HC Deb 26 April 1960 vol 622 cc154-70

9.54 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Willey (Sunderland, North)

I beg to move, That an humble Address be presented to Her Majesty, praying that the Agriculture (Poisonous Substances) (Extension) Order, 1960 (S.I., 1960, No. 398), dated 10th March, l960, a copy of which was laid before this House on 15th March, be annulled. Despite the fact that we are praying against this Order we welcome it. We recognise that it consolidates and extends the present provisions. The effect of the Order is to bring the further substances to which it applies under the provisions of the Agriculture (Poisonous Substances) Act, 1952. In other words, it makes safety precautions obligatory. While we welcome the Order, we must do so not without concern, because it recognises that substances which are dangerous to those using them are being employed in agriculture and we have to recognise that that necessarily involves a risk to agricultural workers.

There is some difficulty about appreciating the extent of the extension. It would appear, on the face of it, that the purpose of the Order is to extend the precautions to substances the molecular structure of which consists of a bridged six-membered ring with substituents in the ring. If, a little disturbed by such a graphic description, we turn to the Explanatory Note for elucidation, we find: The Amendment consists of an addition to the list of such uses to which the Act is extended of all substances the molecular structure of which consists of a bridged six-membered ring with substituents in the ring—thus (inter alia) including the substance having the common name of endrin, which was the subject of a previous order. So we are not much further forward.

In a matter such as this, when we have an Explanatory Note, I hope that in future it will be a little more explanatory. This is a matter of some public importance, because we, are here dealing with dangerous substances and we should have some idea of what they are. I have made some researches and I gather that the Order applies particularly to three substances, but I will await confirmation from the Joint Parliamentary Secretary, because I am not sure that I can pronounce them.

I turn for a moment to Part II of the Order, which consolidates the present provisions and, incidentally, deals with arsenical compounds. We welcome the fact that the Government have promoted the voluntary agreement that alkali arsenites will be withdrawn after the potato harvest this year. As we are dealing with these substances in this Order, we are entitled to ask the Government why we cannot have these substances prohibited now. I do not anticipate the Government's reply, but there may be sufficient reasons for that. However, we have recognised that these are dangerous substances and that they are replaceable, but we know that action will not be taken before next year. Why cannot the action be taken under the present Order? I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will take the opportunity of explaining why such a step cannot be taken now.

In spite of the fact that I am not sure what it means—and I hope the Parliamentary Secretary will tell us—we welcome this extension because, at any rate, it means that safety precautions will be taken with substances with the molecular structure to which I have referred. I should like the Parliamentary Secretary to tell us why this provision should be made. I hope that it is for a very good reason. We know that we have a voluntary system of notification, that we have an inter-Departmental advisory Committee and that recommendations are made. It is widely thought that the Committee might well be strengthened by independent members. Perhaps if that were the case it would be less necessary for me to make inquiries such as I make now. We know that we have this machinery, but we should like to know more about the reasons behind such an extension as this, because I think that it will be conceded on both sides of the House that there appears to be a need for wider and for fundamental research. I have no wish to criticise the manufacturers; on the contrary, I pay tribute to them for the research which they carry out.

I have referred to the notification procedure because I think that this is effective, but it is generally agreed that there is need for further research, and the Parliamentary Secretary knows that some of us are rather disappointed that the Minister did no more than follow the usual custom which he follows nowadays of setting up a committee to advise him whether he should have further advice. That is what has happened. We have a research study group, and I am glad to say that it has already begun its inquiries, but it is a study group which is to advise him whether it is necessary to have more advice on research.

If on no other grounds than those of public concern, I think that the case is made out that we should obviously be taking steps to ensure that such information as we can obtain is obtained. I have taken the opportunity of this Order to put this matter to the Parliamentary Secretary because, although I appreciate that the present steps are being taken in the light of information and research, it seems to many of us that it would be better if more research facilities were available to allay a public disquiet which must arise on the use of such substances in agriculture.

