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House of Lords

Monday, 29th June 1998.

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

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Manchester.


Lord Peyton of Yeovil asked Her Majesty's Government:

    Whether they will make clear the extent to which they regard organophosphates as user-friendly.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Donoughue): My Lords, provided that organophosphate products are used in accordance with their conditions of authorisation or approval, they should, on current scientific evidence, pose no unacceptable risks to users. All veterinary medicines, pesticides and human medicines, including those containing organophosphates, must meet statutory safety criteria which address the safety of those using the products.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil: My Lords, I am lost for words--adequate words--that the Ministry of Agriculture should have the gall to put words such as "no risk to public health" into the mouths of Ministers in successive governments.

Is the Minister aware that as long ago as 1950 Lord Zuckerman called attention to the danger, as did the Health and Safety Executive in 1980? Does not that argue a lack of urgency on the part of the Ministry? Furthermore, the fact that for six years the noble Countess, Lady Mar, has been asking Questions and eliciting hopeless, inconclusive, padding Answers indicates a lack of candour on the part of the Ministry.

I hope that the noble Lord will give a helpful answer to my question. Will he undertake as a matter of urgency to set up clinical studies into the effects of the use of organophosphates on humans, as opposed to studying what happens to vegetables? I hope that the Minister can satisfy your Lordships.

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I am sorry if my Answer was not wholly satisfactory. I must point out that I said "on current scientific evidence", because Ministers can act only in line with the scientific evidence available to them.

The noble Lord's question about research is very pertinent. We hope in future to act on more scientific evidence. There are currently 15 clinical and epidemiological studies into the effects of OPs on humans, costing more than £1 million and spread over a number of institutions, in particular the Institution of Occupational Health in Edinburgh, whose report we expect by the end of the year, and others at Newcastle and Reading.

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As regards the noble Lord's historical statement about the delays in treatment, I am in nothing but agreement with him. However, if he wishes to know why there has been so much delay, particularly in the past 20 years, perhaps he could direct the question to some of his colleagues rather than across to this Bench.

The Viscount of Oxfuird: My Lords, can the Minister advise the House about whether investigations into organophosphates and their connection with BSE are included in the studies which are taking place?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, they have been investigated by the Scientific Advisory Committee, which has advised Ministers that there is currently no evidence of such a link so as to require different action by Ministers.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I am not surprised to see that the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, receives the same kind of Answers as do I. However, I am sure that the Minister will try to do better in future. Does he recall that a little while ago I asked him to look into the feasibility of either severely curtailing or banning amateur use--that is the use of OPs in the home and the garden--by people who do not come under the COSHH regulations and who have no training? Often they expose their children to high quantities of OPs in cat and dog flea collars, flea treatments around the house, fly sprays and various other products. I believe that about 150 products can be bought over the counter without any regulation as to their use. How far have such inquiries gone? I realise that his department is not involved, but has he looked into the matter?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, yes, we did indeed look into that and some action has been taken on the amateur use of OPs. As regards their use in relation to pets, the Veterinary Products Committee is reviewing all such OP use. The Advisory Committee on Pesticides is currently reviewing the use of 24 pesticides for gardening and household use, of which 15 are OPs. Human use for the treatment of head lice is currently being reviewed by the Committee on the Safety of Medicines. Therefore, in each of those areas we are reviewing current use.

However, as there appears to be a slight strain of criticism of the Government for inaction in that area, I shall take the opportunity, particularly for the benefit of the noble Countess, whose work in this area has been tremendous, to remind the House of what steps have been taken in the past 12 or 14 months.

We set up the official co-ordinating committee on OPs whose report was produced last week. It was published and made available in this House. The Veterinary Products Committee is reviewing all OPs in its sphere. The ACP is reviewing all non-veterinary pesticides. The Committee on the Safety of Medicines is reviewing the use of OPs for the treatment of head lice. The membership of scientific committees, something which is of particular concern to the noble Countess, is being changed so that there is lay and occupational health membership.

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As regards information, we are publishing all advice to Ministers. We have published the report. Moreover, we support the Private Member's Pesticides Bill, which is currently passing through this House. That legislation improves information. On research, we shall now appoint lay assessors. We are also issuing new regulations to deal with disposal and water, subject to consultation, and we have improved the information to users of OPs.

The Earl of Clanwilliam: My Lords, will the Minister ensure that all those many committees will be advised of and told to report on the fact that OPs are systemic pesticides which remain within the system of the human being who consumes them? They are not excreted in the usual way. Therefore, they build up within the bodies of all the children and human beings who consume them, starting with the vegetables they eat which are contaminated by that poison.

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for that observation, which we bear in mind. That is why we are extremely concerned about the whole impact of OPs and have taken the many steps that I have indicated.

Baroness Trumpington: My Lords, are there any regulations covering the spraying of crops with organophosphates by aeroplane? I ask that question because I have a friend whose health has been seriously damaged due to the low spraying of crops with organophosphates. Not only has she suffered considerable ill health but her cows have too.

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, I do not know the precise answer to that, but I shall write with rapidity to the noble Baroness on that matter.

Viscount Addison: My Lords, if the Minister agrees that there is some doubt about the use of organophosphates, why is it that beef on the bone was banned on the basis that there was some possible doubt and yet there is some possible doubt with regard to organophosphates but their use has not been banned?

Lord Donoughue: My Lords, the two are different. We received advice on the danger of beef on the bone from the relevant scientific committee and we were advised by the Chief Medical Officer that we should ban it. We have not received such scientific advice about organophosphates. On the contrary, we received advice recently from the Veterinary Products Committee that there was no reason to ban them.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, is the Minister aware that I am very pleased to hear that steps are being taken in relation to organophosphates? However, such action needs to be taken on practically every scientific aid to farming. We need information about what is good for farming and what may be harmful, because various groups take up crusades against practically every aid to farming. Therefore, MAFF must be ready with scientific answers to those allegations much earlier than it has been.

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Lord Donoughue: My Lords, from my brief experience of MAFF, I can say that we are not short on scientific advice. We are concerned also about the impact on farming and that farmers need clear advice. They need to be protected but they wish also to take measures. For example, organophosphates are the only compounds which are effective in dealing with some problems which face them. It is a difficult balance but I assure the noble Lord that the amount of scientific advice that we have is not deficient. The problem is to balance the various interests that then arise.

Baroness Byford: My Lords, the Minister referred to the report which was published last week and which he said was available in the House. In fact, it arrived at 2.30 this afternoon so, unfortunately, I have not had an opportunity to look at it. However, there was obviously also a MAFF briefing with reference to that document. Will the Minister tell me which department--MAFF, health or COT--will be pulling together all the scrutiny which has taken place; what will be the time-scale; and what will be the budget allocated to it?

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