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1.47 pm

Mr. Paul Tyler (North Cornwall): I apologise in advance to hon. Members on both sides of the House. Previously, at the end of Adjournment debates prior to a recess, I have been called before Members on the other two Front Benches to respond on behalf of my colleagues to hon. Members' contributions. I have enjoyed doing so and felt that it was a valuable contribution to the general debate. However, I was informed this morning that that would not be possible today. I do not know the explanation for that change of attitude, so I have to speak when I am called—which is now.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Michael Lord): The hon. Gentleman is getting very close to questioning the order in which the Chair calls Members to speak. I think that he should get on with the points that he wants to make.

Mr. Tyler: That is precisely my intention, Mr. Deputy Speaker.

The situation does, however, give me an opportunity to ride a couple of important hobbyhorses of my own. Since my re-election to the House in 1992, I have been chairman of an all-party group concerned with organophosphate pesticides. Several hon. Members have been generous with their time and expertise in supporting the work that we have done, in co-operation with successive Ministers, to try to ensure that such pesticides are properly assessed, that appropriate warnings are given to the people who use them, and that anything remiss in the way those people have been treated in the past is rectified with proper examination, proper research and, if possible, some redress for those who have been so badly affected by their use.

In that capacity, the all-party group had a meeting yesterday with the Minister for the Environment, the right hon. Member for Oldham, West and Royton (Mr. Meacher), who has been meticulous—both in opposition and in government—in the care with which he has dealt with this issue, and generous with his time. I give him and his colleagues credit for the work that has been done to expand the research field, and to ensure that increased emphasis is put on the preventive principle. I should also like to give credit to the former Agriculture Minister, the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Mrs. Browning), as she is in the House at the moment. She, too, played a proactive role on this issue, and I know that she has a constituency interest in it which will have informed her attitude.

The reason I mention this is that, unbeknown to us yesterday—and, I suspect, to the Minister—the Food Standards Agency was to issue an extraordinary piece of advice today. It seems to have been forced to disclose its change of attitude by an item on the news this morning from Friends of the Earth. This matter calls into question the expertise available to the Government, and the extent to which the Government's advisers are influenced by the commercial considerations of some of the largest chemical companies in the world.

In a statement that seems to have been forced out of it today, rather than voluntarily given to the media, the Food Standards Agency has

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The agency was, apparently,

by the previous advice that they had been given; and it has therefore decided that it is perfectly easy, proper and safe not to wash or peel vegetables.

The extraordinary thing about this is that it became increasingly apparent from our discussions with the Minister yesterday—and, indeed, over many months—that the body of research evidence is far from conclusive on these issues. There is nothing in the agency's statement today to illustrate any change in the research basis for its advice. It would appear that the advice has been changed only because pressure has been brought to bear by commercial interests, not because of any change in the research base.

At our meeting yesterday, the Minister acknowledged that there was a body of scientific and medical opinion which continued to raise real concerns about the use of these pesticides, and in particular about children's exposure to them.

As recently as 15 February, in a letter sent to interested parties, the Food Standards Agency said of the action it was taking on the risk assessment of the pesticides:

The letter—written on 15 February, just over a month ago—went on to set out in detail further anxieties on the matter, making reference to a whole number of research projects that are in hand, and to the way in which the results of that research programme could be assessed internationally.

The decision to issue the revised advice today is extraordinary, because it does not appear to take account of any of the research already seen to be extremely relevant to the issue, and which, in many cases, is not due for completion for months, or even years. Furthermore, other research projects now coming to fruition raise new concerns about the issue. The precautionary principle that scientists increasingly accept is a good start, and represents a good basis for their advice to Ministers. I understand from my discussions with Ministers that it is one that they accept as the proper starting position for any responsible Administration. It is, however, effectively being discarded as a result of this new advice.

Mrs. Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton): The hon. Gentleman will know that I share many of the concerns that he is expressing today. As a former Minister who was obliged to advise the public about the preparation of vegetables, I have two points to make.

First, on the grounds of food hygiene—I say this as a former home economist—washing fruit and vegetables is a requirement anyway. Secondly, in the case of carrots, the evidence is clear that the top of the carrot—if it is sprayed with a substance that has an organophosphate base—absorbs far more than the rest of the carrot. Therefore, topping and tailing the carrots is sound,

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practical advice. I am astonished that there is no scientific verification or endorsement for the advice that is now being given to the public.

