HC Deb 26 March 1964 vol 692 cc756-70

4.25 p.m.

Mrs. Joyce Butler (Wood Green)

It is almost exactly nine months since I last raised this subject with the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture—nine months during which it is fair to say that garden and farm chemicals have contributed still further to deaths and loss of fertility among birds and other wild life, to the pollution of water supplies in some areas and probably to minor illnesses and the build-up of undesirable residues in human beings, even with some possible deaths. I say "probably" and "possible" because with human beings we just do not know. We cannot always accurately measure cause and effect in human beings as we can in some other species. So much is new and so much is unknown, so much is cumulative and persistent, and so much depends on the combination of chemicals, the susceptibilities of individuals and other influences which we have not yet studied.

The speed of production of new chemicals which are coming out to meet new problems, combined with this situation, makes it extremely difficult for even the most well-intentioned manufacturer to carry out all the research which is necessary before these products are put on the market. But one thing we do know—and it is that the birds, like the miner's canary, give some indication as to what has happened. They warn us of danger. They give us time to organise control for ourselves. But I emphasise that for the birds themselves and other species of wild life there is very little lime, if any, available.

I will save time, because the period allocated to the debate is already very limited, by quoting a report in the Guardian of the Report of the Joint Committee of the British Trust for Ornithology and the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds. It stated that between September, 1962, and July, 1963, it was found on the analysis of 333 bodies which were fit for examination that 303 contained quantities of chlorinated hydrocarbon pesticides. Analysis of eggs showed that 42 samples out of 46 were similarly contaminated. The pesticides most commonly found were aldrin, dieldrin, D.D.E., and D.D.T. It goes on to say that the birds most affected included blackbirds and thrushes and also birds which feed in flowing and standing water, such as the great crested grebes and herons.

It is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs that in spite of this evidence—and this is the first point which I want to make to the Minister—and the Report of the advisory committee, the restrictions which the Minister has agreed to accept do not come into operation immediately. I stress that some of the most valuable birds of prey—and I mention four of them—particularly the peregrine, the golden eagle, the kite and the osprey, need urgent action if extinction is to be prevented. There are half the number of peregrines there were before the war, and only a quarter are breeding. It may be that we are already too late. But it is quite certain that unless we ban the suspect chemicals immediately we shall be too late to save some of these species.

I know that the Minister has taken a decision, but I ask him, in conjunction with all interests concerned, to see whether it is possible to bring in a ban on aldrin and dieldrin immediately and not to wait till the end of this season, and, in respect of sheep dip, not to wait until the end of 1965, as he proposes. He knows that Americans felt so strongly about the dangers of these chlorinated hydro-carbons in sheep dip that they banned mutton and lamb from New Zealand which had been contaminated by sheep dip. New Zealand replied by banning the chlorinated hydro-carbons in sheep dip altogether.

Therefore, this matter is urgent, and I cannot accept what the Minister said on Tuesday that no great urgency is shown. Both from the point of view of wild life and of human beings the sooner we can bring this ban into operation the better. I wish to know why we are not doing so. There seem to be two possible reasons. One is that the manufacturers have stocks of which they wish to dispose, and the other is that we do not wish unnecessarily to alarm the public. Both these reasons are most unsatisfactory.

We cannot afford to play fast and loose with chemicals of this kind. The Advisory Committee said in its Report that there is a lack of evidence of danger in respect of some of these chemicals. I find that rather surprising because the earlier parts of the Report seem to indicate that the Committee had found considerable evidence. In any case, the point is that whatever it says about the lack of evidence of danger, we have a complete lack of evidence of the safety of many of these chemicals, which is equally important, and we are entitled to draw attention to that.

I am also concerned at the statement of the Minister that he might allow the use of some of these chemicals for relatively minor uses. I should like to know the extent of those minor uses because many a minor makes a major, and we could find that the ban was becoming ineffective. I wish to stress the importance of this in respect of men, women and children, because it is not only a question of danger to birds and wild life. We ought to use the experience which we have gained from the study of wild life to gain information about the possible danger to human beings. I should like to see more research done on this aspect of pesticides and insecticides.

