Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

As the noble Countess has said, there has been progress. The lack of exposure today is a result of the work that has been done by the industry, pushed by our officials in the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, in producing better containers from which people could not by accident, irrespective of negligence, be contaminated. There is no question that this was a serious issue in the past. However, this means that no new people from farming are coming into the system for the doctors and the scientists to look at. As I say, the problem transcends that, but there has been stagnation.

When we considered this problem in MAFF from very early on in 1997 and 1998, I had discussions with the then Minister, Jack Cunningham, who, with his background as a chemist, took it very seriously. We picked up from other departments that there were issues across government in regard to chemicals. Richard Carden—who, as the noble Countess said, has retired—would take some pleasure in seeing the Carden Committee reconvened. He was a first-class civil servant, in my experience, at MAFF and he chaired a large Whitehall committee which covered many more departments than one would imagine. Obviously, as I moved around Whitehall I did not keep up to date over the years. I regret that the committee’s deliberations have not been made public and I can see no good reason for that.

In that period of time, we had probably three scientific advisers, and now we have a new Government Chief Scientific Adviser. This problem should be the first thing on Professor Bennington’s desk and he should look at it to see what the current situation is. There are grounds for considering it. I have never seen a satisfactory answer to the issue of the airline pilots and the doubts that have been raised about it. I do not

17 Jun 2009 : Column 1130

want to be controversial but, if one looks at the big picture from the outside—at the nature of the doubts about organophosphates, at the issue of Factor VIII, dirty blood and blood products, and at the issue of Gulf War syndrome from the first Gulf War—one gets the impression of a natural reluctance of the centre to investigate when these issues arise and a pattern starts to be formed. That is the point that I want to make.

In a way, the Carden Committee and what was put together could overcome and answer some of these issues. They go across Whitehall departments. I do not want the Government to be in the dock over them but a pattern has emerged over a period—there may be others of which I am unaware—that there is a reluctance to investigate. Why? “Oh, because there are no new cases; because of the issue of compensation; because the science is not quite clear”. Given what has happened in the United States in the first 100 days, if these matters were put to President Obama I can envisage some executive action coming forth. Not by overdoing the science or taking the scientists’ view, but by giving the issue a push, a spurt, to ensure that we can put it to bed.

There is plenty of evidence—I do not think complete solutions will ever be found—from those who have been injured, if I can put it that way, in the farming industry, from those with Gulf War syndrome and from the issue of the fuel used in aircraft to ensure that the doubts about the use of organophosphates remain. These are matters worthy of investigation. In the way that it does, Whitehall did some joined-up thinking on this. There was genuine joined-up working in the way in which the Carden Committee was put together and worked. I pay tribute to that and I have no problem with it.

I was on the receiving end over a 10-year period of delegations which included the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, and the noble Countess, Lady Mar. I said to officials on one occasion—I think it was in 2006 or early 2007—after the noble colleagues had left, “One day I will be a Back-Bencher and she is my model”. That is true. The noble Countess has shown great tenaciousness in pushing this issue—it is not a vested interest, although she has been affected in many ways—getting to grips with it and not accepting no for an answer. In this case, Whitehall and the Government reached out.

I do not know whether it is time to call for Carden, who is well away into retirement—I shall not mention what part of the country he is in but I had a nice letter from him when I left government, so I know he keeps a watch on what is going on—but I hope the lawyers will not make the final decision; it is important that it is made on the grounds of science and health. The Government have a public responsibility and a duty of care in all these issues. In allowing products onto the market, however they are used, the Government have a duty of care. It may be that people will say, “We have solved all the problems” but, nevertheless, there are too many unanswered questions. It is probably time, given the Whitehall committee structure, genuinely to say to the noble Countess tonight that the answer to her question should be yes.



17 Jun 2009 : Column 1131

7.48 pm

Lord Tyler: My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Countess and the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. We have over many years worked together on this issue and I congratulate the noble Countess, in particular, on her extraordinary mastery of the facts. My only concern about her case is that she sometimes thinks OP has affected her brain power. However, there is no evidence of that in the way in which she contributes to the debates of your Lordships’ House.

I should put on record that the right honourable Michael Meacher, who has also been a Minister in the department principally responsible for this issue, has been a doughty campaigner, as has the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, in seeking justice for those who suffer from OP poisoning.

As has already been mentioned, since 1992 and through to 2005 I convened an all-party parliamentary group containing Members of your Lordships’ House and Members of the other place, from all parties and from all parts of the country, to deal with this issue.

