HC Deb 19 March 1965 vol 708 cc1739-50

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. George Rogers.]

4.2 p.m.

Mr. William Deedes (Ashford)

We had an Adjournment debate on fluoroacetamide poisoning at Smarden which was raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) a little over a year ago. I make no apology for raising this matter again. Although this outbreak was confined to one area, Smarden, and probably one other place, Merthyr Tydvil in Wales, it has had wider national implications. It is mainly this which I want to raise with the Ministry of Agriculture now.

First, without going too deeply into this extraordinary episode, I want to mention to the Parliamentary Secretary certain immediate and relevant aspects of the Smarden affair. In some ways, although I think that the hon. Gentleman is as familiar as I am with some of the details, I wish that I could rehearse the whole episode. At one time, to my knowledge, it exercised eight separate Government Departments and involved a considerable public expense. It has dragged on now for over two years, and even now it is not officially resolved.

It offers a number of object lessons in public administration. Perhaps above all, it illustrates rather chillingly the nature of some of the unknown consequences of toxic substances which the bountiful chemists have bequeathed to us. I must resist the temptation to go into this too deeply, if only for reasons of time.

I want to turn to the immediate problems which still lie before us in respect of Smarden. The hon. Member knows that I have absolutely no quarrel with his Ministry over this matter at all. I could hardly have such a quarrel, since he inherited the problems from us. We need make no bones about that. A host of unnamed public servants, not only from his own Ministry but from other Departments, too, have done their utmost to clear up a mess not of their making, and I have no criticism at all of any of their actions, only gratitude.

I think it right, however, to mention that the farmers particularly concerned in the outbreak still remain in very great difficulty, Mr. Cyril and Mr. Norman Jull, who are working very closely with the hon. Member's Ministry, have suffered total dislocation of their 150-acre farm since early in 1963. Since then their cows have been poisoned or burned and they have not produced a gallon of milk. They have now received a cautious, and I am sure entirely correct, all-clear from the Ministry and are beginning the long road back to full activity, but, as the hon. Member knows, they have a very hard road ahead of them, and it is a fact that they will not find it easy to sell produce from this farm, and they will certainly find it impossible to sell this farm on the market at anything approaching market prices. As they have been the main victims of what has occurred, I thought it right to mention that, knowing that the Ministry of Agriculture are still working, very closely with them.

I must add that the farmers task has not been assisted by the fact that the factory in question, which caused all the trouble, has since been sold by the original proprietors, Rentokil, to another company, which in recent weeks has resumed activity in making pesticides. I must say that at first sight it seems quite incredible that this should have been possible. I have been made aware only today of the precise nature of this transaction and the commercial background of the firm, now trading in the name of Mi-dox, which has been used there before, and I must add that this firm has a wholly respectable and responsible parentage. Indeed, the parents' name is a household word. But the most illustrious parents do not always know what their children are doing in detail.

I have no doubt that this company intend to exercise great care. I have no doubt that the manager now at Smarden, who happens to be the same manager as when the disaster occurred, has learned the lesson and will exercise great care, too. In fairness, I must add that the Kent River Board, with whom I have been in touch, are satisfied that at present there appears to be no breach of the law, as far as they concerned, in respect of pollution.

Even so, I cannot believe that the company concerned would have invested in this place if they had been as familiar with the background to all this as I am and as, I think is the hon. Member. I very much dislike making any statement in the House which I would not conceivably make outside it, and it is very rare that circumstances justify it, but I must add this in fairness to everybody concerned: the mismanagement of the previous occupiers, Rentokil, was wholly responsible for this very serious industrial accident.

Indeed, it was not wholly an accident. It was caused by serious neglect, and I do not think that the hon. Member would attempt to deny that. By something less than candour, I put it no more strongly Than that, this company made the early task of the investigators into the nature and the cause of the mysterious death of so many animals far more difficult than it need have been. It behaved irresponsibly, and that must be put on record.

Now the factory is under fresh ownership. Let us assume that the new owners will go about this matter with all possible care. They are not making fluoroacetamide; they are not making rodenticides. They are handling pesticides. The fact remains that it is ludicrous that after months of toil and trouble by countless Government and local government servants and many others, including local veterinary surgeons, this factory, which in reality is no more than a large shed, should be back in toxic chemical production. What happened was that the local authority, the West Ashford Rural District Council, granted a pulping company planning permission 17 years ago under Class III of the relevant Town and Country Planning Order. Since then there have been half a dozen changes of use, finishing with that of Rentokil. There appears no way in which consent can be withdrawn for the use of these premises without the rural district paying fairly heavy compensation.