I say at once that I have no wish to be alarmist. We all recognise the invaluable aid to agriculture which these substances have been. We should also recognise that the manufacturers will take every step possible to seek less hazardous substitutes. Nevertheless, we should be satisfied that every possible step is being taken by research to assure us about the consequences which may arise from the use of these substances.

I am glad to see that my hon. Friends the Members for Norfolk, North (Mr. Gooch) and Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hilton), representatives of the National Union of Agricultural Workers, are in the Chamber, and I hope Chat they will contribute to the discussion. I was interested to observe that the Union took the view that as far as it knew—and this is a tribute to the Order and its predecessors—there had been no fatal case since the safety regulations were introduced and very few agricultural workers have suffered harmful consequences from the use of these substances in agriculture.

Like the farmers and others engaged in the industry, however, the union wants to be in a position to say that the fears which people legitimately have about the use of these substances are groundless, and we are not in a position to say that unless we are better informed about research. During the Recess I read one of the books in a series published by the hon. Member for Carlisle (Dr. D. Johnson), entitled "Doctor in Parliament". Mention was made there of the curious epidemic of madness in France in 1951. I remember that it was eventually traced to the use of a chemical weedkiller which had somehow got into bread.

Since we gave notice of this debate, I have received correspondence from people who have been worried about the possible effects of these chemical substances. One does not know whether the worry and anxiety are justified. What we want to be sure about particularly is that we are adequately informed about the possible cumulative effects of the use of any of these substances. That means a good deal of continuous and prolonged research.

We accept and welcome the Order, but we hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will be able to tell us that the Ministry will encourage an early report from the study group and that, if it is recommended, it will take steps to provide for wider research. The Explanatory Note says: The Order is a pre-requisite to the making of amendment regulations under the Act … We prospectively welcome those amending regulations. If we are to have them, I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary and his right hon. Friend will take every opportunity of discussing these Orders in the light of experience over the past few years and, where necessary, strengthening them.

Points have been made about the use of protective clothing, more adequate safeguards, and the possible further regulation of spraying. I hope that these matters will be considered and that we shall not only be able to welcome the amending regulations but be able to recognise that the Government have gone even further in protecting those engaged in the industry. We hope that, particularly in the use of the new substances to which the Order applies, the Government will supervise the operation of the Order and ensure that, as far as possible, every safety precaution is taken.

My next point was discussed when we debated the provisions regarding clean food. I hope that the Government will pay attention to American practice. I know the difference between American practice and our own, but there is much to be said in favour of American practice. There, before the manufacturer can market the substance, he has to prove, first, that it is valuable to agricultural production, and, secondly, that it is safe. We have not the same procedure here. I have recognised the importance of the procedure of notification.

I should like the Government to consider a possible alternative approach, namely, to lay down that, when a new substance is being introduced, it should automatically come under these safety regulations. If that became unnecessary and the substance was proved to be safe without such precautions, the precautions could be dispensed with. If we took this step, it would go a long way to allaying anxiety about new substances being introduced.

While we do not seek to retard the use of substances that have been invaluable to agriculture and have helped us to get our present high yields, at the same time, in the interests of the manufacturers and of the industry, we must take all the steps we can to allay public anxiety. I hope that my suggestion will be received in that spirit by the Parliamentary Secretary.

10.10 p.m.

Sir Anthony Hurd (Newbury)

We are discussing a very complex subject and one in which technical progress is going ahead very quickly, as, I am sure, the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) recognises. Most of the research is being done by the firms that sell these toxic sprays to farmers and market growers, and speaking as one who, though not directly concerned, is fairly closely connected with one of these firms, I am sure that if there is any development of their research about which the Minister would like to know, he will find their laboratories are open to the Ministry to check on the results being obtained.