The problem originally arose with sheep farmers—in my case sheep farmers in the south-west, who I represented—and every improvement in the controls placed on the use of OPs and every time more protective measures were placed on their use and on the people who were going to use them was, effectively, an admission that the previous arrangements were inadequate. Of course, the previous arrangements were forced upon sheep farmers by government decree. It was not like thalidomide, where people voluntarily took on a particular form of treatment and then there were difficulties. Sheep farmers had to use OPs—twice a year, under the original arrangements. The Government, as well as those responsible for manufacture, had not just a moral but a legal responsibility for the use of organophosphates.

As has been said, and this is a good moment to make this point again, there is a responsibility for joined-up government. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker—at the instigation, I would like to think, of others outside—took up that challenge and made sure that it happened, and the Carden Committee was the effective vehicle for that purpose. It was not down to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or, as it became, Defra. It was not down to the Ministry of Defence, in the case of the 1991-92 Gulf War—I should perhaps declare a non-pecuniary interest as a member of the Royal British Legion Gulf War Group. It was not down to the Department for Transport, in the case of the BAe146 aircraft that has proved to be most controversial in this case, where the bleeding into the cabin of some of the OP lubricants in the engine seems to have caused huge problems and considerable risk. Not a single one of those departments can carry the can for the difficulties that have occurred, because every one of them had some responsibility. Hence the significance of the interdepartmental committee to which the noble Countess’s Question refers—that was our hope for joined-up government. Now it has not sat for some 24 months, so what is going on? Is there any joined-up government at all now?

The Carden Committee should be reconstituted because there are urgent questions now across government.

17 Jun 2009 : Column 1132

In the case of the Ministry of Defence, there has been, as the noble Countess said, an inaccurate response to the research that has been undertaken in the United States, a point that I shall come back to. It is urgent to look at the implications for the British troops who were there serving on our behalf, and who suffered as a result of their service in the Gulf.

In the case of Defra there is an urgent responsibility to ensure that proper funding is put into the remaining research proposals, particularly those that are under the auspices of Dr Sarah Mackenzie Ross, who is the principal researcher in this field. As the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, implies, every day there are people who should be analysed for this purpose but who may no longer be with us.

Then there is the issue of transport. It was not just the BAe146, although the problem seemed to occur particularly on that aircraft; there are wider issues there. As yet, thank goodness, there has not been a disaster, but there could easily have been one if the impact of these chemicals—which, after all, started their life as part of the Nazis’ war effort—had continued to be sprayed around aircraft cabins and cockpits in aerosol form. The potential for disaster is considerable.

My bitter and, I fear, rather cynical experience, after 17 or 18 years of campaigning on this issue, is that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, seems to be right: there is a built-in systemic lethargy that means that eventually, if you string out the research programme long enough, which is what the manufacturers of these products want to do, either the OP products can be replaced by something else so that there is no longer a commercial problem for the manufacturers; compensation can be avoided because you continually block liability claims; or, frankly, the victims die. Understandably, it is that lethargy, stringing out the process, that the victims feel is going on in Whitehall. It would be a tragedy if the considerable efforts made by the noble Lord and others in Whitehall—Michael Meacher being another—to try to create a genuine link-up and real joined-up government came to a full stop, simply because Mr Richard Carden had retired.

I hope that the Minister will be able to give us a cast-iron assurance that the committee will be reconstituted and will give practical expression to the determination of the Government to get to the bottom of this problem. Again, I underline the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker: imagine if this were in the United States under the present President. In fact, we do not have to imagine; a new imperative has been put behind the research programme into OPs by President Obama. Let us therefore take something from across the Atlantic that we can put to good use in this country. Let us have some joined-up government here. I warmly support the noble Countess.

I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has rejoined the human race by coming off the government Front Bench and is now able to use his persuasive powers on his colleagues. I hope that we will have evidence in a minute that he is as persuasive as he ever was in the Government.



17 Jun 2009 : Column 1133

7.55 pm

Lord Greaves: My Lords, I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, ever left the human race, which is one reason why he was such a good Minister.

