Does the UK need a dedicated Chemicals Agency?

Delays, distractions and missing details have, by many accounts, been the defining factors of chemical regulation during the UK post-Brexit transition. But could a dedicated UK chemicals agency help smooth the process? Shosha Adie reports.

Woman holding liquid in Erlenmeyer flask Source - Getty Images, Guido Mieth

The promise of a streamlined approach to chemicals regulation post-brexit may seem like a distant memory to those acquainted with the rigmarole of registering under UK REACH, Britain’s version of the EU regulation for the registration, evaluation, authorisation and restriction of chemicals. Indeed, last year environmental policy expert Nigel Haigh submitted a letter to DEFRA on the delayed UK Chemicals Strategy arguing that “the UK’s primary legislation on chemicals is no longer fit for purpose”, and making the case for a new UK-wide Chemicals Agency.

The Chemicals Strategy is approaching its fourth year of delays, but the idea of a dedicated chemicals agency picked up steam over the summer. In July, DEFRA invited Haigh to present his suggestions at the UK Chemical Stakeholder Forum (CSF), and the proposal was also raised in September by industry figures during DEFRA hosted workshops on what could improve UK REACH.

Haigh, who is an honorary fellow and former director of the Institute of European Environmental Policy told ENDS: “We do not yet know what will be in the UK chemicals strategy, but any strategy worthy of the name must discuss all the points along the commercial and environmental life-cycle of chemicals at which monitoring takes place and controls are applied.

“At present no one is responsible for looking at the whole life-cycle. Someone should be responsible and that someone can be called a Chemicals Agency.”

His aim for a chemicals agency is that it would administer REACH, much like the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) currently does, but would need to be accompanied by a Chemicals Act that would give it wider duties and powers, among which would be actively gathering data on chemicals and publishing its findings.

He said: “A lot of people said to me, nice idea, but this is unrealistic, it won't happen. Well for so many things I've been involved in my long career in the environment, people have said that. Some do happen, but they may take a long time. You've to work at it."

Haigh highlighted that before the 1970s, policy for chemical regulation barely existed, and it was global collaboration that brought it into being. The adoption of REACH in 2006 saw a huge shift as manufacturers had to register any chemicals they intended to sell with the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). REACH has now  been retained in UK law, but without a relationship with EU REACH and ECHA, it has lost access to a huge database of information collected over the past two decades.

Haigh said this loss of knowledge is “one of the prices of Brexit which is really damaging”.

The Royal Society of Chemistry (RCS) has also called for a dedicated Chemicals Agency, suggesting it must operate as independent of government as possible and facilitate cooperation and collaboration not just nationally but internationally. For example, working closely with ECHA and the Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention in the US.

RCS Policy Advisor Stephanie Metzger said: “Chemicals, pollution, and things like that are a worldwide problem, they don’t respect borders so it's important to be able to coordinate with our partner countries.”

She highlighted that at the moment, UK chemicals regulation is quite fragmented and can leave experts “disconnected”. For example, regulation currently spread across DEFRA, HSE, the Environment Agency (EA) and devolved nation equivalents, the Foods Standards Agency (FSA), the UK Health Security Agency (UK HSA), Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS), and Department of Health and Social Care (DoHSC).

“A chemicals agency could take an overarching approach to harmonising and connecting these different groups,” she said.

Risk and Policy Analysts’ director Dr David Carlander, who has over 23 years of experience in the industry in both an EU and UK context, is sceptical that a dedicated agency would increase efficiency and raised that it may not even be a politically desirable idea.

He said how the word “chemicals” is seen as “harmful or complex”, whereas “health” is seen as a positive, making HSE a symbolically sensible home. Indeed, there are only two public bodies listed in the UK who have the word “chemical” in them and they are committees on the toxicity or mutagenicity of chemicals.

Carlander emphasised that the key issues currently facing chemical regulation are resourcing, as increased divergence from the EU sees increased challenges for industry, public authorities and stakeholders.

He said: “As long as the services are provided somewhere, under what roof I think is not so important.”

Green Alliance deputy policy director Roz Bulleid has highlighted that although a chemicals agency is a “really good theoretical opportunity” and she hopes the Chemicals Strategy will eventually set that out as a long term aim, she feels UK REACH has more pressing issues to tackle first.

These not only include the delays to the chemical strategy itself, but also the retained EU law bill (REUL) which Bulleid describes as an “existential threat”. She also noted there has been a “gradual erosion to UK REACH due to under-resourcing”, indeed the chemicals division under the GB regime is not expected to reach full capacity for another four years.

She said: “A perfectly designed chemicals agency could definitely help improve chemicals safety. But if we’re not careful we could end up with an agency that is really under-resourced, and performs less well than HSE. So it needs to be done with the best of intentions and detailed planning.”

A HSE spokesperson said: “Leaving EU chemicals regulation was complex and challenging. The changeover was deemed a success and as we establish new regimes we will continue to listen to feedback from industry and others.”