Pulping is one thing. This is a renowed fruit district. But a less suitable place for handling traffic in toxic chemicals would be hard to imagine. It is slap in the middle of a farming area. Worst of all, the industrial drainage is totally inadequate. I believe that the new occupants are removing what they deem to be dubious effluent by lorry to Essex. We have been through all this before. It was uncontrolled effluent which caused the disaster when Rentokil was making fluoroacetamide.

These considerations bring me to the main point that I wish to make. While I would not seek to generalise too far from a single, and perhaps singular, episode involving fluoroacetamide, I am sure that the moment is arriving when the manufacture, distribution, and use of toxic chemicals will have to be put on a new, surer and safer basis. I know a little of this outside the particular concern of Smarden. I know that the voluntary scheme has worked well. I know that it is working well. I know all its virtues. I know the immense value of the work done by the Advisory Committee on Poisonous Substances both in the advice which it has given to the hon. Gentleman's Ministry and now, I think, direct to the Department of Education and Science. I know that its terms of reference have been widened. I know that it is examining the present voluntary scheme with a view to reporting to the Government.

I have studied the hon. Gentleman's Written Answer only last week to one of my hon. Friends. I have read with approval the text of the Bill which has been lately introduced by the hon. Lady the Member for Wood Green (Mrs. Butler). I know that if the Government had any changes in mind, as I suspect they may, it would be out of order for the hon. Gentleman and he would be reluctant to tell me anything about them on the Adjournment. But I must in duty to my constituents and others concerned in this impress certain considerations on the hon. Gentleman.

Immediately arising from the Smarden situation now—not the situation under Rentokil—it is clear that even if the voluntary scheme now operating were leading to every precaution being taken by makers and users of toxic chemicals the law governing the conditions of manufacture—I know that I must not go too far here—the circumstances surrounding the manufacture give rise to the gravest disquiet. Precautions are taken over use. But what precautions are taken over manufacture? What can be done when there is a so-called factory engaged in making substances like this without proper drainage? We keep our nuclear products under pretty strict control. Some of these substances, and certainly fluoroacetamide—we still do not know what the consequences of the use of fluoroacetamide may be—are not much less deadly than some nuclear substances when they are in the wrong place at the wrong time.

I hope that the hon. Gentleman, his right hon. Friend and other right hon. Members who are concerned in this are aware of the enormous volume of opinion which has declared itself in favour of rather stricter control. The hon. Gentleman will have seen the Report of a Government body—the Nature Conservancy —for 1964, which contains the ominous warning that we are still permitting use of these chemicals beyond our knowledge of the ultimate consequences to wild life and to environment. The Rural District Councils' Association and the river boards have very strongly urged certain considerations on the Government.

Most lately and most significantly, so have the manufacturers themselves. Only a few weeks ago the Association of British Manufacturers of Agricultural Chemicals publicly urged the compulsory registration of all pesticides sold for use or used in Britain. I salute the Association, as I am sure that the hon. Gentleman does. The chairman said this in public: We recognise a moral responsibility to see we produce better and safer chemicals and to protect the public, users or any one else concerned from any possible hazard. That could only mean registration with the Ministry and sundry precautions we now lack.

In conclusion, I do not think I need tell the hon. Gentleman what a vast field we are now discussing. I have his own Ministry's list here, which I am sure he has seen—"Agricultural Chemicals Approval Scheme. List of approved products 1965. Farmers and growers". There are 668 proprietary products in the range of insecticides, fungicides, herbicides and dressing made by 66 companies including the large one, responsible for about a dozen products, which we are concerned with now. This omits rodenticides, which is fluoroacetamide's rôle.

In my view, it is wholly in the interests of agriculture that the present arrangement be put on a different footing. Public anxiety on this score is considerable, and it is not altogether unjustified. Some people are misinformed, but episodes like Smarden do not help to allay misplaced anxiety. Moreover, I say frankly as an agricultural Member—I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree with me here—that I do not think that it is in the farmers' best interests to be regarded as destroyers of wild life, careless of environment and simply concerned with their own interests and the use of chemicals in their own interests.

In any case, I am sure that a change is coming. I know it, and I think that the hon. Gentleman knows it. The only question is when. I think that this modest inquest which we are conducting into the disastrous Smarden affair would make an appropriate occasion to give just a hint of it.

