The trade union Prospect, which represents many of those working in the industry, has warned of “chemical chaos” as plans for the sector and its employees remain uncertain.
Britain’s regulators are scrambling to prepare for a future outside the EU, but there are fears that they lack the time and resources to work out a strategy.
As the deadline fast approaches the chemicals regulation division of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) has been forced to create a list of dangerous pesticides it says should be kept out of the country.
HSE says these banned substances will not be allowed in following Brexit, but Prospect members are concerned that the bans will not be fixed into UK law before the exit date in March.
This is one of a number of concerns voiced by those in the sector who feel that the nation’s chemicals industry – with its annual turnover of £32bn – will be compromised by Brexit.
Chemical control is currently undertaken with other EU members, and the UK is considered one of the top regulators in Europe.
However, it is unclear the extent to which Britain will be involved in this system following Brexit, and whether it will have any say in decisions made by the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA).
“There are potentially worrying implications here for the UK – moving from a situation where we are a key player in all of this to an almost passive bystander with much less control over what goes onto the shelves,” said Sue Ferns, Prospect senior deputy general secretary.
“Our members’ livelihoods are at risk if the UK does not negotiate as full an agreement as possible that maintains the UK’s voice in the ECHA.”
HSE has been preparing for all possible scenarios, including supporting the government in developing an emergency IT system to replace Reach – the ECHA database covering most non-pesticide chemicals that has been a decade in the making – in the event of a no-deal outcome.
The government has stated it wants to pay for participation in ECHA, including Reach, but so far it has not committed to staying within all the EU’s chemical-related laws.
Without full involvement the UK could be frozen out of discussions about new chemicals and would likely not be able to block new products entering the country as it can today.
“The great fear in Brexit is that we leave Reach, either by design or because we crash out with no deal, and end up with an empty chemicals database and weak regulation,” said Libby Peake, senior policy adviser at Green Alliance, an environmental group that has consistently raised the issue of post-Brexit chemical safety.
“For the benefit of public health, animal health, businesses and the environment, the UK and EU need to find an agreement.”
Accepting European chemical regulations without having a say could leave the UK vulnerable to chemicals that as a member state it has been able to block.
As an insurance policy against this HSE has issued a list of banned pesticides to the EU that it has deemed unacceptable. However, this list must itself be agreed by the EU before the withdrawal date if it is to be copied into UK law.
A vote on this list is expected in the coming months, and given this an HSE spokesperson said “chemicals deemed unacceptable to the UK before we leave the EU would not be allowed to enter the UK once we have left”.
In response, Ms Ferns said: “Staff at HSE are working incredibly hard to prepare the UK for Brexit, but the simple truth is that the arbitrary timetable set out by the government puts them at the mercy of events in the EU.
“Having contributed so much to chemical regulation in the EU it is deeply frustrating that the government are pulling us out of collaborative structures, such as the unacceptable co-formulants regulations, that help to protect people and the environment from dangerous chemicals.
“If this vote does not take place before we leave the EU then we need a guarantee that the UK will adopt the full list of banned substances that we have helped to build.”
Rachael Maskell, Labour MP for York Central, where many HSE employees are based, said people in the chemicals sector “clearly don’t know what their future is going to be after 29 March”.
Jobs for specialist and technical staff may be at risk if the UK loses its leading role in Europe, but Ms Maskell said that this is an issue that affects everyone.
“This will be about what is in our food chain, it has catastrophic consequences to get this wrong and yet the attention to detail that this government has failed to bring… is quite astounding,” she said.
“This just highlights the complexity of Brexit which the government neither prepared for or has focused on since the vote.”
The Independent approached the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs for comment but had not heard back at the time of publication.