I thank the noble Countess, Lady Mar, for initiating this short debate as part of a campaign that has been going on since long before I came to this House. With the noble Countess, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and my noble friend Lord Tyler, I feel as though I am among some of the political giants as far as this issue is concerned. My interest in OPs, particularly sheep dips, came about a bit less than 10 years ago when Chris Davies MEP took me up a track on the Saddleworth moors to see Mrs Brenda Sutcliffe, an equally doughty campaigner on OPs in a rather different way, bashing away on what was then her manual typewriter. She is still there and still campaigning, and long may she do so as long as this issue needs resolving.

I shall refer to the most recent piece of research on OPs and sheep dips, which comes from Dr Sarah Mackenzie Ross of University College London on behalf of Defra’s project VM02302 on which, over the past six or seven years, the department has spent nearly £500,000. The project was mooted earlier; it started in August 2004 and ended in 2008, last year. The purpose of the study was to determine whether low-level exposure to organophosphates caused disabling neurological or psychiatric disease in a small sub-group of exposed persons. The significance of this project is that it is concentrated on low-level exposure over a period of time rather than on a higher level and the more acute problems presented by most of the people who have come forward as victims of OPs.

The participants in the study—there were originally 160 but there ended up being 132—are working farmers and farmers who retired on the grounds of ill health and who have a history of exposure to sheep dip. They were compared with a control group, a comparison group, of rural police workers, in an attempt to find similar people in the community who had not been particularly exposed to organophosphate pesticides. That group began as 80 but ended up as 79. The participants were recruited from the south-west and the north of England. My understanding is that the study has been completed—certainly the executive summary has been published—and that we are waiting for the full report to be peer-reviewed. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that. It is with Defra and we are waiting to see what Defra is going to do about it.

The results of this study of low-level exposure were that,

“A range of emotional, physical and cognitive problems were identified in agricultural workers with a history of low level exposure to OPs. In terms of cognitive function, general intellectual ability, reasoning, visio-spatial and verbal ability were relatively well preserved, but agricultural workers obtained lower scores on tests of response speed, working, verbal and visual memory, mental flexibility and fine motor control, than non-exposed controls”.

The report also compared these results with the general population and found a similar difference. The report says that,



17 Jun 2009 : Column 1134

I am not sure that I understand these words, but I think they mean that there was a correlation and the findings were significant. The recommendation is that follow-up studies should be carried out to determine whether symptoms persist over time, improve or worsen, and to look into recommended treatment protocols for individuals who report chronic ill health following exposure to OPs. This is one reason why the official committee should be reconvened. It is suggested that there is a need for prospective treatment trials. That is from Dr Mackenzie Ross.

Defra has responded. I have looked at the Defra website and failed to find it, but that may be because I am not very good at negotiating websites, or it may not be there. I read in the Western Morning News that a Defra spokesman said:

“The results of this report do not definitively demonstrate that organophosphates cause chronic ill-health, but suggest that a relationship may exist”—

I think that is what Dr Mackenzie Ross is saying—

“It is not possible to draw conclusions on the basis of one report without considering a wider context of published data on OPs and human health”.

That seems to be a fairly weak response from Defra, of the kind that previous speakers have suggested has been forthcoming over the years. It seems to me, again, to be a reason why the committee should be reconvened and should meet to consider these matters. Defra continues to say that,

That is all very well for people who are around now but it does not really tackle the problem of people who were exposed in the past. I read in my exciting weekly reading, the Farmers Guardian, a quote from Dr Mackenzie Ross herself:

“The worry is that there might be a slow cumulative effect on people. We have got no idea how many people out there are suffering ... There was this idea that low exposure is OK but this research would suggest otherwise. We think it is more dangerous than previously thought”.

There follows the same quote from Defra, suggesting that it would rather not do very much.

This latest report is important, partly because it confirms that people have been suffering from OPs, but particularly because it looks at the people who have been subjected to low-level exposure, as opposed to those who have been made particularly poorly by a high level of exposure. This is clearly new evidence and clearly a new report. I ask the Minister, first, what will Defra do with this report? What is its response to it, other than trying to tell the papers that everything is really okay? Secondly, in particular, is it not sensible to put it to a reconvened official committee?

8.04 pm

Lord Taylor of Holbeach: My Lords, I declare an interest as a farmer and grower. We use chemicals in pest and disease control; I will make observations on this in my speech. No one can doubt the commitment of the noble Countess to making sure that the use and effect of organophosphates remains on the agenda. She should be thanked for securing this debate and for the skill with which she has presented her case. She speaks powerfully from a personal experience that has been extremely distressing. Indeed, all noble Lords

17 Jun 2009 : Column 1135

have spoken with passion on this issue and I am sure that the Minister will be keen to respond and provide the reassurance that noble Lords rightly seek.

