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EAC: Transition to independent post-Brexit chemicals body suffering from ‘fundamental issues

The Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) of MPs has today urged the government to consider associate membership of the EU chemicals frameworks if “fundamental issues” surrounding the transition to the UK’s new independent chemicals body are not ironed out.

In an message sent yesterday to Environment Secretary George Eustice, committee chairman Philip Dunne warned that a number of UK businesses were concerned about the process of transferring registrations from the EU regime to the new UK one.

Many businesses lack the data package necessary for registering on the UK’s new Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (REACH) system, Dunne warned, adding that for many chemicals, the required data set is owned by third parties in the EU.

If companies have to embark on fresh testing to gather the necessary data, he said, it is unlikely they will meet the two-year timetable for registration for UK REACH outlined in the government’s plans.

As such, Dunne asked the government whether it would reconsider seeking associate membership of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) and EU REACH regime if it was unable to address the chemical industry’s concerns.

Dunne said it was “imperative” that the chemicals industry, which supports half a million UK jobs, received further clarity on the government’s plans. “The government’s proposal to establish a standalone UK REACH is continuing to leave many fundamental issues unaddressed,” he warned. “How businesses will be able to continue operating as the Brexit transition draws to a close and the costs incurred for businesses must be addressed now, particularly as time is running out.”

No country currently holds associate membership with ECHA, but the UK’s regulatory overlap with the bloc had fuelled speculation that a new form of continued membership could be established once the country left the Customs Union. Those hopes were dashed, however, in May, when Environment Minister Rebecca Pow wrote in a letter to Dunne: “While the transition to UK REACH will take some adjustment, we believe that the benefits of having control of our own laws outweigh the costs,” she wrote.

In an EAC hearing in late June, the Secretary of State reiterated that the government would not be seeking any form of associate membership. “This government were elected with a very clear mandate to leave the EU and to seek what we describe as a Canada-style free trade agreement – one that does not involve regulatory alignment and it does not involve a role for the European Court of Justice,” Eustice said. “This basically accepts that there would be, therefore, some friction in some areas, and friction at the border on some trade, because there would need to be some border checks and administrative paperwork such as export health certificates. In the case of chemical regulation, it accepts that because it is a red line for us that we cannot accept the jurisdiction of the ECJ, having some sort of associate membership of ECHA does not really work.”

The EAC has asked the government to clarify how UK businesses can continue to export chemicals into the EU once the transition period ends, and what the likely costs and regulatory impacts on UK manufacturers will be. It also flagged that it was expecting a response from the Secretary of State on the cost breakdown for different UK businesses for the new regime.

In a report published in June, the Greener UK coalition of environmental groups warned that “serious questions” remained over the UK’s efforts to establish its own independent body, flagging staffing, budgets, and access to safety data as areas of concern.

The REACH regime is widelyregarded as critical to the safe management of chemicals that can pose environmental and health threats, and provides a framework for the phasing out of certain hazardous chemicals.