Future Chemicals Policy

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Matthew Green: We welcome the White Paper in principle. Some of our concerns have already been expressed, so I shall move quickly through them. We, too, welcome the Minister's clear commitment to making the provisions work. As he said, Britain may be pushing more than other countries, which is also welcome. Unlike the hon. Member for Fareham (Mr. Hoban), we believe that the benefits far outweigh the direct costs to industry within the EU.

Mr. Hoban: I was trying to make the point that we need to know more about benefits and costs. The Government's own assessment provided by a previous Minister suggested that the benefits were hard to quantify, if not non-existent. We need to be sure what we are aiming at: if costs will be imposed, we should be clearer about the benefits.

Matthew Green: I welcome that clarification, and doubtless others would, too.

We have three main areas of concern. The first is the issue of competitiveness, not within the EU—overall we are reading from the same book—but vis-a-vis chemical industries in other parts of the world. We have already touched on that.

Dr. Vis: I am concerned about competitiveness within the EU, because although some countries within it observe the rules quite well, others do not.

Matthew Green: That may be the case, but it is not really the key issue for today's debate.

Dr. Vis: I stood up only because I needed to stretch my legs.

Matthew Green: The hon. Gentleman has touched on a broader point, but we are here attempting to produce a set of proposals that will apply across the EU.

As I said, I am concerned about competitiveness in respect of other parts of the world. We have not touched on the need for negotiations with the WTO. If we are to raise standards of testing and ensure that our chemicals are as safe as possible, we should ensure that manufacturers in other parts of the world are meeting similar standards, especially if they want to trade their

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chemicals with Europe. The danger is that European industry will have to bear the costs of testing products while the rest of the world steams ahead with the cheaper means of production, reducing competitiveness. I want a response to my point about discussions with the WTO.

Mr. Sayeed: Does the hon. Gentleman accept that we have been so unsuccessful in ensuring a level playing field for food that securing one for chemicals is unlikely? We have been so unsuccessful that we now import food for which the standards of hygiene and animal care are far lower than in this country.

Matthew Green: I certainly agree, as would everyone here, that we have been less successful with food than we should have been. With chemicals, however, the potential exists to be more successful in negotiations. I suspect that America might take a more sympathetic line towards regulation of chemicals than of food. America clearly does not want to go down the same route as Europe on food standards, yet I suspect that it will want to go down that route on some chemicals. Clearly, if there is some agreement between America and Europe, there is the possibility of wider agreement within the WTO.

My second point concerns the time scale, which has been raised again. We fear that this policy will take far too long to implement. We have already heard of some of the potential deadlines that have been set for registration. I wonder whether the final stage will have been reached before the first deadline. An immense amount of work is needed, and although the Minister explained that some chemicals will be prioritised, we must still get the system in place. I would be grateful if he could give us some idea when the process for the first set of chemicals will start.

The third area is animal testing. I welcome the fact that the Minister gave us the figures for the animals and fish per chemical that needed to be tested. By my reckoning, it works out at potentially 630,000 extra animal tests. Many of those could be completely unnecessary. That is a major concern, which I am sure all parties share.

I want to stress the three points that I raised during my questioning. First, it is essential that the duplication of tests is avoided. The Minister talked about data sets. We must ensure that there are not pressures within other parts of Europe to try to stop that information being made available. We must resist any such pressures and ensure that the information is widely available. Secondly, we must ensure that any data that have been gathered over the past decades is brought together before we undertake additional animal testing. That might slow the process down, but we have to balance the two objectives. I welcome the commitment perhaps to seek new regulations to ensure that that is done.

The Minister invited me to write to him on my third point. I suspect that my hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Norman Baker) will pursue this, as he is our animal rights spokesman. We are keen to see active steps to promote non-animal testing methods. I am concerned that for quite a number of years people have jumped up to demand that, but that is as far as it

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gets. There is a commitment but no firm set of steps or initiatives or perhaps even Government grants to encourage companies. We would welcome a clear indication that the Government are pursuing that agenda.

Overall, we support the White Paper and the Copenhagen charter principles. It is unacceptable that we know so little about so many of the chemicals that are in widespread use today. Indeed, labelling is so often absent. Any steps that can improve the safety of all of us within the EU and the wider world have to be welcomed. I do not believe that the burdens on industry are too great. I look forward to hearing the Minister's comments.

