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House of Commons
Session 2006 - 07
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General Committee Debates
European Standing Committee Debates

Sustainable Use of Pesticides

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Eric Martlew
Austin, John (Erith and Thamesmead) (Lab)
Barlow, Ms Celia (Hove) (Lab)
Cunningham, Tony (Workington) (Lab)
David, Mr. Wayne (Caerphilly) (Lab)
Davies, David T.C. (Monmouth) (Con)
Goodwill, Mr. Robert (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con)
Gray, Mr. James (North Wiltshire) (Con)
Horwood, Martin (Cheltenham) (LD)
Laxton, Mr. Bob (Derby, North) (Lab)
Paice, Mr. James (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con)
Pearson, Ian (Minister for Climate Change and the Environment)
Prentice, Mr. Gordon (Pendle) (Lab)
Williams, Mr. Roger (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD)
Mrs E. Commander, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

European Standing Committee

Tuesday 9 January 2007

[Mr. Eric Martlew in the Chair]

Sustainable Use of Pesticides

[Relevant documents : European Community Documents No. 11902/06 + addendum 1, Commission Communication : A thematic strategy on the sustainable use of pesticides, and 11896/06 + addenda 1-2, draft Directive establishing a framework for Community action to achieve a sustainable use of pesticides, and 11755/06 + addenda 1-12, draft regulation concerning the placing of plant protection products on the market.]
The Chairman: I wish the Committee a happy new year. I understand that there may be a vote at about 5.30 pm.
4.30 pm
The Minister for Climate Change and the Environment (Ian Pearson): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Mr. Martlew. I should like to make some brief comments to set our debate in context, and I begin by referring briefly to the thematic strategy for pesticides—the initiative that ties the two proposed pieces of legislation together.
The strategy has its roots in the Community’s sixth environmental action programme, which the European Parliament and the Council adopted in 2002. The programme seeks to address key environmental objectives and priorities, based on an assessment of the state of the environment. It makes specific reference to pesticides and particularly to plant protection products, which are largely equivalent to agricultural pesticides. It notes the need to reduce impacts on human health and the environment and to achieve the more sustainable use of pesticides. That will be done by updating Council directive 91/414 concerning the authorisation of plant protection products and through new controls to promote sustainable use, which are dealt with in the other directive, which we shall also be discussing. Those controls relate to the storage, use and disposal of pesticides and will ensure that Community legislation covers all stages of a pesticide’s life cycle—authorisation, use and controls on food residues.
The need to modernise the authorisation directive has been under discussion for some time. The proposed regulation aims to secure greater harmonisation of the EC pesticides market and to speed up decision making. It also includes welcome provisions to increase the protection given to human health and the environment. Our general approach will be to support both the Commission’s efforts to harmonise and simplify the current regime and the strengthening of the regime, where it is proportionate.
There are two key components to raise the level of protection given to humans and the environment. First, there is the introduction of more stringent criteria for the approval of active substances, including toxicity and environmental hazard triggers. Secondly, there is the comparative assessment and substitution of products, should one product be shown to present a significantly higher risk than another. In principle, we support those proposals, but we will want to ensure that the arrangements are practical and proportionate.
The proposed directive on sustainable use proposes that member states create national action plans to draw together the procedures and processes that will deliver the more sustainable use of pesticides. The directive goes on to list a number of initiatives around which the plans could be built, including the training of users, distributors and advisers; the inspection of application equipment; restrictions or prohibitions on use in, or adjacent to, areas such as watercourses or public spaces; the promotion of integrated approaches; and monitoring progress via a series of indicators. Most of the measures proposed in the directive are already part of the range of controls in force in the UK. Many, such as the training of users in restrictions and use around watercourses, are also already established on a statutory basis. However, a number of the measures, such as the inspection of application equipment and the promotion of integrated approaches, have been established on a voluntary basis. The directive is a reasonable package, provided that it affords member states a degree of flexibility over the method of implementing the proposed measures, does not stifle innovative approaches and is proportionate. The measures should establish a benchmark of controls across the community and generally raise standards for the community as a whole. The Pesticides Safety Directorate has consulted a wide range of stakeholders on the proposal; our policy will be developed in the light of their responses.
I stress that we are only at the beginning of a process that is also subject to the European Union co-decision process. I understand that it is unlikely that there will be a first reading of the issue during the German presidency. We welcome the views already expressed through the consultation exercise and want to continue dialogue with the industry and the interested parties affected by the proposals. I stress that these are early days. We welcome this debate and the views of hon. Members, which I am sure will be expressed this afternoon.
