Future Chemicals Policy

[back to previous text]

Mr. Meacher: That is a perfectly fair point, although it is difficult to deal with in practice. There has been extensive co-ordination through the International Chemical Companies Association, resulting in an agreed allocation of who will take responsibility for risk assessment of particular

Column Number: 13

chemicals and make information available. That process is ongoing.

With regard to the rest of the world, especially the southern states, there are real issues about capacity building. There is no doubt that the technological capability of those countries to undertake such work is unavailable at present. Another issue that needs resolving is the trade of finished products or articles imported into the EU—or other northern states—that contain substances restricted within the EU. We have not found a resolution, and further work is needed to establish a workable system that is not over-bureaucratic and does not burden retailers unreasonably. That system is some way from being established, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it is necessary.

Mr. Francois: I want to press the Minister a little further on the response that he has just given. He said that dealing in the EU in imported products that might contain substances was a thorny issue. It has clear implications for the competitiveness of the industry in this country and throughout the EU. Our chemical industry employs some 240,000 people and represents some 2 per cent. of our GDP, so it is no small matter.

The Minister says that more work needs to be done, but will he give us some idea of the Government's initial thinking on the matter? People in the industry would be eager to hear exactly what direction the Government are taking on that thorny issue.

Mr. Meacher: I hope that we are taking the direction that I have already described. I was at pains in my previous answer to say that we did not have such a system, as far as I know, and that it does not exist anywhere in the world. After all, the process is relatively novel. Even after one or two years, only one out of 140 chemicals in process in the United Kingdom has been dealt with—although those figures may be incorrect, in which case I shall return with the correct figures. In any case, the proportion involved is tiny.

The hon. Gentleman wants to know what will happen with imports within the EU when the process is in full flow—which will be some years in the future—and when, as a result of the risk assessment, there will be candidates for the authorisation process under the REACH system and when specific bands or restrictions will be in use. That is a perfectly fair and proper question, but we are some way away from that happening. We shall not devise a system without close collaboration with business. I give the hon. Gentleman an absolute assurance that the Government will not devise any system without working closely with business.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West): On the question of exports from the EU, allegations have been made in the past that medicines that the EU has decided are unsafe have been dumped elsewhere, especially in the so-called third world. Under the system, some 30,000 chemicals will be gradually tested. What plans are there for restricting or banning exports to the third world of the chemicals that are found to be more hazardous than was thought, of which there may

Column Number: 14

be stockpiles, when we find out how unsafe they are, so that we do not export hazardous material?

Mr. Meacher: That is another important point. It is already the case in the EU with regard to hazardous waste, which is an analogous area, that there are proposals for hazardous substances that cannot be used in the UK. Those refer not directly to chemicals but to preventing certain substances from being exported to third world countries for dumping. I would envisage that the same process would apply if there were restrictions on use, or if there were, as a result of the authorisation process, a belief that a chemical should be phased out or banned. It would follow from that that there should also be a notification for export and that any such chemicals should not be allowed to be used abroad. It is very important that what is right for us should be right for third world countries as well.

Matthew Green: Let me take the Minister back to my last question. I probably did not explain myself properly. The White Paper says:

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

We are not just talking about the data being collected, and ensuring that tests are not needed. I am presuming from the above statement that we are looking at artificial skin being used in the tests, or artificial body parts being used instead of animals. The White Paper talks about the Commission taking steps to promote further development. I would have assumed, in light of what the Minister is saying, that the British Government will want to do that. That is why I was asking whether concrete steps are being taken by the EU and the British Government to promote and enhance those methods. After all, there is a tendency in industry to use what it knows already for testing—in this case, animals—and not to invest in finding new methods.

Mr. Meacher: I am sorry if I did not understand what the hon. Gentleman wanted. We are looking to promote research on non-animal tests. I would like to give him a string of examples, but it is fairly early work. However, it is something that we intend to proceed with. We also want to accelerate the validation and acceptance of such non-animal tests, and we want wide recognition of data from other trading blocs or regulatory regimes. I do not think that I am able to give a specific answer on what kind of non-animal tests are currently available. Work is being done on that. If he writes to me I may be able to provide detailed, technical data that are not currently available to me.

Dr. Vis: Are the military in any way involved in, or affected by, the chemicals policy?

Mr. Meacher: The military are certainly affected by it, as indeed is every other part of society. If my hon. Friend is referring to the use of biological weapons or chemicals for military purposes, all I can say is that there is no exclusion of chemicals from the risk assessment process on the grounds that they might be used for military purposes. There are no intentions to provide any exceptions at all. That does not circumscribe what may be done with the risk

Column Number: 15

assessment data, once obtained. That would normally be fed into the authorisation process under the REACH system for decisions about whether there should be bans on specific usage. There would be an automatic prohibition on the data being used for military purposes. However, that is very far from the purpose behind the process. That concerns protecting ordinary people's human health, and protecting the environment.

The Chairman: If no more Members wish to ask questions, we will proceed to the debate on the motion.

