness. How does one achieve that? One objection to the scheme is that there might be some brake on innovation. It has been agreed to revise the registration house threshold for new chemicals from 10 kg to 1 tonne under the REACH system. That ought to aid innovation, and it will assist small and medium-sized enterprises. Obviously, we will stay in close touch with the chemical industry on the matter. There have already been extensive discussions. I repeat that we do not want a barrier to competitiveness. If we can find a way of achieving our purposes that avoids in any way diminishing competitiveness in the industry, we will be happy to consider it.

Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh): This is a very broad scheme—as the Minister said, it covers up to 30,000 chemicals. The Chemical Industry Association says that the proposals are for a hugely expansive and bureaucratic system, and argues that a simpler, more focused and proportionate system could be developed, which would be targeted on the relatively few substances that are of deep concern. Is that not a legitimate point?

Mr. Meacher: It is a legitimate point, and we entirely support it. We want proportionate data set packages to be proposed, not an all frills, all song and dance show. We want the scheme to be focused on what strictly needs to be known, and we want clear priorities. I do not think that there is much dispute. Everybody agrees that, at least initially, PBT, CMR and endocrine disrupters are those about which we should be concerned. Considerable work has already been done, for example, on endocrine disrupters in those cases in which people believe that there is sufficient evidence that they can cause adverse effects. An obvious example is tributyltin oxide. Many have already been identified. Those are the ones that should be risk assessed first, so that a decision can be taken and the authorisation system applied if that is appropriate. That is what we intend to do.

Matthew Green: The White Paper stresses the promotion of non-animal testing as a means of doing that. In paragraph 2.2 on page 7, it says:

    ''The Commission will therefore promote further development and validation of non-animal test methods.''

The Minister's proposals stress that too. What concrete steps will the EU and the British

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Government take to promote the development of non-animal testing?

Mr. Meacher: I thought that I had answered that. As a principle, there should be sharing of data so that other companies do not unnecessarily undertake the same tests and so that data set packages are made commonly available. The hon. Gentleman referred to the idea of a repository of data. We do not seek to replicate it but to build on it and supplement it as necessary. That is the essential way in which we can ensure that no unnecessary work is done. We shall promote that strongly with chemical companies and, in case there are any doubts, within the EU. The figures that have been given are extensive—some of them are way over the top—but there is no doubt that there will be a substantial increase in animal testing. I do not want animals to suffer, and I shall be extremely concerned if that increase is any more than strictly and absolutely necessary. I want to put it on record that animal welfare has been undervalued and underestimated in policy.

Mr. Hoban: The hon. Member for Ludlow pre-empted my question so I shall move on to different territory. Can the Minister outline whether the White Paper, in its objectives and its directives to member countries, exceeds the terms of the Rotterdam convention on exchange of information concerning chemicals, which I think is driving this process?

Mr. Meacher: I think that it does. The Rotterdam convention on prior informed consent procedures was signed in 1998. It empowers countries to decide which chemicals they want to receive and to exclude those that they believe they cannot manage safely. That is important for trade. However, the EU White Paper takes the process of risk assessment substantially further. That is a related issue; it is not built on the Rotterdam convention. It has been acknowledged for many years that the basic problem concerns not trade but the assessment of basic chemicals. There are about 1,100 high-volume production chemicals, many of which we use every day, but which have never been properly and systematically risk assessed according to scientific procedures. That is the heart of the process, and it was taken account of for the first time in our policy after the Chester council in 1998 and subsequently in the EU White Paper.

Mr. Viggers: The Minister stressed how important it is that regulations should be international. To what extent has it been possible for the proposals to be discussed and agreed so that they are co-ordinated as closely as possible with those of the large economies of United States and Japan? Might there be a danger that, although the more advanced and prosperous countries will have good clear regulation, much of the rest of the world will be left behind? In addition, to what extent is it possible to co-ordinate regulations with the United Nations?

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