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What is EU REACH?

REACH is the main EU legislation for the regulation of chemicals in the EU (the Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals Regulation). It is a single market measure applying in the European Economic Area (EEA), which includes the EU in addition to Norway, Iceland and Lichtenstein.

REACH requires substances that are manufactured in or imported into the EEA to be registered with the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA). It then provides a regulatory framework to control or restrict the use of hazardous substances based on those registrations.

REACH is important for improving the protection of human health and the environment from hazardous chemicals and for facilitating trade in chemicals across the single market.

The UK chemical industry

The chemical industry is a key manufacturing sector in the UK, accounting for 9% of total UK goods exports. Trade in chemicals is highly intertwined with the EU; 57% of chemical exports in 2019 went to EU Member states, and 73% of chemical imports came from the EU. Further, chemical products are used in many other manufacturing sectors.

Brexit implications and challenges

REACH is an example of EU legislation that is not straightforward to copy across into UK law. This is because the regulation relies on the integrated role of the ECHA and is closely tied to the single market.

REACH is a regulatory requirement for trade that impacts many UK manufacturing sectors that rely on chemicals. Manufacturing industries often have complex supply chains with chemicals crossing UK-EU borders many times.

REACH in the transition period

Following the UK’s withdrawal from the EU on 31 January 2020, REACH continued to have effect in the UK until the end of the transition period in accordance with the Withdrawal Agreement. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE), however, no longer participated in ECHA decision making during this time.

REACH after the transition period: A UK REACH

The UK Government stated that the UK would not participate in the ECHA or the EU regulatory framework for chemicals after the transition period. EU REACH ceased to have effect in Great Britain from 1 January 2021. The Government has put in place a separate UK REACH regime that applies to businesses that import, make, sell or distribute chemicals in Great Britain, whether as raw materials or in their finished state.

REACH, and other chemicals regulations, were retained in domestic legislation at the end of the transition period via the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018. Secondary legislation has also been passed that would amend REACH in the UK to make it work in a UK-only context from that point.

The UK REACH Regime was initially designed to establish a UK-wide market for chemicals applying to all chemical substances manufactured and imported into the UK, with the  Health and Safety Executive (HSE) established as the UK REACH Competent Agency, taking over the functions of the ECHA. Under the Northern Ireland Protocol, however, the EU REACH Regulation will continue to apply to Northern Ireland after the end of the transition period, while UK REACH will regulate the access of substances to the market in Great Britain, as set out in the REACH etc. (Amendment etc.) (EU Exit) Regulations 2020. The Government says that the proposed UK REACH regime replicates the EU system as closely as possible, maintaining the fundamental aims and purposes of REACH including high standards of health and environmental protection. Industry and environmental stakeholders, however, have raised concerns that the UK REACH regime will be costly for industry and lacks transparency.

The Environment Bill 2019-21 contains provisions that would give the Secretary of State powers to amend the UK REACH regime with the exception of certain listed protected provisions.

UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement

Chemical and manufacturing industry stakeholders called for an agreement with the EU that ensured frictionless trade and regulatory consistency, ideally aligning as close as possible to REACH. The Trade and Cooperation Agreement between the UK and the EU contains an Annex on the trade, regulation, import and export of chemicals. It includes provisions for data sharing (where the information is ‘non-confidential’) and cooperation, particularly around international standards. While the chemicals industry has welcomed the free trade agreement, and no tariffs or quotas being applied to trade in goods, concerns have been raised about the absence of a data-sharing agreement on chemicals between the UK and EU. Currently, there is no provision for the UK to access the ECHA’s REACH database – containing detailed information about the intrinsic properties of chemical substances, for the purposes of human and environmental safety – thereby increasing the likelihood that this information will need to be re-registered on a UK-only database.

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