HL Deb 11 March 1998 vol 587 cc213-6

3.9 p.m.

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will convene a committee of scientists, medical practitioners and lay people who have no record of previous service on any of their advisory committees for pesticides or veterinary medicines and no links with the manufacturers to examine urgently all of the current evidence on the human health effects of exposure to organophosphates; and to report their findings publicly.

The Minister of State, Department of Health (Baroness Jay of Paddington)

My Lords, I am pleased to tell the noble Countess that the Department of Health has recently commissioned and funded a review of the putative effects of organophosphates on humans by the Medical Research Council's Institute of Environment and Health. The report of this review is expected to be published in the summer. The Advisory Committee on Toxicity of Chemicals in Food, Consumer Products and the Environment (COT) has already given initial consideration to some of the issues raised by the report. It has decided to set up a working group to consider the report in greater detail. Its findings will be made public. I would like to assure the noble Countess and the whole House that Ministers take this process extremely seriously.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I am very grateful to the Minister for that reply. Does she appreciate that I have been battling for six years against people who have a mantra that OPs are safe provided that they are used in the manner directed on the labels? Is she aware that they have not stepped back from that and looked at the enormous amount of ill health that has been caused by organophosphates? I shall be only too delighted if I can be proved wrong on this matter. Will the Minister please make sure that there is absolutely no overt or hidden bias among the people who are looking at OPs?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, of course I am ready, as always, to acknowledge the noble Countess's role in drawing to the attention of your Lordships, and indeed of many people beyond your Lordships' House, the matter to which this Question refers. We are very concerned to look broadly at the impact of organophosphates on human health. That is why the Government decided that it was sensible to refer the findings of the Institute of Environment and Health's review of the published literature to COT in order that it should give an overall view. We shall seek to ensure that those who take part in the special sub-group looking at this matter will not be people who have already identified with a particular view on the subject.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, will the noble Baroness kindly bear in mind that the noble Countess is absolutely right—and has been for a long time—and is beginning to attract support to her cause? Will she also bear in mind that, in arranging for any further inquiries, unswerving loyalty to previously expressed opinions is not the highest of virtues? They could be wrong.

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Lord for his wise advice. As I said in answer to the previous question from the noble Countess, we are anxious to ensure that those looking in detail at the review of the published literature should not be people identified with an unswerving view on either side. My honourable friend the Minister for Public Health and I have already asked the noble Countess if she will meet us to talk about this potential exploration of the subject.

Lord Jenkins of Putney

My Lords, in the Minister's responses I did not hear any reference to publication of the findings. Does she agree that that is most important?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I believe that my noble friend missed what I said. In my original Answer to the noble Countess I said that the report of the original review on which COT is now proceeding is expected to be published in the summer. The report of COT and its sub-group on this review will also be published.

Earl Baldwin of Bewdley

My Lords, does the noble Baroness agree that it can be very difficult to change one's opinion in public on a matter like this, especially if one is part of a closely-knit group of scientists, most of whom come from the same background and have the same kinds of links with the chemical industry?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am aware of the noble Earl's concern about the independence of these advisory committees. Perhaps I may point out to him that if he is concerned about overlapping membership of COT compared with other advisory committees who may have looked at this situation in the past, as I understand it none of the current members of COT served, for example, on the Veterinary Products Committee. There is only one member of COT who is also a member of the Advisory Committee on Pesticides. I can only repeat what I said in answer to the previous question; namely, that that is why the Government decided that an overall perspective of this matter was advisable.

The Earl of Clanwilliam

My Lords, does the noble Baroness accept that many practitioners in alternative and complementary medicine would also very much welcome the institution of such a committee as she has proposed? Is the Minister aware that these practitioners suffer considerably from having the efficiency of their products dumbed down, if I may use that phrase, by the orthodox, professional view on toxicity, particularly as evidenced by the committee on that subject to which the noble Baroness has just referred?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am sure that the views of people who represent complementary medicine will be welcomed by the advisory committee. As I understand it, what the sub-group intends to do once it has established its membership is to advertise for example in the British Medical Journal, asking people to submit their views to the working party.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, will the noble Baroness ask the committees looking at these papers to pay particular attention to the effects of organophosphates on children? Is she aware that they were originally tested on healthy six-foot marines? Is she further aware that children, pregnant women and elderly people are particularly susceptible and that that is acknowledged? Is she also aware of a major report which has just come from America about the residues of OPs in fruit and vegetables and of the concerns expressed today by the National Consumer Council about residues of organophosphates in vegetables? Will she also look at Department of Health's recommendations about eating five pieces of fruit and vegetable every day?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, I am very grateful to the noble Countess for those specific suggestions. I hope that she and I may be able to pursue them in a subsequent meeting which, as I say, my honourable friend the Minister for Public Health and I are anxious to have with her on the subject of the working group. Perhaps it will be helpful to your Lordships if I give the terms of reference for COT on this subject. It has been asked to advise in general whether the evidence indicates that prolonged low-level exposure to OPs can cause long-term health effects in people.

Lord Pearson of Rannoch

My Lords, further to the answer which the noble Baroness gave to my noble friend Lord Clanwilliam, and in view of her very encouraging and helpful remarks so far, does she agree that it might be helpful to have, say, two respectable alternative practitioners on the committee looking into the matter?

Baroness Jay of Paddington

My Lords, it is certainly under consideration that lay observers will be included, but the exact membership has not yet been agreed.