HL Deb 12 December 1961 vol 236 cc223-5

2.35 p.m.


My Lords, I beg leave to ask the first Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government whether, looking to the heavy mortality among birds and mammals in many areas in the past resulting from the use of toxic seed dressings on winter cereals, they will issue a directive at an early date prohibiting the use of dressings containing toxic chemicals, thus ensuring the use of dressing less lethal to wild life.]


My Lords, the Research Study Group on Toxic Chemicals in Agriculture, which reported recently, stated that very few of the many chemicals introduced into farming practice in the United Kingdom since the war have been shown to have adverse effects on wild life. Nevertheless, dressings containing aldrin, dieldrin and heptachlor, particularly when used on spring sown cereals, have certainly caused casualties to birds on a scale which the Government and public opinion find unacceptable. Severe restrictions on the use of these toxic dressings have, therefore, been agreed with the manufacturers and other interests concerned to take effect on January 1, 1962, for the next spring sowing season. My right honourable friend hopes that these restrictions, which will have the effect of increasing the use of less toxic chemicals, will reduce the mortality among wild life. The Ministry is keeping the situation under close review and will consider after next season with all the interests concerned whether any further action is necessary.


My Lords, I beg to thank the noble Earl for his Answer. If these toxic chemical dressings are deleterious for spring sowing, is there any reason why they are not deleterious for winter sowing; and in that case, why did the Government limit their application to spring sowing and not bring them in right away for winter cereals?


My Lords, there is a very great difference. It was found that the wild birds eat a very great deal more of the seed of the spring sown cereals. In the winter sowing it does not seem that birds are so likely to eat the seed that is buried in the ground. The restriction now is that these particular chemicals shall be used only in the autumn sowings when there is evidence of wheat bulb fly. They will be used only for wheat, not on other cereals, and then only when there is evidence of wheat bulb fly which these chemicals control.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Earl a question? I think we all welcome the banning of these three poisonous dressings, aldrin, dieldrin and heptachlor. May I ask him what guarantee there is that equally toxic and lethal seed dressings will not be introduced by the chemical industry and put into general use on the farms before their effect on wild birds can be established?—because that is exactly what happened with these three dressings which the noble Earl has mentioned. I think that is the great point. Would the noble Earl not consider making it an offence, and banning these dangerous experimental drugs until their effects on wild birds have been certified? Parliament has spent a long time making provisions, in passing laws for the protection of wild birds. Is all this to be undone again? Are we to have another massacre of birds on our farms, as happened last spring?


My Lords, under the restrictions, these particular chemicals, as has been stated, will be used only when there is need for them and then only on autumn and winter wheat. With regard to the introduction of other chemicals, all chemicals have to be cleared under the Notification of Pesticides Scheme, which is an agreed scheme between the Government and industry. They have to be cleared, but it cannot always be guaranteed (I think that was the word the noble Earl used) that one will not find that when chemicals are being used under farm conditions they may have more serious effects than were found under experimental conditions. Then, more fundamental research has to be undertaken, and meanwhile they can be withdrawn. There is this voluntary Notification of Pesticides Scheme under which all new chemicals have to be cleared before they are introduced to the market.


My Lords, can the noble Earl say whether these firms are compelled to present the result of a clinical trial—as chemical firms who produce various drugs and medicines are forced to—on birds in order to prove that these insecticides arc not lethal?


My Lords, the whole method is controlled by the Committee of which Sir Charles Dodds is Chairman, who weigh the evidence. One of the troubles with the introduction of dieldrin was that when it was given to tame birds under test the birds could not be made to eat it, and so it was thought that it was all right. But apparently when the seed is sown in the ground it becomes more palatable and the birds eat it. That is the sort of difficulty one is in in testing these chemicals.


My Lords, does not the noble Earl realise that the more civilised birds recognised that it was lethal?


My Lords, can Her Majesty's Government give an assurance that research will be carried out into the cumulative effects of these chemicals? It is quite possible that one dose may not be lethal but the cumulative effect could be lethal.


Yes, my Lords.

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