HL Deb 25 June 1997 vol 580 cc1569-71

3.5 p.m.

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

What measures they will take to ensure that farmers required to dip their sheep under the Sheep Scab Order 1997 (S.I., 1997, No. 968) carry out the correct procedures for safe dipping and for disposal of spent sheep dips.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, in answering for the first time in your Lordships' House on a health and safety issue, I should like to pay tribute to the tireless efforts of the noble Countess in drawing attention to the hazards associated with organophosphorus sheep dips.

In publicising the sheep scab order, the Government will emphasise the importance of human and environmental safety. Farmers are subject to legislation governing the safe use and disposal of sheep dip, inspectors enforce it, and guidance is available to help farmers comply with it. To coincide with the summer dipping season, the Health and Safety Executive last week placed advertisements in the farming press about key rules when dipping. On disposal, which may affect the aquatic environment, the Government will consult in the near future on draft regulations to provide additional protection for groundwater.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her kind remarks; indeed, I do not know where to put myself when people make such remarks.

I appreciate the fact that the certificate of competence is a tremendous help to farmers who are using organophosphate sheep dips; but there are serious problems with disposal both as regards organophosphate sheep dips and the synthetic pyrethroid dips. That applies particularly to the latter, because they take so long to neutralise if lime is put with them. Therefore, can the Minister ask manufacturers to put the neutralising solution in the pack with the sheep dip as they used to do with disinfectants before they were withdrawn? Further, can the Minister ask the manufacturers to develop something which breaks down the pyrethroid dips more quickly so that farmers are not tempted to take risks when disposing of their sheep dip?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, we are very aware of the hazards of disposal of these potentially extremely dangerous substances. We are also aware that some manufacturers are developing hypochlorite solutions to degrade spent sheep dip. However, we have not received any applications to vary the marketing authorisations. If, for example, an application for a double pack is received, all of the data submitted will be carefully assessed. However, even when such an agent is used, the spent wash should be disposed of in the same way as the untreated dip as the treated solution is still not suitable for unrestricted discharge to watercourses. We do not want the supply of neutralising agents to be taken as a justification for a relaxed approach to disposal.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, is my noble friend the Minister aware that the unions which organise agricultural workers are most concerned about the effect upon farm workers of the use of these organophosphates and similar substances? Therefore, would my noble friend be prepared to say that the unions will be consulted about the operation of the 1997 order referred to in the Question?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am very happy to give my noble friend that assurance. I am aware of the anxieties throughout the workforce of the agricultural industry regarding such issues. We shall be consulting about draft regulations for disposal, and I shall ensure that the unions are consulted on those proposals.

Lord Lucas

My Lords, is it not the responsibility of the Government to provide rather more incentive for companies to develop detoxification procedures for spent sheep dips by threatening or bringing in regulations which would make such procedures compulsory? Will the Minister consider moving in that direction because, otherwise, companies will have very little incentive to leap over the very large regulatory hurdles that she has just outlined? Will the Minister also consider assisting companies to develop pour ons rather than dipping procedures for sheep scab, which would carry much lighter environmental impacts if they could be developed? Again, there are very high costs involved when developing such alternatives. Therefore, unless there are incentives, and perhaps help from the Government's research budget, these may be a long time coming.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, there is a temptation to ask if such incentives should have been made available previously and, if it was so urgent, why this Government should suddenly take on that responsibility. However, this is a serious area and we shall look at all developments. I understand that there are alternatives to OP dipping about which farmers should be made aware and the use of which they should consider.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Lucas, was right to some extent in what he said, and so was the noble Baroness. Does she agree that the alternatives to OP sheep dips are much more expensive—in some cases twice as expensive—and that it is important that if farmers are using injectable substances, they should inject sheep twice and not take risks by just injecting them once? The sheep should be injected properly. Can the noble Baroness say what supervision the Health and Safety Executive offers?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, this is an area where it is important that there is proper supervision. The Health and Safety Executive, through its inspectorate, is responsible for ensuring that the sheep scab order and its implications for operator safety will be reinforced; and it will reinforce the importance of correct procedure as part of its inspection duties. Inspectors will also take appropriate enforcement action where there have been breaches of the regulations governing sheep dipping products and their alternatives as regards the sheep scab order.