Now that the Advisory Committee is to go to the Minister of Science an opportunity is provided to look at the work of the Committee and its composition. This body should sit permanently. The interests represented upon it should increasingly come from the non-Governmental conservation interests, so that immediately a clue is obtained from some incident affecting wild life contact could be made with the Committee and the clue could be followed up.

The terms of reference of the Committee should be almost unlimited. They have been widened, but I think that if the Committee obtained any kind of clue from any other country, or from any source at all. It should be followed up. The Committee should report regularly at least every six months and we should not have to wait for some special catastrophe or difficulty to occur before getting a report. There should be a link between the Ministry of Science and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food so that Ministry of Agriculture publications relate to the findings of the Committee. That would seem an elementary matter. We do not want a repetition of such a disastrous booklet as that relating to chemicals in gardens which was a Ministry publication—

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. James Scott-Hopkins)

indicated dissent.

Mrs. Butler

The Minister shakes his head, but I still regard it as a disastrous booklet and so do many others.

In order to help research, and so that any clue may be brought to the attention of those conducting the research and in order to help increase public knowledge, because everyone—manufacturers, advisers and everyone else—stresses the importance of public knowledge and responsibility in this respect, the containers of these chemicals should be clearly marked with the active ingredients in the chemicals. I selected at random one or two containers from a local shop and I wish to draw attention to them in order to indicate what I mean. The two to which I refer are ant killers.

Some ant killers contain aldrin and most of them contain chlorinated hydro- carbons of one kind or another. I have not the slightest idea what is in these containers which I have brought along with me because there is no indication on the labels. They might contain aldrin or something even more toxic. I do not know, and neither does any member of the public who buys them.

The same applies to the other products which I have with me. One is called "Tulisan". This is a pesticide the container of which again has no indication of its contents. However, they all bear the statement that one must carefully avoid breathing the spray and that if any is spilt the skin must be washed with soap and water. There are other references to the need for keeping the substance away from animals and children, which would seem to indicate that there is a danger, though there is no indication of what the danger is. Another container indicates that the contents are based on pyrethrum, D.D.T. and Lindane. But very few of these containers give such information.

It is useless to expect the public to use care unless they know what these various chemical containers have in them. I would quote as an example the danger of Tritox. The Minister will know that one user of Tritox lost his spaniel in the autumn of 1959 because the spaniel lapped a container of Tritox which had been left about. The owner of the spaniel contacted the shop from which he bought the Tritox, as well as the head office of the suppliers, to try to discover its ingredients so that he could apply an antidote. Neither of them knew. The information had to be obtained from the manufacturer, when it was ascertained that the dangerous element in the Tritox was fluoroacetamide. The antidote which was recommended proved to be useless. That illustrates how important it is for people to know what they are using. If people want to avoid using aldrin or dieldrin, or any of the other chlorinated hydrocarbons, before the ban comes into operation, they should be able to do so by looking at the label on the container.

I would point out that the example which I have given of Tritox was reported to the manufacturers and, I believe, to the Ministry in the autumn of 1959, but the ban on its use as an insecticide did not come into operation until this year, four and a half years later. These examples draw attention to the fact that we need more control over pesticides, and the Ministry is the body responsible for this.

I am sorry that my time is so curtailed because I want to say a few words about the new methods of factory farming and their importance in this respect. This again has two aspects—first, cruelty to animals and secondly, danger to human beings. As to cruelty, there is a great argument going on as to whether these battery methods of producing chickens and the intensive rearing of calves, pigs and other animals is cruelty, or not. I believe the Ministry is on record as saying that the deprivation of light and exercise and the boredom from which the animals suffer is not cruelty. That is purely a matter of opinion.

I believe that everybody would agree that a point can be reached where this intensive breeding of animals and the deprivation of their normal living conditions becomes cruelty. As to what particular point that stage is reached there may be some difference of opinion, but we are obviously moving in a dangerous direction when we permit this development of farm factories. The more intense the cultivation of animals under these conditions, the more chemicals have lo be used to keep them healthy, but the more dangerous it becomes to the human beings who consume them. This seems to me to be a vicious circle and a very dangerous process about which we know very little. If it becomes even more concentrated and intensive it appears that the end result is likely to be a nightmare both for the animals and the human beings concerned.

