Uncertainty remains over UK chemicals regulations after Brexit

Article by Amanda Doyle

UNCERTAINTY remains over the future of chemicals regulations in the UK as the UK will only remain aligned with EU REACH during the transition period up until 31 December 2020.

The main piece of EU legislation governing chemical registration is REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals), which is implemented by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). The UK Government has devised a Statutory Instrument to implement a UK REACH in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The system has received criticism, being called “vague and insufficient” by the House of Lords. The proposed UK REACH has a number of issues, including a potential lack of transparency and companies not having access to data that they would need in order to register chemicals.

Currently, the UK is still operating under EU REACH during the transition period up to 31 December, according to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), however the UK now has no say on the regulations. The transition period allows 11 months for the UK and the EU to reach trade deals and if no agreements are made by the end of this period the UK will leave without a deal.

The UK Government under Prime Minister Theresa May said in March 2018 that it would attempt to seek associate membership of ECHA, however Prime Minister Boris Johnson has not made the same commitments. The UK could only remain in EU REACH in return for market access.

However, UK Chancellor Sajid Javid commented in an interview with The Financial Times that the UK would not have regulatory alignment with the EU after the end of the transition period, saying “we will not be a ruletaker”. He later softened his tone to say that the UK would not move away from EU regulations “for the sake of divergence”, according to The Financial Times. However, Javid’s comments have been echoed by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, who said that the UK will “not be aligning with EU rules”, according to the BBC. Johnson also said in a speech on 3 February that there will be “no need” for the UK to follow EU trade rules.

Peter Newport, Chief Executive of the Chemical Business Association (CBA), responded to Javid’s interview saying that it is vital for the UK chemicals industry to remain aligned with Europe.

“The Chancellor’s remarks do not take account of the situation facing highly-regulated areas of the economy, such as chemicals, that are dependent on international trade as well as underpinning the needs of UK companies. Simply stating that the UK ‘will not be a rule-taker after Brexit’ risks denying UK business access to essential chemical products.”

“Recognising the central importance of regulatory alignment and market access, many UK companies in the chemical supply chain have already taken action to protect their customers’ interests. CBA’s survey evidence shows that a significant number have created subsidiaries in EU member states – with premises and employees – representing a permanent loss to the UK exchequer and to UK employment.”

“The regulatory divergence suggested by the Chancellor pursues so far unidentified benefits but risks additional border checks and delays and costs.”

Currently around 60% of UK chemical exports go to the EU, and 70% of chemical imports are from the EU.

According to Chemical Watch, a trade deal will determine if UK REACH will be initiated at the end of the transition period. HSE’s Director, EU Exit – Chemicals, Dave Bench,  said negotiations would need to be rapid and he hoped that there would be more clarity mid-year. Bench also told Chemical Watch that the Northern Ireland protocol could present some challenges, as Northern Ireland will continue to implement EU REACH after the transition period ends even if the rest of the UK doesn’t.

According to Independent Commodity Intelligence Services (ICIS), there are plans for the UK to develop a new chemicals strategy within the next couple of years. Holly Yates, deputy director for chemicals, pesticides and hazardous waste at the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), said that the new strategy will focus on environmental and human health, regulation, and the circular economy.

Article by Amanda Doyle

Staff Reporter, The Chemical Engineer

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