Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 240 - 254)



  Q240  Dr Iddon: Who is going to determine the safe levels that are acceptable to the general public? Has that been determined or has there even been a discussion about it?

  Ms Hackitt: That is part of the unclear area currently in terms of how much of this will be determined and controlled centrally by the Agency and the extent to which individual member states will make different decisions.

  Mr Barker: That is one of the biggest problems which we have in the evaluation area and it is the actual use of the Member States and the variations in determinations which we know we get—we have had this for many years with new substances—relating to how they interpret the data and what they require as further information. There is not a standard in Europe presently; each and every member state seems to have their own way. They try to harmonise it but I have seen several cases where this does not function correctly. It is our opinion that it would be much better to run this through a central agency than through member state organisations, especially on making final decisions on these chemicals.

  Q241  Dr Iddon: There is obviously something to be resolved there before we proceed. On substitution, are you opposed to the wording on substitution in the REACH proposals as it stands at the moment or is it more to do with implementation?

  Ms Hackitt: A little bit of both I think is the answer to that. First let me say that we are not opposed to substitution as such. Substitution is something which this industry does all of the time in developing new and innovative products to replace ones that have been on the market. There are many examples of substitution going on all the time. That said, I think our concerns about what is proposed in the legislation right now is that, first of all, the idea that any substance which goes as far as authorisation must have a substitution plan to go with it. We would ask whether there are not circumstances where authorisation, by its very nature, has demonstrated that a substance can be used properly and safely in that given application. Therefore, why does it have to be substituted, particularly if the alternatives are not as effective or have perhaps other unknown disadvantages associated with them? The second thing that we are concerned about in the workability of the wording on substitution relates to the idea that the supplier alone can deliver a substitution plan. We know from experience that any effective substitution plan has to involve the whole supply chain. That has been proven time and again through work that has gone on in the industry and has been proven by the voluntary work of our own chemical stakeholder forum, that involving the supply chain and users is very necessary to make a substitution plan work.

  Q242  Dr Harris: Are you pleased with the support you have from government or would you qualify that by saying that some parts of government—letters from the Prime Minister, DTI—have been better than other parts of government, DEFRA or perhaps vice versa?

  Ms Hackitt: I would not make any distinction whatsoever. I think we have had a very fair hearing from every government department that we have talked to. They have all been challenging; they have all asked us to make our case and make it convincingly. It has not by any means been a pushover anywhere. That said, I think we have been very, very pleased to have had the strong support we have had from all government departments. I think this reflects the genuine concerns that we are expressing and the fact that what we are all looking to do is to get to a workable, effective piece of legislation put in place as quickly as possible.

  Q243  Dr Harris: I am going to ask you in a minute—but I will give you a minute while I am asking the next question to think about it—what question you think you would, if you were us, put to the minister who is coming here in a minute. What do you think the key issue is there? You say you have had the support and listening and all that, but then there is this campaign by British government in particular for a policy which is mandatory one substance one registration that you do not like for reasons you have just explained. You do not like it in terms of its inflexibility. Obviously everyone agrees that animal testing data should be shared and all that, but I do not understand how you can accept those two contradictory situations: you love what the Government is doing but you disagree with what they are doing or calling for.

  Ms Hackitt: I think you could point to any group of people that we have engaged in debate with on this subject and point to areas where we fall over one another in agreement and areas where we do not agree on the level of detail. I think that applies to discussions that have gone on between the industry and green NGOs for example. There are many things that we agree on in this proposal, but there are points of detail—in some cases significant detail—where we do not agree.

  Q244  Dr Harris: Let us concentrate on those. Going back to my first question, why is it, do you think, that you have failed to persuade the Government that the one substance one registration as they propose is not a good idea? Why is that?

  Ms Hackitt: I do not think we have failed to convince them yet. My belief is that those discussions are still taking place. We are still trying—and I believe the Government's answer would be the same—and we are working together to try to find a way of putting something based on the principle of one substance one registration wherever possible, together that we could then offer up to Europe as a workable way forward.

  Q245  Dr Harris: Perhaps that is going to be the question. Do either of your colleagues wish to add anything?

  Mr Barker: I think that everyone is in agreement that there is a need to share the information on animal testing. We have to make sure that there is no duplication of testing by whatever means. The proposal as was given on 29 October fails in that. The Commission's proposal still fails in clearly making that data available because of the pre-registration scheme being a two-fold system, and data on animals not being presented at the same point in time. We cannot guarantee that all the data shall be on the table for all users, given the present scheme and I think there are certain facets of the one registration one substance approach that will lead towards at least the sharing of information. Where we go after that and when we get into the detail of looking at the exposure scenarios, especially when they could be regarded as confidential business information, will be difficult to share in a consortia situation. There might be facets of this approach that we can take on board, but there will be other parts that we will want to be doing independently as companies.

  Mr Kemp: I think the biggest part is the part in terms of sharing the data, et cetera. I think people like us who understand that one single chemical can have very many different applications will know that if we try to put that together in one registration then we are never going to get to an end. Trying to get twenty people using the same chemical for different things to come up with one risk assessment is never going to work. However, I do not think that is a disadvantage to anyone provided we do the other part of sharing data and making sure that that is absolutely shared and making that work. I think that is the important thing to everyone.

  Q246  Dr Turner: Commissioner Liikanen told us last week that he felt that the draft proposals were still not quite the finished product and they still needed some more tweaking to make them workable. However, he did think that there was a fair balance between the environmental and public health aspects of the proposals, and competitiveness. Do you agree with that proposition?

