Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 150 - 159)



  Q150  Chairman: Welcome. Thank you very much for seeing us. We are carrying out a formal inquiry into chemicals and new legislation and so on. We produce a report which goes to the Government, they reply, then we have a debate and the minister replies. So we are moving it forward, as you are too. We have enjoyed our time this morning talking to WWF and other groups in the chemicals industry and this afternoon we are having this session with yourself. We look forward to asking a few questions, if that is all right.

  Commissioner Liikanen: Fine.

  Q151  Chairman: And you can fire back at us.

  Commissioner Liikanen: No problem.

  Q152  Chairman: If I give you a nice gentle one to start with, that would be okay, would it?

  Commissioner Liikanen: And later the more difficult ones! Fine.

  Q153  Chairman: Do you think the legislation as it stands will protect the environment and human health? This will give you a chance to tell us what the thinking is here about human health and how this legislation as it stands is going to deal with it. We have heard from others—and we hear some doubts and so on—but what is your position, please?

  Commissioner Liikanen: There are more targets than one with this legislation. We try to target it to promote sustainable development, which means to support competitiveness; and, the second pillar, social aims (which means both jobs and health); and, the third point, environment. Why we have come to this conclusion is that for competitiveness we have been able to cut the cost substantially down. After the internet consultation which we had on draft texts and impact assessments, we were able to cut the costs from 12 billion euro to two—which is good, as such, that we were able to limit it. We make it easier to innovate, because the registration thresholds are being raised from 10 kilos to one tonne. We encourage more research as a result of this story. So that is the first sign. Second, on the issue of employment and health, this of course means here also environment at the same time, that when we have a clearer framework for chemicals, we will know more about old and new substances. Our problem today is that you know an enormous amount about new chemicals and not much about the old ones. So REACH will provide more data for assessment. The same holds true for the health and environment issues. Of course, for those chemicals which are considered to be very dangerous, there is a particular authorisation procedure which will be followed.

  Q154  Chairman: Do you think the REACH proposals are "green"? That is a concept that people have, that they are too "green", too little "green". How do you see them? How would you position them in terms of the green-versus-industry continuous struggle?

  Commissioner Liikanen: You did not see Greenpeace, did you? No, not yet.

  Q155  Chairman: No, we saw WWF.

  Commissioner Liikanen: Yes, WWF they are, let's say, more diplomatic in their tone. I think, as far as the balance of this proposal is concerned, that it is relatively in balance. I do not say that is true for every single detail. The legislative process is of course also there to make improvements. But it is relatively balanced because, compared to some earlier big pieces of legislation which are linked to competitiveness and environment or health, for the first time we really applied properly the principles of Better Regulation. The internet consultation was extremely helpful because it passed us a message on the problems which the normal inter-service consultations were not able to tell. I give you an example about the chemical safety assessmentswhich were proposed and the impact on the downstream users. They turned out to be much heavier and more expensive than anybody ever thought. We got the information from the internet consultation, which was convincing; we finalised our assessment, impact assessment; we thought that the value-added for that extra work is not there, so we took it away. The second issue, just to give you another example of something which we changed, was connected to the question of the small volume chemicals. The problem which we discussed a lot in the context of the impact assessment is: Is there the risk of a withdrawal of some chemicals from the market? Of course, if that is the case, the substitutes are more expensive, then the indirect impact on downstream users will be higher. When that problem became evident, we changed the number of the tests which are obligatory for small volumes, under 10 tonnes, so that essentially cuts down the costs for registration and assessment, so the risk of this kind of strong impact is more limited. So on the costs side we went to the direction of the industry's concerns, while respecting the main objectives. A second area which is very interesting is a question about the homogeneity of the internal market. Industry had a major concern that it would be a fragmented market, so they understood that we had not proposed a strong agency, as we have, for instance, in London, and in many similar European agencies. Every country tries to compete with each other, to make it more complicated, and this process has reinforced the role of agencies, so in REACH the Agency is responsible for all registrations, and also the agency will have the possibility to intervene if the requests of the national authorities are disproportionate in the evaluation phase. So I would say that perhaps the situation this time was better for us, because of the procedure, the in-depth consultation. I talk about us who are responsible for competitiveness and inward investments but also because of the changed international context. Four or five years ago the European economy was stronger, jobs were increasing, the only discussion was the competition between EU and US. Since about two years, Asia has emerged as a real challenge for the European manufacturing industries and in this balance of discussion the sustainability starts to get now the real balance.

  Q156  Chairman: Right.

  Commissioner Liikanen: It has not always been the case, because often ministers or even political leaders have considered sustainability to be a question of the environment, but now it is confirmed that it is a question of three pillars: economic, social and environmental. I think REACH is relatively in balance, and I would say that the industry concerns all were treated in detail. It does not mean that they were all accepted but they were treated in detail.

  Q157  Chairman: So there was some imbalance, I guess, before the consultation.

  Commissioner Liikanen: I would say on the costs side, yes: it was too expensive. Let's say, the costs compared to the value-added were disproportionate.

  Q158  Chairman: The process of innovation in the industry, you have not mentioned that.

  Commissioner Liikanen: I mentioned in my first intervention.

  Q159  Chairman: Do you think actually it will encourage innovation?

  Commissioner Liikanen: We must remember that innovation means always new product requirements. It is not the old. Today, to be able to get new products onto the market—in the old system, the legislation starts to apply from 10 kilos and we raised that to one tonne—it makes it easier. And always, with new chemicals, companies start with small volumes.

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