5.39 pm

Mr. Hoban: I did not intend to speak on the matter, but while I welcome the thrust of the policy, hon. Members have expressed strands of concern that I understand and sympathise with. As the hon. Member for Ludlow said, it is unacceptable that so little is known about the risks attached to chemicals, and we need to track down and understand what they are. The starting point for that should be the collation of information; it would a huge mistake to reinvent the wheel across several member states or not to use existing knowledge. If we are to minimise the cost of the regulation, we must find out what information exists, and although I am instinctively loth to support European institutions, a European body that could bring that information together would be invaluable in implementing the directive and in mitigating costs to business. If we are not careful, the costs to business will render the chemical industry in Europe uncompetitive relative to its foreign peers. We need to think about that clearly. I would not want the European industry hampered by unnecessary costs because of lack of information or an inability to use existing data, at a time when companies in America, the far east or elsewhere are not similarly required to assess all chemicals.

We need to ensure that the industry remains competitive, and as part of that we need to be much clearer about the benefits of the measure. In responding to my questions, the Minister set out some of the health benefits. I welcome that reassurance, but the documentation is sometimes reluctant to spell out the benefits. If we are to persuade the chemical industry of the real merits of the proposal, we need to spell them out much more clearly, to the population as a whole and to the chemical industry in particular.

In welcoming the measure, I express those caveats about the cost and the need to substantiate benefits. I am sure that, as negotiations on the matter proceed, the Minister and his colleagues will fight to ensure that we safeguard the interests of not only our population but the chemical industry as a whole.

5.42 pm

Mr. Meacher: We have had a useful if brief discussion. I shall try to respond to each of the points. The ones that came across most strongly—all

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hon. Members who spoke referred to it—were those of cost recovery and of fairness between UK companies that are subject to the system and their competitors abroad. We are extremely keen to ensure that there is no loss of competitiveness on the part of our own industry, which is, as the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Mr. Francois) said, a major one. We accept the need for equitable sharing of testing costs and are trying to establish that, but such matters are at an early stage. I wish that I could say that we will proceed to the operative phase in the next few months, but I fear that it will take considerably longer. Equitable sharing of costs will include a pre-registration phase, the formation of consortiums and the setting of cost recovery mechanisms. We also want to provide for international data sharing, allowing foreign companies to bring something to the party, so to speak.

I thank the hon. Member for Mid-Bedfordshire (Mr. Sayeed), who welcomed the system. He asked me to endorse several points that he made and I readily do so, particularly on the importance of the substitution principle, on adhering to precaution and on the need for a single regulatory framework. Indeed, we have asked the Commission to come up with exactly that as soon as possible. It has been said that the measure amounts to a reversal of responsibility from Government to industry. Frankly, however, the Government never had that responsibility. We cannot conceivably risk assess thousands of chemicals. We do not have the resources, knowledge or expertise to do so. We have to ask the industry to do it, but we must have proper auditing and checks to ensure that the process is undertaken properly.

The hon. Gentleman also asked what information would be available to the public and how literate people would have to be. Again, the exact formula whereby that will be provided has not been settled, but people will not have to have PhDs. We are asking for the ordinary man or woman in the street with an intelligent and thoughtful interest in the subject to be given information that is meaningful to them. Those are the criteria, and we shall produce proposals on the basis on which that should be delivered.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the potential disadvantaging of EU industry because other global players can use the data to produce cheaper alternatives. We believe that there must be a proper global approach. Indeed, the UK Government are an active proponent of global chemical management through the United Nations Environmental Programme. Again, that will take time and require regional and national building blocks, but we are well aware of that and are trying to put those blocks in place. In February 2002, the UNEP governing council endorsed the further development of a strategic approach to international chemicals management, and I accept that we must build on that.

I agree that deadlines have slipped. The EU is producing its proposals a year later than it initially said, and we are extremely keen for it to deliver the regulatory framework by the end of the year. I repeat that it is disappointing that, so far, only 140 chemicals under the existing substances regulation have been prioritised to undergo assessment and appropriate risk

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management, and that only one proposal has been adopted for risk management. The message I get is that everyone believes that to be far too slow.

