HC Deb 13 March 1980 vol 980 cc1544-7
11. Mr. John Home Robertson

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what advice is available to him on the safety of chemicals used in connection with agricultural production.

Mr. Wiggin

Thanks to the efforts, experience and stature of the independent Advisory Committee on Pesticides, the Government have the best advice that is available.

Mr. Robertson

Why do the Minister and the advisory committee assume that a chemical is safe until someone else can prove that it is dangerous? Will the Minister review the composition of the advisory committee and include in its membership representatives of the agriculture industry and the Health and Safety Executive? In the meantime, will he suspend the use of 2,4,5-T in view of evidence presented to him yesterday by the farmworkers' union?

Mr. Wiggin

No one knows the benefits of pesticides better than the hon. Gentleman. He knows that the strictest possible tests on all chemicals and medicines are conducted on animals. The committee investigates any complaint. I remind the House that my right hon. Friend the Minister met representatives of the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers on 16 November when they intimated that they had complaints about the chemical. Only yesterday did their report arrive marked, perhaps inappropriately "Not a minute longer".

Mr. Cryer

Can the Minister confirm that the Advisory Committee on Pesticides was not aware of the Swedish experience—[Interruption]. This is a serious matter for agricultural workers. It is no laughing matter and the comfortable Members on the Tory Benches should be aware of this. Does the Minister accept that the experience in Sweden of agricultural workers and people handling 2,4,5,-T in suffering soft tissue cancer was not taken into account by the committee? In conjunction with the Health and Safety Executive will the Government take urgent action to suspend the use of that chemical now?

Mr. Wiggin

I assure the House that any evidence, from whatever source, in this country or anywhere in the world, on this or any other approved chemical, is immediately examined. The Advisory Committee on Pesticides is examining the details of the Swedish case. Not all the facts are yet available.

Mr. Mason

Is the hon. Gentleman aware of the widespread concern about the use of 2,4,5-T? Is he aware that it has been banned by trade unions, workers and local authorities? Since the National Union of Agricultural and Allied Workers has presented a new dossier to the Ministry and the Department has agreed that the advisory committee should examine it—and we regard that as a review—why cannot the Minister advise everyone to stop using it until the review is completed?

Mr. Wiggin

I doubt whether we could have responded any faster. My right hon. Friend the Minister made a statement yesterday saying that he will meet the chairman of the advisory committee together with the president of the NUAAW within a few days. I am mystified by the rationality of the trade union decision to stop using the chemical. There is no proper scientific evidence on which to base such a decision. The right hon. Gentleman will remember that his Government relied on the evidence of the advisory committee. It has an international reputation which the Government intend to support.

Mr. Michael Morris

Does my hon. Friend agree that the pharmaceutical and chemical industries are two of the most honest, straightforward and genuine industries? Hon. Members may laugh but they are serious industries. Does my hon. Friend agree that it will be a sad day for the House and the country when reactions are based on rumours? Does he agree that it is wiser for the House to listen to the considered opinion of those who investigate such matters in depth?

Mr. Wiggin

It is the job of the Advisory Committee on Pesticides to assess the evidence and not to rely on the good will of anybody. We are dealing with a scientific matter. Professor Kilpatrick and his highly qualified committee do a very good job indeed. I have no evidence that anyone in the world is better qualified to do it.

14. Mr. Hooley

asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food what advice his Department has received from the Agricultural Research Council about the use of the herbicide 2,4,5,-T.

Mr. Wiggin

The council is represented on the Advisory Committee on Pesticides and it contributes thereby to the committee's advice to the Government.

Mr. Hooley

Is the Minister aware that the compound 2,4,5-T has been banned in Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden and other countries? Is he further aware that there has been serious public criticism of the Advisory Committee on Pesticides, and that there is a strong case for reconstituting that committee along the lines of the Genetic Manipulation Advisory Committee to include trade union representatives and other representatives of the public interest? Does he accept that his complacency on this matter is not shared on the Labour side of the House?

Mr. Wiggin

The chemical is permitted in six countries of the EEC as well as the United Kingdom. It is also permitted in Canada, Australia and New Zealand. It is not banned in the USA. In regard to the composition of the advisory committee, I cannot conceive for one moment that the sort of people that the hon. Gentleman has in mind are any better qualified than the extremely well-qualified and knowledgeable scientists who serve on the committee—who are totally independent—and who advise the Government on this important matter.

Dr. M. S. Miller

But if there is any doubt about the toxicity or otherwise of the substance—and as there are other substances that can do the job equally well—why does not the Minister issue instructions to stop the use of that chemical until tests have proved conclusively that it is not a dangerous substance?

Mr. Wiggin

There have been very many tests carried out. The hon. Gentleman will know that under the previous Administration the matter was considered eight or nine times. The only evidence that has not yet been considered is that which was provided yesterday. It is already being examined.