28 Apr 2008 : Column 1

House of Lords

Monday, 28 April 2008.

The House met at half-past two: the LORD SPEAKER on the Woolsack.

Prayers—Read by the Lord Bishop of Leicester.

Health: Organophosphates and Carbamates

The Countess of Mar My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper. In doing so, I apologise to the House for a misprint which has appeared and which I did not pick up. The Question should read “carbamates” instead of the relatively benign “carbonates”.

The Question was as follows:

The Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Lord Rooker): My Lords, the Government have spent more than £4 million on research to investigate claims of ill health as a result of low-level exposure to organophosphates in sheep farmers. Another £8.5 million has been spent on investigating Gulf veterans’ illnesses. None of the research so far has confirmed a link between chronic low-level exposure to organophosphates and ill health in humans. Some studies relating to sheep dip remain to be completed, and their results will be reviewed on completion.

The noble Countess made a correction in her Question. Carbamates are a group of pesticides allied to OPs, but they are not components of sheep dips. They have not been raised in this context or by Gulf War veterans as a specific cause of illness.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Does he appreciate that it is now 16 years since the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, when he was in another place, and I started asking questions about sheep dip? Why do we rely entirely on British research in this country, when an enormous amount of research from the United States, Italy, Australia and New Zealand shows that low-level exposure to organophosphates causes ill health among sheep farmers and Gulf veterans? That was true also of Japanese people who were exposed to them during the recent terrorist attack. When will Her Majesty’s Government take their head out of the sand like the proverbial ostrich and deal with people’s ill health, rather than fencing so that they do not get involved in litigation? There are many sick people around who need help and attention but who are laughed at by the medical profession because nobody acknowledges that they are ill.

Lord Rooker: My Lords, nobody in government is laughing at people’s illnesses. In response to the first part of the noble Countess’s question, I say that I have been answering questions on this issue for 11 years, because it has been in front of the current Government as it was of the previous one.

We are taking account of research not just in this country. Research projects are under way, as the noble Countess knows, but some of them will not come to fruition until later this year or early next year. For example, we already have a permanent British liaison officer, based in Washington DC, who is tasked with ensuring that the UK has full view of US research into Gulf veterans’ illnesses and providing a channel for communicating our own work to interested parties.

The noble Countess referred to Australia. The Veterinary Medicines Directorate has assessed the Australian preliminary view of diazinon and concluded that the report contains nothing to suggest that diazinon sheep dips should be banned in the UK. The Veterinary Products Committee and its medical scientific panel have endorsed that assessment. However, as the noble Countess knows, research is ongoing. We have committed to a timescale for that of later this year and early next year.

28 Apr 2008 : Column 3

Lord Tyler: My Lords, does the Minister consider that the very large multinational chemical manufacturers are acting responsibly in this matter? In particular, does he believe that they should be making a contribution to the very considerable cost to which the noble Lord has referred, both for research in this country and for the treatment of the victims of organophosphates?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, as I have said, so far there has been no proven or confirmed link between chronic illness and low-level exposure. I do not know about the manufacturers; they may be used for other things. For example, with sheep dips, the procedure was changed from 2001 and it is virtually impossible for a farmer to be contaminated. Since 2001, we have had only nine suspected adverse reactions, which were in respect of older products made before 2001. If farmers follow the instructions for the closed system, they should be perfectly safe. When they are given bags of the material to put in the water trough and pierce it with a screwdriver rather than let the water do the work, that is asking for trouble. So it is a question of vigilance and following the rules. But in respect of the present system, there does not appear to be a problem.

Lord Morris of Manchester: My Lords, I, too, am grateful to my noble friend. How does total spending compare, here and in the United States, on research into the still medically unexplained illnesses of Gulf War veterans, including the effects of their exposure to organophosphates; and what has spending here so far achieved?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I know that I am answering for the Government on this issue, but I shall get my noble friend Lady Taylor to send my noble friend a specific response. I do not have any figures on what the Americans are spending. They are spending an enormous amount, as they had a lot of people in the field in the first Gulf War—more than 100,000, anyway. So a lot of work is going on there. We are kept fully up to date with that work, as I have said, with a liaison officer permanently based in Washington. But I shall get a letter to my noble friend.

