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Session 2001- 02
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European Standing Committee A Debates

Future Chemicals Policy

European Standing Committee A

Wednesday 12 June 2002

[Mrs. Irene Adams in the Chair]

Strategy for a Future Chemicals Policy

[Relevant Documents: European Union Documents No. 10301/01, Commission Communication on the implementation of the Community strategy for endocrine disrupters, No. 5891/02 draft Council Decision approving, on behalf of the European Community, the Rotterdam Convention on the Prior Informed Consent Procedure for certain hazardous chemicals and pesticides in international trade, and No. 5974/02, draft Council Regulation concerning the export and import of dangerous chemicals.]

4.30 pm

The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Michael Meacher): There are tens of thousands of chemicals currently in use about which we have insufficient data to prioritise the hazards and potential risks to human health and the environment. The existing systems are too slow and were not designed to address that fundamental problem. The need for the European Union review and more effective legislation is a high priority and one that I strongly support. The chemical industry is also fully signed up to the objective of effective regulation designed to minimise the risks to consumers and avoid damage to the environment. It is clearly in its interest to take—and to be seen to take—a responsible approach. However, the chemical industry has expressed concerns about the burden of the new legislation, which it believes can act as a barrier to innovation.

European legislation on chemicals has been implemented in a rather piecemeal fashion over the past 30 years. Many parts of that policy are viewed as relatively successful, but the procedures on chemicals have been too slow and have attracted criticism from various quarters, including the chemical industry. The existing substances regulation, which covers high production volume substances, has so far prioritised 140 chemicals to undergo assessment and appropriate risk management. Only one proposal has as yet been adopted for risk management. Because of the slow progress, I called for a discussion on European chemicals policy at the informal meeting of Environment Ministers at Chester during the United Kingdom presidency in 1998 and published the UK chemicals strategy in December 1999.

In response to the mandate from Chester, the Commission produced the White Paper that is the subject of this debate. Entitled ''Strategy for a Future Chemicals Policy'', it proposes a new system called REACH—the registration, evaluation and authorisation of chemicals—which would apply to both new and existing substances. That system will shift more of the responsibility on to industry, thus freeing authorities to regulate the chemicals of most concern. However, that must be achieved in a sustainable way. Clearly, we need to work closely

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with industry in developing proposals for new regulations so that the economic and environmental objectives that lie at the heart of sustainable development can be realised.

The first phase—registration by manufacturers or importers—would apply to about 30,000 chemicals produced at above 1 metric tonne per year. Registration would be phased in between 2005 and 2012 depending on production volume, with higher volumes first. Given the comprehensive coverage of registration, it will be essential to avoid duplication, especially of testing.

Evaluation would be carried out by authorities on the 5,000 or so substances whose production exceeds 100 tonnes, as well as on those of lower tonnage where there is cause for concern. The Commission proposed fixed and potentially onerous data-generation requirements for substances above 1,000 tonnes and above 100 tonnes to be completed by 2005 and 2008 respectively. It is right that we should set those tough deadlines, but it is important that we ensure that they are deliverable. Authorisation would apply to substances of very high concern. In the White Paper model, those are substances with the characteristics of persistent organic pollutants, and substances that are carcinogenic, mutagenic or toxic to reproduction.

There is also a need to establish scientifically valid tests and criteria for the identification of the endocrine-disrupting chemicals. The Commission proposes further research on substances that are persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic and that are very persistent and very toxic to decide how they are to be treated. It would be for industry to justify the need for specific uses of a chemical. For other substances, it is proposed that where industry's preliminary risk assessment demonstrates concern, a targeted risk assessment would be carried out.

The Commission foresees a central entity to administer the scheme, with member states broadly retaining their existing responsibilities. Other policy objectives for the proposed strategy are increased transparency, integration with international efforts on the safety of chemicals, and promotion of non-animal testing.

There was a substantial discussion of the White Paper at the Environment Council in June last year and 50 conclusions, which mainly supported the Commission's approach. Widely diverse views were expressed during the European Parliament debate. The final conclusion was endorsement of the White Paper except that only carcinogens, mutagens and substances toxic to reproduction would be subject to authorisation.

The Select Committee on the European Union in the other place considered the Commission's proposals in its report ''Reducing the Risk—regulating industrial chemicals'', which was published in March. The Government consider that several issues should be given a high priority in taking forward the European Union White Paper. First, we must regain public confidence in chemicals. There must be a streamlined prioritised system that places a responsibility on industry to show that their chemicals are safe,

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urgently identifies chemicals of concern, and takes early risk-management action.

Secondly, we need to encourage innovation and to maintain or enhance the competitiveness of the EU chemicals industry, while addressing the urgent need to obtain information on existing chemicals. The REACH system must be streamlined and workable and place the minimum regulatory burden on industry necessary to protect human health and the environment.

Thirdly, animal testing must be minimised, and required only where it is needed to ensure adequate control of chemicals and not just for the sake of it in order to fill data gaps. Fourthly, there must be greater provision of information to the public, and, fifthly, there is a need for the EU to work closely with international partners and to ensure that its proposals are consistent with World Trade Organisation rules.

The Commission has not yet come forward with its proposals, but at a recent stakeholder discussion, Commissioner Wallström stated that drafting was under way, with the intention to present the proposal in the summer or shortly afterwards. I recommend that the Committee support the process, with the caveats that I have outlined.

The Chairman: We now have until 5.30 pm for questions to the Minister. I remind hon. Members that these should be brief and asked one at a time. There is likely to be ample opportunity for hon. Members to ask several questions.

Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): I commend the Minister for being the promoter of the Government's chemical strategy. As the Department accepts, understanding some of the effects of chemicals is poor and consequently it is sensible to have a Government and EU-wide strategy. Can the Minister say how the strategy will meet the five key demands of the Copenhagen chemicals charter?

Mr. Meacher: We very much support the Copenhagen charter. The five points to which the hon. Gentleman refers are, first, that the public must have a full right to information about chemicals. It is right not to blind the public with science or gobbledegook or to give the impression that there is something to hide, and a happy mean should be possible. Secondly, there should be deadlines for achieving the data on chemical safety, but we should not allow the process to drift indefinitely. Thirdly, we should phase out persistent bioaccumulative and toxic chemicals. That issue has been raised in the European Parliament and may be taken up later by other hon. Members. Fourthly, there is the substitution principle of substituting more hazardous chemicals with safer alternatives and, fifthly, we should try to stop the releases of hazardous chemicals. Those are all sensible and achievable objectives.

Dr. Rudi Vis (Finchley and Golders Green): My right hon. Friend said at the beginning that the chemical industry is fully signed up. We have all undoubtedly received from the Chemical Industries Association a letter, which says that

    ''the industry completely endorses the aims of this policy but has very substantial reservations about the means proposed''.

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Will my right hon. Friend answer the first of their worries, which is that we

    ''must stick to risk assessment as the basis for decision-making—not qualitative judgements''?

Mr. Meacher: The basis of British policy has always been risk assessment, although many continental member states believe that hazard assessment—considering the inherent hazard in a substance—should also be taken into account. I repeat our view, which has always been that the substantive point is not inherent hazard, but the assessment of local and particular circumstances in which a chemical is used and the risks therein. That remains the essential consideration and will continue to drive the process.

Matthew Green (Ludlow): The Minister mentioned the importance of avoiding the duplication of testing in order to minimise the exposure of animals to additional testing. However, we must accept that this move will increase the number of tests on animals. What steps would the Minister like to see taken to remove duplication of testing?

 
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Prepared 12 June 2002