I should like to underline what the hon. Member said about the invaluable service that these toxic sprays are giving to the farmers, to agriculture and to the country as a whole, as can be judged—taking account of the variations in season—by the increasing crop yields year by year. Fertilisers, better seed varieties and toxic sprays together have made a most remarkable contribution to the increase of 68 per cent. net output over pre-war years, in which we all rejoice. We must, therefore, be careful not to do anything to retard that progress, while ensuring that those who come into contact with these sprays—the farm workers, the farmers, and others who may, by mischance, get their hands on the materials—are fully warned of the risks they run.

We must ensure that, where necessary, protective clothing is supplied, and that everyone knows that he is using a tricky substance—I would not say a dangerous substance, because in many cases the substance is not dangerous if it is used as it is intended to be used. It is when it is used ignorantly, perhaps foolishly, or when it gets in the hands of the wrong people, that there may be a danger. Used with reasonable care and proper precautions, there is no great danger, as the record shows. Farm workers and farmers are being careful with these substances.

As a farmer, I am greatly impressed by the benefits resulting from the use of these substances when applied to arable crops and to grassland; getting rid of weeds that are either of no use or that compete with those crops. At the same time, I shall welcome most heartily the day when we do not need any of these toxic substances, and when the scientists who work with the manufacturers have been ingenious and clever enough to devise alternative substances that are not toxic in any degree, but are effective. The firm with which I have something to do is anxiously looking forward to that day, and is doing its utmost to bring it forward as quickly as possible.

Mention has been made of the use of arsenite sprays for destroying potato haulm—killing off the top growth early in the autumn, either as a precaution against the spread of blight or to hasten the day when the crop can be lifted. It is true that the arsenite substances that have been used in recent years are more effective than the old sprays, but they are dangerous. This is one category of spray that can be considered dangerous. I know that one firm has already withdrawn its product, and that the other firms have agreed not to sell these arsenite products after this year. Therefore, unless, by then, the scientists have got something better we shall have to go back to the old sulphuric acid sprays. Sulphuric acid is not a very nice substance to use, but it is not so toxic as the arsenite sprays.

We can, therefore, say that the industry that provides agriculture with these substances is in a progressive frame of mind, is anxious to get rid of any suspicion of danger in its products, and will welcome the day when the word "toxic" no longer applies to any of their products. We can also say that farmworkers and farmers are taking due care when using these products, which do a very good job for agriculture and for the country in improving the efficiency and economy of our farming. For that reason, I hope that nothing that is said tonight will stop anybody from applying to their farms the advances of science up to date. As I say, I hope that those advances will soon bring us to the point when we no longer have to use any substance that is toxic.

10.16 p.m.

Mr. A. V. Hilton (Norfolk, South-West)

I support the Motion moved by my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey), and I agree with what has been said by the hon. Member for Newbury (Sir A. Hurd) about the value of many of these sprays in present-day agriculture. We should be in a poor position without them. They have made a very marked improvement in agriculture, but it is essential that these new poisonous substances should be controlled as were the others under the old regulations.

As a representative of farm workers, I have had considerable experience of watching these sprays being used on crops. Nobody was more delighted than I when the regulations were introduced a few years ago, because up till that time there had been a number of deaths and bad accidents among people who had been using sprays, and among others who came in contact with the drifting spray which had gone on to gardens and crops which were not intended to be sprayed. There is no doubt that the introduction of the regulations was of great benefit.

I am sure the hon. Member for New-bury will agree that to carry out these regulations has meant considerable discomfort to the operators who have had to do the spraying. At any time it is a very unpleasant job to use sprays of any sort, but with the introduction of the new regulations it has become increasingly difficult. However, these regulations are extremely valuable because they have reduced the risk involved in using these sprays.

It is true, as my hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) said, that since the introduction of the regulations there have been no fatal accidents resulting from the use of these sprays. But we must not forget that all these poisonous substances are potential killers unless they are properly controlled and, therefore, it is essential that they should be covered by the existing regulations. For that reason, I am pleased to support the Motion.

10.20 p.m.

