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House of Lords

Wednesday, 1st November 1995.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Lichfield.

Lord Eames

The Most Reverend Robert Henry Alexander Eames, Archbishop of Armagh and Primate of All Ireland, having been created Baron Eames, of Armagh in the County of Armagh, for life—Was, in his robes, introduced between the Lord Blease and the Lord Weatherill.

Lord Vernon—Took the Oath.

Organophosphates: Australian Judgment

The Countess of Mar asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What action they propose to take in the light of the award made to a sheep shearer by the Supreme Court of New South Wales, Australia (October 1995) for damages for chronic ill health caused by his exposure to sheep which had been treated with the organophosphate Diazinon.

Lord Lucas: My Lords, none. The plaintiff's exposure to Diazinon in the Australian case was the result of a failure to take basic occupational hygiene measures during the shearing process, and the United Kingdom health and safety legislation is already sufficient to prevent this when properly complied with. The plaintiff's long-term symptoms were typical of those experienced by some people after short duration, high level exposures leading to acute poisoning.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. I must confess that it is a little disappointing, but I did not expect much more. In view of the fact that Her Majesty's Government and manufacturers failed to warn farmers and doctors until 1991 of the acute effects, commonly known as dipping flu, I again ask the noble Lord to look seriously at the cases of the people who believe they have been affected by organophosphates. Is he aware that not one of them has been approached by either the Ministry of Agriculture or the Department of Health to see what they are suffering from, and the epidemiological study which is now in progress will not cover those people?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I shall bring the remarks of the noble Countess to the attention of my colleagues at the Department of Health. I do not have an answer to the question she raised.

Lord Carter: My Lords, is the Minister aware that, besides the case in Australia, a sheep farmer in this country was awarded damages for OP poisoning by an industrial tribunal in Newcastle in December 1994? Since that poisoning took place during the years when

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the Government imposed compulsory sheep dipping, does the Minister agree that the Government's arguments that these products are safe look increasingly threadbare?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, organophosphorus is a very toxic substance. It is a nerve poison of some known potency. It is necessary to be extremely cautious when using it. However, if used safely, like many other medicines and insecticides it is safe.

Lord Carter: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. Can he tell the House how many of the 90,000 sheep farmers have passed the test of competence introduced by the Government as a safety measure?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, anyone who purchases OP sheep dips these days has to have that certificate of competence. So far as I am aware, to date about 12,000 people have that certificate. However, we are certain there is no route whereby OP sheep dips can be purchased without one.

The Earl of Clanwilliam: My Lords, will my noble friend assure the House that organophosphate resins are not used on milking dairy cows? Will he accept the danger, however remote, of contamination as a result of using that process?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, OP pour-ons are used, and have been used for a long time, on dairy cows. They are put on straight after milking so that there is no risk of contamination at milking time. As I am sure noble Lords are aware, hygiene standards in dairies are very high these days; otherwise, contamination of the milk with bacteria would be picked up in the dairies and would result in the farmer facing unpleasant financial consequences.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that not only sheep farmers but also dairy farmers believe that they are suffering from organophosphate poisoning? Tests with sheep dip prove that the organophosphate remains in the sheep's wool until at least 10 weeks after dipping. Is it not carrying belief a little too far to consider that a dairy farmer can work in an enclosed milking parlour within about eight hours of pouring an organophosphate product on to the back of his cows without being affected? What tests have been undertaken to prove that the product is absolutely safe?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, I am not aware that any problem with cows has been brought to our notice resulting from use of organophosphorus pour-ons. Regarding the alleged chronic effects of organophosphorus compounds, the noble Countess will be aware that we are currently spending £0.5 million on the study to find out whether there are any such effects. To date, we have no evidence that there are.

Lord Ashley of Stoke: My Lords, having listened to the marvellous campaign waged by the noble Countess, and having heard the Minister, I am more convinced by the noble Countess's allegations than by the Minister's defensive replies. Instead of waiting for complaints to

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be made to them, is it not time for the Government to approach farmers in order to investigate the allegations and do something positive?

Lord Lucas: My Lords, as I said, we are spending £0.5 million on the matter. I congratulate the noble Countess on her campaign which she has waged long and hard. I have listened to it with great interest over many years. It is no mean compliment to her efforts that we are spending £0.5 million in pursuit of a symptom which we have no evidence exists.

Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting, Auckland

2.55 p.m.

Viscount Waverley asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What proposals they will table for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) at Auckland.

Lord Chesham: My Lords, no formal proposals have been tabled. However, the Commonwealth Secretary-General has proposed that the theme for the Heads of Government meeting in Auckland should be "Fulfilling the Harare Declaration". That should be considered under three headings: advancing Commonwealth fundamental political values; promoting sustainable development; and facilitating consensus building.

Viscount Waverley: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that reply. The Commonwealth has gained an enviable reputation as a powerful tool for good. Given Britain's policy of matching secretariat contributions at 30 per cent., does the Minister accept that there is a double negative effect if contributors reduce their pledges? What can be done to encourage the new rich members of the Commonwealth to increase their contributions?

Lord Chesham: My Lords, the Government pay 30 per cent. of the secretariat's assessed budget. The ODA contributes 30 per cent. towards the cost of the Commonwealth Fund for Technical Co-operation, which is the aid wing of the Commonwealth secretariat.

My right honourable friend the Prime Minister will work with his fellow heads of government for practical proposals under each of those headings and in particular for Commonwealth support for enhanced co-operation between Commonwealth governments to promote good government in all member states.

I am sure that the noble Viscount will concede that the Commonwealth is not only about money.

Lord Thomson of Monifieth: My Lords, is the Minister aware that the role of the UK in the Commonwealth conferences remains important? Will he tell your Lordships' House what action Her Majesty's Government will take in bilateral contacts at the Auckland meeting in order to persuade Gambia, Sierra Leone and, above all, the Government of Nigeria that

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continuing membership of the Commonwealth is consistent only with making real progress on the Harare Declaration?

Lord Chesham: My Lords, the Government are totally against any countries which are militarily directed. However, it is felt that there is a greater chance of improving government by assisting through the Commonwealth rather than by refusing such assistance.

Lord Callaghan of Cardiff: My Lords, I do not press the Minister for a substantive reply. However, will he convey to the Prime Minister that many of us believe that as regards Nigeria, a constructive proposal should be put forward rather than sitting back and doing nothing? A possible proposal could be to send a Commonwealth delegation—we sent such a delegation to South Africa some years ago—in order to seek to discuss with General Abacha the requirement that Nigeria should return to democratic rule and to proper civil rights within a lesser period than the three years now proposed.

Lord Chesham: My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for that suggestion. I shall relay it to the Prime Minister.

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