Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 107 - 119)



  Q107  Chairman: Thank you, Dr Delbeke for coming to help us with our inquiry on EU Chemicals Policy, and thank you to Ms Hendrix as well. I do not know if you know the select committee structure we have in our parliament, but it is our job to scrutinise government policy, particularly on issues like this, and to report back to the House of Commons. A minister usually replies, and quite often there is a debate on our report, so it is very opportune that you are here to help us with the inquiry. You probably know that we have had informal discussions this morning with WWF and others and we have been doing the same in the United Kingdom with groups like Marks and Spencer and so on. Would you like to say a few words to begin with?

  Dr Delbeke: Thank you very much, Chairman. It is a pleasure to be here. It is also really encouraging to see that a debate on this proposal is getting shape in the different Member States. What we could contribute to the debate is up to you to confirm.

  Q108  Chairman: We will ask you some questions.

  Dr Delbeke: Exactly. What is very important for all of us in the Commission, I think, is that we started with the recognition that the existing regulation, which is quite comprehensive, which comprises more than 40 Directives, is in our view not satisfactory in its outcome. The start of this debate was indeed about concerns we have about regulating better and in a simpler manner—although the word "simple", I know, has to be used in a very cautious manner: this is a complex Regulation. Knowing that we have thousands of pages on the table already now and more than 40 Directives that we would like to have repealed when REACH would come in to place, I think is a very important element that I would like to bring to your attention as well. The other element I would like to bring to your attention is of course that we sometimes feel a bit sorry that the debate is focusing too much about the costs and possible problems than about the benefits. We have had a long discussion, starting with a communication, with a White Paper, with contacts with lots of stakeholders, and, while the cost debate is a very important debate—we do not want to diminish the importance of that debate—it is of course not to be forgotten that we are doing this to improve human health and the environment. Although it is very difficult to come forward with quantitative estimates about precise benefits, that is the driver for this entire change in legislation. These are a few words of introduction. My Commissioner is of course very eager to see that human health and the environment are better protected compared to what we have today.

  Q109  Chairman: Everything that is said here today is recorded and will be in the minutes and in our report. Under that aegis, maybe you will be more careful than you might be in an informal session. Nevertheless, let me start off by asking you about chemicals and the potential risks and potential problems for the environment. You say we may underestimate them; on the other hand, we may overestimate them as well. How do you come to a balanced decision on that, the overestimation and underestimation of the hazards associated with any chemical?

  Dr Delbeke: There is perhaps one basic element on which we are working very hard in the DG Environment. Mrs Wallström was very keen to bring new life into the debate on health and the environment. We see that out of the research that medical doctors are doing; that these modern diseases which increasingly manifest themselves in Europe, in many cases can be traced back to exposure to chemicals a long time ago. That is the whole problem that we face. We have very strong indications that there is a causal relationship between exposure to chemicals in the past and the modern diseases, if I can name them so, of today, but to have the causal relationship strictly spelt out is of course a very, very difficult thing to do. Because exposure happens years ago, the time variable is an important one. Second, there is a cumulative variable: there is a lot of background pollution and it is the marginal increase in pollution or in the release of the chemical that just triggers a reaction above the threshold where normally the environment of the human body would have resistance. While it is without dispute that there is something happening, it is more difficult to put quantitative estimates and precise causal relationships between what has been happening in the past and what is happening now. The second thing is that we have quite tight regulations today in force, since '81—that is the new chemicals regulation, and we cover there a couple of thousand substances—but for the bulk of the chemical substances which are being used today—and we are talking about tens of thousands if not more than a hundred thousand substances, the so-called "existing substances"—we have hardly a regulation on that which really gives the scrutiny that we should have. So we see also in our current regulation an imbalance, between an overly cautious and demanding regulation on the new substances and almost a lack of legislation on the old substances which is the bulk of the chemicals we use today. So bringing more balance in this regulation, and making sure that what has been used and been brought into the economy before '81 is as important as what we do for the substances after '81. So these things combine. There is an order of magnitude which is quite imbalanced between old and new. This leads into the question on the impact on health and the environment. The bulk of the chemicals, these large amounts, are basically not addressed. Should we not address them? That is a basic driver behind this change in the regulation.