Sir James Duncan (South Angus)

I wish to say a few words about one spray which has been brought to my attention. The hon. Member for Norfolk, South-West (Mr. Hilton) said that he welcomed the use of some of these sprays. So do I, but there are some which I think should be abandoned altogether. One to which I wish to refer in particular is the spray which was referred to by the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey), namely, the arsenite spray. I am very glad that manufacturers have voluntarily agreed to stop its manufacture next year, and I hope that no new manufacturers outside the agreement will manufacture it later.

I have been informed by a neighbour of mine of a 40-acre field of potatoes which the farmer was burning last year with an arsenite spray. My neighbour went round the field a day or two afterwards and he found 39 dead hares. There had been 12 coveys of partridges in the field and there was not one left. The bees were all dead and there was not a small bird left alive. That was all done by an arsenite spray, which is quite unnecessary in farming and ought to be stopped.

I hope that in default of this voluntary agreement being observed by the existing manufacturers and by any new manufacturers, if my right hon. Friend has not got the power to enforce the prohibition of this arsenite spray, he will take the necessary power, because I am sure that we shall all be willing to give it.

10.22 p. m.

Mr. E. G. Gooch (Norfolk, North)

I feel sure that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary understands our main object in moving this Prayer. It is to ensure not so much an annulment of this Order as an expansion of the protection to which we think farmers and farm workers are entitled. We are asking the Ministry to provide further protection against what are termed "spray-mad" farmers, of whom there are quite a number today.

I do not suggest that the spraying of certain crops has not been effective. It has. The increased output today on our farms is in large measure due to the spraying of crops. But the men who operate the spraying machines are entitled to the utmost protection, and our main point in moving this Prayer is to ensure that the Minister shall not merely confirm what has already been done but will bring into operation further protection as new sprays are introduced. If the Minister will do that, I am certain he will have the sincere thanks of the men who operate sprays on the farms.

10.24 p.m.

Mr. G. R. Mitchison (Kettering)

I hesitate to intrude in the almost conspiratorial atmosphere of an agricultural Prayer, since I know little about agriculture and less about chemistry.

Lawyers are sometimes accused of being obscure in their language, but we appear to be quite unable to compete with the agriculturists. If one of my hon. Friends attempted to make a speech in Welsh in this Chamber he would, I think, be ruled out of order, but the Government of the day can with impugnity describe poisonous substances as … substances the molecular structure of which consists of a bridged six-membered ring with substituents in the ring …. It is not boxing. But this is part of the law of the land. It is to be enforced and it is to affect farmers and farm workers. I call this a "dog and double duck", because I do not Slink that that sort of language would be understood in the "Dog and Duck". Is it absolutely necessary to employ language like that? I recognise that it is clear enough to a scientist, but this Order will not be enforced in relation to scientists. It will be enforced in relation to agriculturists. What they know of these substances is the names under which they are marketed. One instance is given, endrin, and I understand that there are one or two other similar instances.

If we are to make laws which affect people, which carry penalties in appropriate cases, and which, in any event, will interfere with people's daily work and life, we ought to do our best to convey our meaning in language which will be understood. I have no doubt that the Joint Parliamentary Secretory understands exactly what this means, but I am not so certain about the rest of us. I do not. All I am told is that the Order refers to endrin and some other things. Surely, the ordinary name can be used. If there is any difficulty about that, it is quite possible to fix a name to any of these substances which will be marketed—they are the ones with which we are here concerned—and so convey to people in language which they will understand something which at present we choose to convey in language which they will not understand.

10.27 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. J. B. Godber)

I am grateful for the comments which have been made on the Prayer and I am glad to know—I felt sure that it was so— that it was moved merely for elucidation and to enable me to explain the true position. I will come later to the cri de coeur, if I may so call it, of the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison). I should like to deal, first with the substantive points in the Order and take up the matters raised by hon. Members who have spoken.