The Chairman: We have until 5.30 for questions to the Minister. I remind Members that questions should be brief and asked one at a time. There should be ample opportunity for Members to ask several questions.
Mr. James Paice (South-East Cambridgeshire) (Con): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Martlew, and thank you for your good wishes for the new year.
I am grateful to the Minister for his introductory statement, as is I am sure the whole Committee. First, I should like to ask not about authorisations, to which we shall come later, but about the fundamental aspect of the thematic strategy. The Minister referred to the Government’s attitude and listed a number of provisos. However, the European Scrutiny Committee says in its conclusion that the overall thrust of the thematic strategy represents
“a significant extension of Community legislation in this area”.
The Minister said that we have a huge range of voluntary arrangements, and we shall come back to those. Do the Government fundamentally support the idea of community competence extending into this area and the significant extension of EU legislation on this issue?
Ian Pearson: We believe that there is a strong case for greater harmonisation of the approval process for pesticides, to create a more level playing field. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, at the moment product approval has to be gained at member state level; the proposal for that to be done at a zonal level is a step forward.
However, there are strong arguments for subsidiarity when it comes to controls on the use of pesticides, and there is a case for provisions allowing member states to take different approaches.
Mr. Roger Williams (Brecon and Radnorshire) (LD): There is terrific concern about the effects that herbicides can have on the general population. However, the work of the Pesticides Safety Directorate has a good reputation. In some cases, products have been allowed for use in Britain a long time before other countries because of the directorate’s work. Harmonisation might mean that it took longer to authorise safer products than if they had been allowed in Britain alone. Will the Minister comment on whether harmonisation will lead to delays in the authorisation of safer and more effective products?
Ian Pearson: I certainly agree that that is a potential concern, which the industry shares. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that the Commission proposal has some pretty ambitious targets for the approval process. As the debate goes forward, we will want to test some of the assumptions behind the proposals. It is legitimate to be concerned that timeliness should be adhered to. As a Government, we are well aware of that and will want to seek assurances.
David T.C. Davies (Monmouth) (Con): On page 287 of the document there is a recommendation that we allocate pesticide vulnerable zones in all areas where drinking water is collected, and that seems reasonable enough. However, it then goes on to talk about a system of compulsory protection zones in all surface water areas. I am not clear on the difference between a pesticide vulnerable zone and a compulsory protection zone or on whether this will be enacted by Parliament or at a devolved level. Obviously, there are a lot of areas in Wales with surface water—much of it seems to be disappearing into England, but that is a debate for another day. I think that there would be a concern if quite wide-ranging legislation such as that before us was to be determined at a parliamentary level without any input from the devolved body. Will there be input from the Welsh Assembly and is there a difference between those two allocations?
Ian Pearson: I can assure the hon. Gentleman that as part of the consultation process we talked to colleagues in the devolved Administrations prior to and during the preparation of the explanatory memorandum and draft regulatory impact assessment. I undertake to continue that strong consultation process with those Administrations as our policy develops and our discussions with the Commission and other member states continue.
Mr. Paice: Will the Minister give us some background statistics? The documents are full of European statistics, but will he tell us the quantity and value of plant-protection products in the UK? Furthermore, have the Government made or seen an estimate of the value of those products to UK agriculture in yield and quality enhancement? Both are obvious benefits. Have any efforts been made to quantify them in economic terms?
Ian Pearson: I can give the hon. Gentleman some figures, although perhaps not all the ones that he wants. UK sales of plant-protection products include some 20,000 tonnes of active substances used for agricultural or horticultural purposes, some 800 tonnes for industrial, amenity and forestry purposes, and some 1,200 tonnes for garden and household purposes. Those figures relate to 2005 and come from the Crop Protection Association, which represent the majority, but not all the industry, as he knows. Crop Protection Association companies employ about 2,600 people in the United Kingdom and their combined turnover in 2005 was in the order of £412 million. It is a significant industry. Members will be aware that about 330 active substances are approved in the UK. On an assessment of value and the detailed questions put to me, I do not have the relevant figures to hand.
Mr. Williams: As I understand it, part of the process will involve the substitution of existing chemicals with new ones and a comparative assessment of them. Against which criteria will those judgments be made? Some chemicals might have a good soil profile and others a good water one. I am not sure from the Minister’s comments whether the UK Government will reserve the power to make that decision, or whether we will have to share it with the rest of the European Union.
Ian Pearson: It is not entirely clear to me from reading the Commission’s proposals at what level it intends that power to operate—whether zonal, member state or Commission level. We need to clarify that. Similarly, discussions on how the comparative assessment process will work are at a relatively early stage. I recognise that the issues raised by hon. Members are valid ones and we will need to clarify, discuss and form a view on them as the proposals develop.
