The Chemicals Stakeholder Forum was the jewel in the crown of the Government's 1999 chemicals strategy. Its remit is to identify and prioritise chemicals of concern for fast-track review and advise the Government on the need for risk reduction measures.
The background to the Forum's establishment was the slow progress at EU level in reviewing older "existing" chemicals. Only a dozen chemicals out of the 140 prioritised for review have completed the risk assessment process since 1994.
The Forum was intended to allow the Government to take its own measures on chemical safety - mainly by inviting industry to enter into appropriate voluntary agreements.
But the Forum has made slow progress. It was the subject of an internal review last summer only three years after its inception (ENDS Report 341, p 7 ). The review concluded by questioning whether the results achieved by the Forum justified the effort involved and it suggested that the Forum's work might be focused to greater effect.
The current consultation follows on from the review and moots four alternative options for the Forum. It also considers how the Forum might respond to the proposed new EU regime on the Registration, Evaluation and Authorisation of Chemicals (REACH).
The consultation's implications are wide ranging and put the 1999 strategy up in the air. The proposals will affect not only the Forum but also the Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances (ACHS) which provides the Forum with expert advice.
The continued existence of the Forum's list of chemicals of concern is also in doubt.
The consultation document suggests that the Forum might then be able to consider 10-12 chemicals per meeting so that in 18 months' time it could have worked through its entire list of chemicals of concern.
Whether this is practicable and would achieve any results at all is open to question. The issue so far has been the need for detailed consideration of data on each compound and the difficulty of contacting relevant industry bodies and extracting adequate information. It is possible that considering many related compounds together will confuse rather than hasten the process.
Membership of the Forum may also need to be adjusted. Some organisations have asked to step down, the consultation reveals.
The British Retail Consortium may be an example. It has been represented at very few meetings and most discussion on the Forum has been at the level of chemical manufacturers and downstream chemical users rather than retailers.
This is an option which would be attractive to environmental interests because it would maintain stakeholder involvement and raise the profile and importance of the list of chemicals of concern.
However, DEFRA effectively rules the option out because it maintains that it does not have the necessary powers to construct a list. While section 142 of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 specifically allows the Secretary of State to request information from manufacturers on potentially hazardous chemicals, the Government considers that it does not have statutory authority to build a list of chemicals of concern.
The point is a key one because it effectively means there can be no Government list without new primary legislation.
However, the legal position is questionable and a legal opinion has not been made available to Forum and ACHS members who have queried it.
The consultation paper also suggests that Option B could include opening up the Forum to play a wider role in promoting public dialogue on chemicals. Ideas include holding public open meetings in which anyone can participate, increasing ministerial participation and providing an improved website with a discussion board and provocative articles on chemicals policy.
However, these modifications to the Forum's role could be relevant to three of the four options considered, if the Forum has time to develop them.
The consultation's proposals are not as radical as some Forum and ACHS members had feared. All of the options maintain some form of stakeholder input, and the document even suggests ways of widening the debate.
Some parties feared that running the Forum has proved too costly. The secretariat's costs, chairman's fees and members' travel expenses run to some £150,000 a year, the consultation document reveals. However, none of the options apart from Option C appear to offer any significant resource savings.
The Government says it favours Option A. And reassurance that the Forum will continue in some form came in the form of a job advert for a new chairman which appeared in the press in late February.
The Forum's current chairman, Lord Selborne, will step down after the next meeting in March.
The options proposed in the consultation are not in fact mutually exclusive and it would be possible to mix and match between them, ending up with a reshaped Forum which has a higher public profile and provides valuable input to the development of REACH.
A central difficulty is that the Forum currently has no time to pursue anything other than reviewing chemicals on its list of chemicals of concern. It currently spends much of its time liaising with industry bodies in order to obtain information and hearing pleas from manufacturers or users in defence of products.
The process is time consuming and often unproductive, but central to the role of the current Forum. Whether a shortcut can be devised, or if stakeholders will accept jettisoning the task - and the list of chemicals of concern - will be crucial to the future of the Government's chemical strategy.