Before the turmoil in British politics of the last couple of months, NGOs had hoped a draft UK Chemicals Strategy would be published for public consultation before the end of the year.
A strategy was first promised over four years ago – to set out the UK’s approach, post-Brexit, to ensuring chemicals are safely used and managed. Over the past year stakeholders have been engaged in detailed discussions about its content.
It’s vital that the changes in administration (and ministers) do not result in further delays to the strategy and to the measures that are urgently needed to halt chemical pollution in the UK.
Current regulation is too slow
Exposure to harmful chemicals is a growing problem. Not only are harmful chemicals polluting our environment and leading to biodiversity loss, they are linked to negative health effects such as cancer and diabetes. Last year, the UN highlighted the three interconnected planetary crises of climate change, biodiversity loss and pollution, which are linked to and amplify each other. Failure to address chemical pollution undermines the achievement of many of the UK’s environmental goals – from clean air to thriving wildlife.
UK REACH replicated and brought into UK law the 2006 EU REACH Regulation, and is the main regulation for assessing and controlling the risks from hazardous chemicals in Great Britain. While providing the highest standards globally, and restrictions of around 2,000 hazardous substances, the EU REACH Regulation has nonetheless failed to provide sufficient protection from chemical threats. The current pace of regulation is too slow, often due to a combination of a lack of safety data and an unwillingness to act on this limited data. It takes over a decade to ban a hazardous substance from being used dangerously and there are serious gaps in knowledge about chemical risks (‘known unknowns’). Regulation is failing to keep pace with chemical threats – with chemical production set to double by 2030 (from 2017 levels) and the already widespread use of chemicals set to increase, including in consumer products.
30 NGOs including CHEM Trust have set out 12 Key Asks for the UK’s Chemicals Strategy. These are measures that address the need for speed and other weaknesses in the 2006 EU REACH regulation.
Most of our 12 Asks are also reflected in the EU’s Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability, which aims to address problems with existing regulation to set Europe on a new path for better protection from toxic chemicals.
NGOs, led by Wildlife & Countryside Link, submitted a joint briefing to Defra at the end of a series of consultative workshops Defra organised on a UK chemicals strategy. We particularly highlighted the need to phase out the most hazardous substances from consumer products – without which, exposure to harmful chemicals will increase.
The threat from deregulation
Just at the point UK regulation needs to be strengthened and sped up, our existing laws are under threat from the Retained EU Law Bill.
This Bill risks revoking laws which control and manage harmful chemicals (including REACH and related chemicals legislation), that could result in irreparable damage to the natural environment and to people’s health.
It gives ministers ‘carte blanche’ powers to remove or weaken laws, with minimal parliamentary scrutiny. Clause 1 of the Bill contains a sunset provision which would mean that, unless other action is taken to retain, replace or amend Retained EU Law, it will automatically expire on 31 December 2023 – in just 14 months! It is unclear what the process is for deciding which laws should be preserved (either temporarily – under an extended sunset to 2026 – or permanently), reformed or revoked.
In addition, Clause 15 of Bill effectively enshrines deregulation, in that it only allows regulations to revoke and replace secondary retained EU law if they do not increase the regulatory burden. The definition of ‘regulatory burden’ is pretty extensive and includes no additional administrative burdens and no impact on profitability.
Far from helping drive economic growth (which is the Bill’s intended aim), throwing UK rules into doubt will create uncertainty and instability for business, and very likely deter investment.
As Joël Reland highlights in a recent blog, deregulation leaves businesses with three (costly) options:
- to comply with two regimes at once (if they want to continue exporting to the EU and Northern Ireland);
- to end exports to the EU or
- to remain aligned to EU standards (in which case, the changes are ineffectual).
The EU’s shift to more protective chemicals regulation will help to boost jobs and growth in the development of safer chemicals and the creation of new markets; markets that are cleaner and safer for consumers. This will provide an important first-mover advantage for European companies going into the green transition. Progressive UK businesses should be able to benefit from this shift, without getting undercut by lower standards at home.
The REUL Bill will also divert already over-stretched civil servants from existing priorities. Priorities including the ongoing work of Government to improve UK REACH, as well as to develop a UK Chemicals Strategy. The UK system is facing serious challenges from a lack of data, a lack of capacity and less transparent decision-making, which should be addressed by Defra as part of a project it recently started to consider how to improve UK REACH.
If the Government wishes to meet its stated ambition to minimise costs on industry and unnecessary bureaucracy, and meet its environmental targets, there is an alternative model. A system which is closely aligned with the EU would provide a safer and more sustainable business model that would address the double regulatory burden on firms operating in the UK and EU, and maintain protections for the environment and health, by pegging them to the highest standards in the world.
The Second Reading Debate of the REUL Bill
Greener UK and Wildlife & Countryside Link’s Second Reading Briefing.