The parent Act to this Order, the Agriculture (Poisonous Substances) Act, 1952, gives to my right hon. Friends the Minister and the Secretary of State power to make regulations to protect workers in agriculture against risks of poisoning arising from the use of certain substances. The Act specifies two groups of chemicals, first, dinitro-phenols, dinitro-substituted phenols and their salts, and, secondly, organo-phosphorus compounds. Those are rather complicated names. I doubt whether they would be understood in the "Dog and Duck", but they were laid down in the Act which was passed in 1952.

The Act enables my right hon. Friends also to make Orders extending the Act to apply to further substances. We have had extension Orders dealing with organo-mercury compounds, arsenical compounds, fluoroacetic acid and its derivatives, and endrin. All those Orders have been made already, but the particular Order that we are discussing now consolidates the previous extension Orders and extends the Act to cover the particular group of chemicals which has been referred to, namely, Substances the molecular structure of which consists of a bridged six-membered ring with substituents in the ring. I appreciate that that description is not an easy one. It is a convenient description for chemists. The nearest simple description I can give is this. A common habit of carbon, which is the main constituent of most of these chemicals, is for six atoms to form a ring, usually drawn as a hexagon with a carbon at each point. To make this union stable, each atom, which has four arms or hands with which to join up in this way, uses three of them, and if the fourth one is used for tacking on a hydrogen, then the result is the well-known chemical benzene. Sometimes, two hydrogens at opposite corners may be replaced, perhaps, by an atom or by a group of atoms, and this gives a bridged six-membered ring as in endrin. I have produced a small diagram which. I thought, might help hon. Members. I am sorry that I cannot provide more copies. I have, however, laid it on the Table.

That is the simplest description I could give, although I could give much longer descriptions. I shall, however, seek to show that in spite of the points made by the hon. and learned Member for Kettering, it is not necessary that everyone should be necessarily conversant with the exact details. It is, however, necessary that we should specify details in the Order in the way in which we have done.

The new group to which I have referred does not cover as many compounds, for instance, as the organo-phosphorus group, which was included in the Act. It does include endrin, which is already regulated, and it will also include endothal and its salts. It is possible that other new crop protection products in this group will be developed and marketed and we are trying to provide for them. Where necessary, regulations will be made under the Act to require workers to wear appropriate protective clothing and to take proper precautions when using chemicals in this group.

Consultation with interested organisations, as required by the Act, have just taken place in respect of endothal and its salts. We hope that regulations will shortly be made and be laid before Parliament. It is these regulations to which the hon. Member for Sunderland, North (Mr. Willey) referred. They will lay down the specific chemicals which come within the terms of the generic term "the six-membered ring".

The making of regulations under Section 1 of the Act is entirely a separate exercise and the 1956 regulations make detailed provision for the protection of employees using certain individually-specified substances. I am happy to confirm, as has already been said tonight, that since the revised regulations came into operation, no worker in agriculture has died as a result of using a poisonous substance. I was glad to have the comments of hon. Members opposite in this respect.

Regulations have been made for only 18 substances out of the 160 crop protection chemicals available for use in this country. I emphasise that figure. It bears out very much what my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury (Sir A. Hurd) said when he spoke of the desire on the part of manufacturers to provide chemicals which are not dangerous. The figures which I have instanced show how far they have been successful so far. It is encouraging to hear also that they are continuing, and, indeed, intensifying, their efforts to produce more and more of the non-toxic type of chemical for spraying which will be safe both for workers and for wild life.

We hope that the regulations for the three new compounds will be made shortly. Three of the 18 more toxic compounds which are at present regulated have already fallen into disuse and a further two, the alkali arsenites, will not be used after this season.

Hon. Members have asked why we are continuing the arsenical sprays for one more season. The reason for this is that undoubtedly these sprays have been extremely useful and that when properly used, there is no real danger to workers. There must, however, be the greatest care in their use and we have seen the difficulties that have arisen, particularly in relation to wild life and domestic cattle. It is extraordinary how, after their use, these arsenites have seemed to have a fatal attraction for cattle. Cattle have broken through hedges to get into the fields, and a number of them have been killed in this way. We have thought that in view of the balance of interests involved we ought to give one more season to enable manufacturers to concentrate on producing some other kind of chemical which is not so toxic and yet effective in its use.