Lord Soulsby of Swaffham Prior: My Lords, in view of the availability of a variety of alternative compounds to organophosphates for the use of sheep dips, what warning is given to sheep farmers, in addition to protective clothing, about the potential toxicity? How is that information made available via Defra?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, the instructions were always clear. In the past, under the old system, the farmers made it clear to me, in my first visit to MAFF—as it was—as a Minister, that putting on the heavy rubber clothing was incredibly difficult and restricted their mobility. The closed system, which came about in 2001, is much more practical, and full instructions are given by the manufacturers. In addition, there are alternatives, such as injectables and pour-ons, but their efficacy is not always as good as dipping the

28 Apr 2008 : Column 4

sheep. Defra is currently funding research into non-chemical means of dealing with the mites. So there is research, but it will be some years before we get a possible alternative to organophosphates on a non-chemical basis, so that it is safe for everybody except the mite.

The Countess of Mar: My Lords, will the Minister acknowledge that science demonstrates that there is a sub-group of about 10 per cent of the population that is extremely susceptible to organophosphates exposure? Does he accept that even the Health and Safety Executive acknowledges that inhalation is a problem with people susceptible to exposure to organophosphates? How do you stop breathing when you are working with your sheep after they have been dipped?

Lord Rooker: My Lords, I fully understand where the noble Countess is coming from, but she is inviting me to make a scientific judgment, which I am not qualified to do. All the information I have is that the science is not there. However, there are projects still to be completed, which I detailed in my letter to the noble Countess and to the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, on 20 February. I regret the time that this is taking, but that is one problem of the review of literature that the Committee on Toxicity needs to address, which will not be completed until towards the end of 2009. Some other research projects should be completed by this April and two more by this September—and, of course, they will be fully reported on.

Identity Cards

2.44 pm

Lord Young of Norwood Green asked Her Majesty’s Government:

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Home Office (Lord West of Spithead): My Lords, a detailed charging strategy for the national identity scheme is still to be fully developed, although it is intended that, over time, the running costs of the scheme will be recovered from fees, just as they are now for passports. The national identity scheme delivery plan, published on 6 March this year, reiterates the commitment to set the fee for an identity card in 2009-10 at £30 or less.

Lord Young of Norwood Green: My Lords, I thank my noble friend for that Answer. Does he agree that the case for identity cards has been made, given that identity fraud costs the UK approximately £1.7 billion a year and that many professional criminals and terrorists frequently use identity fraud as a means of evading detection? Also, will he assure the House that the Government will look into the question of ensuring absolute security on the systems used and control the costs?

28 Apr 2008 : Column 5

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, my noble friend is absolutely right about how important it is to establish one’s identity and the real risks involved. This morning I visited Woodhill Prison because I wished to discuss issues about extremism. I tried to get in by showing my House of Lords identity pass, but that did not seem good enough, although one slightly amusing cove said, “We have had a couple of you in here before, sir”. My naval identity card was accepted but they were not too happy with my driving licence.

As some noble Lords will know, I had a birthday recently and I am applying for a freedom pass. I find that I need a passport, a utility bill, Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all. We all carry a plethora of documents and it is extraordinary how much data one can find out about individuals from this raft of things, including shopping preferences, credit ratings and God knows what. It is not surprising that the financial sector strongly supports having ID cards. They will be useful things and will have some utility in relation to counterterrorism, although that is not their prime aim.

Viscount Bridgeman: My Lords, I remind the Minister that my right honourable friend David Davis has written to the Cabinet Secretary giving formal notice that an incoming Conservative Government would scrap the identity card scheme. In the light of that and the long-standing convention that no Parliament can bind a successor Parliament, what provision, if any, has been made in the relevant contractual arrangements to protect the Government and public funds against the costs that would be incurred as a result of the early cancellation of the scheme by an incoming Conservative Government?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, I have to say that I do not know exactly the answer to that. We are at the moment in debate with five companies over provision of ID cards and I will have to get back to the noble Viscount in writing about what provision has been made. Not introducing them would be a terrible mistake. I am glad to say that it is very unlikely that the Conservatives will get in, so I hope that there will not be a problem.

Lord Maxton: My Lords, has my noble friend read or heard about the Rowntree report today on electoral fraud? Does he agree that the early compulsory introduction of identity cards would go a long way to solving the problem of electoral fraud and make it considerably easier for people to vote in a variety of places?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, my noble friend makes an extremely good point; the scheme would be extremely useful for that. Of course, we will be looking after people's documentation and details far better than this plethora of other people. There have been some very bad incidents—the case involving HMRC was bad—but we have to get used to the fact that in this country we need to use data if we are to run and organise things. We need to put in place the right rules to make sure that that happens, which we are doing with the national identity register. We have

28 Apr 2008 : Column 6

three blocs—three systems—that will form the NIR. We have made sure that there is personal security, physical security, legislative security and technical security. There can always be mistakes but, my goodness me, we must ensure that we try to get these things right. It is something that we have to do across the public and private sectors within this country.