Mr. Gordon Prentice (Pendle) (Lab): My hon. Friend referred to figures from the Crop Protection Association. I believe that he said that 20,000 tonnes of pesticide are used on farm land. I looked on the Soil Association’s website just before I came upstairs, and it tells us that 31,000 tonnes of chemicals are used in farming in the UK each year. The Soil Association has been quite critical of the Government’s approach. Will the Minister inform the Committee of the remaining areas of difference between the Government and the Soil Association?
Ian Pearson: That strays a little wider than the debate about pesticides. I understand that different figures exist. As I have said, the CPA figures are as a direct result of its member companies and would not be the whole picture. I recognise that the Soil Association has different figures. DEFRA has dialogue with the Soil Association and we value that work that it does. DEFRA strongly supports it, and will continue to do so, not least because of its biodiversity benefits. That is an important point to put on the record.
Mr. Robert Goodwill (Scarborough and Whitby) (Con): May I draw the Committee’s attention to my entry in the Register of Members’ Interests as an arable farmer? I also hold a pesticide application licence. The discrepancies in the figures referred to by the hon. Member for Pendle (Mr. Prentice) might be because some figures include sulphuric acid and some do not. As I am sure the Minister is aware, 77 per cent. sulphuric acid is widely used in the potato and linseed crops as a desiccant. While many pesticides may be applied at a rate of one or two grams per hectare or a couple of litres per hectare at the most, sulphuric acid is applied at 600 kg per hectare. It is therefore important that the Minister recognises sulphuric acid as a special case and, while understanding that the Commission has sensibly not opted for a reduction in the tonnage of pesticides used, I hope that he can reassure the Committee that he will not opt for the easy shot of removing sulphuric acid from the list and, at a blow, dramatically reducing the tonnage of pesticide used in this country.
Ian Pearson: I certainly note the point that the hon. Gentleman makes, and I know that it is strongly felt by a number of people in the industry. All I want to say on this is that we hear what he has to say. We are listening on this issue. The Government want to do something that it acceptable and proportionate. We want to work with the industry on the implementation of this proposed regulation and proposed directive. I am sure that we can do so in a constructive way and that we can come up with improvements to the UK’s overall regime, which is already one of the strongest in the European Union.
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): Given the Minister’s earlier expression of support for the organic industry, the increasing importance and popularity of organic products in this country and the need to import them in many cases, I was surprised that I struggled to find any references to the organic sector and these proposals’ impact on it in the Government’s commentaries within the paperwork before us, although I have to confess that I not have read all 786 pages. Will he reassure me that he does not perceive any negative impact on that sector from these proposals?
Ian Pearson: Yes. [Interruption.]
The Chairman: The short answers get me.
David T.C. Davies: Short answers are wonderful, and I wonder whether I will get one to this question. If the proposals go through, they could lead to a complete ban on aerial spraying, which would seem to be a little drastic. Be that as it may, I saw that there appears to be the possibility of allowing individual states to make an exemption if they can show that it is in the national interest and that it would be environmentally acceptable in some way. My concern, which is shared by others, is that we will probably end up with an almost complete ban on aerial spraying unless all sorts of various and expensive bureaucratic hoops can be jumped through, while other countries in the European Union, particularly some of the new entrant states, which, I have noticed on my visits to them, use aerial spraying, will continue to act as before. That will therefore put our farmers at a commercial disadvantage.
Ian Pearson: I am a great fan of the film “North by Northwest” and if the proposals were accepted, it would be horrifying because we would be unable to make such a film in the European Union. Having said that, aerial spraying is an important issue. The Government’s view is that aerial spraying is unnecessary—certainly for the UK. That may not be the case in other member states, however: in other areas, it may be appropriate. The proposals are at an early stage, and as they develop, we must carefully consider what is reasonable and proportionate, and what respects the principles of subsidiarity and recognises that different countries in the European Union have different farming issues.
Mr. Paice: May I take the Minister back to my previous question, which was about trying to put a cash value on the benefit to agriculture, and ultimately to the consumer, of pesticides through increased yields and improved quality? There is a great debate, as he rightly said and some questions have shown, about the rights and wrongs of pesticides and organics. If people could say, “These are the real benefits that pesticides used in the right situation can provide,” it would help to inform that debate considerably.
Leading on from that, may I take the Minister to page 13, where the Commission compares the use of plant protection products in the EU 15 between 1992 and 2003? It says that consumption and use did not decrease between those dates, which is a slightly distorted perception, because they decreased from 1992, rose again, and were on a downward trend to 2003. I wonder whether the Minister can update us, because 2003 preceded the implementation of the mid-term review, and I suspect strongly that recent years would have shown a considerable decline. Can the Minister update us on consumption and use in the EU 15 beyond 2003?
