HL Deb 24 March 1994 vol 553 cc737-9

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they have established that acute or long-term low level exposure to organophosphate compounds cannot cause chronic ill health.

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

My Lords, the Government rely on independent scientific advice from the Veterinary Products Committee and the Advisory Committee on Pesticides on the safety of organophosphate compounds. Products cannot be marketed unless they are shown to be safe to human health when used in accordance with the recommended instructions.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. I understand that a panel of scientists and medical specialists is being set up to study the long-term effects of organophosphates. Will the Minister confirm that under Section 118 of the Medicines Act 1968 the people chosen to serve on the panel have been asked to sign an undertaking not to disclose any information they receive during the process? Will he also indicate whether papers in respect of its committee meetings are to be placed in the public domain?

Earl Howe

My Lords, prospective members of the panel are currently being invited to accept appointment. The letter of appointment makes clear that the panel's papers and its discussions are confidential. The panel, as a sub-committee of the Veterinary Products Committee, is bound by Section 118 of the Medicines Act 1968 and members cannot disclose information on the grounds of commercial sensitivity.

With regard to the noble Countess's second question, the panel will report is findings to the VPC, which will in turn advise Ministers about the findings. The Government will then decide how and in what form to make those findings publicly available.

Lord Gallacher

My Lords, will the Health and Safety Executive be represented on the panel of medical experts which will advise the Veterinary Products Committee about the links between organophosphorous sheep dip exposure and long-term health effects? We welcome the establishment of the panel but we believe that the role of the Health and Safety Executive is such that it should have a representative on the panel.

Earl Howe

My Lords, we have not yet decided who will serve on the panel, although the chairman has been appointed. I take note of the noble Lord's anxieties, and I shall convey them to my right honourable friend.

Lord Stanley of Alderley

My Lords, does my noble friend realise that continual adverse publicity about OP dips has resulted in shepherds not dipping their sheep? That has resulted in sheep scab becoming widespread. Unless immediate steps are taken, that will decimate our flocks and seriously harm our exports.

Earl Howe

My Lords, the Government have sought to introduce an acceptable balance between promoting operator safety and enabling sheep farmers to have access to the licensed products that they need. We recognise that these products are effective. Furthermore, we have consistently stressed that OP products are safe when used properly.

Perhaps I may remind my noble friend that other products are on the market which are not subject to the new certificate of competence legislation; for example, Flumethrin dips can be used to treat sheep scab. Last month a new injectable product was licensed for the treatment of sheep scab. That will be on market in time for the dipping season.

Lord Ashley of Stoke

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the noble Countess, Lady Mar, is right to continue to raise these issues, which cause her and other people anxiety, regardless of whether there is publicity? Does the Minister recognise that the term "commercial confidentiality" is used far too easily and frequently in order to disguise or hide facts which should be in the public domain? Will he assure the House that he will look carefully at every aspect of what is called commercial confidentiality?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I fully recognise the noble Countess's right, as a Member of your Lordships' House, to ask questions of the Government. In so far as I am placed here to answer them, I do my best to do so. I am sure that the noble Lord will appreciate that where prospective proprietary products are placed before the Veterinary Products Committee for evaluation, commercially sensitive elements are involved. While I take note of his anxiety and will follow it up, I am sure he accepts that these matters are serious for the manufacturers involved.

Baroness Masham of Ilton

My Lords, from the point of view of safety, it is necessary to be careful when dipping sheep. However, will not the need to take an expensive examination be a deterrent to small sheep farmers? With the increase in the incidence of sheep scab, would it not be better to provide encouragement to small farmers safely to dip their sheep?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I do not accept that it is expensive to acquire the certificate of competence. En fact, for a day's training the all-in fee represents extremely good value for money. As a result of the Veterinary Products Committee report, which was published last autumn, the Government found that as a matter of fact many sheep dippers did not take the necessary precautions. That is why we felt it necessary to introduce the certificate of competence.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, while I support the insistence of the noble Countess, Lady Mar, on this subject, will the noble Earl give the House an assurance that we are not getting dangerously close to the issue of private interest immunity?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am sure we are not.

The Earl of Swinton

My Lords, is it not the case that very often a shepherd must take some risk in looking after his sheep? Was there not somebody, who was very great and very good, who once suggested that people might even have to lay down their lives to look after their sheep?

Earl Howe

My Lords, my noble friend always has a very apposite quotation or comparison to bring before your Lordships. I shall take that one away with me.

Earl Russell

My Lords, is there not a difference because is it not fair to say that the shepherd mentioned by the noble Earl, Lord Swinton, did not take his risks in ignorance?

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Earl.

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