Pow promises ‘gold standards’ on chemicals regulation as fears over impact of UK-REACH delays grow

Environment minister Rebecca Pow has promised “the same gold standards as we've had in the EU” on chemicals regulation, after hearing concerns that further extensions to the UK’s timeline for transitioning to a new model of regulation post-Brexit will see a weakening of environmental protections.

Pow addressed the Environmental Audit Committee on Wednesday with an update on the progress of UK Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and restriction of Chemicals (REACH), which officials noted has been slow.

After leaving the EU, all substances manufactured in or imported to England, Scotland and Wales must be registered with the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), which is the agency for UK REACH. Applications registered while the UK was still in the EU were “grandfathered” under transitional provisions.

The deadline for registration data to be submitted to UK REACH was extended last year by former environment secretary George Eustice following industry pressuer. This deadline is now set to be extended again by three years across the board.

Pow told EAC: “No-one is pretending that this has not been a complicated issue to tackle. I believe really positive progress has been made.”

Pow highlighted that so far 6,000 companies have completed their initial notifications, which covers 22,000 chemicals, and now the next stage is getting their data packages about these chemicals registered.

Pow also stressed that the overarching aim is the “same gold standards as we’ve had in the EU”, emphasising that this is the “highest level of protection for human health and for the environment”.

“That hasn’t changed at all, it remains an absolute priority, and similarly the principles remain the same. No data, no market,” she said.

However, Zoe Avison, policy analyst at Green Alliance, has warned that "Pushing back deadlines as far as 2030 means HSE will be operating without data on some substances for an entire decade.”

Labour MP Helen Hayes raised concerns with the continued extensions in terms of costs to businesses and the impact on human health and the environment.

She said: “A year seems to have drifted past and we’re not yet in a position where we can see the transitional model or there would be any progress towards implementing it.”

Pow responded: “I wouldn’t say a year has passed with nothing happening. I think a great deal has happened in terms of particularly getting the whole system up and running, getting all those chemicals over, starting to register those data packages.”

Gabrielle Edwards, deputy director of Chemicals, Pesticides and Hazardous Waste at DEFRA, said: “It's fair to say that within our regulators this is not an area where we’ve traditionally had a lot of experience so just getting ourselves up the learning curve around that has taken a bit of time.”

She highlighted that one of the regulator’s main challenges at the moment is to obtain hazard information about chemicals, and how to get these without having to buy them. She also mentioned that the Environment Agency and Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have been “developing straw men” for that and testing it with companies.

In the written evidence submitted by Green Alliance as part of the EAC evaluation of the progress of UK REACH, the think tank highlighted that there is a data challenge as the HSE no longer has access to the EU REACH chemical safety data. Estimates have put the industry cost of replicating this data post-brexit at £800 million. This high cost was referenced in a number of submissions made as part of the evidence gathering.

When questioned on the cost burden to businesses, Edwards said: “At some point we are going to have to bring this transitional period to an end. We’ve always said that this cost is not going to disappear, this is essentially a separation cost from the EU, but there is undoubtedly at some point a balance that is going to be struck between the amount of cost the industry has to bear and the information that comes into the UK regulator.”

On whether this financial burden may be even worse after the transition, Pow said: “We don’t know the full information yet, we’re going to have to wait until all of this research will come out, we’re working very closely with industry so it would be far too early to give a view on that right now.”

One of the world’s largest chemicals producers, BASF, also raised concerns in the consultation about duplication resulting from the controversial Retained EU Law Bill, which is set to see all EU derived laws expire automatically by December 2023 unless ministers opt to retain them.

BASF said that “the current approach to the implementation of UK REACH risks creating undue burdens to industry and duplications”. It also warned that as part of cutting through EU ‘red tape’ there may be a high probability of having to repeat animal studies, for example, which “will make UK industry less attractive for investment.

Pow said: “We’re going through the EU retained law with a view to how we will deal with and what we will bona fide retain and what we would like to improve, and potentially things that have been superseded by other things or what will be superseded by other things.”

On when the department will be able to set out its own policy on REUL, Pow said: “We’re working as fast as possible through these different buckets of what we’re going to do with all these regulations with a view to coming back fairly soon.”

When asked about what “fairly soon” means, Pow said the department has not set a date.

On whether the UK still has a relationship with the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), director of chemicals regulation at HSE Dr Richard Daniels said: “At the moment it would be fair to say that we are not back to the level of engagement we were prior to EU exit. There are some low level technical discussions going on, but detailed engagement with the expert working group are not yet back to a settled position.”

Chloe Alexander, UK campaigner at CHEM Trust, told ENDS after the meeting: “No guarantee was given there won't be a drop in standards during this [transitional] period. The minister said they would monitor ‘growing concerns’ about any grandfathered substance at EU level, but made no commitment to actually act on these concerns.

“During this extended delay without full information on chemical safety, the UK should adopt the risk management decisions made by the EU, which has access to the full data and can properly evaluate the risks.”