Ian Pearson: I do not have updated figures to hand, but I shall see if I can find them and write to the hon. Gentleman.
I shall clarify what I said about aerial spraying, because I should not want to worry people in upland areas. In the UK, aerial spraying is limited: it is confined exclusively to the uplands, principally for bracken control, where access for ground-based equipment is difficult. We already have stringent controls in that area, and they should require only a slight tightening to comply with the draft directive. That is a good example of an instance in which aerial spraying makes sense. It is perhaps not “North by Northwest”, given the uplands, but it is right that the approach is appropriate to the individual circumstances of member states. There is limited spraying in the UK, and we want it to remain in the uplands, because it is the most effective way to control bracken.
Mr. Williams: I am pleased that the Minister has been able to assure us about that point, because I was going to raise the point about bracken control in the uplands. Control is important when fern invades many of our upland areas because of changes in grazing regimes.
The Chairman: May we have a question?
Mr. Williams: Yes. I am not a toxicologist by trade, but there is a saying in toxicology that it is not substances that are poisonous but doses. I am pleased that the regulations do not relate to the amount of pesticide that is used, but to the risk of any specific pesticide.
The Chairman: A question, please?
Mr. Williams: Will the Minister assure us that the main concern is not the amount of pesticide but the risk associated with a particular pesticide?
Ian Pearson: Yes, I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that he seeks. We already have stringent risk-based assessments in the UK and the EU on substances and products. We need to ensure that those rigorous standards are maintained. The overall thrust of the proposals that the Commission is putting forward is to do exactly that, which is why we have broadly welcomed them in the UK.
Mr. Goodwill: May I first briefly thank the Minister for answering the question that I was going to ask about bracken control? Two thirds of the North York Moors national park is in my constituency and it is important to control the bracken there. Not only does it encroach on the heather moorland, but the ticks that live in the bracken cause tick-borne fever.
The Chairman: Does the hon. Gentleman have a question?
Ian Pearson: I agree with the hon. Gentleman that zones are an improvement, which is why the Government welcome that proposal. I refer the hon. Gentleman to page 414 of the document where he can see how the zones work and a list of the three zones. The UK is in zone B with Belgium, the Czech Republic, Germany, Ireland, Luxembourg, Hungary, the Netherlands, Austria, Poland, Slovenia and Slovakia. He will see that the zones are divided at a member state level so there is no separation or crossing of countries. He seems to be under the misapprehension that there is.
Mr. Williams: I see that the whole of the UK is in one zone, so I assume that all the devolved nations in the UK are in that zone. What discussions has the Minister had with the devolved Administrations in Scotland and Wales? I presume that the Administration in Northern Ireland will also be involved at the appropriate time.
Ian Pearson: I understand that there were extensive discussions with the devolved Administrations at an official level prior to the explanatory memorandum and the regulatory impact assessment, and those discussions will continue. It is right that we should recognise the interests of the devolved Administrations in these matters and involve them fully in the process as we move forward.
Mr. Paice: I take the Minister back to the issue of quantity of pesticides or active ingredients used. I am grateful for his assurance to the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams) about what is not the objective, but the Commission’s papers seem to say that it is the objective. On page 19, it says:
“Although not directly linked to the reduction of actual risks, it is also expected that the overall use of pesticides will show a declining trend”.
Similar points are made in other parts of the paper, so there is clearly an expectation that the thrust of the thematic strategy is to reduce pesticide use. Is the Minister absolutely sure that the Commission and the objective of the papers are in line with what he just said—that he will not gauge the success of the measures on the crude basis of how much is used?
Ian Pearson: As a Government, we believe that the responsible use of pesticides can bring substantial benefits but we also take the view that a sensible reduction in pesticides is to be welcomed. It is important to take a proportionate and risk-based approach. We will want to have several discussions with the Commission to clarify its thinking and proposals on issues such as hazard triggers and on the introduction of provisions of comparative assessment and substitution. Those are all important components of discussions that we need to have. I assure the hon. Gentleman that we are very concerned about the detail of this and that we want to get it right.
Mr. Paice: Perhaps I can pursue that a fraction further. Does the Minister agree that the measure of toxicity is not the crude figures on how much pesticide is used, but, as the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire said, the dosage? However, is it not the case that new chemicals that are much less toxic to the environment and to humans could require an increase in active ingredient? That is why I am concerned—
The Chairman: Order. A question, please.