  Q110  Chairman: Do you think the legislation is workable, because it seems to be scaring the pants off industry?

  Dr Delbeke: We do think, indeed, it is workable, although we do recognise that it is a change compared to what we did in the past. The biggest change, presumably, is the registration phase, because on authorisation[1], on all kinds of restrictions in the past when we had strong indications that we were having to deal here with a nasty chemical (CMRs, PCBs, et cetera), then we acted upon that. But out of the vast amount of chemicals, we do not know very much, and on the registration it is in fact a comprehensive information-gathering exercise where we ask companies, the primary stakeholders in all this, to inform the public, to inform the public authorities about the likely impacts in cases of normal use of that substance, about the likely impact that it has on human health and the environment. Basically, it is a huge registration exercise and, because it is intended to be comprehensive, it is of course comprehensive. It has a wide scale, it goes without saying. On this registration we never were in a position, as a public authority having the duty to protect human health and the environment, to dispose of all this information[2]. Now I know that industry is scared by the bureaucracy and the administrative efforts that may be involved into all this. I think that between the versions we have been working on and the last one that was publicly known, which was the one that was put on the internet in May of last year, and the proposal we made, I think there we made major changes, following investigations, detailed investigations, to reduce the number of administrative efforts that would be required by industry and, indeed, to build on tools like the safety data sheet that is already widely in use in industry. So, instead of creating new mechanisms[3], we paid a lot of attention to upgrade the mechanisms already in place so as to minimise the administrative burden.

  Q111  Chairman: I am interested when you say that we do not know much scientifically about some of these compounds, these chemicals. How will we know when we know enough about them? Because they might have some toxic side effect and we have not done the right tests and it slips through the net and people get damaged.

  Dr Delbeke: The name itself, REACH, is registration, evaluation and authorisation. Registration is bringing the evidence on the table. Then it is submitted to experts, and the Agency is going to have a quite significant open look on that. When there is indication that more is to be done, additional tests may be asked by industry or there may be a question: "Have you looked into this or to that?" and this could lead to additional tests. Again, information gathering. If those tests show that there is more at hand, then we go into the next phase: authorisation. If the tests indicate that normal use, et cetera, minimises the risks that may be involved in that chemical, then the issue stops and then there is a kind of signal being given to the key users, whether they are in industry or outside, that this or that aspect may have to be paid attention to.

  Q112  Dr Harris: Obviously we are where we are and you are dealing with what you are dealing with, but, given everything you have said about potential impacts on human health, do you understand people who raise concerns that there is a disjunction in terms of doing all this work with the threat, as it is seen by the chemical industry and at the same time pumping millions of euros into subsidies for tobacco growing in the Union, with the devastating effects that has on human health that we know about?

  Dr Delbeke: We know that we should stop giving subsidies to all kinds of economic activities that are having a distorting effect on the environment. The latest document I think is not older than a couple of days where we re-state, indeed, on the environmental technologies that we should be very wary of not giving disincentives to technology, innovation, et cetera, by giving subsidies which are possibly distorting the environmental and economic behaviour—and we have here environment and health together. We do not dispute your assertion that we have to address those subsidies. I think we are addressing them, but we do not go today as fast as we would like to go for some of us, basically because of social reasons. So I would put these subsidies more into the social context than into the health, environment or economic context. And for tobacco growers it is a minor part of agricultural subsidies today, but it is still a part that is being subsidised, so we agree to that. There are other subsidies we would like to address as well. There are coal subsidies in Europe still—less in your country compared to other countries—and we address that. Again, not as fast as we would like it to happen, because social considerations are the predominant ones. In eastern parts of Germany, for example, there is a strong social more than environmental consideration there. Having said that, the balances that are brought in in this house[4] between environmental, social and economic variables under the state aid provisions are, you know, what they are. Basically, we agree with you.

  Q113  Dr Harris: It just seems that people think that having a go at the chemicals industry, so to speak, is low-hanging fruit: it is easy, it is do-able, they are there. You are not going to deal with all the pollution in the east and the effects are growing. But I accept you have answered my point.

  Q114  Bob Spink: You accept, I suspect, that there is also social dimension to this legislation, in that it may well displace jobs outside the EU, et cetera.