I would draw attention to the fact that Denmark has already banned battery bird-raising as being inhuman, and it does not allow forced production of beef and veal. This is an indication of a process which we might follow, but as a direct point I would draw the Minister's attention to the fact that the Protection of Animals Act, which is often cited in this respect, came into operation in 1911 and that in that year nobody could possibly have had any idea of what the methods of animal husbandry would be today in the factory-farm production that we now have.

The Act, therefore, is quite inadequate to cope with this type of animal husbandry. Just as the Home Secretary has set Up a Committee to examine the old Act dealing with cruelty to animals, covering animal research so as to bring it up to date, so it seems to me necessary for the Ministry of Agriculture to bring the Protection of Animals Act up to date. I was glad to know that the Minister s looking at this whole question. I hope that he will do so very quickly and will take some action on it.

We do not know how many such farms there are or whether they are growing in number. I believe that the Ministry says that the number is diminishing, but others tell me that they are increasing. We do not know whether more animals are being brought into this kind of production. We know very little indeed about it.

We also need research into the effect on human beings of some of the substances used in this intensive animal production. I am glad that the Ministry has taker up with vigour the danger of antibiotics in milk, but surely it also ought to be concerned about the use of antibiotics in the feedingstuffs of animals reared it these conditions. I believe that it is true to say that farmers can use any level of antibiotics they like to add to the food of animals raised in this way This must be a potential danger to people who eat meat thus produced Doctors are worried about it. I understand that the difference between life and death in acute cases of disease may depend upon the amount of antibiotics which the human being has absorbed through food or in other ways before going into hospital.

We do not know the effect of continuous pest-spraying in this type of animal production. We do not know the danger of eating eggs produced by birds which have fed on mercury-dressed grain. This is a point which has come to us from Sweden, where I understand that the use of this grain for poultry has now been forbidden. Another matter about which we are still unaware in this country s[...] the danger in the injection of animals with hormones. We have seen some evidence from America. We have no research on it over here. Research into all this is urgently necessary. We muse have it as soon as possible, and we also need legislation making it compulsory to mark or label in some way all non-nutritive additives in food. This is essential. This is done in Germany. I hope that we are moving towards it here.

I have mentioned Sweden, Denmark, America and other countries where there is experience of these things. I thought that the Advisory Committee was a little exclusive in the way it concentrated on our experience in this country and tended to disregard experience elsewhere. Surely in this new world into which we are moving we need all the advice we can get from wherever we can get it.

I have expressed doubts which have been increasingly felt by a number of people in this country about the present trend in agriculture and the accumulation of chemical residues in wild life and in men, women and children. We are all consumers. It is not for us to prove the danger. We are entitled to ask the Government for assurances of safety based on the full facts, and these can be given only as the result of further research and further control, coupled with less susceptibility to vested interests whether manufacturing, commercial or other.

We are entering an extremely dangerous realm in which mistakes can be costly and the risks unpardonable. I urge the Minister to realise that the controls so far imposed are only the beginning and that they must be greatly increased and continuously applied in the interests of wild life and human beings alike.

This is not a sentimental matter. It is not a scare approach. It is a question of bringing our 1964 protection, research and control into line with 1964 scientific developments and synchronising the two as closely as we possibly can.

4.46 p.m.

Mr. William Yates (The Wrekin)

The House and the country will be grateful to the hon. Lady the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) for raising this matter on the Adjournment. It is a great pity that, when a subject of such importance arises, we find ourselves, by our own rules, curtailed in discussion and limited to only another quarter of an hour's debate.

This is one of the greatest tragedies which Parliament is facing. What can I add to help? The Minister, I know, wants to speak. All I can say, as briefly as possible, is that the suggestions made by the hon. Lady concerning the prohibition of the chemicals which are causing offence will have to be acted upon by the Minister. The container in which every single spray or pesticide is sold must have on it a warning banner or ribbon to show the average person that he is messing about with something which is lethal, perhaps not to himself but to wild life.

