Today, CHEM Trust has published a new report by the journalist, researcher and former editorial director of the global news platform Chemical Watch, Geraint Roberts: ‘The Swiss Chemicals System: The legal framework and how it relates to that in the EU’.
CHEM Trust commissioned the report in response to growing interest from policymakers, NGOs, and industry stakeholders about the Swiss chemicals regulatory system and whether it offers a better model for the UK now it is outside the European Union.
In an accompanying CHEM Trust briefing, we set out our analysis for why, in our view, the Swiss system provides a safer and more sustainable model for regulating chemicals in the UK post-Brexit, with adaptations for a UK context.
The Swiss system achieves a high degree of harmonisation with EU chemical regulations through a default policy of alignment, known as “autonomous adaptation”. This policy was adopted unilaterally and is not attached to a wider set of bilateral agreements it has in place with the EU, sometimes called ‘the Swiss model’.
The aims and key features of the Swiss system
The primary goals of the Swiss system are (a) to ensure a high level of protection for human health and the environment and (b) to avoid trade barriers with its biggest trading partner, the EU.
To deliver on these goals, the system has the following key features:
- It follows a default position of alignment with EU regulations, known as ‘autonomous adaptation’. This retains the ability to take a different approach, although deviations are rare and relatively minor and can be more protective of public health and the environment.
- It does not require detailed chemical safety data for substances that are already registered in EU REACH. The system relies on the fact that detailed information on the properties and uses of chemicals have already been submitted to the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) and on the relevance of risk management decisions to control the use of and exposure to harmful chemicals in the 27 countries of the EU. The report and briefing also cover how the system addresses uses of chemicals in Switzerland that are different from the rest of the EU27.
The UK system
By contrast, the UK chemicals regulatory system (UK REACH) is facing considerable difficulties establishing an effective, high-standard regime as a standalone system since leaving EU REACH. Due to a lack of capacity (of data and staff) and its deregulatory focus, the system is acting on just a fraction of harmful substances the EU is banning or implementing controls on.
Where it is taking regulatory action, it is generally proposing less protective measures and acting at an even slower pace than the EU. It has introduced new layers of evidence gathering and analysis before taking regulatory action on substances identified as priorities, resulting in delays to regulatory action. The recently announced new model for chemical safety data on substances registered in the UK, has in our view, prioritised reducing costs to the industry over maintaining high chemical safety standards The problems with the UK system are opening up a protective gap with the EU that’s on course to become very wide without intervention and risks the dumping of unsafe products on the GB market which no longer meet higher EU standards.
Benefits of adopting the Swiss system as a model for the UK
Adopting a similar default policy of alignment to that in Switzerland would provide a pragmatic, sustainable and long-term model for the UK with the following benefits:
- It would maintain a high level of environmental and health protection for the UK, pegged to the highest standards globally. There is no public appetite for lower UK standards, which risks higher levels of chemical pollution in the UK. Indeed, polling has consistently demonstrated the public would like to have the highest public health and environmental protection standards.
- It would maintain an effective and efficient system with limited resources and constraints on public spending. The regulator could focus limited capacity on substances not registered in the EU, rather than duplicating and reconsidering the work already done at the EU level to evaluate and assess the risks of harmful chemicals and the regulatory measures needed to control them.
- A long-term commitment to such an approach would provide regulatory certainty and predictability for UK businesses. It would also reduce the costs on businesses of compliance with UK REACH, such as the submission of detailed chemical safety data on substances already registered in the EU, without this being done at the cost to our safety standards.
- Alignment could also provide a credible basis for seeking a much closer and more economically beneficial relationship with the EU, for example, on mutual recognition of goods.
We propose one significant adaptation of the model:
One concern we have about the Swiss approach is that the process for reviewing and adopting EU bans or restrictions on harmful substances could more easily result in more significant divergence and deviation if replicated in a UK context. Therefore, we recommend that these processes should be adapted for use in a UK context to limit the scope for deviation to exceptional cases, which is the net effect of the Swiss processes. One way to do this would be by establishing a regulatory cooperation council along the lines proposed by the Trade & Business Commission, to manage divergence where this needs to occur and to feed into EU dialogues around regulation.
Chloe Alexander, Senior Campaigner, CHEM Trust, said:
“This report is very timely for current discussions about how the UK ensures it does not fall below EU environmental standards and builds a closer trading relationship with the EU. The current UK system is resulting in less protection for people and nature from harmful substances compared to the EU and risks a return to the UK becoming the dirty, polluted country of Europe again.
“The Swiss system provides a helpful alternative approach for regulating chemicals in the UK post-Brexit. It would ensure high levels of protection for the environment and our health – by pegging these to the highest in the world – while minimising duplication and compliance costs on businesses. It would also provide a good basis to seek cooperation with EU agencies in highly regulated sectors where this would benefit us”.
Report by Geraint Roberts: ‘The Swiss Chemicals System: The legal framework and how it relates to that in the EU’.
CHEM Trust briefing: ‘The Swiss system for regulating chemicals: is this a useful model for the UK?’
CHEM Trust divergence table on the differences between UK and EU regulatory bans or controls on harmful substances
For more information on UK chemicals regulation, https://chemtrust.org/uk-policy/
Covered in Chemical Watch