Ministers have “not done enough” to secure the UK’s participation in the EU’s chemical regulation scheme or find an alternative once Britain leaves the EU, creating a “huge cliff edge” for companies that risk losing access to £18bn of exports, a committee of peers said.
The House of Lords EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee said the government’s proposals for a UK chemicals database were “not credible” and raised “serious legal concerns”.
As a result, the committee said, there is an ongoing threat to human and environmental health, and a risk of chaos for businesses that rely on the thousands of chemicals imported from the EU.
Regulation of chemicals is currently managed by the EU’s Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals (Reach) system.
Unless ministers are able to negotiate the UK’s continued participation in Reach, the government will be forced to establish its own system for regulating chemicals when Britain leaves the EU.
That would mean chemicals licensed for use in the UK could not be sold in the EU, creating a major headache for manufactures which would lose access to a major market unless they transfer product registrations to EU countries. The committee said this was unlikely to be possible before Brexit.
At the same time, British authorities and businesses would not have access to full safety information for EU chemicals being used in the UK.
Minsters have said they hope to negotiate access to Reach but the Lords committee said this was “highly unlikely”. Plans for a UK register are “not progressing quickly enough”, it said.
The delay “risks human and environmental health” and “disruption to the many supply chains that rely on access to chemicals produced across the EU”.
The government’s suggestion that it could simply “copy and paste” information from the EU’s database was “not credible” and “raises serious legal issues”, the peers added.
Chemicals constitute the UK’s second biggest manufacturing industry, with exports worth £18bn to EU countries last year.
21,000 chemicals are regulated under the Reach system, of which 5,000 are registered by UK-based companies.
The Lords committee warned: “The loss of access to 16,000 substances after Brexit would have a serious impact on the UK’s chemical industry and the many supply chains that rely on it.”
Peers said the government must “urgently” explain how it will ensure the regulation of chemicals after Brexit and put forward a “more credible plan” for enabling the safe trade of products to continue.
The committee chairman, Liberal Democrat peer Lord Teverson, said: “Chemical regulation might seem like a niche area of Brexit considerations, but chemicals are used to make products that we all use every day, and the chemical sector is key to the UK’s economy.
“At the moment they’re regulated by Reach, which combines legislation with an EU database, an EU regulator and the EU single market to keep us all safe.
“Although we welcome the government’s aim to remain part of the Reach system after Brexit, its negotiation red line on the UK’s membership of the single market makes that highly unlikely. That means it urgently needs to be working on a plan B, and that simply hasn’t happened, which leaves the sector facing a huge cliff edge on the day we leave the EU.”
A government spokesman said: “We have set out our negotiating intention to be an associate member of the European Chemicals Agency.
“If such an agreement is not secured, we are already well advanced in our preparations for establishing the appropriate body and mechanisms to have effective chemicals regulation, which safeguards human health and the environment.
“A technical notice has already been issued on this, and we will continue to engage with businesses to ensure they have the information they need to prepare.”
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