In paragraph 130 of the Cook Report on Persistent Organochlorine Pesticides, it is said that On grounds of human hazards, there is…insufficient evidence…to justify a complete ban on these pesticides. Perhaps not. But it is then said, in paragraph 132: We accept that there have been some bird deaths from the pesticides. What the Report says, in effect, is that, so long as human beings do not die, some experiments can be done to find out how things are going in the chain reaction through wild life.

I speak to the House only as an amateur bee-keeper and collector of butterflies, but I hope that both we and the country outside will not wait until we learn a lesson as awful as has been learned in the United States of America. In the Mississippi River basin of Louisiana, last November, poisonous chemicals sprayed on farms—aldrin, dieldrin and D.D.T.—were found to be responsible for the death of 5 million fish and millions of birds, the crane and many others. I suppose that we shall have to wait for a disaster of this kind to convince us that the subject must be taken seriously.

I only hope that my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary will tell us, in the next few minutes, that he proposes to put a total ban on these three particular pesticides even if it costs the manufacturers some money.

4.49 p.m.

Mr. Frederick Peart (Workington)

I had prepared a speech on this subject, but time is running out. We had the opportunity to question the Minister two days ago when he made an announcement about the Cook Report. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) on raising the matter. It is a matter of real importance, not a subject for sensationalism but one affecting the ecological problems of our country.

It should be borne in mind always that fundamental questions of food production are involved. We are using these pesticides, apart from in our gardens, for better food production. Therefore, we must have a right balance.

At the same time, we must bear in mind the effect which these pesticides have on wild life and domestic life and also the effect which their residues have on food production and plants which are later consumed by human beings. We are merely pleading that the Ministry should be very alert and should reconsider all existing legislation. We shall pursue this matter later, but we want urgent action. I was not satisfied with the Minister's statement the other day. I congratulate him on it as far as it went, and I congratulate all the scientists and administrators who have given him advice, but we need some urgency in this matter. If we are to err, we must err on the side of safety. The other major issue is the application of chemicals to food consumed by animals which we slaughter for consumption. This is a very real problem.

I trust that the Parliamentary Secretary, in the few minutes at his disposal, will give us a satisfactory reply showing that the Ministry is aware of this problem and will take urgent action in reviewing existing schemes and legislation.

4.51 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. James Scott-Hopkins)

I, too, am grateful to the hon. Lady the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler) for raising these subjects. I understand the great feeling which they arouse throughout the country. I am also grateful to the hon. Member for Workington (Mr. Peart) for putting the right perspective on these matters. He pointed out that we must keep a balance and remember the tremendous good which is done to the world's food supply by the use of these pesticides. It is important to remember that. The debate has ranged over a very wide field and in the short time at my disposal I do not think that I can do more than answer some of the main points which the hon. Lady made.

It is important that we should remember that the Report which the Committee made and about which my right hon. Friend the Minister made a statement the day before yesterday in the House was the result of very careful work. The Committee sat many times while it was looking into these matters. But the Report deals with one small part of this subject. There is a wide field in which chemicals are used in agriculture, and I want to keep this matter in perspective. The use of herbicides and fungicides is not brought into question. The Committee was concerned only with insecticides, and among them only with the chlorinated hydro-carbons, that is to say, aldrin, dieldrin, heptachlor, B.H.C. and D.D.T.

The hon. Lady said that, in her view, the Report did not go far enough. However, the Committee took a great deal of trouble and investigated extremely carefully all the evidence put before it. It reported—and it is only right that I should read this once again—that There is, for instance, no basis for statements that these persistent organochlorine pesticides are severe liver poisons…similarly D.D.T. and dieldrin cannot be condemned as presenting a carcinogenic hazard to man. Whilst the Committee agreed that there is circumstantial evidence for the view that the decline in populations of certain predatory birds is related to the residues found in such species arising from the use of aldrin, dieldrin and heptachlor and, to some extent, D.D.T. it goes on to say that it has received no evidence that the populations of other species have been affected by pesticides. It is important that we should remember this, because the hon. Lady cast doubt on the evidence and the conclusions to which the Committee came. It recognised that there is no immediate hazard. There is no hazard to man at the moment—

Mr. Peart


Mr. Scott-Hopkins

This is what the Committee said on the evidence available at the moment. This has been accepted.