Baroness Falkner of Margravine: My Lords, the Minister waxes lyrical about the security of data; I will not tempt him by going down that road, but will he revert to the fees of ID cards? Is he aware of the estimate of the London School of Economics—that it may cost as much as £300 per person, rather than the £30 figure that he gave? Can he confirm that when a card is lost, stolen or someone changes their name because of marriage or for any other reason, they will have to pay the cost, and do so over and over again every time their circumstances change?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, as regards the cost of the ID card and that of a passport, it is fairly clear that we are looking at £30 for an ID card in 2009-10 and £72 for a passport. Indeed, we will report in May with an update on the total cost of the whole package, which includes contributions from people, which was last given as £5.46 billion; it looks as though we might have squeezed a billion out of that by negotiating with the various companies involved. We will also look at trying to have reductions for poorer people and try to drive that price down for those who receive well below the minimum wage. Perhaps we can find some easy way of doing that. As regards costs if one loses a card, at the moment, as I understand it, you will have to pay the cost again as one does when one loses other things. I shall get back to the noble Baroness in writing on charges when one gets married.

Lord Lawson of Blaby: My Lords, is not the Minister aware that he may have inadvertently given the impression in his reply to his noble friend that it is acceptable to wait until identity cards are introduced, if ever, before dealing with the very serious problem of electoral fraud? Is he not aware that that is wholly unacceptable? Does he not believe that that needs to be tackled straight away and that individual registration may well be the way forward?

Lord West of Spithead: My Lords, if I gave that impression, it is certainly not what I meant. There is no doubt that electoral fraud is appalling and strikes at the roots of our democracy. Therefore, I would never have said that.

Inflation: Consumer Prices Index

2.51 pm

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes asked Her Majesty’s Government:

28 Apr 2008 : Column 7

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, the production of the CPI is the responsibility of the Office for National Statistics, the executive office of the independent UK Statistics Authority. The items in the CPI basket of goods and services, and the weights used to combine these items into a single index, are reviewed every year. They were last updated on 18 March 2008. The next review is due in March 2009.

Baroness Oppenheim-Barnes: My Lords, will the noble Lord take a look at the Government’s own Family Expenditure Survey, which shows clearly that lower-income families all the way up to middle-income families spend a much larger proportion of their expenditure on items that have been either downgraded or excluded altogether from the CPI? If somebody tells them that inflation is running at 2.5 per cent when they know that it is about 7 per cent, they think that a cruel joke is being played on them, especially as their pensions and benefits are linked to this and are nowhere near adequate or honest.

Lord Davies of Oldham: No, my Lords. Their pensions and benefits are linked to the RPI, which is at 3.9 per cent—60 per cent higher than the CPI. However, the noble Baroness is right that some household budgets, certainly among the poorest, are suffering against a background of rising energy and food prices, which we all recognise present real problems. That is why the Government have taken action to delay the rise in fuel duty and are approaching energy retailers to make sure that they tackle fuel poverty issues. We also address the winter fuel allowance each year in these terms. Of course, we are concerned about the shocks that occur to the system from time to time, but inflation is not only historically low in the United Kingdom, but lower than elsewhere.

Lord Peston: My Lords, it is irresponsible for anybody, certainly someone from the Official Opposition, to suggest that the Office for National Statistics is not doing its professional job in a professional way. The facts are that at the moment the RPI and the CPI are rising at approximately 2.5 per cent per annum. Independent forecasters—I emphasise “independent”—predict that the rate of increase of each of those will fall next year, which suggests that inflation policy is well under control. You can always construct people or a family who buy different things. That is something of which the ONS is aware, but it is not its job. Its job is to calculate these indices professionally and objectively.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, my noble friend is right that the CPI is the internationally recognised inflation rate. The Office for National Statistics is an independent body; this House passed the Bill last year to increase the independence of the Office for National Statistics so that it could carry out exactly the professional role to which my noble friend has alluded. The CPI is therefore of crucial significance to our measurement of inflation in this country compared with that in all other advanced countries.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page