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Chemicals

June 2016 - June 2017

Summary

The EU REACH system for chemical regulation is the most advanced system in the world, but the government has not committed to staying within it. The minister responsible has said that the UK should not follow the EU in banning chemicals, while the minister responsible for pesticides has called for weaker controls. The February 2017 Brexit White Paper mentioned chemicals as an area for negotiations, but makes no specific commitments.

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Principles & strategies

Both the minister responsible for chemicals policy (REACH), Thérèse Coffey, and the minister responsible for pesticides regulation, George Eustice, have suggested weakening EU laws. Coffey’s evidence to the Environmental Audit Committee was clear on her wish not to follow fully EU restrictions on chemicals, and also argued for a more ‘risk based’ approach. George Eustice also called for an end to hazard-based action on pesticides, including at the Conservative Party Conference in October 2016, within a week of the prime minister’s speech calling for EU standards to be maintained. In addition, there is no clarity as to how the precautionary principle, a key aspect of EU chemicals policy, will be incorporated into UK law after Brexit.

Legislation
It is not clear if the government is planning to try to remain part of REACH or if it is planning to attempt to set up a replacement system in the UK. Because of the centralised nature of the REACH system, it is not possible for the UK simply to copy the database. This means that any attempt to create a replacement UK system will almost inevitably be less protective. The simplest and most reliable method of retaining an equivalent level of protection is for the UK to remain in REACH, avoiding creating a very expensive replacement. However, the UK has not yet made this commitment.
Capacity & funding
Because of the centralised nature of the REACH system, with a single database of chemical safety, the fact that this database is not fully available to countries that are outside REACH, and the expense and legal complexity that has gone into creating this database, it is not possible for the UK to copy this database. The UK is very unlikely to have the capacity to create a domestic equivalent of REACH because of the centralisation of the REACH process and the lack of any sensible method of creating a new database of similar quality. Any UK system would be based on more limited safety and use data and would almost inevitably be less protective.
Governance
The White Paper on “The United Kingdom’s exit from and new partnership with the European Union” in February 2017 included the European Chemicals Agency on the list of agencies where “the government will discuss with the EU and member states our future status and arrangements”. However, there is currently no clarity on what this will mean in practice, and, if the statements from government ministers suggesting that REACH rules will not be followed are adopted in the future, this will probably limit collaboration. In particular, it is likely that the EU27 will operate a policy of ‘no cherry picking’, so it will not be possible for the UK to share the REACH data without subscribing to the rest of REACH.
Co-operation
The bulk of EU co-operation on chemicals occurs within the formal EU governance structures of REACH, Water Framework Directive etc – see above.