Yesterday the Tories voted to pull the UK out of international laws protecting us from hazardous chemicals. This worries me.
I believe we should stay in the EU, or failing that, the UK should maintain the closest possible relationship with it. But whatever happens, we should not drop the environmental protections which keep us safe.
The European Union’s legislation for regulating chemicals is known as REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals). It puts the burden onto companies to prove that chemical substances manufactured or imported in the EU are safe for people and the environment. Covering more than 22,000 different substances, is the most comprehensive chemicals legislation in the world and is fast becoming a global standard.
Yesterday the government pushed through legal changes which will take the UK out of REACH if we leave the EU, setting up a parallel system known as UK-REACH. I voted against this because I am concerned this is part of a ‘race to the bottom’ in environmental standards, where we slash environmental protections in exchange for quick economic gains.
You may not have heard of this change, perhaps because the government has refused to give this matter the debating time it deserves. As an opposition whip, I have been working on the bill committee responsible for scrutinising this law. In Labour we have been pushing to remain members of the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) and continue with REACH outside the EU (as Norway currently does) – but the Tories rejected this.
Instead, the government is intent on negotiating ‘associate membership’ of ECHA, setting up UK-REACH under the Health and Safety Executive (HSE).
I am worried that the HSE will not be equipped to regulate chemicals to the same standard. It has already suffered 40% budget cuts between 2010 and 2017. Outside the EU we will not have the same supporting committees to ensure we are making sound, scientific decisions that are so important to protect our health.
REACH, or close cooperation with it, will also be important for the 95,000 people working in the UK chemicals industry. Many of these jobs rely on trading chemicals across borders, facilitated by the common European standards in REACH.
I believe that the UK should have the closest possible relationship with the EU. If we must leave, we should continue to cooperate with our close neighbours on environmental problems such as hazardous chemicals. Dropping successful legislation such as REACH would be a step backwards for our country.