Mr. Peart

The Committee does not say that at all. There is still a hazard. The Committee recommends action, but it does not say that there is no hazard.

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

I was coming to that. I was saying that there is now no hazard from the use of these pesticides, but there is evidence of the possibility of long-term contamination of the environment. This is the point which the Committee stresses, and this is the recommendation which my right hon. Friend has accepted.

It was on this score that my hon. Friend the Member for The Wrekin (Mr. W. Yates) was worried lest we should wait for a disaster to occur. I am sure that he will have read the Report and my right hon. Friend's statement. We are taking action on the substances which he mentioned, dieldrin, aldrin and heptachlor. Indeed, after this year they will not be issued or used for other than sheep dips and some minor uses. There is, therefore, no question, as my hon. Friend fears, that we should have to wait for a disaster to overtake the country on the lines mentioned in the article which he quoted from a newspaper. The Government have taken, and are taking, action on this matter.

The point which I was trying to make when the hon. Member for Workington interrupted was that because of the environmental contamination which caused worry and anxiety to the Committee, my right hon. Friend has accepted its recommendations and has taken the decision which he announced in his statement two days ago. We are, I think, at one with the hon. Member for Workington in the action which my right hon. Friend has taken. I do not think that the Committee's recommendations in paragraphs 130 and 131 are at odds with the earlier recommendations in the Report concerning wild life. We are, I think, right in accepting what the Committee has recommended. We must keep a sense of proportion in these matters whilst accepting that hazards may exist and commending, as I am sure, the House will commend, my right hon. Friend for the action which he has taken.

We are fully alive to the problem of labelling, to which the hon. Lady referred, but in many insecticides there are numerous constituents. Discussions are at present taking place. One does not want such a mass of constituents to be listed on labels as to cause the public not to read them. A whole mass of ingredients may be contained in existing preparations and people simply do not read them. We must, therefore, be certain that the right ones are listed to give the public an idea of what is being used.

Mr. Peart

What about research?

Mr. Scott-Hopkins

I have many other points to deal with and I come next to that of intensive livestock, to which the hon. Lady referred. It is a pity that time does not permit me to deal with everything that she has said.

Once again, this is a development which we must keep in proportion. In many instances, animals which are kept in intensive conditions are extremely healthy. I know full well from my own experience that an animal must be healthy to thrive. Every farmer wants animals to thrive; that is the purpose of farming. Unless the animals thrive, there will be no profit to the farmer. Animals which are unhealthy or are kept in bad conditions do not thrive. On that score, therefore, some of the hon. Lady's fears may be allayed.

That does not mean that there are not problems. I accept that there are, as does my right hon. Friend, who is concerned about standards of management under these intensive systems, both those which already exist and those which are being developed. My right hon. Friend shares the concern of the House and of other people in this matter. Indeed, it is a subject on which some of my hon. Friends have put down a Motion.

[That this House notes with disquiet the conditions under which large numbers of animals and birds are now reared intensively for human consumption and the practice of supplementing their diets with non-nutritive additives; and urges Her Majesty's Government to consider whether steps should not now be taken to regulate some of these methods of husbandry.]

My right hon. Friend has this very much in mind and is considering what kind of expert body might be best fitted to give him the advice which he needs on these matters. The objective will be to ensure that the conditions under which stock are kept by these intensive methods are all that they should be: in other words, that they conform to certain minimum standards. I hope that this will largely satisfy the hon. Lady

I apologise for not having had time to answer the many other points made by the hon. Lady and her hon. Friend the Member for Workington. It is sometimes worse merely to skip over the edge of them. I will, however, write to the hon. Lady and to her hon. Friend on any further matters which they wish to know about on these two important subjects.

It being Five o'clock, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, till Tuesday, 7th April, pursuant to the Resolutions of the House of 19th March.