UK REACH registrations are showing a “gradual, consistent growth” with companies so far submitting dossiers covering close to 1,250 chemicals under the independent regime, environment secretary George Eustace has said, while telling of major obstacles to gaining access to Echa-held data.
The dossiers consist of basic information needed as part of the process to complete the grandfathering of dossiers copied over from EU REACH. More substantive data is expected to be required over the coming years.
An oral evidence session on post-Brexit UK and EU environmental relations, in the House of Lords yesterday, heard that companies had long grace periods under the system to secure the data for registration, but that conditions imposed by the EU on data access may be more insurmountable than previously thought.
Data sharing is “the most sensible thing to do”, Mr Eustace told the Lords’ EU environment subcommittee. But the European Commission refused to grant it during the Brexit trade negotiations due to the UK’s “clear stance” against regulatory alignment, on which it was conditional.
Industry and NGOs are still hoping for the government to clinch an agreement with the EU on data in return for alignment, or for UK authorities to relax the ‘no data, no market’ principle.
However, Mark Thompson, deputy director of EU strategy and negotiations at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), said the EU’s demand for regulatory alignment is tied to the involvement of the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in dispute settlement – a red line for the UK.
Even if UK REACH closely followed EU REACH developments, he said, “what they are always looking for is to codify that and to have a role for the [ECJ] and all the other EU architecture. Without that, they wouldn’t accept and we wouldn’t be able to [get …] that data.”
That said, Mr Eustace remained optimistic that because some EU entities also have to register under UK REACH, there is “a good prospect” for companies on both sides to come to an agreement on data during consortia discussions.
“They may, when they finally sit down and look at it, realise that there is not much for any of them to gain by trying to hold one another to ransom over data they might have,” he said.
As well as companies submitting dossiers for 1,250 chemicals, downstream users have made 350 notifications to UK REACH, he added.
Question of alignment
Responding to a question on how aligned the UK regime would be with EU REACH in the short to medium term, Mr Eustace said there would be “great similarities” between the two. While initially there would be a smaller number of chemicals registered under UK REACH, it would grow to be “quite similar” over time, he added.
However, he ruled out full alignment. “It’s just not appropriate for an economy of the size of the UK,” he said. But the government would keep an open door to the EU should the trade bloc “want to adopt a more constructive stance” on data.
He gave assurances on non-regression over environmental standards and protections, even though last week the UK Parliament rejected an amendment to the environment bill that provided more safeguards against regression. Industry and NGOs see non-regression as a way to secure alignment.
The bill means the UK will go further than the EU on those protections, Mr Eustace said, “so this is largely a theoretical concern”.
However, the UK’s commitment to environmental non-regression under the trade and cooperation agreement “certainly doesn’t amount to regulatory alignment”, he said.
Meanwhile, the UK will monitor if the EU makes any changes that retreat from current standards. It will also make sure that member states adequately enforce the EU law, and could escalate the issue to the European Commission if they fall short of their legal requirements, Mr Eustace added.
Prior to Brexit much of the expertise on chemical laws came from the UK, he said, and “we do have to make sure that the EU does not start behaving differently now that we have left”.
The Lords’ evidence session was the last for the subcommittee, which is dissolving following the end of the Brexit transition period.
Chemical Watch, 5 February 2021