Mr. Tyler: I am grateful to the hon. Lady. There were great hopes on both sides of the House that the Food Standards Agency would provide independent advice to Ministers that was clear of all commercial considerations. However, I think that she will agree that serious questions have been raised about the practicality of the advice given by the Food Standards Agency and the basis on which it is supporting that advice. Real concern is shared on both sides of the House that, after many food scares, we must be absolutely confident that Ministers have access to the best possible advice.

As the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton is a former Minister, she will agree that it is extraordinary that, at a meeting yesterday, Ministers from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—food is in its title, for goodness' sake—were apparently totally unaware of the U-turn by official advisers. I accept that the agency also has a relationship with the Department of Health, but if we have joined-up Government, surely Ministers with responsibilities for the environment and food should have been aware that a Government agency was about to change its mind.

This development has occurred at the very time when there are even more concerns about the way in which organophosphates have affected different people. Last week, I spent some time with the Gulf war veterans group, which is organised by the Royal British Legion and of which I am a corresponding member, in common with other Members of Parliament. There is increasing evidence that at least one of the possible triggers of so-called Gulf war syndrome is extensive exposure, as we subsequently discovered, to organophosphate pesticides. Work that has been undertaken in the United States points to that, too. I am seeking to pursue that matter with appropriate Ministers.

A few weeks ago, a preliminary report from yet another research group was published in The Lancet. It indicated that there may be a genetic propensity to the serious ill health that is associated with organophosphates.

Ministers and their advisers should not have been relaxing their guard; they should have been doing precisely the opposite. If the preventive principle means anything, this is a classic case where it should be applied. In layman's terms, that principle is, "If in doubt, don't." That is certainly not the current approach.

I had not intended to speak on this issue at all this morning. It was only because of the sudden appearance of the statement from the Food Standards Agency that I have done so. I had different speaking notes in my back pocket, and I now want to refer briefly to the issue of value added tax on church repairs and conservation work.

Hon. Members of all parties have shared anxiety about this issue over the years, not just because of the organisations concerned but because of this country's great historical heritage of churches, chapels and other places of worship. It was a nonsense and an anomaly that when VAT was first imposed by the previous Government, they insisted that repairs to buildings of all sorts—and particularly to those buildings—should be subject to that extra surcharge. In a way, that was against the spirit of an age in which we seek to conserve buildings

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of historic and architectural value. The measure did the reverse: it encouraged people to pull those buildings down and build new ones, which was nonsensical.

I recall that the then Paymaster General, the right hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory), made a spirited but totally absurd defence of the imposition of VAT on church repairs and conservation work. Thank goodness that the general view in the House in more recent years has been that that is an anomaly and that it should be corrected. The current Chancellor decided, 18 months ago, that action should be taken. Hon. Members will recall that the Chancellor indicated that he would seek to reduce VAT to the minimum level. Of course, that is impossible in the short term. As a result a few months later—in 2001—he introduced what was referred to subsequently as the listed places of worship grant scheme.

The last thing that I want to do is express to the Minister—he will be communicating with the Treasury—any regrets that the Chancellor introduced the scheme. However, we all recognise that it was a second best and that it is immensely cumbersome. It causes a great deal of administrative inconvenience. It would have been much better if VAT had not been imposed in the first place, and we know that we cannot remove it in the short term because of the agreement that previous Governments struck with the European Union Commission and our EU partners. Nevertheless the scheme is burdensome and creates administrative problems for those responsible for churches and chapels.

I appeal to the Minister to make urgent representations to the Chancellor so that all concerned—not just Members of the House—receive a careful explanation of how the scheme operates now and how it can be simplified to improve its efficacy. It is extremely inconvenient and it is not easy to work through. I shall not describe all the details for reasons of time, but it is significant that it was left to the hon. Member for Middlesbrough (Mr. Bell), who answers for the Church Commissioners, to try to explain how the system works. Surely, at the very least, the Treasury and the Chancellor should explain how it operates. The scheme does not apply just to the Church of England, so it was anomalous that the Second Church Estates Commissioner, who happens to be a Member of the House, should try to explain what happened in the past, how the scheme operates at the moment and how those responsible for churches and chapels can access it.

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