European Standing Committee A
Wednesday 16 June 2004
[Mrs. Irene Adams in the Chair]
Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals (REACH)
[Relevant Document: the Sixth Report from the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2003-04, on Within REACH: The EU's New Chemicals Strategy (HC172-1).]
The Minister for Rural Affairs and Local Environmental Quality (Alun Michael): May I say what a pleasure it is, Mrs. Adams, to appear under your benevolent but stern eye? I shall try to ensure that it does not start to glare by turning off my telephone.
In February 2001, the European Commission published the White Paper ''Strategy for a Future Chemicals Policy''. It was based on a review of the existing European Union system for regulating the safe use of chemicals. The Commission came to the conclusion that reform of the current legislation was necessary, and in my view not even the greatest Europhobe could sensibly disagree. Protection of human health is important to us all, as is protection of the environment. To achieve those twin aims, we need the minimum of bureaucracy, but we also need to create a level playing field across Europe that is good not only for our industry's competitiveness, but for the public throughout Europe.
The Commission's work on the White Paper led to the publication in October 2003 of legislative proposals for the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of Chemicals, known as REACH. I do not usually like using acronyms, but I am prepared to make an exception in this case.
The proposal addresses the shortcomings of the current system identified in the White Paper. They include the lack of available information on risks to human health and the environment of the majority of substances on the EU market; the slow and resource-intensive nature of the current systemit certainly is slow and expensive; and the need to shift responsibility for the assessment of chemicals from the regulatory authorities to industry.
The Government share the Commission's view that the deficiencies need to be tackled. It is important to remember that there are some 30,000 chemicals on the market, with limited information about potential risks. That is why the United Kingdom was instrumental in starting the review process by bringing the issue to the fore at the informal meeting of Environment Ministers held during the last UK presidency of the Council in 1998. The Government are therefore strong supporters of the objectives of REACH.
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The Government have three key negotiating objectives. The first is to achieve a rapid and efficient system for collecting the necessary information on chemicals, and for tackling those of most concern. The second is to minimise animal testing. The third is to maintain the competitiveness of the chemical industry and of downstream users. Our aim is effective control of the use of the chemicals of greatest concern, but without imposing unproductive bureaucracy or other burdens on business. The system must be enforceable and consistent with our international trade obligations.
In May last year, the Commission issued a draft proposal for consultation. Through effective representations, the UK Government and other member states managed to secure a number of welcome changes. They include streamlining the registration process, which is consistent with our wish to keep bureaucracy to a minimum; limiting the scope of the system to keep it manageable, which was achieved by excluding registration of polymers and a majority of intermediates; and the prioritisation of substances for evaluation. The final proposal shows improvement on previous drafts, but we believe there is room for further improvement.
A key area for improvement is having a system where only one registration is accepted for each substanceone substance, one registration. That would bring a number of benefits. For example, it would reduce the workload and simplify the system for industry and the authorities, reduce the need for testing, and therefore lessen the amount of animal testing, and reduce the impact on smaller businesses, which is an important consideration for us. It would create one harmonised data package per substance, which would clearly avoid confusion or inconsistencies. A fair open-access and transparent arrangement for consortiums would avoid some of the anti-competitive practices that would otherwise be possible under REACH. We therefore strongly support the one substance, one registration approach.
Another key area for improvement is the role of the agency. We want a stronger agency that can drive the system and deliver a more harmonised approach to chemicals regulation across Europe. We do not believe that it has to be a big bureaucracy, but the agency has to be strong enough to guarantee consistent application of the same principles. It has to be an organisation that can ensure that there is consistency and therefore a level playing field. Without a strong agency, the playing field may not be level, and that would be bad for our chemicals industry and its competitiveness.
We want a system that will give the public and other users confidence that the chemicals that they are exposed to have been adequately assessed and the risks controlled. Clearly, public confidence is an important part of the approach. People have a right to expect a system that will protect human health and the environment.