  Dr Delbeke: I would take a step backward before answering this question and have a look at the costs that this proposal may generate. I think that the extended impact assessment that was done with a relatively wide number of consultants has shown that the administrative costs that this proposal would create is in the order of magnitude of

200 million a year over an 11-year period, so the shock that is giving or has created to the system is definitely a cost problem but it is spread out over a number of years. Time is, indeed, very important. We have been discussing now this proposal for a number of years, some five years. We will have in our institutions discussion for another two/three years, and then the phase-in period for the proposal is gradual over 11 years. So, while there are costs admittedly, I think the fact that we take a long period of time should allow economic operators to minimise the costs over time. Another comment: When it comes to the treatment of substances within Europe and those coming from outside Europe, the proposal is paying a lot of attention to have an equal treatment of substances being imported compared to the substances being produced within the European Union, also because of the obvious WTO rules, et cetera. So the last thing we would like to provoke through this legislation are social problems. But we do not deny that when we create a constraint, an additional requirement that was not there in the past, this has a number of costs which in our view are largely going to be transitional. A final comment: Many of these things may lead the chemical industry today into a new set of substances, will encourage innovation into products and will bring a better image to the sector, and will bring in a new breed of products that are going to be the products that we need in the future. I think that kind of orientation towards new markets and market niches is a very important one to be considered as well. Again, that is very difficult to quantify, so this is a qualitative statement. But we do see—like we have seen, for example, in the field of CFCs, where we have a substitution towards the HCFCs, where the same industries producing these two sets of products were largely winners in the debate—that there are important chemical producers in your country, like in the Netherlands, Germany and France, who did make a relatively good business out of such an environmental regulation. So there is evidence in the past that new products may emerge from that, the products that we exactly need in the future more than compared to what we produce today.

  Q115  Dr Iddon: We certainly cannot fault you on your consultations: the internet consultant last year produced 6,000 responses. But, with all the consultations in which you have been involved, why are there still so many unresolved issues?

  Dr Delbeke: I think that we may have two elements in this reply. The fact is that a bit of the sobering experience that you have as an official of this house[5], is that you are constantly in a consultation exercise but it takes a lot of time before you get all the players on board and sometimes the ones who are out there are only taking it seriously when there is a proposal on the table. I think that while it is true that we have to continue our consultation—and I think we are showing that we are determined to do that, in particular on spotting the specific economic problems—this is a very vast and very diversified economic sector, and when, for example, we take the example of the downstream users, with whom we are now having a very constructive debate, it took a while before many of those downstream users thought that something would happen that would affect their sector, so they were not taking the time or the effort to look precisely into the impact for their company, their competitive position, competition in general, et cetera. Having now the proposal of the Commission on the table, of course, is a fairly important marker. I saw also that at the internet consultation. At that point in time that already served as a marker: "The Commission is going to come forward, so, please, look at this," and the fact that we had 6,000 replies and an enormous surge in interest proves that it takes time before you get through to all the different layers of this very diverse sector which we name chemicals.

  Q116  Dr Iddon: If I could just focus in on one element of the consultation. You of course describe your consultation process in your extended impact assessment. We have been taking evidence from the chemicals industry, which goes along the lines—and I will paraphrase—that they are not happy with that impact assessment because it did not take into account the whole of the supply chain. Is the chemicals industry justified, do you think, in asking for a further impact assessment? Have you taken their criticism seriously, in other words?