Motion made, and Question proposed,

    That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 6671/01, Commission White Paper on a Strategy for a future Chemicals Policy; recognises the need to protect human health and the environment from hazardous chemicals including endocrine disrupters; agrees that the weaknesses of the current legislation, including the lack of data and slow progress in assessing hazards and risks from chemicals already on the market, must be addressed; welcomes the proposals to ensure transparency and improved public access to non-confidential information and that the responsibility is placed on manufacturers and importers to assess hazard and exposure and perform preliminary risk assessment; endorses the Government view that requirements for animal testing must be minimised and alternatives to animal testing promoted; recognises that the proposals must take account of the implications for the competitiveness of the European Union chemical industry; recognises that proposals must be ambitious but achievable and provide a system that is workable and cost effective with minimum regulatory burden.—[Mr. Meacher.]

5.19 pm

Mr. Sayeed: The main objective of any new chemical strategy must be to ensure a high level of protection for human health and the environment, while ensuring the efficient functioning of the internal market and stimulating innovation and competitiveness in the chemical industry. I accept that the document is an important initiative by the Commission. It concerns a step-by-step approach to phasing out and developing alternatives to dangerous substances that cause cancer, accumulate in our bodies and environment, and affect our ability to reproduce. For that, the document is welcome.

It is essential that we obtain and collate reliable information that will allow us to start analysing the many chemicals on the market about whose effects on the environment or our health we know next to nothing. Indeed, we would all agree that the initiative is long overdue. The proposals should also create a more effective internal market for chemical products and thus help industry. My reading of the proposals is that innovation should be stimulated and industry should be assured of a clear framework in which to work. However, unless other global players have parallel regulation, I question whether our companies can work on a competitive footing.

We want to ensure worldwide that there is no conflict between balancing the essential need to protect human health and promote a non-toxic environment with the requirement to maintain and enhance innovation and the competitiveness of our and the EU's chemical industry. It is right that the proposals seek to increase transparency by improving access to information on chemicals and increasing the

Column Number: 16

transparency of the decision-making process. As chemical production and trade constitute such a global industry, it is obvious that integrated international efforts are essential. The trans-boundary impact of certain chemical substances has made chemical safety an international issue.

Will the Minister confirm that the proposals' guiding principle is the precautionary principle and that an important objective is to encourage the substitution of dangerous by less dangerous substances where suitable alternatives are available?

Will the Minister also confirm that the key elements of the new strategy include, first, the production of a single efficient and coherent regulatory framework that provides equivalent knowledge about the hazards of substances marketed before and after September 1981 and their uses—that will provide coherence in the level of protection—and secondly, the reversal of responsibility from authorities to industry for testing and the risk assessment of chemicals, as well as the promotion of innovation and competitiveness without compromising the high level of protection? Finally, will he confirm that a third key element is the introduction of a tailor-made authorisation system in which stringent control is ensured for the most dangerous substances?

Furthermore, will the strategy address the problems inherent in the current system of risk assessment and management of chemicals and attempt to deal in particular with the large quantities of existing substances on the market whose effects on human health and on the environment are largely unknown? Will the Minister confirm that under the new scheme the industry that produces a particular substance will be responsible for supplying data about it and the authorities will be called in to evaluate those data and decide on substance-tailored testing programmes following industry proposals?

What information will be available to the public in the form of understandable labelling, and how literate will the consumer base have to be to understand the information? Do the proposals mean that increased responsibility will pass to users in the manufacturing chain—formulators and downstream users—who will then have to supply data on their uses of a substance? How can the Minister reassure the EU chemical industry that chemical industries in other parts of the world will not use data gathered by the EU industry through expensive tests to enable them to produce cheaper products? Is he confident that the proposed new system for assessing existing and new chemicals—REACH—is adequately comprehensive? It includes registration, evaluation and authorisation, but omits many other substances—especially PBTs—for further research. I am unclear about why that should be.

The Minister waxed lyrical, and I have no reason to doubt the need to reduce animal testing, especially the ''me too'' testing. He talked about data sets being commonly available, which I welcome. However, I worry about the EU industry providing not only EU companies but companies worldwide with information that will enable other global players to produce a cheaper substance that is just as good and just as tested. When he discusses the proposals within the EU,

Column Number: 17

I urge him and the EU do all they can to ensure that there is a global, not just EU, framework.

The Minister accepted that deadlines for registration have already slipped. We know that the EU may grind exceedingly fine, but it also grinds exceedingly slow. It may be some time before the proposals have any legislative effect. I urge him to suggest to the EU that the deadlines should be a certain number of years from the time that the proposals become law, rather than be fixed for 1,000 tonnes, 100 tonnes, or 1 tonne. That would enable industry to prepare itself properly.

My party supports the proposals, which go a good way towards dealing with many important concerns. However, we also raised questions that the Commission must answer when it introduces its final proposals. The strategy is well overdue, and the proposals are important and useful. We are happy to support them in general.

5.29 pm

Previous Contents Continue

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index

©Parliamentary copyright 2002
Prepared 12 June 2002