I can speak only on the use of OPs in agriculture, but I know that concerns can and do stretch into other areas, which have been widely explored in this evening’s debate. However, I can speak with some authority, since not only are OPs used and recommended as a vital sheep dip, they have in the past been used to dip bulbs prior to commercial planting. In the 1960s I personally sterilised bulbs using the nematicide Phagol, which was withdrawn around the middle of that decade. By good fortune, no one—as far as I know—suffered any ill-effects from its use in this way, although a MAFF employee at Kirton EHS died from mercury poisoning, which was part and parcel of a similar operation. Later, in the 1980s, Nemaphos was widely used for similar purposes here and in Holland on tulip bulbs. It, too, was withdrawn. Again, no ill-effects were reported, but environmental considerations and ground water contamination led to its ceasing to be available.

The work of the noble Countess in battling on this issue is well known, but we need to be careful not to draw the wrong conclusions from this particular issue. I am sure that the Minister will confirm that the Government remain concerned at the change in the definition of pesticides from risk-based to hazard-based. This, regrettably, has been introduced as a European directive, with regulations to follow. This will cut off many vital products. This is particularly true for horticultural growers, of whom I am one. Their permitted use is dependent on off-label approval—testing that manufacturers are not necessarily prepared to pay for. I cannot emphasise strongly enough the role that can be played by horticulture in reviving the productive capacity of the sector.

I may have strayed beyond the strict definition of this debate, but it is important that the principle that we apply to organophosphates is the same: decisions should be based on the science. There is a further point to be deduced from the general to the particular. Any use of chemicals requires the proper respect of the user. At all times operators need to be disciplined in following correct procedures and ensuring their own safety. The most common way for humans to come into contact with OPs, as has been explained in this debate, is through sheep dipping. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, explained fully how this policy came into effect. The Government’s policy towards its uses takes into account factors including the environmental effects and effect on human health of organophosphates. It is good to see the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, in his place and contributing to this debate. We have all missed him, but welcome him back and are pleased that he is participating in his usual robust fashion.

Concern about the use of organophosphates led to the commissioning of the interdepartmental group on organophosphates, known as the Carden Committee. It drew representatives from several government departments, including the Department of Health and the Ministry of Defence, as well as representatives from the veterinary field, health and safety, the Food Standards Agency and the Office for Science and

17 Jun 2009 : Column 1136

Innovation, as it was then known. It has not met since June 2007, which was two years ago. As the noble Countess said, many questions remain unanswered. I can think of several. Has any assessment been made of the effectiveness of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2000—or COSHH in short—when it comes to risk assessments prior to sheep dipping? What further work has been undertaken on finding alternatives to using organophosphate-based products in farming?

Further to these questions, I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me on two others. How many of the “pour ons” now used in sheep treatment for ecto parasites contain organophosphates? Are the Government satisfied that spreading of waste dip on agricultural ground presents no residual hazard? If ever an issue could benefit from transparency, it is this one. That is why I trust that the Minister will be able to give a positive answer to the noble Countess’s Question.

8.10 pm

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Davies of Oldham): My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate, particularly the noble Countess, Lady Mar, whom we all respect for her committed work over a considerable period on this very important issue. I discussed these issues with her when for a short while I held responsibility for the transport brief in this House. I was well aware of the strength of her arguments and I did my best, from a more limited position than my noble friend Lord Rooker, to see how we could make progress on those issues.

A number of speakers suggested that the Government have been tardy in responding to these issues out of an unwillingness to commit resources, or from anxiety about compensation that may be payable. Those are unfair charges. The issue is straightforward, as the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, emphasised; namely, that we must make progress on the basis of the scientific evidence. As I understand it, the problem is that we do not have a secure enough scientific base to know exactly what to do. That is not to say that we are not aware of studies such as the one to which the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, referred. After all, that was commissioned by Defra. I am sorry that the noble Lord did not find the response on the website; I shall give it now. The researcher, Dr Sarah Mackenzie Ross, found that the results suggested there may be a relationship between long-term, low level exposure to OPs and the development of neural behavioural problems. This is an important piece of research but we have commissioned two other research reports as a result of COT’s work in 1999 and we await their publication. We cannot publish them yet because they have not been subjected to peer review and proper scientific vetting and analysis. All these reports, and our response to them, will be produced in the very near future.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page