Mr. Paice: Does the Minister agree with my concern that we should not make a judgment simply on the crude issue of how much is used, and that we must be more sophisticated and look at what is being used and its toxicity?
Ian Pearson: I totally agree, and I believe that there is no substantial difference between us. The important point is that we continue to involve ourselves strongly in dialogue with the Commission and in seeking greater clarification of its proposals. There is no substantive point of difference between us on the outcomes that we want.
Mr. Goodwill: The document includes a reference to the testing of spraying equipment. Some countries already have compulsory schemes, but the UK has a voluntary initiative that is working very well and is linked to many of the crop assurance schemes. Could the Minister give me some assurance that the testing of hydraulic sprayers, which distribute the majority of pesticides, will not be extended to include other equipment such as knapsack sprayers used by pedestrians, granule applications used on sugar beet drills and potato-planting machines, some of the micro-droplet equipment used in forestry and the slug pellet applicators used on farms? Farmers are keen for hydraulic sprayers to be tested, but does the Minister agree that extending that to small, often hand-held machines would be a step too far?
Ian Pearson: I do not think the case has been made for the sort of small applications to which the hon. Gentleman refers to be required to go through a testing process. It is clear that the main issue is with large applications and, again, we need further clarification of the Commission’s proposals. It is important that we maintain flexibility in the implementation of the sustainable use directive, which is one of the principles that we want to adhere to in our negotiations with the Commission.
Mr. Prentice: Is my hon. Friend satisfied that the data collection regimes throughout the EU, especially in the new member states, are sophisticated enough to obtain the information that is required under the directive?
Ian Pearson: I do not have detailed enough knowledge of the data regimes in every member state to be able to answer that question directly. However, the Commission has produced some proposals that will require further work and discussion. There is an issue about quality that will need to be addressed and there is no intention of diluting in any way the standard of information and quality of approval processes in the United Kingdom. If we can level the playing field throughout Europe and raise other countries to the high standards that the UK aspires to, that should surely be the objective in our negotiations.
Mr. Paice: May I take the Minister to a wholly different aspect? On pages 17 and 18, under the heading “Measures that can be best integrated in existing instruments”, the Commission proposes an
“Invitation to Member States to apply normal VAT rates to pesticides in order to reduce the incentive for illegal cross-border exchange of non-authorised products due to price differentials.”
I shall return to price differentials, but will the Minister explain how that proposal will help? Certainly in this country, VAT is a wholly reclaimable business expense, so the rate of VAT, other than the bureaucracy of reclaiming it, is irrelevant to one’s sourcing. Will the Minister explain how applying normal VAT rates to pesticides could possibly reduce the incentive for illegal cross-border exchange?
Ian Pearson: I do not have the information before me to answer that question, but if I can obtain an answer before the end of the sitting, I shall. If I cannot, I shall write to the hon. Gentleman.
Mr. Goodwill: Does the Minister think that the Government should do more to address the use of pesticides by local authorities? Although only 4 per cent. of pesticides are used by local authorities, and to a lesser extent by Network Rail, they account for 16 per cent. of residues in water, most notably through dye-run. Local authorities do not take part in any voluntary initiatives. Does the Minister think that more should be done with local authorities and their contractors to reduce such watercourse contamination? It is often blamed on farmers, who are not responsible.
Ian Pearson: I am certainly concerned about watercourse contamination from whatever source. We must do all that we can to ensure that watercourses achieve a good ecological status. That is the Government’s objective.
I have noted what the hon. Gentleman said about the role of local authorities. I shall bring it to the attention of my officials, and we shall look into it.
Mr. Williams: Operators are required to wear protective clothing, but when drift occurs from time to time, the public become concerned. What consultation has there been on the public and drift to assure the population that products are safe when used appropriately?
Ian Pearson: I must stress that we are at the early stages of two proposals: the sustainable use directive and regulatory amendments. We have undertaken initial consultation, but that is not the last word on the matter. I am aware that previously, consultation took place on buffer zones and similar issues, but I am unable to say at this stage whether there will be further detailed consultation on such areas. As the proposals develop, the Government intend to involve all interested parties to ensure that they are aware of the proposals and have an opportunity to express a view.
Mr. Paice: May I address one small but important issue? It is about the training of operators, to which the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire has just referred. UK legislation allows for what everybody knows as grandfather rights; however, the Government have intimated that on the licensing or certification of spray operators, they will consult on the possible phasing out of grandfather rights in the near future. Will the Minister explain the background to the proposition? Have there been any incidents, environmental or other, caused by people who possess grandfather rights?
Ian Pearson: I do not have an immediate answer. I remember from looking at the figures that I qualify as a grandfather, given the dates that have been discussed. I shall try to let the hon. Gentleman have an answer as soon as possible.
