Defra keeping chemicals options open post Brexit

The environment department (Defra) is ‘planning multiple scenarios’ for chemicals regulation after Brexit, environment minister Thérèse Coffey told MPs on the parliamentary Environmental Audit Committee.

Giving evidence to the cross-party group of MPs, Coffey said the department was ‘still at the stage of working up a variety of proposals’ for the future of chemicals regulation. REACH, the main EU regulation on chemicals, is a mechanism of the single market, so the eventual model for UK regulation depends on the final Brexit settlement, Coffey said. Just over half of UK chemicals’ exports are to the EU, she noted, adding: ‘We recognise this is a key area to try to get right, but I cannot give to the committee today the precise details of that.’

Asked what interim measures could be introduced for UK chemicals companies to continue to trade if no formal agreement is made by the deadline for leaving the EU, Coffey said she was the UK would have one in place and, if not, would ‘have our back-up ready’. Pressed on what this was, she said: ‘We are not at that level of detail, but I am confident the government will be able to get that deal done and I am confident parliament will be content with it.’

Defra’s deputy director of EU environment, Gabrielle Edwards, told the committee that the department was trying to understand the costs of the various relationships the UK could have with the Helsinki-based European Chemicals Agency (ECHA).

Both the Environment Agency and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), the UK’s competent authority for REACH, would continue to have a role in regulating the regime, she said.

Edwards said the department had yet to calculate the cost to the regulators of taking on the functions of ECHA, such as maintaining a database of chemicals and granting registrations, but it could be several tens of millions ‘at the most extreme end’. Coffey added: ‘I would be astonished if we do not provide the Environment Agency and HSE with the resource in order to continue to have a functioning chemicals regulatory regime.’

Both Coffey and Edwards denied that the environment department would consider aligning chemicals regulations with that used by the US system in order to agree a trade deal. Edwards said this would be a ‘really substantial change’ that would concern industry.

As far as Coffey was aware other ministers had not requested such a change. The UK would continue to take a risk-based regime based on the precautionary principle enshrined in EU law, as opposed to the hazard-based approach used in the US and Canada, she said. Increasingly, other EU governments want more of a hazard-based approach, but that would be more onerous.

 

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Catherine Early is a freelance journalist.

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