Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence


Examination of Witnesses (Questions 255 - 259)

MONDAY 9 FEBRUARY 2004

RT HON ALUN MICHAEL MP, DR COLIN CHURCH, MS GIULIA MUSTO AND MR PATRICK WALSH

  Q255  Chairman: Thank you, Minister, for coming along with your team of experts. This is our last session and we hope to have our report together for Easter. The first question I have is that WWF told us that the regulation had been watered down to a level where it is in danger of not delivering what it needs to do. Do you share that concern?

  Alun Michael: Firstly, can I thank you for asking me to speak to the Committee. You rightly pointed out that I am accompanied by the experts which, by implication, indicates something that is absolutely correct which is that I am not an expert. I have with me Dr Colin Church who is the head of the division responsible for chemicals policy, Giulia Musto who is the head of the branch which deals with new EU chemical strategy, both of them within DEFRA. Patrick Walsh is from the Chemicals Unit at DTI which may help to endorse the fact that we are trying not to see things exactly through the same prism but actually to work together on issues that need to be looked at together both ministerially and officially. I think one understands the concerns that a variety of organisations bring to this debate. WWF and the people you have been hearing from from the industry have different starting points. I would not necessarily share the specific concerns that any of those would have about looking at their particular responsibilities and interests. What I think has been healthy is that in recent weeks and months we have had people willing to sit down in the same room and to exchange views about this so that for instance recently David Sainsbury and I held a meeting to which we invited representatives of industry—both the chemicals industry and also manufacturing industry and retail industry—and non-governmental organisations, both those concerned with environmental issues and those concerned with issues like animal testing or human health and safety. I think that the sort of dialogue that is going on is extremely healthy, which is essentially trying to find the least bureaucratic way forward, which actually protects human health and protects the environment. That may sound an idealistic approach but, frankly, unless you get people from those different backgrounds talking together—challenging each other as well as challenging government and being challenged by government—we will not get the right sort of outcome from this. I think the reason we have been able to be effective in the discussions we have had with Europe up to now is the fact that we are engaging with all of those stakeholders, appreciating the specific concerns that they have and the fact that different people would like it to go more in one direction than another but, as far as possible, trying to meet all those concerns.

  Q256  Chairman: The CIA has said that there has been some progress towards a more sensible scope for the legislation but the fundamental issue of workability has not been addressed. Do you agree with that?

  Alun Michael: I think workability is essential and that is what we have tried to address. I do not do initials but I take it you were referring to the Chemicals Industries Association rather than any alternative CIA. I think I will ask colleagues to come in, particularly from an industry perspective. There is no point in creating bureaucracy that does not actually deliver on the protection of human health and the environment and that is why joint working has been so important.

  Mr Walsh: I think a general point to make about the legislation is that we have been very effective in making representations to the Commission and involving other member states along with us in emphasising the need to improve the text we saw for the internet consultation in May/July last year. As a result of those representations we feel that the text which the Commission finally adopted on 29 October last year does, in fact, show a number of important improvements. We feel that the work we have done has been very effective in making the legislation more workable, particularly for the lower tonnages which could possibly have been more vulnerable to the cost burden of the earlier text. We felt that the changes made there are particularly welcome. Also, the aspects of the evaluation part of the text has also been improved in that it includes language which does emphasise the need for the establishment of criteria to agree which substances should be subject to substance evaluation and agreeing priorities across the EU. We think that a number of changes have been made which are moving towards more workability but I think further improvements are necessary.

  Q257  Chairman: What about substances produced outside the EU and imported in? The CIA have flagged that up as a problem. What is your attitude to that?

  Mr Walsh: That is a very good point. There are two dimensions to this and I think one of them was flagged up in the earlier representation. On the one hand there is the question of the competitiveness of indigenous EU produced products which bear the cost of REACH and therefore to try to be successful in the overseas markets I certainly think that is a factor. The other aspect, as you say, is the importation into the EU of substances in articles—as it is expressed in the text—which may not be subject to REACH if they do not meet the criteria in article six of the text. There is both the import and export dimension to competitiveness. What we would say about that is that we believe that article six—and other aspects of the legislation generally—could be improved and that is what we are working towards.

  Alun Michael: I think it is fair to say that the important thing is that the regulatory regime is consistent with the EU's obligations and compatible with the World Trade Organisation's arrangements. I think one of the reasons why it is important to have the retail trade involved in the discussions that I referred to earlier—and indeed in a variety of other discussions—is that the issue of products between production in the UK and other EU partners and products that are imported is a principle that we need to pursue. It is not easy but it is one that is very important to see addressed comprehensively within the final regulation.

  Q258  Chairman: There has been an impact assessment by the Commission and yet you have decided to have a follow-up one. Why? Why did you not do it first?

  Dr Church: We have a requirement here in the UK to undertake a regulatory impact assessment anyway so irrespective of the timing of the Commission's document we would have to do one.

  Q259  Chairman: Why did you not do it first though?

  Dr Church: We did our first partial regulatory impact assessment on the White Paper itself when that was produced. What we are now doing is a partial regulatory impact assessment to be part of the consultation on the actual proposals.

  Alun Michael: This happens quite often that you have initial proposals on which you have to take a view in order to seek to persuade the Commission and then, when you have a firm proposal, obviously that is when you really address the issue of the impact. I think the partial is doing what is proportionate to the extent to which the proposal is developed. I think it is also fair to comment that there has been a lot of engagement—for instance Commissioner Wallström spent some time in the UK and attended a breakfast that was arranged by the non-governmental organisations, which was also attended by representatives of industry and I attended as well—and the amount of exchange that is going on and trying to understand what it is that concerns different organisations in order to get the best possible outcome is the right approach and it is the approach that is reflected in the letter of which the Prime Minister was one of the three signatories.


 
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