Mr. Prentice: Is there any difference in opinion between the Government and the Royal Commission on Environmental Pollution on pesticide spraying and public protection?
Ian Pearson: The Government welcomed the report by the commission and have implemented a large number of its recommendations. We have also consulted widely with many other professional and expert bodies and believe that the balance of policy measures that we have in place is appropriate at the moment and are now considering a detailed response and negotiating stance towards the proposals. Again, I think that that is an important and sensible way to proceed. As I have said already, we want to consult and involve a wide range of interested parties.
Mr. Paice: You will be pleased to know that this is my last question, Mr. Martlew. It concerns the second part of the document regarding the authorisation of active ingredients. Much has been said this afternoon about organics. It is a common perception that nothing is sprayed on organic crops, but, of course, lots of things are. Will the Minister tell us whether there is anything in the proposals on European-wide authorisation, and the other changes that we will come back to later, that would increase or reduce the oversight and regulation of the types of chemicals used on organic as opposed to conventional crops? They tend to be naturally occurring, but nevertheless, in the wrong hands, can still be toxic. Will anything here affect what is required to be licensed as opposed to how it is licensed?
Ian Pearson: My understanding is that nothing here would create any problems along the lines that the hon. Gentleman has suggested, but I shall check the detail, and if that proves not to be the case, ensure that the Committee is aware of it.
The Chairman: Order. If no more Members wish to ask questions, we shall proceed to debate the motion.
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That this Committee takes note of European Union Documents No. 11902/06 + addendum 1, Commission Communication: A thematic strategy on the sustainable use of pesticides, and 11896/06 + addenda 1-2, draft Directive establishing a framework for Community action to achieve a sustainable use of pesticides, and 11755/06 + addenda 1-12, draft regulation concerning the placing of plant protection products on the market; and agrees with the Government’s proposed negotiating position relating to the thematic strategy on the sustainable use of pesticides and the authorisation of plant protection products.—[Ian Pearson.]
5.13 pm
Mr. Paice: I am grateful to the Minister for the way in which he has answered a number of the questions put to him and undertaken to come back to us with answers to those that he could not. As he rightly said, clearly a lot of work needs to be done on the proposals because, apart from their vast quantity, they are very vague. As he also said, much needs to be discussed.
The consequence of such detailed legislation is that the vast majority of the work has to be done by the Minister’s staff—civil servants—in discussion with Commission staff. The Committee, therefore, is largely considering the overall issue and the principles behind it, rather than the detail. It is a pity that in some ways we will not have an opportunity to discuss the more detailed issues such as the grandfather rights that I mentioned earlier. However, I am sure that the Committee—certainly the Opposition—feels that we need to get the balance of regulation right. Clearly the obvious protection of the consumer and the environment is paramount, but needs to be balanced with the need to protect our crops and to keep the costs of the producer or grower down. Overregulation will only drive up those costs.
That is why I am worried about much of the framework and directive for Community action and the systematic strategy. As a number of Members have mentioned already, this country has a very effective form of self-regulation through the voluntary initiative and the UK’s own strategy for the sustainable use of pesticides. Both forms of self-regulation are working very well indeed and 80 per cent. of all land is sprayed with machines that have been regularly tested. Some 22,500 people are registered operators and crop protection management plans now appear in DEFRA’s entry level scheme of stewardship. The voluntary approach is working well in this country and I hope that the Minister can assure us that he and his civil servants will not agree to anything during the debate at the Commission that cuts across the effective system of self-regulation that we have in this country.
Assurance schemes are covering the vast majority of crops—well over 80 per cent. of arable crops and 91 per cent. of salads, which are particularly important in my constituency, and 67 per cent. of fruit. I worry that whatever the theory about the regulation of the schematic strategy it will end up leading to a further regulatory approach by Europe on how we handle these issues. That is why I started my questions by asking the Minister whether the Government really supported the extension of community activity in this area. While I entirely agree that we would like to see other European countries come up to our standards, we do not want to see those standards or how we enforce them compromised by a legislative approach from Europe. It is important that during the deliberations and discussions that the Minister’s officials will have over the ensuing months that they do not give way on that important issue.