The hon. Member for Ludlow, the Liberal Democrat spokesman, said that the UK should not be disadvantaged relative to other countries. I hope that I have answered that point. Questions were asked about the WTO, which of course is not about cost sharing. The WTO is basically about a trading system that avoids unreasonable and inappropriate restrictions and barriers to trade. It does not feature directly in what we are discussing. Cost recovery and equitable sharing of the burden of the risk assessment are not matters that should be undertaken through the WTO. They must be undertaken on the basis of international negotiation between countries and their main chemical companies, which is certainly in hand.

The hon. Gentleman made clear his view on non-animal testing, but I fear that I could not give him examples of exactly how things might be undertaken. I suggest that he take a raincheck, keep checking on the matter and write to me, and I will give him information about how far work has been undertaken. The UK currently spends about £2 million a year directly, and a great deal more indirectly, on basic scientific research in this area. The House of Lords Animals in Scientific Procedures Committee, which also covers alternatives work, is about to report. The European Union research framework programme should also provide money for the research. Serious money and effort are being provided, and I assure him that I will add whatever weight I can, because I feel strongly about the matter.

I agree with the hon. Member for Fareham that we should bring together data that are already available. However, the problem is the companies themselves, which jealously guard their own data and want to get the commercial benefit from the money they put in. We must find a system that induces or persuades them that if they provide that information they will gain from the overall process. The opposite of what is needed would be each individual company carrying out every conceivable test.

The hon. Gentleman asked me a fair and proper question about exactly what the benefits are, which I was not fully able to answer, and I shall ask the Department for information on that. This measure is focused on improving the global environment, whereas the regulatory impact assessment considers only the benefits and costs in respect of the UK environment.

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With a little more leisure, I shall try to give a fuller answer to that question.

Finally—it is rather depressing, but I should make it clear—I have the expected time line. I want hon. Members to understand the speed at which the matter is proceeding, as it will be helpful if the House can use whatever pressure it can to speed things up. Possible consultation on proposals will take place in the last half of this year; Council conclusions and the European Parliament's First Reading might take place in 2003; a common position might be reached under the Italian presidency in the second half of 2003; the European Parliament's Second Reading might take place contemporaneously with that but perhaps extend into the Irish presidency in the first half of 2004; and then, no doubt because the matter is highly contentious—some companies certainly believe that—there may be a conciliation phase and an adoption phase which, on our best-guess time line, could extend to the end of 2004. That is very slow. The dates that I give have to be amended because of the Commission's slippage and the effects of enlargement. There is no question of special concessions to the accession countries, and the whole process of enlargement may have a knock-on effect.

We have had a useful debate. The matter is broadly consensual, although I recognise that there are some serious anxieties, which I share, about competitiveness impacts on UK industry. I shall take account of the points raised in the debate and write further to hon. Members on these or other matters that arise.

Question put and agreed to.


    That the Committee takes note of European Union Document No. 6671/01, Commission White Paper on a Strategy for a future Chemicals Policy; recognises the need to protect human health and the environment from hazardous chemicals including endocrine disrupters; agrees that the weaknesses of the current legislation, including the lack of data and slow progress in assessing hazards and risks from chemicals already on the market, must be addressed; welcomes the proposals to ensure transparency and improved public access to non-confidential information and that the responsibility is placed on manufacturers and importers to assess hazard and exposure and perform preliminary risk assessment; endorses the Government view that requirements for animal testing must be minimised and alternatives to animal testing promoted; recognises that the proposals must take account of the implications for the competitiveness of the European Union chemical industry; recognises that proposals must be ambitious but achievable and provide a system that is workable and cost effective with minimum regulatory burden.

Committee rose at seven minutes to Six o'clock.

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The following Members attended the Committee:
Adams, Mrs. Irene (Chairman)
Dean, Mrs.
Foster, Mr. Michael Jabez
Francois, Mr.
Green, Matthew
Hoban, Mr.

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Lamb, Norman
Marris, Rob
Osborne, Sandra
Quinn, Lawrie
Viggers, Mr.
Vis, Dr.

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 119(5):
Meacher, Mr. Michael (Minister for the Environment)
Caplin, Mr. Ivor (Hove)
Sayeed, Mr. Jonathan (Mid-Bedfordshire)

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