The dossier is a high priority for us and we recognise its importance, not only for the chemical industry, but for downstream users and, it is fair to say, the
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manufacturing industry and a variety of other bodies, including the retail trade. I have been particularly pleased with the engagement of people from all those sectors, as well as from non-governmental organisations with concerns about the environment, health and animal testing. I was also pleased with their willingness to meet in the same room and discuss many of the issues. The engagement with them, and the fact that they have listened to and debated with each other, has strengthened our knowledge and the basis on which we have developed the negotiating position to which I referred.
Not so long ago, in a speech made in Birmingham to those partners, I said that it would greatly strengthen the authority of the United Kingdom when looking for the best possible outcome if we could make an approach with the united support of a variety of industry and non-industry organisations. I am very pleased with the way in which the industry has responded. I met a representative of one leading chemical company only this week and it is quite clear that there is genuine feeling that we are trying to take things forward in a way that makes sense for the industry as well as for the protection of public health and the environment.
If the regulation meets the three negotiating objectives that I have just set outachieving a rapid, efficient system for collecting the necessary information on chemicals and for tackling those of most concern; minimising animal testing; and maintaining the competitiveness of the chemical industry and downstream userswe believe that we will ensure effective controls on the use of chemicals of greatest concern without imposing unproductive bureaucracy or burdens on business. I hope that we will continue to have the wide range of support and that that will be reflected in the Committee.
The Chairman: We now have until 3 o'clock at the latest for questions to the Minister. I remind hon. Members that questions should be brief and asked one at a time. There is likely to be ample opportunity for everyone to ask several questions.
Richard Ottaway (Croydon, South) (Con): The Conservative party gives qualified support to the Minister's approach. We have several questions of a constructive naturethey will not be a vicious attack.
The Commission proposes that all companies that want to manufacture or import chemicals should register on a central database. The Minister's counter-proposal is for one substance, one registration by a consortium. Although we have some sympathy for the thrust of that approach, it will reduce the data available on manufacture and import and replace the register with, in effect, an approved list of chemicals. Does he agree that in seeking his balanced view he is watering down the original proposals?
Alun Michael: No, I do not. We are bringing the industry together to recognise, and to put more resource behind, the application of the process. The approach raises a number of issues. I had the
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opportunity to discuss it with German Ministers a few weeks ago. They were looking at other options, such as an industry-led approach.
Our approach is that if we can get the conditions right, we can be flexible about the terminology. However, unless we create a situation in which there is one application, resulting in a single set of data, inconsistencies could arise. We consider the one substance, one registration approach to be essential, otherwise one application could be made to one member state and another, perhaps with inconsistent evidence, to different member state.
The method by which we arrive at one substance, one registration is worthy of discussion. Should we form a compulsory consortium or look to the industry to create consortiums, which is where the option of the industry lead might come in? We have to ensure that any consortiums that are created are not exclusive. They must not leave out smaller producers and create a situation that is analogous to a cartel. If the one substance, one registration approach is consistent across industrythe compulsory consortium is one way of achieving thatit will be a stronger rather than weaker way of achieving the outcome.
Sue Doughty (Guildford) (LD): This is the first time that I have served on a Committee that you have chaired, Mrs. Adams, and I am delighted to be doing so.
The Liberal Democrats basically support the measure. It is essential that we have a much better way of dealing with chemicals, particularly the harmful chemicals in the environment. We also support the amendment tabled by the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key). I am sure that we will want to probe the issues that it raises further.
In October 2003, European Union Commission's impact assessment estimated that the worst case costs of REACH for producers and downstream users will be euro 8.4 billion over 10 years. However, the health benefits will be euro 50 billion over 30 years. Given those health cost savings, what discussions has the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs had with the Treasury about the potential use of fiscal instruments, both to incentivise the substitution of chemicals with safer alternatives chemicals and to protect businesses from the impact of the costs that they will face? Has the Treasury's green taxation team considered the issue?