HL Deb 09 March 2005 vol 670 cc732-5

2.52 p.m.

The Countess of Mar

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the statement attributed to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs in the Farmers Guardian of 4 February that "there is no evidence that organophosphate dips have affected the health of sheep farmers" accurately reflects their current position.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, the Government have engaged in a substantial amount of research on organophosphates. Some of their effects are well established, but some studies on the long-term effects remain to be completed and the results of all the studies will need to be reviewed on their completion. I am advised that, to date, none of the completed studies has provided conclusive evidence to support the hypothesis that exposure to organophosphates is the cause of long-term ill health reported by some sheep farmers. Therefore, in that sense, and in relation to long-term ill health, the statement cited in the Question is an accurate reflection of the scientific evidence available at this time.

The Countess of Mar

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for that reply. Is he aware that it is some 13 years since I started asking questions about organophosphates? The House has been very tolerant with me in all that time. Can he explain, if organophosphates are safe and they have been tested for their safety, efficacy and their quality, why farmers have been required since that time to wear space suits when they are dipping and to have a proficiency certificate to allow them to buy sheep dips? Why are all those precautions taken if they are safe?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I hope that my reply did not indicate that organophosphates are safe in whichever manner they are used. The requirements on use, including the closed system for sheep dips, are to prevent exposure to acute doses of organophosphates. It has been established that acute doses cause extremely severe reactions and, indeed, that continued exposure can cause reactions.

The question that is still being researched is whether, if you stop being exposed to organophosphates, your health is affected in the long term. The jury is still out on that, because those studies have not all been completed and, when they are, we will need to assess them.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there used to be a great amount of dud science washing about the corridors of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food? That seems to have been inherited by his present department. Will he be sensible and try to teach his department that when the noble Countess comes forward on this subject, she is much more often right than are any government advisers?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I think that the noble Countess would accept that I normally take her comments in these debates very seriously indeed. The Question related to whether there was particular scientific evidence of one of the long-term effects of organophosphates and I hope that I was accurately reporting that the studies the Government have commissioned have not yet revealed such an effect—but those studies are not yet complete. I was simply giving a factual report and not querying the credentials of the noble Countess.

Lord Livsey of Talgarth

My Lords, given the Minister's response, he seems to agree that many sheep farmers are affected in the medium term by using organophosphates. Many of us know of serious longterm effects. My own health was adversely affected by one single usage of OP sheep dip from a container that was not properly labelled. If recognition of Gulf War syndrome has been given to those subjected to OP, why has there not been such acknowledgement for sheep farmers, or are the Minister's lawyers and the Treasury preventing that recognition, due to possible compensation claims?

Lord Whitty

No, my Lords, this has nothing to do with compensation claims. It is clearly established that if you spill organophosphates in a substantial way while you are engaged in sheep dipping, or possibly in other contexts, there will be serious medical effects. The issue is whether, if you stop using and being exposed to OPs, the conditions continue, or whether they work their way through the system. The research is addressing that area, where there is some doubt, but it suggests that, so far, there is not a long-term effect of that nature. But the research has yet to be completed.

Lord Christopher

My Lords, does that research also cover any effects that may exist for those who work with sheep wool and sheep skins? I understand that the chemical does not get into the meat—which relieves me, because I eat a lot of sheep meat—but if there is a risk, it could well arise from those sources.

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am glad to hear that my noble friend eats a lot of sheep meat and I trust that it is good English, Welsh or Scottish lamb. The specific effects of organophosphates through wool or hide may not have been addressed directly, but the issue has been covered in some of the earlier research. The key question is the level of exposure, which would have to be measured according to the level of usage against the clinical symptoms. As far as I am aware—and I will write to the noble Lord if there is any different information—the incidence from handling sheep wool or hide has not been established.

Lord Walton of Detchant

My Lords, is the Minister aware that there is ample neurological evidence to indicate that acute organophosphate intoxication can have serious, damaging effects on the nervous system, particularly the peripheral nervous system? Is he satisfied that the current health and safety regulations are sufficiently stringent to protect farmers from such events?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the current requirements, both in terms of the container and the advice on usage are very strict indeed. That has not always been the case in the past.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, how does the Minister reconcile his response to the noble Countess with the recommendation of the all-party group that OPs should, for the moment, be removed from production and use and that the Government should consider compensating those who had been affected in the past? His Answer does not have any link with the group's recommendation.

Lord Whitty

No, my Lords, because the Answer was related to the research, rather than to the opinions of the all-party group. We have received a report relatively recently from the all-party group and we will be giving a considered response. It contains some reference to scientific reports, but the Question was about whether there was any proof in relation to a quote that was ascribed to a Defra official. The answer is that there is no proof, as yet, but that the research is ongoing.