The session, a Chatham House rules roundtable on chemicals policy in the UK post-Brexit, was held at the Marriott County Hall in London on 24th November.
The question of the UK’s relationship with the EU post-Brexit has special relevance for chemicals policy, with British industry substantially invested and involved in regulations and systems driven by the EU, such as REACH. Whilst sometimes considered burdensome, these EU regulations will remain relevant for businesses in the UK as long as trade into Europe continues.
The meeting involved the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the organisation responsible for chemicals policy in the UK, as well as key representatives from the chemicals, aerospace, automotive, petroleum, pharmaceutical, steel, construction, manufacturing, retail, technology and professional services sectors. It provided a unique forum for a small but very proactive group of key industry representatives to share their views in the short window available for stakeholder engagement before the UK triggers Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty.
Invited guests were given the opportunity to put forward their views to Keith Bailey, head of REACH at Defra, and discuss what lies ahead for the UK as we set out on the Brexit path. The seminar provided a forum for challenging debate, cutting across sectors and recognising the importance of joined-up thinking by industry to address practical aspects - such as access to markets, supply chain security and the prospect of proliferate obligations - as well as understanding legal possibilities and their implications for compliance and enforcement.
Keith Bailey explained that Defra is currently evaluating the options going forward and welcomed perspectives from the forum. While the timeframe for input is necessarily short, getting reliable, evidence-based input is vital and the Department for Exiting the European Union (DExEU) may lack clear data on possible impacts (eg costs, employment, risks to health and the environment) of different scenarios with which to inform its decision-making.
Further, Mr Bailey noted that recognising such information can be hard to access in a short timeframe, case studies might provide an alternate, powerful approach to successfully communicating these issues. The attendees responded with a clear message that it was essential for industry to work together to provide the information necessary to support decision making. Participants acknowledged that if information is provided in a disjointed way, it could be difficult for policymakers to piece together a representative and accurate picture to inform the road ahead.
The group signalled its eagerness to work together to provide critical information regarding the impact of the various options on industry. The need to take cross-sector considerations into account was seen as paramount, and the group attending the meeting agreed that the forum provided a good basis for discussion around these issues and, if appropriate, a useful vehicle to facilitate a coordinated response.
While the group was unanimously in favour of a soft Brexit outcome, which would support access to the single market and investment in manufacturing in the UK, it agreed that it would be very helpful to understand the implications of other scenarios, in particular a hard Brexit, as this would provide the boundary condition for future planning, recognising again industry’s need for certainty and continuity, and the substantial impact even short term uncertainty can have for the longer investment cycle of sectors such as aerospace. In this respect, the unique challenges of establishing and operating an independent ‘UK REACH’ were debated in some depth.
Without doubt, the UK has an opportunity to build on its reputation for pragmatic yet high regulatory standards. On the other hand, as industry will need to continue to comply with EU regulation, multiple tracks of regulation, policy and science will be onerous and should not be allowed to detract from progress towards harmonised systems. Additionally, questions regarding the resources, databases and tools for such an independent system must be answered and adequate provision made in advance.
All the participants provided an overwhelmingly positive response to the event, remarking that the forum for cross sector debate was highly valuable and thanking Mr Bailey for his insightful thoughts on this critical topic. Getting chemical regulation right post-Brexit is central to ensuring UK industry continues to thrive, remain competitive and retain access to important markets, without compromising on health, safety or environmental protection.
Participants requested follow up to the meeting and put forward other key industry sectors for inclusion in the group. For more information on the meeting and activity going forward, contact Sue Bullock