4.18 p.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. James Hoy)

I remember quite well the previous debate in connection with Smarden. As a matter of fact, from the Opposition Front Bench I took part in it, because it was then thought that our fishing interests might be affected as a result of what was happening or had happened at Smarden. So I have been familiar with this case for a considerable time.

However, I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Ashford (Mr. Deedes) for raising this matter and I welcome this opportunity of first telling the House something about the position which has been reached on the affected land at Smarden now that the results of the tests on last season's crops have been completed and we have given further advice to the farmers concerned. Fortunately, the damage was restricted to a small group of three farms—the one which the hon. Gentleman has mentioned and two others.

The farmers have our sympathy in finding themselves saddled with a problem which was not of their own making and which has caused so much disruption to their normal business activities. The right hon. Gentleman has referred to the very rightful concern of the local authority that there should be no further trouble. I hope that what I have to say will help in allaying any unnecessary fears, because this is extremely important for the farmers concerned.

I will briefly recapitulate what happened at Smarden and give an outline of events since this matter was last debated in the House. The trouble came to light in April, 1963, when the first deaths of cows were reported. Because there was nothing to show the cause, the local veterinary surgeons called in the Ministry's Veterinary Investigating Service to help. After a great deal of careful investigation, the Ministry's scientists came to the conclusion that contamination of ditches and fields with fluoroacetamide had spread from an adjoining factory, most probably from waste material which had been dumped at the back of the factory. This was, therefore, essentially an industrial accident and did not arise from the use of fluoroacetamide as a rodenticide or insecticide.

As soon as the cause of the deaths of stock was established, the factory owners were advised to clean out and fence off the ditches and the ponds. The excavated material was originally dumped on enclosed land on the factory site, but, as this did not stop the contamination, the Government Departments discussed with the factory owners and others concerned what had to be done to ensure that the source of contamination was removed and things put right again. On Government advice, the factory owners arranged for the excavated material and soil from the area in which it had been deposited to be removed and dumped in sealed containers out to sea off the Continental Shelf. As I said at the beginning, that is where I got involved in the problem of Smarden.

Subsequently the two main local problems have been to keep a check on any residual contamination on the factory site itself and to advise the farmers concerned how best to conduct their operations. The first of these responsibilities is a matter for my right hon. Friend the Minister of Housing and Local Government in conjunction with the River Board. A check has been kept on the water on the factory site and in the ditches. Further investigation showed that there was still some slight contamination of the soil on a small area of the factory site. This area has been isolated from the main drainage system and the water drawn from it is not allowed—I wish to make this perfectly clear—to enter the general drainage system.

The factory itself has been sold by Messrs. Rentokil and is now used by a firm which is packing chemicals. I want to make that perfectly clear. This firm packs and does not manufacture.

The question has been raised how the site came to be used for chemicals again after the trouble with fluoroacetamide. The answer is, quite simply, as a normal commercial transaction. The former owners sold it to the present owners, a firm, as the right hon. Gentleman said, called Mi-dox, which needed nobody's consent to start its business which, I understand, consists of repacking in smaller containers chemicals that are received in bulk. So there is no question of manufacture.

There must be many such businesses in the country. They are an important and necessary part of our daily life. It is perfectly understandable that local inhabitants should feel some concern when they hear that the factory is being put to some sort of use for chemicals. But I honestly say that I do not think they have any need for any apprehension at all.

However, we are well aware of the need to be careful in this matter and, as I have already said, regular tests are still made of the water collected on the factory site, and waste water is still intercepted and taken away from the site by tanker for disposal. There is no evidence that the present operations of the factory are causing anybody any harm. The Kent River Board is in touch with the firm to satisfy itself that nothing currently done at the factory is likely to pollute any local watercourse. The Board has powers under the Rivers (Prevention of Pollution) Act, 1951 to take firm action should this seem necessary. All concerned can be assured that should the position change and we suspected that there might be some risk we could, and would, swifty take the necessary remedial action. I give the House that assurance.

My Department's immediate concern locally has been that of advising the three farmers affected on the measures which they should take. This has involved some further trials, aimed at detecting any contamination and arriving at some estimate of the amounts present in areas most likely to have suffered. This is not an easy matter, because the only reliable method of detecting very low levels of contamination in plants is a biological method. The farmers were advised that, pending the results of these trials, they should not put livestock on the fields thought to be affected.