Sir J. Duncan

Or on some other method.

Mr. Godber

Or some other method. During this season we are going to emphasise more than ever in our warnings the need for care. We think that this is a fair provision to make this one season to enable an additional substitute to be found and not to handicap the farmers who have been relying on this substance to a very great extent. I do assure hon. Members that we are certainly very anxious to provide every opportunity to prevent danger from arising, and in this particular case, as I have indicated, we are taking special care to warn all those concerned.

Very careful watch is kept by the Advisory Committee on Poisonous Substances on other types of chemicals. This Advisory Committee always does consider all new chemicals which come forward. That meets the point raised by the hon. Member for Sunderland, North. AH new poisonous chemicals coming forward are considered by this Advisory Committee to see whether there is need to bring them within the scope of regulalations. I am glad to give him the assurance that his point is covered. If the Committee recommends that the provisions of regulations should be extended to substances not specified in the parent Act, clearly it is necessary to make an extension.

That has been the position in several cases. That is the provision in this case. The provision of this Order is admittedly rather wider than that attempted before, but it has been done so as to obviate the need in future for further Orders for a particular product and so help to speed up bringing new substances within the regulations. That is really the purpose of using this rather obscure form of language, to provide us with this amount of flexibility.

That brings me to the point raised by the hon. and learned Gentleman the Member for Kettering, who was concerned whether those in the "Dog and Duck"—I do not know whether this is in his constituency or not; I am not familiar with his constituency, but I do got his point—and who frequent the ordinary public house will be aware of what legislation is being provided for them. The point is that this Order is a machinery Order. In the regulations we do specify the name of the substance. The regulations give the common name of the substance. This Order will enable Parliament to bring in regulations. I do not think that it is necessary for anyone in the "Dog and Duck" to be familiar with the Order, or with the peculiar phraseology which the hon. and learned Gentleman does not care for. So I think his point is covered, and if those in the "Dog and Duck" study the regulations I do not think that they will have any real difficulty. I am happy to give the hon. and learned Gentleman that assurance.

It is valuable that both hon. Members who, I think, represent the agricultural workers, have said how they welcomed the regulations. I was very glad indeed to hear that and to know there is close co-operation between their union and my Ministry in what we are seeking to do. As has been said already, that shows the effectiveness of our regulations. This additional power we are taking will provide further opportunity for us to help.

As to whether it is necessary as the hon. Gentleman the Member for Sunderland, North hinted, to strengthen the regulations, I think that they are effective at present, but we are always ready to consider any new suggestions which come forward.

I think that I have dealt with most of the points which have been raised on this Order. I am sorry that it is in a rather involved form of words, but I assure hon. Members that the particular substances which we are seeking to protect workers against are well known by their trade names. They will be specified in the regulations and I do not think that there will be any real difficulty here. This is one further step in seeking to safeguard and to help our agriculturists and agricultural workers in what they are doing.

I entirely agree, I say once again, with my hon. Friend the Member for Newbury that if we can get more and more non-toxic sprays we shall all of us be very glad indeed. In the meantime we have to rely to a certain extent on some of these toxic sprays, but in relying on them we do safeguard those concerned in their use, and that is the purpose of this Order. I hope that, with that assurance, the hon. Gentleman will be ready to withdraw his Motion.

Mr. Willey

I am not sure that anything which the Joint Parliamentary Secretary has said will bring any enlightenment to the "Dog and Duck". The hon. Gentleman has been kind enough to give me a diagrammatic document which indicates that it is either 20 to 2 or, alternatively, 10 past 8, neither of which seems relevant to the present Order. I will take the opportunity of studying it later and also what he said about the atoms holding hands in this bridged six-membered molecule.

We welcome the Order, We thank the Parliamentary Secretary for what he has said and also for the assurance that he has given that he will keep this question of safety regulations under constant review. For those reasons, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.