  Ms Hackitt: I certainly agree with Commissioner Liikanen that by the time the proposal was published we had arrived at a scope for the legislation which made much, much more sense than the draft we saw back in July for consultation. We have come a long way; we have made a lot of progress in getting a sensible scope for the legislation. Whether or not we deliver the benefits we are all looking for in terms of improved health and environment as well as preserving industrial competitiveness depends on making the regulation workable. That is the challenge that lies ahead. For example, if we do not police imports of chemicals properly then we will not have met the environmental objectives of this regulation.

  Q247  Dr Turner: Fair point. Were you happy with the Commission's consultation process? Do you think it has dealt with the problem of this particular point in question that needs to be resolved? Do you think the consultation process has been adequate?

  Ms Hackitt: I think the consultation process for this particular piece of legislation was very welcome. I think it was quite difficult for any of us to do a thorough job on such a large document in the time that was available so I think we would all ideally have asked for longer to go through it in more detail. That said, I think we welcome the consultation process and we particularly welcome the Commission's acknowledgement of the need to make some of the modifications that were made before it was published, but there is still some way to go.

  Q248  Dr Turner: How much influence on the outcome do you think there will be given that the process is being led by the Competitiveness Council of Ministers?

  Ms Hackitt: I think what lies ahead is a very complex process because, as you say, on the one hand we have the Competitiveness Council leading in the Council of Ministers. I am sure that under that body all aspects of sustainable development will be taken into account. That will be a very balanced debate, we hope. Equally there will be a very complex process to take place within the Parliamentary system too because we know, as of last week, that three committees are actually going to debate this legislation within the Parliamentary process and that is something that, so far as I am aware, has not happened before.

  Q249  Chairman: In terms of REACH, what consistency is there across government departments in relation to that? Do you find different views in different departments or are they all of one view?

  Ms Hackitt: Certainly from our experience the amount of commonality of views and indeed cross-governmental working that has taken place on this would be something we would have no arguments with whatsoever.

  Q250  Chairman: From your experience of it, it is fine.

  Ms Hackitt: Yes.

  Q251  Mr McWalter: One of the things that concerns me is how far is it envisaged that the Agency is going to go in terms of its questioning? For instance, rubber could be regarded as a naturally occurring substance, but the rubber in o-rings in a motor vehicle—the hardened rubber—when there is a vehicle fire you can get a hydrogen fluoride residue which obviously is very dangerous. Yet it might well have been a very benign fluorine containing chemical that gave rise to the hardening process in the first instance. Is it going to be envisaged that under any circumstances of use this would be regarded as a hazard? Or is it that the Agency would only look at normal use of a product and therefore not really consider things like that rubber or things like that fluorine containing input in positions of abuse or whatever? How does that all work?

  Mr Kemp: Today we have very clear obligations under the law in terms of the information that we have to provide in the safety data sheets that we provide with any of our products and that would include information on things such as in the event of a fire, spillage, et cetera. From that point of view we very much have to look at those aspects and communicate that with our customers and it is their responsibility to communicate those down the supply chain. I do not think you could ever look at all the consequences in terms of registration of products, the potential products and misuse of every product in the market and try to define every form of misuse. I do not think practically you are every going to do that, but the simple things like involvement in fire, what happens if you spill, et cetera, are things that are already well covered with the SDS legislation which was only updated in 2002.

  Q252  Mr McWalter: You said earlier that the role of this Chemicals Agency is far from clear and you said in your representations to us that you wanted to see a more powerful Chemicals Agency, so you want to see a very powerful but rather muddy outfit, do you?

  Mr Kemp: Not at all. We want it to set the standards and make sure that the common standards are applied through the EU because one of the biggest dangers that we can see is that certain activities which are currently in the hands of member states can happen very differently in different member states and as a consequence it can upset the competition in the market if we are dealing with a competitor who is doing a registration and particular evaluation from a different member state of the EU and they get an entirely different approach from that member state to the one we are getting with a competitive product, that is clearly against the interests of what REACH is supposed to set out. That is one example where we would very clearly like the Agency to be setting those standards and ensuring those standards are maintained equally across the member states or preferably doing certain things centrally so that you can ensure that common standard.

  Q253  Mr McWalter: My example indicates that their brief can be interpreted in a hugely variable set of ways, all the way from being nightmarishly Euro-bureaucratic to being relatively permissive and laissez-faire. How are you going to be able to ensure that this decision making mechanism actually delivers what you want as opposed to what they might want?

  Ms Hackitt: I think there is an opportunity and the sorts of things we must all be participating in between now and when this legislation comes into force are some of the pilot trials which are going on which look at some of these very issues about when you are actually trying to put substances through this process how does it work in practice. The industry has made its commitment quite clear that we are willing and are ready to participate in those pilot trials with the Commission to ensure that we do find all of those glitches in the system before the legislation comes into force.

  Mr Kemp: I think we also feel very clearly that if we are going to get a common—but also pragmatic—standard which is science based (we are not asking for testing that really does not need to be done) the chances of getting that through one body is going to be a lot more likely to succeed than trying to get that standard across 25 member states—as it will be—all doing their own thing, potentially from very different levels of competence and confidence.

  Q254  Mr McWalter: Obviously, for the reasons we have said, there are a lot of concerns about whether this whole business will stifle innovation. You clearly must share that view but obviously you are optimistic that those serious consequences can be avoided.

  Ms Hackitt: I think there is still the opportunity to design this legislation in such a way that it will not stifle innovation. Equally, there is an enormous opportunity to do the reverse. Written in the wrong way it will stifle innovation.

  Chairman: Can I thank you all very much indeed for taking the time to come and answering our questions.

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