REACH etc. (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2019

Debate between Lord Krebs and Baroness McIntosh of Pickering
Tuesday 26th March 2019

(5 years, 3 months ago)

Lords Chamber
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Lord Krebs Portrait Lord Krebs (CB)
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My Lords, I speak as a member of the EU Energy and Environment Sub-Committee, so ably chaired by the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, who has just spoken. I do not wish to repeat all the arguments that we have heard expressed so eloquently by the noble Lords, Lord Fox and Lord Whitty, but I want to ask a question which follows from what the noble Lord, Lord Whitty, said. I have assumed all along that there must be some secret benefit of establishing a separate parallel UK system which duplicates the European system. I have yet to find anybody who can explain to me what this benefit is. Therefore my first question to the Minister is: what is the benefit? Do tell us. Reveal all, so that we can all enjoy the warm glow of appreciation.

I move quickly from that very general point to a much more specific point, which has been alluded to already by the noble Lords, Lord Fox and Lord Whitty, concerning scientific evidence to support risk assessment. To me, it would be really dangerous in the future, for confidence, for UK consumers and for the viability of our chemical industry and all the products that depend on chemicals, if we had a divergence in risk assessment between the European system—run by the European Chemicals Agency—and the UK system. Think what that would mean if, on one hand, we were told by the other 27 countries that chemical X is not safe to use but, on the other, we were told by our own national system not to worry about it and that it is safe. That leads us to the key question: how will these risk assessments be carried out? The SI does not provide for the replication of an independent standing committee of experts to carry out risk assessment.

We have asked Minister Coffey about this on more than one occasion. Just last week, on 19 March, in response to the question of why we cannot replicate the committee structure, she replied—if I can read her writing—that we want to ensure that,

“the HSE will have access to the best advice and would not be limited to the UK or even the EU—setting up a statutory committee is likely to reduce that freedom”.

Why does having a statutory committee reduce the freedom to seek advice from other experts? At one stage, I had the pleasure of serving as the chairman of the Food Standards Agency. We had numerous statutory committees advising us on novel foods, on microbiological safety, on nutrition and so on. But that did not prevent us seeking other expert advice, where necessary, from people who were not on those statutory committees. I simply fail to understand the logic.

Furthermore, whatever system the HSE has for providing risk assessment, what is key to public confidence is transparency. There is no point in the HSE coming up with a risk assessment that says “This is safe” or “That is not safe” if the public, NGOs or scientists in the academic community and elsewhere cannot understand in a fully transparent way how that decision was reached. One thing that has happened in many of the statutory advisory committees elsewhere in government—led, I believe, by the Food Standards Agency back in the early part of this century—is that these committees meet in public. People can actually see what the evidence was, what the arguments were and how the decision was reached. Can the Minister assure this House that whatever mechanism the HSE uses—and I certainly think it should have an independent statutory committee—its decisions will be fully transparent, and that the decision-making group will meet in public so that people can see how the decision is made?

I have focused on one minor detail, although I think it quite an important one, of the many concerns raised by the Select Committee that I sit on, as well as by the noble Lords, Lord Fox and Lord Whitty. Finally, I remind the House how pervasive chemicals are in our lives. It has already been pointed out that this is about not just the chemical industry but all the industries that depend on chemicals, whether for motor manufacturing, toiletries or furniture and so on. There is a food chain in this country—many noble Lords may even have bought food from this outlet—which claims that its food contains no obscure chemicals. There is a risk that it contains nothing at all because food is nothing but chemicals, and some of them are obscure. This is fundamental to everything in our lives and how we regulate the safety of chemicals is of absolute paramount importance to everything we do, including the food we consume.

Baroness McIntosh of Pickering Portrait Baroness McIntosh of Pickering (Con)
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My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to follow the noble Lord. I can speak only for myself, as I find that I am not on a committee so I have no expert knowledge in this regard. However, I pay tribute to the work done by the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee in its 15th report, which I will refer to.

I know why this statutory instrument is being prepared; my noble friend the Minister set that out clearly in his opening remarks. In the impact assessment, the policy objective in paragraph 14 sets out the terms of the political declaration on the future relationship between the UK and the EU. Perhaps my noble friend can put your Lordships’ minds at rest this afternoon by showing that we will seek more than just a UK-EU free trade area for goods. The difficulty of our meeting to consider this two days before we were due to leave the European Union is that as we do not yet know the circumstances of our leaving, until the House of Commons has taken a view in this regard, we do not know whether we are leaving with no deal or whether there will be a transitional arrangement. In the event of the Prime Minister’s deal being agreed by Parliament, can my noble friend say how Defra and the Government intend to use a possible transition period to ensure continued co-operation between the UK authorities and EU agencies such as the European Chemicals Agency?

I agree with all those who have spoken on the questions raised in this 15th report about additional admin and the potential costs, and I have one request of my noble friend: since the report is strongly worded, and since neither the Expansion Memorandum nor the impact assessment have set out the costs and financial implications, it would be very helpful if he would set those out this afternoon.