HL Deb 12 July 1961 vol 233 cc147-50

2.35 p.m.


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

[The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what steps they are taking to ensure notification to them if seed dressings containing dieldrin, aldrin and heptachlor are used for spring-grown grain; and who will decide, and at what point, in various areas, whether there is such danger of attack from wheat bulb fly as to warrant the use of the foregoing chemicals for autumn and winter seed dressings.]


My Lords, Her Majesty's Government have received undertakings from representatives of the manufacturers of these seed dressings, of the merchants who distribute and apply them, and of the farmers who sow the dressed seed, that they will not be used for spring-sown grain. We have no reason to think that these undertakings will not be faithfully observed, but the Departments will keep a careful watch on the situation and in particular continue the survey of unusual bird deaths should any occur. This will be done in cooperation with the societies concerned with wild life preservation.

On the question of wheat bulb fly, it is for the farmer to decide whether he must use one of these dressings to control this pest, but the Department's general advice is that he should not do so unless there is a real need, and then only in the autumn when the risk to wild life is negligible. The Advisory Services are equipped to give advice to farmers on the danger of attack in given areas.

A further meeting of all the organisations concerned will be held in June of next year to review the working of the arrangements.


My Lords, I beg to thank the noble Earl for his Answer. Is he aware that in the last few years we have come some considerable way in the right direction in this matter, but ought we not to take another step forward in this particular connection; that is, to bring the latest arrangements under some form of statutory control? Is the noble Earl aware that in the House of Commons on July 3 (I am now quoting a Minister, if I am allowed to do so), Mr. Soames, Minister of Agriculture, said (col. 989): We believe that these arrangements will work. If they do not work, we shall have to think again whether it will be necessary to bring in some statutory provisions, because we cannot have a continuation of the state of affairs which has existed this year. Is not that last remark, we cannot have a continuation of the state of affairs which has existed this year", a condemnation of previous policy in this matter? Why wait until the stable door has been opened and the horse has escaped?


My Lords, I do not think I quite follow the noble Viscount's reasoning. It has been our practice to try to deal with matters of this kind by willing co-operation under voluntary agreement. The Voluntary Notification of Pesticides Scheme, under which these chemicals are being withdrawn, has worked very well and is faithfully observed by the manufacturing industry. As I said in my reply, we believe that these arrangements, which have been agreed to by all the parties, should be allowed to work. My right honourable friend in another place said merely that if they do not work—although he believes that they will work—he would, of course, have to think again. But I do not think we ought to use the sledgehammer of statutory procedure before we see whether reasonableness will not prevail.


My Lords, while welcoming the Government's belated action—as I regard it—in this matter (and the Minister will be aware that warning was given, and has been given, several times over the past few years), may I ask the noble Earl how he expects to ensure that he gets cooperation from merchants in the matter of the dressing of seeds, and whether he thinks that the Government ought now not to face the wider issue, which is that we need a much greater degree of fundamental ecological research in order to deal with this question, as we are still only tampering with a problem which may well be one of the great problems of the twentieth century? May I, finally, ask him whether in fact any level has yet been arrived at of acceptable contamination among animals from a human point of view in regard to these particular chemicals?


My Lords, with regard to the merchants, the merchants' organisations have been concerned in all these consultations, and we have their agreement. The National Association of Corn and Agricultural Merchants are in agreement to work this voluntary scheme. The second question was about wider ecological research, and should really, perhaps, be addressed to the noble Viscount the Lord President of the Council. The third question was as to the acceptable level, as I understood it, for possible contamination of human beings. I am advised that the scientific answer to that is that there is no evidence at all that the amounts of these chemicals which could be eaten by birds would constitute a human risk.


My Lords, may I draw the noble Earl's attention to the words contained in the next Question, that of the noble Earl, Lord Albemarle, in which he says: … since nothing can deter plans to yield private gain …"? Should one not really apply that to the Question now under discussion, and apply statutory methods?


My Lords, we have not reached the next Question; and, if we had, I should perhaps observe that statements of opinion are not customary when framing Questions.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Earl whether it is not the case that the pesticides mentioned in the noble Viscount's Question are very persistent in the soil and liable to contaminate root crops, particularly carrots? What protection has the consumer got against that?


My Lords, I understand that these particular chemicals are persistent in the soil, but I am also informed that the research work that has been done to date does not give any indication that there is a risk to human beings.


My Lords, while being extremely grateful for what has been done about dieldrin, aldrin and heptachlor, I should think that the seed merchants, who, by and large, are decent and honourable people—though there are exceptions—will help in every way. But is it not a fact that although dieldrin, aldrin and heptachlor are the worst villains of the piece, all organic chlorines are dangerous to a certain extent? I ask this question because I myself, and many farmers in the part of the world in which I live, have been using a certain proprietary dressing and there has been a great deal of loss to wild life of every sort. I had this particular dressing analysed, and therefore I am asking my noble friend whether he will consider putting on the same restrictions on all organic chlorines as he did in the case of aldrin, heptachlor and dieldrin.


My Lords, this question will always be kept under review. I think that my noble friend is referring to benzine hexachloride and chlorinated hydrocarbons of that nature. All the evidence shows that they are not particularly toxic to bird life—or so persistent, or effective in controlling the wheat bulb fly—and that is why we are not at this moment asking that these should be discontinued.

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