Martin Whitfield: No-deal Brexit puts chemical industry at risk

Martin Whitfield is the Labour MP for East Lothian. Picture: John DevlinMartin Whitfield is the Labour MP for East Lothian. Picture: John Devlin
Martin Whitfield is the Labour MP for East Lothian. Picture: John Devlin
Over recent weeks, the UK Government has published a series of '˜technical papers' offering guidance in the event of a '˜no-deal' Brexit. Warnings of aeroplanes not flying seized the headlines, but in among them was advice to the chemical industry. This is an industry people take for granted. It is, however, of enormous importance to everyone. In 2017 the industry exported £17 billion worth of products to other EU countries, making it one of the UK's largest manufacturing sectors. So, what will a no-deal Brexit mean for the sector?

REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals), the regulations that mean every chemical has been checked and everyone in the EU can know it does only what the manufacturer says it will do, is critical to the industry.

Imagine as you look around your house, you know that the chemicals in the kitchen cleaners or the paints your children are using will all do what they are supposed to do and are safe to use in the way you are told.

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No deal means no REACH. Our government’s proposal is to set up a UK replica with all the associated costs of something that already exists and works very effectively. There is also the less subtle hint that there will be some serious costs imposed on UK importers of chemicals from the EU.

A constituent of mine owns a successful family business in the sector and contacted me regarding his view of the paper. He said that aside from the obvious foolishness of the proposal, the current costs of REACH registration run into the hundreds of thousands of pounds. The costs of registration are typically shared by manufacturers to keep them down. This makes sense when it applies to a market the size of the EU. However, when looking at the much smaller UK chemicals market, the commercial viability changes significantly. 

This poses the question as to how many substances will be registered post-Brexit? My constituent suggests the reality is that UK manufacturers could never afford to register some of the substances they currently import directly from the EU, potentially resulting in some, including his own company, needing to relocate production to the EU.

I agree with my constituent who describes the process outlined as ‘utter madness’. Over the years the EU developed complex and interlocking regulations, designed, I suggest, not to do down the UK but to keep people safe. These examples are indicative of the kind of hugely complicated problems businesses will face in the event of a no-deal Brexit. It underlines the manifold difficulties caused by Brexit and the threat to jobs here if the government does not change course.

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We cannot let British businesses and jobs be harmed in this way. I want a People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal. I will continue to push for one in order to avoid the chaos and economic damage of a Tory ‘no-deal’ or ‘hard’ Brexit by letting the public decide.

Martin Whitfield is the Labour MP for East Lothian