HL Deb 24 March 1993 vol 544 cc326-8

2.47 p.m.

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will agree to suspend licences for sheep dips which contain organophosphates, if they are presented with convincing evidence of long-term effects upon human health.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Howe)

My Lords, the independent Veterinary Products Committee advises Ministers on such matters, and will be considering the question of sheep dips tomorrow. If the current scientific evidence convinces the committee that organophosphate dips are harmful to human health, even when used in accordance with the specified instructions, then the committee could recommend that the Government suspend the licences. However, we must wait and see what conclusions the committee reaches.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for his courteous Answer to my Question. Is he aware of the work of Dr. Goran Jamal of Glasgow's Southern General Hospital? He recently undertook extensive tests on 16 farmers drawn randomly from a list of farmers who considered that they had suffered from organophosphate poisoning and he compared them with 16 controls. In every case he found extensive peripheral nerve damage which is untreatable and permanent. Will the Minister please ask the Veterinary Products Committee to consider this matter very seriously?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am aware of the work of Dr. Jamal, which was featured in a recent television programme. Information about Dr. Jamal's study will be considered by the Veterinary Products Committee tomorrow. We await its advice on this and the other issues which it has been asked to consider. I understand that the findings support a toxic effect in the individuals concerned, but further studies are required to identify the causes and to characterise the mechanism.

Lord Carter

My Lords, is the Minister aware that nerve damage resulting from organophosphate sheep dip poisoning is permanent, irreversible and untreatable? Is he also aware that in the early 1950s a report to the Ministry of Agriculture recommended that sheep dip labelling should have the words "deadly poison" on it? As far as I am aware, that recommendation was never acted upon. On a number of occasions in recent months we have been told that the scientific evidence on the safety of the dips is inconclusive. If the meeting tomorrow of the VPC also says that it is inconclusive, does the Minister agree that, with material as dangerous as this, there should be an assumption that it should not be used until it can be shown beyond any doubt that the material is not a hazard to human health? In other words, should it not be regarded as guilty until proved innocent?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the labels of all veterinary medicines, including sheep dips, are kept under review by the Veterinary Products Committee. Over the years statements of the dangers and precautions to be taken have been regularly updated to reflect the latest advice from the committee about operator and environmental safety. So far as concerns an immediate ban, the Government take such issues very seriously. However, it is important that any decisions on the future of sheep dips are based on an objective assessment of scientific evidence. That is why we have decided to turn, once again, to the independent Veterinary Products Committee for up-to-date advice on the matter.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is a history of damage to wildlife, and so on, from sheep dip? Obviously the evidence available today shows that there is a danger. Has the Government's research produced evidence of sheep dips which are not a danger either to wildlife or human life; in other words, can he recommend dips which will do the job and not be a danger?

Earl Howe

My Lords, as regards the latter part of the noble Lord's question, I fear that I shall have to write to him because I do not have the answer. However, the overall number of incidents affecting wildlife is small—probably, I am advised, in single figures. The information is collated from various sources, including the NRA and the Wildlife Investigation Scheme of the Ministry of Agriculture. It must be said that when water is polluted the effects can be quite severe, with many fish killed in one pollution incident.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, as there is now no compulsory regulation for sheep dipping, will the effect of not dipping sheep be monitored and will there be any regulations for European sheep dipping?

Earl Howe

My Lords, as to the latter part of the noble Baroness's question, the answer is no. It is of course up to the individual farmer to ensure that proper standards of welfare in his flock are maintained. The Government will treat seriously any reports of neglect by farmers. Therefore, in the end, it is their decision as to whether to continue dipping.

Baroness Mallalieu

My Lords, in view of the growing disquiet among farmers about the matter, will the Minister give an undertaking that, before farmers dip their sheep this summer, they will either ensure that such licences are withdrawn or that some reassurance from the Ministry will be received that what farmers have to do is not harmful to them or others?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the noble Baroness raises an important point. I can tell her that as soon as the committee's conclusions have been received, an announcement will be made without delay.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, is the noble Earl aware that regulations in the United States of America state that diazinon (which is a principal constituent of sheep dip) is not permitted to be used for dipping sheep; it is allowed to be used only for spraying sheep? Is he also aware that the regulations regarding protective clothing require a full face mask with respirator to be worn as well as complete protective covering? Will he also bring that matter to the attention of the Veterinary Products Committee?

Earl Howe

The Veterinary Products Committee will be considering the practical aspects of administering sheep dip, including, I am certain, the matters to which the noble Countess referred.