HC Deb 24 March 1964 vol 692 cc244-52
The Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. Christopher Soames)

I will, with permission, make a statement about the use of certain toxic chemicals in agriculture.

I have received the Report of the Advisory Committee on Poisonous Substances used in Agriculture and Food Storage on the persistent organo-chlorine pesticides.

Copies of the Report are now available in the Vote Office. I should like to take this opportunity of thanking Sir James Cook and the members of his Committee for their work.

The Committee found no evidence of any serious immediate hazard to human beings from the use of these pesticides, or to wild life apart from certain species of predatory birds. In particular, it rejects the suggestion that these chemicals may be severe liver poisons or that they can be condemned as presenting a carcinogenic hazard to man.

On the other hand, it regards it as a matter of concern that traces of the chemicals are being found in so many situations and express the firm opinion that accumulative contamination of the environment by the more persistent organo-chlorine pesticides should be curtailed.

The Committee does not advise that the situation calls for urgent action, but it recommends that a start should be made as soon as possible by restricting certain important uses of aldrin and dieldrin. Other uses of these chemicals, and the use of D.D.T., should be reviewed again at the end of three years.

Consultations have taken place with organisations representing the interests concerned. The manufacturers of aldrin and dieldrin have informed me that they disagree strongly with the Committee's scientific conclusions, since their own scientific researches suggest that, after reaching a certain harmless level of concentration, the chemicals cease to have further cumulative effect. The National Farmers' Union have drawn attention to the considerable significance that restriction of their use could have for agriculture.

Nevertheless, the Government have decided to give effect to the Committee's recommendations and I am glad to be able to tell the House that I have had assurances of co-operation from all the interests concerned in curtailing the use of these chemicals on the lines recommended by the Committee. This will be done through the voluntary schemes operated jointly by the manufacturers and the Government.

The principal changes will be that fertilisers containing aldrin, products for garden use containing aldrin or dieldrin, and dips and sprays for sheep containing these chemicals will cease to be available. Generally, these and other recommended changes will take place at the end of the 1964 season, though in the case of sheep dips more time will be needed and the change will take place at the end of the following season Further consideration will be given to sanctioning certain relatively minor uses.

The Committee stresses that its recommendations are based purely on the situation as it sees it in Great Britain and may have no relevance to conditions in other countries. In developing countries in particular these chemicals have made a striking contribution to solving the problems of malnutrition and disease and, under these different conditions, the gains from their use may well outweigh any potential hazards.

The voluntary scheme has so far worked well, but as scientific knowledge increases and more restrictions are found to be necessary, it comes under increasing strain. The Government are asking the Committee to examine the present voluntary safety arrangements and will consider whether legislation, which the manufacturers of agricultural chemicals now advocate, would be desirable.

The Advisory Committee, whose terms of reference are at present limited to use of chemicals in agriculture and food storage has drawn attention to the use of organo-chlorine pesticides for industrial and domestic purposes such as wood preservation and mothproofing. The Government have decided, there-fore, to extend the Committee's terms of reference to include these purposes and also to enable it to report on other toxic chemicals which the Government might wish from time to time to refer to the Committee.

In view of this extension of the Advisory Committee's responsibilities, beyond that of agriculture and food storage it will in, future be primarily responsible to my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister for Science, but will continue to advise other Ministers as necessary.

Mr. Peart

Will the Minister associate with his expression of gratitude to Sir James Cook and his Committee of distinguished scientists and administrators the thanks of the Opposition?

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there is considerable disquiet about the effects of organo-chlorine pesticides upon our environment, particularly regarding the hazards to human beings and domestic and wild life? Does he appreciate that it may well be that the Committee reveals a measure of complacency, if we take the words of his own statement, that it expresses the firm opinion that accumulative contamination of the environment by these pesticides should be curtailed, but the Committee does not advise that the situation calls for urgent action"? Is there not a contradiction there? What about restricting the use of aldrin and dieldrin? Why wait until the end of this year? Why not take action now? Three years for a further review is rather a long time, in view of the increasing use of these pesticides.

Does the Minister realise that hon. Members on both sides feel that legislation should be brought in now and that we should have consolidation? There are the three schemes, the Pesticides Safety Precautions Scheme, the Veterinary Products Safety Precautions Scheme, and the Agricultural Chemicals Approval Scheme, and there is the Agriculture (Poisonous Substances) Act, 1952. All these could now be out of date.

Apart from that—[HON. MEMBERS: "Too long."] Well, it was a long statement. This is not a party issue. Is not the Minister aware that there is great concern, also, about the use of chemicals in food given to animals which are later slaughtered for human consumption? Will this also be considered when he makes his survey?

Mr. Soames

It is my belief that the Report will do a great deal to set a lot of the disquiet at rest. It shows, also, the extent to which these matters are kept under constant surveillance.

The hon. Gentleman asked why we were not taking action more quickly by withdrawing these chemicals immediately. When he reads the Report, he will see that we are acting in line with the recommendations of the Committee. These do not suggest that the matter is one of great urgency, requiring the immediate withdrawal of these chemicals, but, rather, calls for a phasing out of the more persistent chemicals as soon as practicable.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman about legislation. I said that, as more curtailments and restrictions come into effect, the voluntary scheme will be put under increasing strain and it may well be that legislation will be necessary. This is one of the points to be examined.

The Committee will, within the broader ambit of its terms of reference, be able to look into the effects of the use of the other chemicals to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

Sir G. Nicholson

I welcome what my right hon. Friend has done, particularly concerning the transfer of these functions. Up to now, he has been judge and jury and accused in the same case. Is my right hon. Friend aware that public opinion cannot altogether feel that these matters have been dealt with as quickly as they should have been? The Estimates Committee recommended the prohibition of these chemicals nearly three years ago. We cannot get away from the fact that great damage has been done to bird, animal and, especially, insect life. The most constant vigilance is necessary if civilisation is not to destroy some of its most precious heritage by carelessness and greed.

