HL Deb 16 February 2000 vol 609 cc1223-5

3.1 p.m.

The Countess of Mar

asked Her Majesty's Government:

What is their current policy on the licensing of products containing organophosphates as their active ingredient for agricultural and domestic use.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, the Government's primary aim is the protection of human safety and the environment. All organophosphates for agricultural and domestic use are therefore tightly controlled through stringent scientific evaluation and rigorous regulatory arrangements.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. Is she aware that it now transpires that there are questions about the rigorous safety checks on organophosphates? Perhaps I may ask two questions. First, if the Minister is minded to restore organophosphate sheep-dips to public sale, will she ensure that the labels contain a very clear use-by date? There are now indications that contaminants—about which I asked the noble Earl, Lord Howe, in 1993, when he held the office of Minister—are developing in stored sheep-dips. So it is very important that they are used immediately.

Secondly, do the Government propose to run any studies on the effects on children of organophosphates used in the home?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, as the noble Countess is aware, we followed the advice of the Veterinary Products Committee that organophosphate sheep-dip should be withdrawn from the market unless and until satisfactory packaging to protect from accidental spillage of concentrate could be brought forward by the manufacturers. If they succeed in providing that kind of satisfactory packaging, and the advice is to allow the product back on to the market, I shall certainly look at the issue of best before dates in terms of both the packaging and the advice to users, to ensure that users are aware that the best before dates are not only theoretical but have safety implications.

As far as concerns the issue of research into its effects on children, my understanding is that at the moment no specific research is taking place. We are planning a wide-ranging seminar on future research needs for organophosphates next month. It is possible that suggestions may be put forward then.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, can the Minister say what the poor sheep with sheep scab are doing while organophosphates are off the market? How are they being treated?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, knows better than I that there are alternative products in terms of injectables that cover some parasites and in terms of SP dips rather than OP dips. I recognise that both those alternative treatments have drawbacks and that there are difficulties over price. But alternative treatments are available in terms of pour-ons, dips and injectables.

Lord Rotherwick

My Lords, can the Minister say what organophosphates that are used in the home come into contact with our children? Can she say whether those items will be looked at in the very near future?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, we should not think that, because no specific research projects are being funded by MAFF at the moment, the exposure of children to organophosphate products is not taken into account in the licensing process. It is taken into account in the licensing process, whether it is a human medicines licence for products such as malathion, which is used for head lice, or licensing of flea collars for pets. I understand that the Veterinary Products Committee has asked for extra information about the effects on users, including children, of those kinds of products. Equally, it has asked for information on pesticides—which could be insecticides—that are used in the home. It is part and parcel of the regulatory process that the effects on any users, including children, are taken into account. As I said, it is not impossible that we shall look also at proposals for specific research projects.

Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer

My Lords, does the Minister think that parents are aware, when they are using the nit lotions, that those products contain ingredients such as organophosphates? They may have read in the newspapers that organophosphates are controversial for use on sheep, yet they are knowingly using such products on their own children's hair with, as we heard, unresearched results.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, I did not say that there were unresearched results as far as concerns the use of organophosphate medicines for the treatment of head lice. The Committee on Safety of Medicines has to approve such usage, and it has to do so through a rigorous assessment of the safety process. That has been gone through. The Committee on Safety of Medicines did not suggest that there was any reason for withdrawal. It is precisely because not everyone may know every detail of what is contained in a medicine or treatment that they use that we must have robust regulatory processes in order to ensure that there are not products on the market that might be dangerous.

The Countess of Mar

My Lord, is it not the case that in domestic situations the users are untrained and uncontrolled? There is a serious danger—I have come across a number of cases—of over-use of organophosphate products, which causes damage, particularly to children. I am especially concerned about children under five, whose neurological systems are not fully developed.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, it is right that we should be continually vigilant in this area. We have to be particularly concerned if there are possible effects on children which have not been recognised. As I said, we hope fiat the seminar that we intend to hold in March as a follow-up to the research recommendations from the COT report which was published last year will indicate some ways forward to ensure that we cover all these areas. As the noble Countess knows. a vast amount of time, energy and scientific work has gone into the assessment of these products.