Messrs. Jull elected to sow barley which the Ministry undertook to test before clearance. This crop has been sampled, together with herbage, at various times during the growing season and put through the biological tests. We have also done some soil analyses as a further check, although recognising that there are certain limitations to this method because of the nature of the chemicals involved and the extremely low levels of contamination concerned.

The results of all these tests were reassuring in that they showed that there appeared to be no reason to suppose that if any contamination remained it was sufficient to cause toxicity in the crops. The scientists felt that on the evidence of the tests they could advise the farmers to resume normal farming operations on most of the land, subject to certain precautions being taken.

The results from two small areas, however, showed that although there appeared to be no significant hazard some degree of contamination might exist. The scien- tists decided—and I am sure that the House will support them in this—that it would be wrong to take any risks and they therefore arranged to conduct further tests on these two small areas.

One of these areas is on Messrs. Jull's farm and is at present down to winter wheat, on which further tests will be conducted during the growing season. On the second area, on a neighbouring farm, sheep will be introduced under close veterinary supervision. The precautionary measures which the farmers were advised to take included some improvements in the drainage and fencing-off of the ditches. There has been no detectable contamination in the ditch water for many months, but it is felt that it would be prudent to restrict access for the time being on those farms which are closest to the factory site.

Along with the other two farms concerned, Messrs. Jull have had a very considerable disruption of their business and we must all feel for them in this predicament. As a Department we can, I am afraid, do no more than offer advice in the light of the tests which we have done. We have told Messrs. Jull that once their present winter wheat crop, which is being undersown to grass, has been cleared we see no reason why they should not resume normal farming, although as a precaution we shall be making further tests on the small areas which I have mentioned.

They were rightly anxious about their last year's barley crop. We recently confirmed the results of our laboratory trials with this crop in some further trials with young pigs which were fed on the barley. Messrs. Jull have been told that in the light of these tests we see no reason why the crop should not be fed to stock in the normal way. We hope that this will be of some help to them.

The right hon. Member has done a service in raising the question of the Pesticides Safety Precautions Scheme in this debate, as it gives the Government an opportunity to clear up some popular misconceptions. It is through this scheme that the Government control the introduction of pesticides for use in agriculture and food storage. This Pesticides Safety Precautions Scheme, or as it was known formerly, the Notifications Scheme, has been going on for the best part of ten years. It is a scheme agreed by the Government, on the one hand, and the Association of British Manufacturers of Agricultural Chemicals and the Industrial Pest Control Association on the other.

Under this scheme, manufacturers agree not to market any new chemical or recommend a new use of an existing chemical without Government agreement. To secure this agreement, manufacturers submit to my Ministry the fullest details of the chemical, which includes its persistence and the products into which it may break down in the plant or in the soil.

My Ministry requires details of experimental work on the chemical's toxicity to mammals and on its likely effects on wild life, including birds, fish and bees. I hope that this will give some assurance to the right hon. Gentleman that we are aware of the problem. We also require full information on its proposed use and method of application, and possible risks to the operator and to consumers of the treated crop. Methods of analysis, medical data and, sometimes, particulars of its use in other countries are also required.

The Advisory Committee on Pesticides and Other Toxic Chemicals and its Scientific Subcommittee advise the Government on whether a chemical should be used and on the recommendations for safe use required to protect operators, consumers, passers-by, children, domestic animals and wild life. These recommendations go forward for endorsement by Government Departments before being put to and accepted by the manufacturers notifying the chemicals. They are then published as recommendation sheets.

The Committees consist of official and independent members. There are no representatives of the agricultural chemical industry or of the farming unions on either of these Committees.

As experience has been gained, scientific standards in the presentation and comprehensiveness of data and in the assessment of data have been continuously raised.

To come to the right hon. Member's helpful general point about the mandatory control of pesticides, may I remind the House that the Government in which the right hon. Member served announced on 24th March, 1964, that they had asked the Advisory Committee on Poisonous Substances Used in Agriculture and Food Storage, as the Committee was then known, to examine the present safety arrangements so that the Government could consider whether legislation would be desirable.

To this end the Advisory Committee sent out a questionnaire last August specifically asking for views on the present arrangements and in particular on the desirability of a mandatory Safety Precautions Scheme.

The memorandum by the Rural District Councils Association which has been much in the news recently was, in fact, a point by point reply to this questionnaire.

I say this not to discount this Association's useful evidence but to—

The Question having been proposed after Four o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at twenty-eight minutes to Five o'clock.