  Dr Delbeke: We are taking their criticism seriously. Perhaps I will describe what we are doing today. In fact, we are about to establish a kind of roundtable, where Commission officials, representatives of major branches of the chemicals industry, including downstream users, unions, NGOs, consumers, will sit around a table with of the order of magnitude of some 15 to 20 people, taking people all bearing responsibility in the respective parts of this debate. The idea will be that they bring specific evidence to the table related to the interest they are standing for. What we had a little bit in the past, if I can give my personal opinion, was that economists—and I am an economist—too easily took the chemical sector as one relatively homogeneous sector and were then making all kinds of technical coefficients in a macroeconomic model, models which were more suitable to estimations related to energy use, for example, or other homogeneous products, like petroleum or coal or gas or what-have-you, but not exactly the realities of the chemicals sector, which, for structure, the industrial structure, the production structure, is perhaps the most diverse sector we have. We have now reached an understanding with the chemicals industry as well that perhaps we do a good service to ourselves to move away a bit from this all too technical macroeconomic modelling towards addressing factually the issues in specific sectors and sub-sectors, and dig them out and see really where the crunch elements have to be brought on the table. We made it clear that we could build and we hope to learn from that, in order to have a better negotiation process in the institutions. With this, I have not said that the Commission has taken a commitment to make a new proposal on REACH. While we are open for the results of that comprehensive analysis and continued analysis, it would be, I think, not good for the negotiation process if the Commission were to create uncertainty about what would happen to its proposal. The proposal is an important marker. But the Commission, along with the Member States and the Members of the European Parliament is a very important player in the negotiations, because all the time in these negotiations the Commission is asked whether it agrees or disagrees with the proposed amendment or whether the evidence is in line with what is being done and found out by the Commission. So the Commission has an open mind to clarify specific issues and, if they are clear enough, then we are confident that good compromises and good amendments are going to land on the table. So we try to be very proactive. I am rather confident, as industry has given us signs that they were rather satisfied with this evolution, that we will have a good and solid process which is complementary to this more model type of exercises that were done by the Commission, by some German institutes, by some French institutes and, I understand, also in the UK and elsewhere.

  Q117  Dr Iddon: What effect do you think the letter had that was written jointly to Mr Prodi by the three premiers of three important European countries had on this legislation?

  Dr Delbeke: I think this letter, as it should be, had quite an important impact. Now it was a sign that the three prime ministers/heads of state were attaching a lot of importance to this. But we knew that. I mean, this importance was raised beforehand, so of course, having it put on paper, having it sent to my president was an important signal. At the same time, I think that we were about to finalise our work, and we took already for a while this impact assessment seriously, so it reinforced the work we were doing.

  Q118  Dr Iddon: The green organisations would say that you have caved into the chemicals industry and the chemicals industry would probably say that the green organisations are getting away with too much. Where does the truth lie?

  Dr Delbeke: I think, between the internet consultation and the finalisation of the proposal, based on the costs studies that were at that moment on our table, we really guided the internal negotiations within the Commission following the results of the cost analysis. And we are confident that the direct costs were brought down with some 80% between the internet consultation and the final proposal. Because we deliberately thought, in all services of the Commission, that this cost signal that was brought to us was a very important one and we took it very seriously. Have we given into the green concerns? I think that we have a fair trade-off between the different interests. I have the feeling—and of course it is far too early to say this—that we may see in the institutions that the trade-offs that are made between the economic, the environment and the health considerations which are now in the proposal that, ultimately, at the end of our negotiation process, that we are not going to be too far off from what is brought there. But now of course all key players have their look at this, have to learn it. Deliberately it is a quite complicated set of legislation: 120 pages of raw text, lots of annexes, but that is a learning curve they are going through.

  Q119  Bob Spink: The proposed prioritisation system is based on tonnage. Some people might think this is quite crude and it does not achieve really the benefit that society should expect from this legislation, in that it would see us dragging in concrete within three years but leaving endocrine disruptors until 11 years before we have a look at them. That clearly would not be a sensible thing to do and yet that is what your legislation is going to do.

  Dr Delbeke: If I can qualify a little bit. I think that we prioritise. We recognise of course we cannot do everything at once. That would be not realistic. We have clear prioritisation when it comes to evaluation and registration. The heart of your question comes to the registration, so the gathering of the information. We take two lines there. First, we register better for those substances where we have a feeling or some evidence that it is bad[6], or/and the substances that we use in huge quantities, beyond 1,000 tonnes. That is the first phase of the registration. Then we move on with the second phase.

1   Note by the Witness: The current EU chemicals law as such does not contain an authorisation system, the reference here is made to the authorisation system under the REACH proposal. Back

2   Note by the Witness: Industry does not dispose of all this information either. Back

3   Note by the Witness: This refers to information communication mechanisms; registration under REACH is new. Back

4   Note by the Witness: This is a reference to the Commission, not to the House of Commons. Back

5   Note by the Witness: See previous footnote. Back

6   Note by the Witness: This is a reference to the CMR substances. Back

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