HL Deb 05 June 1995 vol 564 cc1178-9

2.54 p.m.

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

What action they propose for those individuals suffering chronic ill health as a result of long-term exposure to organophosphate pesticides following the publication of An Investigation into the Possible Chronic Neuropsychological and Neurological Effects of Occupational Exposure to Organophosphates in Sheep Farmers by the Institute of Occupational Health, University of Birmingham.

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

The Government are pleased that this report has now been published and welcome the contribution it makes to the body of information on organophosphate dips. The Veterinary Products Committee was immediately asked to consider the report and its advice has now been received. Health and agriculture Ministers will wish to consider that advice carefully before making any announcement.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for that reply. But does he appreciate that the results of this research indicate that subtle damage is being done to ostensibly healthy farmers? Does he accept that anyone who had only a sign of illness was cut out from the research study? In view of the fact that large numbers of farmers complain of gross damage to their central and peripheral nervous systems, will the Minister ask his right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Health whether she will consider setting up regional centres with multi-disciplinary teams with an expertise in toxicology so that GPs can report patients to those learns since GPs themselves have very little training in toxicology? Does he agree that in that way those patients could be helped? At the moment they are receiving no help at all.

Earl Howe

My Lords, clearly I cannot comment on the substance of the report until the Government's response has been published. With regard to the second part of the noble Countess's question, I shall be happy to consider, with my noble friend and my right honourable friend, whether there are more effective ways of co-ordinating reports of suspected adverse reactions, and I shall write to the noble Countess.

Lord Gallacher

My Lords, in view of previous and continuing concern about organophosphate pesticides, which now includes levels of OP in insecticides found in some carrots—I emphasise "some"—will the Government urgently consider the transfer of lead responsibility in this matter from the Ministry of Agriculture to the Department of Health?

Earl Howe

My Lords, the key principle in matters such as this is that the Government should make decisions based on scientific advice. In many cases it is a matter not just for agriculture Ministers but for Ministers in the Department of Health as well. The Veterinary Products Committee is a mechanism that has served us well over the years. In this instance it has examined the question of OP dips at considerable length with the advice of medical specialists. It concluded that there was no justification for a ban. As the noble Lord will be aware, the Government have sought an urgent review by the VPC of the latest findings from the IoH. As I have said, the Government's official response will be published as soon as possible. There is effective co-ordination already.

Earl Russell

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the amount of work that it has taken the noble Countess to get information on this subject has been great enough to strengthen the case for a freedom of information Act?

Earl Howe

My Lords, as usual, the noble Earl is ahead of me. However, I should like to say—I am sure that noble Lords will share this view—that the work that the noble Countess has put in on this issue has been of great benefit. Certainly the Government take very seriously the concerns that she has raised.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I very much appreciate the Minister's sentiments and those of all noble Lords. Will he stress, when he speaks to his right honourable friend, that we are looking for diagnosis and treatment for the people who currently believe that they are suffering from organophosphate poisoning? If that treatment can be given in regional centres, that would be a great help.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I have already said that I shall give constructive consideration to that idea. The noble Countess will be aware that GPs have been notified at least twice in the past four years or so of the hazards associated with the misuse of OPs. When the Government's response to the IoH report is published, clearly we shall be in a position to judge whether further notification is advisable.