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House of Lords

Monday, 13th May 1996.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Oxford.

Organophosphates: Demeton-S-Methyl

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

    To what extent the organophosphate pesticide Demeton-S-Methyl is currently used in the United Kingdom; how use of this chemical compares with other organophosphate pesticides; and how many reports of incidents attributable to this chemical have been recorded by the Health and Safety Executive.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, Demeton-S-Methyl is approved for professional use in agriculture only. It is used on a wide range of agricultural and horticultural crops and is of particular importance to growers of brassicas. Demeton-S-Methyl accounts for about 10 per cent. of the crop area treated with organophosphate pesticides and about 5 per cent. of the total weight of such pesticides applied to crops. In the five-year period to 31st March 1995, 44 incidents involving pesticides containing Demeton-S-Methyl were reported to the Health and Safety Executive. Twenty-three incidents were investigated in which adverse health effects were claimed, but in only nine cases did HSE find it confirmed or likely that ill-health had been caused by exposure to a pesticide.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for his very full reply to my Question. Is he aware that in the United States of America manufacturers have withdrawn this product from the market and that it is no longer licensed there because of concern about its teratogenetic effects; that is, the birth defects that it may cause? It is also a known mutagen. As it is a class 1 hazard organophosphate, is any consideration being given to the cessation of production in this country?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I am aware that the product is currently under review. I am not aware of the problems in the United States and I shall draw them to the attention of my colleagues.

Baroness Turner of Camden: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the Transport and General Workers' Union, many of whose members work on farms, is concerned about the effects of this chemical and believes that it should be banned? Will he inform the House of the present situation in regard to the new pesticides forum, which was referred to at col. 193 of Hansard in the debate on 6th February?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I do not have with me information on the pesticides forum, but I shall certainly write to the noble Baroness. In regard to the concerns

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of the Transport and General Workers' Union, this is an old and well established pesticide. We do not believe, looking at its history, that there is any evidence that it is wildly more dangerous than any other organophosphate pesticide, but all these chemicals have to be treated with the greatest care.

The Countess of Mar: Is the noble Lord aware that when this matter was last reviewed in 1993 only six pages of information were provided? Most of those pages said that there was no information on the effects of this pesticide. That is to be compared with OP dichlorvos, where the information amounts to 136 pages. Does the noble Lord appreciate that we do not know what this stuff does and therefore we should not be using it?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, "not knowing what this stuff does", as the noble Baroness puts it, is a characteristic shared by many older pesticides because they were introduced at a time when that information was not required. All such pesticides are in the course of being reviewed. But we draw comfort from the fact that it has been in use for 30 years without the appearance of any known major or unusual problems.

Anti-personnel Mines

2.40 p.m.

Lord Rea asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Further to their recently declared support for a worldwide ban on the use or export of anti-personnel mines, whether they will now state that no such weapons will be used by the British Armed Forces.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Defence (Earl Howe): My Lords, our Armed Forces will not use our stock of non self-destructing anti-personnel mines operationally unless, in exceptional circumstances, Ministers are satisfied that their use is essential.

Lord Rea: My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for his reply, which I believe restates the Government's position. Is he aware that six countries--Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, Canada and the Philippines--have voted not only to ban the production and export of all types of anti-personnel mine but also to stop supplying their armed forces with these weapons? Is the Minister further aware that a group of American generals, including General Schwarzkopf--Stormin' Norman--recently wrote an open letter to President Clinton which questioned the need for the retention of such weapons by that country?

Earl Howe: My Lords, we took account of the position of our allies in deciding our new policy. Those views vary considerably--from support of a total ban to countries which firmly believe they still need anti-personnel landmines for national defence. Clearly, it is for other countries to justify their own policies. Our decision reflects a balance between humanitarian goals and the needs of our Armed Forces. I am aware of the

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ongoing review in the United States. We remain in close touch with the Americans, and we shall study carefully any decisions they make.

The Lord Bishop of Oxford: My Lords, given that the recent review conference achieved only limited success, what specific steps will the Minister take to expedite an international ban on the production, stockpiling, transfer and use of anti-personnel mines? What is the earliest realistic date by which that goal can be achieved?

Earl Howe: My Lords, if we want to achieve a total ban, as indeed we do, there is no alternative to international agreement. Any effective measures to reduce the dangers to civilians can be achieved only through broad international agreement involving those countries which produce, export and use anti-personnel landmines. We shall pursue that aim in a number of ways and through a number of fora. I believe that the good outcome of the UN weaponry convention review conference is a step in the right direction. There is scope to build on that by persuading those countries which give rise to the greatest concern. I cannot be of much assistance to the right reverend Prelate as to timing. I assure him that we shall do our best to achieve the outcome that we all want to see.

Lord Avebury: My Lords, will the Minister be good enough to place in the Library of the House a copy of any of the decisions made at the review conference? Does the agreement criminalise the use of landmines in internal conflicts? If so, are such offences subject to universal jurisdiction? Will the UK introduce legislation to give effect to the decisions of the conference?

Earl Howe: My Lords, I am happy to give the noble Lord the assurance that a copy will be placed in the Library if that has not already been done. He is right that one of the positive results of the UN weaponry convention review conference was to extend the scope of the convention to civil wars, where, after all, most misuse has occurred. We regard that as a welcome step forward. As regards international sanctions against countries which break that condition, I shall write to the noble Lord.

Lord Molloy: My Lords, bearing in mind that the anti-personnel mine is probably the only weapon that can harm and kill after an armistice and cessation of hostilities, should not our Government concentrate, with Commonwealth countries, the US, and the countries of the former Soviet Union, on quickly achieving a complete ban on the use of such weapons? I appreciate that we cannot do it on our own, but I believe that we could obtain the support of the countries that I mentioned to see that this detestable weapon is abolished.

Earl Howe: My Lords, I am in great sympathy with much of what the noble Lord said. We want to achieve a halt to the appalling catalogue of human suffering around the world caused by the irresponsible use of landmines. We shall, as I said, do all we can to introduce

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a global ban. That will require international agreement. As the noble Lord acknowledged, it is not the British Armed Forces which use anti-personnel mines irresponsibly. Only an international ban will reduce civilian casualties.

Lord Jenkins of Putney: My Lords, is the Minister aware that in his first Answer he referred to circumstances that might justify the use of such weapons. Can he name one such circumstance?

Earl Howe: My Lords, that must remain an operational matter. What we have said--it represents a strengthening of the rules to which we have adhered up to now--is that when our military commanders recommend the use of landmines our troops will not be allowed to use those landmines without ministerial consent, and that consent will not be given unless Ministers are satisfied that there is no alternative to the use of landmines. That is a positive step forward.

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