UK REACH: The good, the bad and the ugly

The UK REACH chemicals regulation system, which is still bedding in and is subject to future changes, has been much criticised by industry and campaigners alike. But it also has some advantages. Here’s what you need to know.

Chemical pictograms UK REACH has been heavily criticised by industry and NGOs alike. Photograph: Antoine2K / Getty Images

It’s a broadly familiar system

As REACH was carried over from the EU Regulation, though with certain strategic changes, the regime is largely the same that industry has worked under since 2007. The same rules operating in Europe were also carried forward after Brexit became final last year.

  

UK REACH is more streamlined

One of the major changes to REACH was to delete references to a series of advisory and decision-making committees, functioning under the European Chemicals Agency and the European Commission. As disagreements within them have occasionally held up making decisions on whether regulatory measures should go ahead or otherwise.

  

It’s arguably less democratic

The committees’ removal means that “important democratic oversight mechanisms” have been lost, said former Environmental Audit Committee (EAC) chair Mary Creagh during a Commons debate on the REACH etc (Amendment etc) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019, leading to “rule by fiat rather than by discussion” and downgraded environmental protections, she added.

References to both the Committee for Risk Assessment, which prepares regulatory opinions on risks relating to human health or the environment and the Committee for Socio-economic Analysis, which weighs up social pros and cons, were struck out, alongside the Member State Committee, which resolves differences of opinion on new measures.

READ MORE: UK REACH ‘will cost industry £1bn’

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READ MORE: UK REACH ‘at risk of sliding backwards’, ministers told

  

It makes chemicals regulation more complex from an international view

Writing in the International Chemical Regulatory and Law Review recently, chemicals lawyers Simon Tilling and Eléonore Mullier, partners at Steptoe & Johnson, said that the introduction of UK REACH “runs counter to the general direction of travel for the regulation of chemicals”.

“For decades global chemical industries, governments seeking open markets and international institutions such as the UNEP and OECD have been looking for ways to harmonise and standardise chemicals regulation and to reduce non-tariff barriers to trade by seeking common ground and consensus on a global approach. Chemicals, as the building blocks for the manufacturing economy, are a global commodity, often crossing multiple borders multiple times in the journey from raw materials to finished products or downstream use.

The UK’s decision to ‘take back control’ over its laws by leaving the EU, and exiting its Single Market and Customs Union, goes the other way: for global chemicals manufacturers, formulators and distributors, there are now two markets to navigate, with the inevitability of increased friction for market access.”

  

It complicates trade across the Irish Sea

In essence, EU REACH still applies in Northern Ireland under the Northern Ireland Protocol, with UK REACH functioning only in the UK. But a series of amendments to the regime have had to be introduced to address the emergence of trade barriers across the Irish Sea.

  

It is already leading to divergence

Although similar, compliance with one form of REACH no longer guarantees compliance with the chemical controls under the other. The list of substances of very high concern has already expanded in the EU, with fewer chemicals under consideration for the status in the UK system.

“After promises that UK chemical regulation would be ‘better’ than the EU’s, the new national regulator will be listing fewer hazardous chemicals for analysis and making important decisions based on data voluntarily submitted by businesses, rather than simply cross referencing to the vast data bank held in Helsinki. It will also reduce its commitment to ensuring that the public and supply chains have a ‘right to know’ whether products contain potentially hazardous chemicals,” said a briefing from the Green Alliance, one of several NGOs that have slammed the plans.

The move could also lead to further diplomatic ructions with the EU, with Brussels-based environmentalists calling for a “swift, robust and punitive” response from the commission.

The UK might have insufficient expertise to keep it running

A group of senior ecotoxicologists told EAC three years ago that the UK “would struggle tremendously” to cope with “denuded” expertise in the subject, which is critical for informing decisions under REACH.

  

It’s a threat to manufacturing

Industry has been far from happy with UK REACH for some time. Last summer, the British Coatings Federation (BCF) described it as a “major threat” to manufacturing in general.

Based on a survey, four fifths of its members believe it will impact negatively on their businesses, fearing a loss of access to chemicals currently imported from the continent due to the costs of registration. “Worryingly, 19% of respondents are already reporting that EU suppliers no longer want to export to the UK,” it added – a longstanding concern for the association.

A parallel concern is exports still having to comply with EU REACH, but now as a ‘third country’ outside the bloc, increasing costs and reducing competitiveness significantly, said the body.

“The added complexity of the new UK chemicals regulations is starting to bite. We have consistently called for UK REACH legislation to be amended to avoid the significant additional costs it will bring to business, as well as its potentially devastating impact on raw material availability to our manufacturers in the UK,” said chief executive Tom Bowtell.

“Failure to amend UK REACH will lead to our coatings members – and other businesses in similar sectors – seeing unsustainable added complexities and extra costs. Exports of chemical-based products from the UK will be severely threatened by UK REACH, as will foreign direct investment into UK factories, as many companies choose to reduce their manufacturing footprint in the UK and relocate to the EU. Overall, the UK will become a less competitive country to do business in.”

  

It’s unstable

There have been four amending statutory instruments issued since the original 2019 regulations, the latest issued in July concerning authorisations, data sharing and ensuring registration dossiers are kept up to date.

  

The government has recognised further change is needed

One of the fundamental objections to UK REACH from industry is the time made available to assemble the data required for full registrations – less than two years away for the most toxic and most intensively imported or produced substances. Although rights to access this may be held for EU REACH, agreements may not be reached for it in the UK, meaning that tests may have to be duplicated, at significant cost.

Responding to pressure from the Chemical Industries Association, last month environment secretary George Eustice said that the 2023 deadline would be pushed back to 27 October 2025. “We also intend to consult on what, if any, extensions of the other deadlines would be appropriate,” he added.

He also said that the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive (which together form the REACH Competent Authority) have been asked to develop a new approach that will reduce burdens on business. Details of that remain sketchy but may emerge in the forthcoming and long-delayed Chemicals Strategy.

  

NGOs are concerned about future regulation

The plan, “effectively kicks a solution to the central data challenge of good chemicals regulation into the long grass, meaning that the UK system will not have registration data on the highest volume chemicals for another four years - 15 years after the EU REACH registration deadline for these chemicals,” said Michael Warhurst, executive director of CHEM Trust.

“This delay begs the question as to whether UK REACH is a viable regulatory system,” he added, calling on the government to adopt decisions made through the EU’s data-rich system instead.

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