The second document relates to the regulation of the approvals process for plant protection products. As I said in my questions, I am concerned that the debate about the rights and wrongs of pesticides is often sidetracked on to some crude issues that do not assess the rights and wrongs or the benefits and disbenefits. There are, of course, potentially major environmental problems and human health problems from pesticides, but there are clear benefits. Much of the visual quality that can be seen in a supermarket it achieved only by the use of plant protection products. It can be argued that we should not be deceived by the look of a vegetable, but nevertheless I agree with the hon. Gentleman. In my constituency we grow vast acreages of salad crops and I get extremely angry to see perfectly good wholesome food thrown back on the land simply because it does not fit a particular specification in terms of length, diameter or whatever it may be. That is outrageous. However, that is what we are told the consumer is trying to buy and it is achieved only by the use of pesticides.
I hope that the Minister will reflect on the question I asked about the value of the benefits of pesticides so that we can have a more constructive approach. As has rightly been said, the organic sector is extremely important and is growing fast; it is by far the fastest growing sector of agriculture. I take the view that the most successful consequence of the organic movement has actually been the reduction of pesticides more widely in agriculture, rather than the increase in demand for organic food per se. There is no doubt that there is much greater concern now about the unnecessary use of pesticides.
Over the past few years farming profits and the economics of agriculture have declined dramatically. There is no doubt that as farmers have sought to cut their costs they have looked at how much they spend on pesticides and have reduced usage as far as they possibly can without having a disbenefit in terms of lost yield or quality. However, there is certainly not the prophylactic approach to spraying pesticides that existed a number of years ago.
I understand that the approval process at present requires that member states give provisional approval for an active ingredient and usage. I hope that full approval will come through consideration by all the other member states so we can obtain cross-EU approval. The problem, as I understand it, is that most other member states have far slower approval processes than the UK. The Pesticides Safety Directorate is exceptionally good at going through the approvals process rigorously but in a relatively short space of time compared to many other countries. However right it might be in principle to seek to have EU-wide systems of approval, I am concerned that we might end up being forced to go slower rather than faster because of the speed of other countries.
I understand that the Government are concerned about whether the European agency that is to be set up to consider approvals will be able to do so in the time scale that we require. There is clearly a competitive issue if a pesticide is being used in America, South America or somewhere else in the world but is denied to our producers for a year or two because our approvals process is slower, so I am very concerned that the approvals process should be as effective and quick under the proposals as it is under the PSD in this country. I hope that the Minister shares my concern.
Obviously there are huge advantages in having a Europe-wide system. It is better for the manufacturer and it allows volume, particularly with minority crops, for many of which the UK market is not big enough to justify the expense of going through the approvals process for an active ingredient. If the whole of Europe could be covered, that expense should be more effective.
I touched on the issue of imports when I asked the Minister about VAT. There is a lot of concern from producers who would like to import chemicals from France, where they are often cheaper, but cannot because it is illegal and because manufacturers often say that there is a slightly different formulation for France. That situation is viewed somewhat sceptically by a lot of people who think that it is just a restriction on trade. They see no reason why there should not be intra-Community trade in pesticide products. An EU-wide approvals process would go a long way toward that. Overall, it has to be right that approval is given Europe-wide but we must not lose the speed.
I want to ask the Minister about comparative assessment and substitution, which the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire mentioned. Obviously, we want to substitute chemicals that are currently used for safer ones if they are available—that makes sense—but I am concerned that the process that has been described could mean that we lose the idea of considering specific products for specific uses. If a product causes problems in the aquatic environment and should therefore be substituted in that environment, that does not necessarily mean that it should not be used on the uplands or somewhere else where there is not an aquatic problem. I am a concerned that we should not throw out the baby with the bath water—to carry on the aquatic theme.
My final point about the approvals process concerns imports from outside the EU. I touched on this issue when I talked about competitiveness, but there are also issues of health and safety to consider such as with environmental and food safety. In Europe, we do not yet really get to grips with what pesticides are used on produce that is imported from outside the EU. If we are to have a more effective system of European approvals for what we use within the Union, the EU needs to look more carefully at policing, regulating and controlling what is used on products that we import. If we ban the use of a particular product because we do not think that our consumers should consume products that have been treated with it, it does not matter whether it was sprayed on in Spain or South America—the same rules should apply. I hope that the Minister will respond to that.
It would clearly be absurd to oppose the ideas at this stage, because they are little more than ideas and there is so much to do. I look forward to the Minister’s reply to my comments, and I hope that he will bear in mind the need to keep the House informed about how this development proceeds and take that point back to his colleagues. I hope that he will undertake to bring this matter back to the Committee at a later stage, when we will perhaps have far more definitive ideas about what might appear in the regulations before they are finally approved. As he rightly said, that process will clearly take some years yet.
