‘The UK needs a new Chemicals Agency’, says former EA board member

DEFRA’s forthcoming Chemicals Strategy should overhaul the UK’s approach to toxic substances, with a new pan-UK Chemicals Agency, bolstered by a new Chemicals Act, according to environmental policy expert and former Environment Agency board member Nigel Haigh.

DEFRA has been working intermittently on its Chemicals Strategy since it was mentioned in 2018’s 25-Year Environment Plan. Work has been repeatedly delayed due to no-deal Brexit preparations and the pandemic, though the Resources and Waste Strategy and the government’s response to the Commons’ inquiry into Toxic Chemicals in Everyday Life have provided some clues to what will be delivered.

A new Chemicals Act “would require the Chemicals Agency to take a broad view of chemicals policy that would give it a clearly visible place within pollution policy. This would contrast with the narrow view of chemicals policy that currently prevails. An ambitious strategy needs an equally ambitious institutional and legal framework to deliver it,” Haigh said in an informal and personal submission to DEFRA, copied to ENDS.

Haigh speaks with deep experience. He founded the London branch of the Institute of European Environmental Policy, chaired and helped found the Green Alliance and was on the boards of both the Environment Agency and European Environment Agency. Though retired for many years, he remains a trustee of CHEM Trust.

Haigh considers that the UK’s primary legislation on chemicals is no longer fit for purpose and presents a post-Brexit paradox.

Despite the ostensible aim of leaving the EU being to ‘take back control of our laws’, the serially-amended REACH statutory instruments derive “almost wholly from the EU, though now in a less efficient and more expensive form. The UK cannot strengthen or significantly change UK REACH except by introducing new primary legislation,” he noted.

Doing so, “would give a powerful signal that chemicals policy has evolved significantly in recent years and is now to be regarded in the UK, no longer as a rather narrow technical subject, but broadly as a central part of pollution policy and hence of environmental policy,” he wrote.

Without new primary legislation it is hard to see how the UK could stay broadly aligned with the EU if REACH is strengthened in the future, as is expected following the European Commission’s Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability, published last October. “The UK would not just be following EU law, but out of date EU law, a position to please no ideologue whatever their persuasion,” Haigh wrote.

The solution is for new legislation to empower ministers to make regulations based on REACH, “but broad enough to cover likely changes”, which might include an eventual data sharing deal with the European Chemicals Agency. There should also be powers to replicate EU restrictions, to prevent European manufacturers dumping chemicals onto the UK market and the prospect of a public outcry, Haigh added. This would be necessary as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) – and the proposed Chemicals Agency – would find it hard to keep up the pace of assessments, due to their size and the paucity of data available to them.

Supporting his call for a new regulator, Haigh said that, “Anyone designing chemicals policy afresh today would not see the HSE as a natural home for it.” While it made sense for it to be the main regulator in the 1970s, “The shift in emphasis of chemicals policy over the years from chemicals used in and emitted from the workplace to chemicals in consumer products makes HSE less obviously the base for a chemicals agency,” he continued, adding that the absence of the word ‘chemicals’ in the chemicals regulator “does not contribute to visibility”.

The new regulator would administer REACH, as the HSE (in concert with the environmental agencies) does now, but also have a wider role. One of these would be conducting surveillance and biomonitoring campaigns, to obtain data on how people and the environment are exposed to chemicals from different sources. It would also be “a champion for substitution not only in industry but also in consumer products,” in concert with industrial regulators, and coordinate local authorities’ work on policing chemicals compliance in products, said Haigh. Councils generally give this a low priority.

He added that the Chemicals Agency would also press the recently-created Office for Product Safety and Standards and Public Health England to keep their eye on chemical exposures. Having it report to DEFRA directly, rather than to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, would also simplify current arrangements.

Asked to comment by ENDS, a DEFRA spokesperson said: “Work on developing a Chemicals Strategy is underway and we are continuing to gather evidence from a broad range of stakeholders. We will consult on the strategy in due course.”