Chemicals Forum's future hangs in the balance

The future of the Environment Department's Chemicals Stakeholder Forum is likely to be decided shortly. Its chairman favours a shake-up in the Forum's way of working which would put more onus on companies to come forward with information on hazardous chemicals of concern.

The Forum was set up in 2000 to identify hazardous substances for rapid review and advise the Government on the need for risk reduction measures. Members include representatives of the chemical industry, downstream chemicals users, trade unions, scientists and environmental, animal welfare and consumer groups.

The Forum was intended to bypass the logjam at EU level caused by the slow progress of risk assessments under the "existing substances" legislation. In its three-year life it has published a list of "chemicals of concern", but recommended action on only two groups of listed chemicals.

A civil service review of the Forum was announced in March, to the surprise of many members (ENDS Report 341, p 7 ). The Environment Department said it wanted the review to assess whether the Forum's achievements justified the resources involved, and whether consideration of chemicals of concern should remain its main function.

A progress report on the review was published recently.1 It concludes that there is a need to restate the Forum's brief and reconsider its relationship with the Advisory Committee on Hazardous Substances - the expert committee which guides the Forum on scientific matters. Some industry members of the Forum have questioned the quality of advice which the Committee has provided.

The report also concludes that the Forum's secretariat of 3.5 staff, which it shares with the ACHS, is "already over-stretched", and will need to be strengthened if the Forum is to cope with an increased workload.

Forum chairman Lord Selborne, whose three-year term was recently extended to next March while the review is completed, is due to meet Environment Minister Alun Michael shortly to discuss the body's future.

Lord Selborne said he has supported the review and accepts the need to streamline the process the Forum has begun. "To go at this speed is not the most efficient way of proceeding," he said. "There is no reason we can't take on more, but it needs a different procedure. We have put the ball in play but I would like to see a more proactive approach from the centre, which means from Government."

"I would like to see something which would rely on industry to be proactive," Lord Selborne added. He wants a mechanism to encourage industry to come forward with information in a more timely fashion - bolstering those who have attributed the Forum's limited achievements to the slow responses of many industry groups in providing information.

"We would get more power if we passed the onus on to industry. I don't think that would need vast resources [from DEFRA] but the Forum has been resource-intensive so far because of the current set-up."

Another issue is whether the Forum's role might change following publication of the European Commission's REACH proposals on EU chemicals policy (see pp 51-53 ). Some industry representatives have suggested that it might concentrate more on "process and procedure" issues and less on individual chemicals.

But Lord Selborne sides with environmental interests, which argue for a continued focus on individual substances. "Process and procedure is relevant but we have to do chemicals as well. There may be a role for Forum in REACH - but this might change the nature of the Forum. It might then become a more specialist organisation - like the ACHS writ large - a change from the current lay committee."

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