5.25 pm
Mr. Williams: Thank you, Mr. Martlew. I shall be comparatively brief. The way in which we carry out agriculture by growing vast acres of single species puts those crops at risk of attack by bacteria, fungal diseases, insects and weeds. A number of chemicals have been designed to protect crops in those circumstances—fungicides, herbicides and insecticides. We now call them plant protection products, because that sounds more benign than using those previous titles. Numerous dangerous products have been used on fruit crops, and no doubt chemicals will be designed for certain processes that will not be satisfactory in terms of safety. It is good that Britain has had effective systems in place in order to ensure that the authorisation and application of these products has been first class, so as to protect the people who apply the products and the public—the people who eat them and the people who live close to where the crops are grown.
The comments made by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire were pertinent, and we look forward to receiving more detail on the proposals. I want to ensure that the safety of food in Britain and of the public will not be jeopardised by a harmonisation process taking us back rather than forward. We are always looking for safer products. We need those products in place as quickly as possible and that should not be delayed by a process that means that a large number of countries have to agree on something rather than Britain being able to act alone.
I am also concerned that products coming into this country have been contaminated by chemicals that would not be allowed here. We are all aware of examples of animals and plants being produced under the worst conditions and then exported to this country, despite the fact that animal welfare and other issues have not been addressed appropriately.
The detail of these proposals will be important. While we might not look forward to discussing them over a long period of time, the Minister and his officials have a duty to ensure that when they are set out, they are for the benefit of both the growers in this country and the public, who eat the products and have the right to know that products are grown in the best conditions and in the safest manner.
5.28 pm
Mr. Prentice: Just a couple of quick points, which echo comments that have been made by Opposition Members. We buy mange-tout from Kenya and grapes from Chile. I take the point that we ought to know more about the pesticides that are used outside the European Union on food that is widely consumed here. I do not have an immediate answer, but the Minister will want to address the issue.
On the second point about perfectly good food being thrown away because it has a minor blemish, I hope that the Minister can, in discussions with the supermarkets, do something to educate the public that apples do not need to be perfectly spherical to be good to eat. They can be knobbly and quite unattractive to the eye, but still be very tasty indeed. The issue of educating the public is important.
The Chairman: You are straying a little.
Mr. Prentice: I know I am.
The Chairman: If you came back in order, it would be helpful.
Mr. Prentice: The final point, which Opposition Members have raised, is about toxicity. The Government want to address that issue, because “pesticide” freaks people out. People assume that it means highly toxic. I hope that when we return to these matters, we shall have more information about how toxic or how benign the products are that are put on our food.
5.30 pm
Ian Pearson: This has been a good debate, and a helpful one in airing concerns and questions that will need to be clarified at what is still an early stage of debate about the Commission’s proposals.
Control of pesticides is an issue that generates diverging and often strongly held opinions, as my hon. Friend the Member for Pendle rightly recognises. The Government believe that carefully controlled and responsible use of pesticide can deliver real benefits to society. Equally, however, we recognise that pesticides can be hazardous, and it is important that we minimise the risk associated with their use.
Both proposals, in particular the regulations to replace directive 91/414, contain complex technical provisions. The Government want clarification on at least as many questions as have been asked today; however, broadly speaking, the Commission’s proposals represent a reasonable package to strengthen current controls proportionately. As I said, we shall nonetheless need substantial clarification and amendments on many important details.
I assure the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire that the Government would not support quantitative reduction targets in usage. It is important to focus on the negative impacts of pesticide use and on their reduction, rather than on the quantity of products used. I agree with the need for a quick and effective approvals process, and that outcome should be delivered. The hon. Gentleman also made several valid points about comparative assessment and substitution, which we shall bear fully in mind.
Several hon. Members, including the hon. Gentleman and the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire, raised questions about imports. There is separate legislation on maximum residue levels in food, and it allows us to ensure that imported food is safe for consumers.
The final point made by the hon. Member for South-East Cambridgeshire was about flexibilities and the successful voluntary arrangements that we have in the United Kingdom. That operating system is successful, and we want to ensure that the flexibilities in the proposals enable us to continue with that good approach. We want to work with the Commission and with other member states to develop a proportionate package of measures to enhance public and environmental protection. We believe that we can do that, and we undertake to do so in full consultation with the Committee and with other interested parties.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee takes note of European Community Documents No. 11902/06 + addendum 1, Commission Communication: A thematic strategy on the sustainable use of pesticides, and 11896/06 + addenda 1-2, draft Directive establishing a framework for Community action to achieve a sustainable use of pesticides, and 11755/06 + addenda 1-12, draft regulation concerning the placing of plant protection products on the market; and agrees with the Government’s proposed negotiating position relating to the thematic strategy on the sustainable use of pesticides and the authorisation of plant protection products.
Committee rose at twenty-six minutes to Six o’clock.

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