Mr. Soames

I ask my hon. Friend, as I know he will, to give careful study to the Report. It says that it is not so that great damage has been done to wild life by the use of these chemicals. What worried the Committee was the build-up of the level of contamination generally in the environment by the use of these highly persistent chemicals whose effects remain long after they have done their job. Although there is no absolute proof of any great damage being done, it is considered that it would be in the general interest if the use of these chemicals were to be phased out.

Mr. Grimond

As the Minister has said, the use of these chemicals has greatly improved food production and, with half the world starving, this is no small matter. I do not minimise the dangers, but can the Minister say whether the Government are encouraging experiments in doing the job of these chemicals by other means? Do I understand that the manufacture of these chemicals for export will still be permitted and that it is not intended to limit their use in overseas territories for which the Government have responsibility?

Mr. Soames

We do not intend to limit the export of these chemicals in any way. Neither are we judging how other countries should weigh in the balance the advantages or any potential hazards which may arise from their use. As I said in my statement, in many countries they are of the greatest use and advantage.

Mr. Grimond

Are any alternatives being developed?

Mr. Soames

The Committee is of the opinion, which I share, that the phasing out of these chemicals will act as an incentive to the introduction of other chemicals which are as effective but less persistent.

Mr. Crawley

While making no pretentions to scientific knowledge, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he is aware that scientists are deeply divided on this question? Is he aware that his own Agricultural Research Council has grave reservations about the finding of this Committee and that dieldrin, in particular, has played a very important part in reducing deaths from malaria to a quarter of what they were 10 years ago, has reduced deaths from yellow fever and has played an important part in locust control? Will my right hon. Friend try to ensure that, as a result of his action, its use is not abandoned in tropical countries?

Mr. Soames

I made a specific point of that both in my statement and in answer to the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Grimond).

Mr. Hilton

Is the Minister aware that this announcement will be especially welcomed by the farm workers, the people who mostly have to use these chemicals and who for so long have been concerned about the adverse effects of some of them? Will he give an assurance that he will not succumb to pressure by the manufacturers, who do not exactly like the view that he is now putting forward, and that he will not relent in his attempts to introduce legislation?

Mr. Soames

The purpose of the statement was to announce that the Government have accepted the Committee's recommendations and will act on them.

Sir A. Hurd

Will my right hon. Friend acknowledge that the firms making these pesticides have been very forward and energetic in research and, in many cases, are able to provide alternative effective preparations which are safe to both human and animal life? Will my right hon. Friend say something more about sheep dips? Is it not a fact that the use of dieldrin and aldrin has greatly improved the effectiveness of sheep dips in this country and abroad? If we are not to be allowed to use these sheep dips here because, presumably, of some risk to people, what will we do about the importation from New Zealand, Australia and South America of the mean of animals which may have been subjected to the use of dieldrin and aldrin?

Mr. Soames

I am aware of the very important research carried out by the manufacturers of these and other chemicals.

I agree with him that the dieldrin dip has been of great benefit to flock masters inasmuch as only one dip a year has to be applied to their flocks of sheep. Without the, chemicals at present used, two and sometimes three dips would be required in many cases, and there would have to be some reorganisation on the part of flock masters. It is largely to this end that wt have given one extra season for the sheep dips. It is our hope that within that time, or soon afterwards, a sheep dip will become available which can last the whole year, so that only one dip would be necessary, and also have the advantage that it will not be as persistent as these chemicals.

On the question of levels of residues in food, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Health will be seeking advice on the tolerances permissible in food-stuffs. If necessary, we will take action under the Food and Drugs Act to enforce them. They would be enforced both for home and imported supplies.

Mrs. Butler

I welcome the limited ban on aldrin and dieldrin in garden pesticides, and D.D.T. in sheep dip, but is the Minister aware that the timidity of his statement and the delay in the ban is a matter of some concern? In particular, does he realise that the phrase "organo-chlorine pesticides and chlorinated hydrocarbons" means nothing to people who may have stocks of these chemicals in their homes and gardens, ready for use? What is the right hon. Gentleman doing to publicise the possible dangers of these chemicals and the names of the proprietary products which contain them, and, where they are still being manufactured for export or for use on farms, to list the active ingredients of these products?

Will the Minister withdraw his booklet Chemicals for the Gardener, which gives approval to the use of aldrin and dieldrin, and reissue it with the necessary emendations?

Mr. Soames

I do not accept what the hon. Lady says about delay. I received the Committee's Report about a month ago, and since then have had consultations with those interested. The Report was published today, and I have made this announcement on the day of publication.

With regard to the use of chemicals of this sort, which have already been purchased, and may be used, I think that when the hon. Lady reads the Report many of her fears will be allayed. I know how strongly she feels about this matter. The whole gist of the Report is that the danger is not such that the chemicals should be withdrawn immediately. The Committee's Report does not advise the withdrawal of chemicals which have been already issued, but, over a period, of phasing out the use of these chemicals.

We do not intend to withdraw the booklet. We have not printed any more copies of it for some time. A new booklet will be printed and it will be available very shortly. It will not include chemicals which are no longer within the advisory scheme.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

We must make progress.

Mr. W. Yates

On a point of order. In view of the Minister's statement, I give notice that I should like to raise the matter on the Adjournment. To assist my right hon. Friend, I should like to bring in a Private Member's Bill to speed up his action.

Mr. Speaker

I do not think that the hon. Member needs to give oral notice for either purpose.