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Agriculture (Poisonous Substances) Bill Hl

Volume 176: debated on Tuesday 20 May 1952

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5.45 p.m.

Order of the Day for the House to be put into Committee read.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—( Lord Carrington.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly:

[The EARL OF DROGHEDA in the Chair]

Clause 1 [ Protection of employees against risks of poisoning]:

moved to add to the clause:

("(6) When the Minister of Agriculture and Fisheries and the Secretary of State, or either of them, propose or proposes to make regulations under this Act, they or he shall before making the regulations consult with such organisations as appear to them or him to represent the interests concerned ")

The noble Lord said: I hope that this Amendment will prove slightly less controversial than some of the Amendments we have discussed this afternoon. Under Clause 1 of this Bill the Minister of Agriculture and the Secretary of State for Scotland quite rightly take wide powers to make regulations for the safety of those who use poisonous substances in agriculture. As we all know, the use of these substances has greatly increased during the last few years, and the farmer to-day is engaged in a chemical warfare of ever-increasing intensity and complexity. There are many employed in this warfare. There are the farm workers and contractors' employees, who are the spearhead; but there are also involved farmers, contractors, manufacturers and scientists. The use of new sprays and poisons and new uses for old ones are constantly being evolved. The regulations are likely to be of a very technical nature, and many of those who work in the industry fear that at some time the Ministry may take upon itself the job of making regulations without consulting those whose interests are involved. There is a possibility that a regulation which looks very well on paper in Whitehall will not lock quite so well when it reaches the farm. The noble Lord, Lord Carrington, speaking on the Second Reading the Bill, at the end of his speech, said (OFFICIAL. REPORT, VOl. 176, col. 409):

"We shall consult the interests concerned about the precise regulations to be made, in the same way that we have been consulting them about the voluntary arrangements to be made in the meantime. I am sure that we shall have their full co-operation in determining the form that these regulaions should take."

All that I am asking is that he should put something in the Bill to make the holding of these consultations a statutory obligation, and thus allay any possible fears for the future. It is in no way intended to weaken the Minister's powers in making these very necessary safety regulations, and I hope the noble Lord will be able to accept my Amendment. I beg to move.

Amendment moved—

Page 3, line 4, at end insert the said subsection.—(Lord Amherst of Hackney.)

As my noble friend Lord Amherst has said, on the Second Reading of this Bill I did say that we intended to consult the interests concerned about the precise regulations to be made, in exactly the same way that we have been consulting them about the voluntary arrangements to be made in the meantime. We have tried to make the arrangements for consultation as flexible as possible and have consulted whichever interests were concerned—whether farmers, farmworkers, agricultural contractors or insecticide manufacturers—according to the particular matters to be discussed. We have also on occasion brought them all together for conferences on important and general matters of policy.

In many cases the things on which consultation will be necessary will be highly technical and Care are considerable advantages in discussing such matters with small groups of people rather than in large committees or conferences. That is why there is no special provision in the Bill for consultative machinery. We thought it best to leave this to the discretion of Ministers and Departments on the understanding that there is every intention to consult the interests concerned and to keep them fully informed. However, I can weal understand that those concerned would feel reassured if the words which the noble Lord suggests were included in the Bill to make quite certain that there will be consultation, am sorry to notice that the noble Earl the Leader of the opposition and the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, are not in their places, because I expect that they would receive my next words with surprise and gratification—

You did not actually make the remark which I am thinking of. I am sure your Lordships will receive with pleasure the information that we shall be happy to accept the noble Lord's Amendment.

On Question, Amendment agreed to.

Clause 1, as amended, agreed to.

Clauses 2 to 8 agreed to.

Clause 9 [ Substances to which this Act applies]:

5.51 p.m.

moved, in subsection (1) after paragraph (d) to insert:

"(e) preparations or mixtures containing any substance which has come into economic use in the United Kingdom since 1st January, 1935, that is to say has been offered for sale publicly for use otherwise than experimentally in agriculture;"
The noble Lord said: I am greatly encouraged by what the noble Lord, Lord Carrington, said a few moments ago, and I hope that his disposition to accept Amendments is not confined to those emanating from one side of the House only. The Amendment which I am moving is intended to give a greater measure of protection to those concerned in using poisonous substances in agriculture than is given in the Bill as it stands. I only wish that I were able, within the limits of order, to extend that protection to the consumer of agricultural substances which have been subjected to treatment with poisons in the course of production. As I am not able to do that, I say at any rate let us try to give more ample protection to those who have to work with such substances.

As the Bill stands, it applies specifically to only two classes of poisons, and to no others. There is power, of course, under the Bill, by means of regulations to add other classes of poisonous substances, but I do not regard that as being adequate protection. Let us take the two classes which are specifically provided for in the Bill. One of those is the dinitro compounds, which include D.N.O.C. and D.N.P., which were introduced for use as medicines as long ago as 1933, for the purpose of treating certain diseases. In the course of their use for that purpose, it was discovered that they were dangerous poisons. Many cases of poisoning occurred and some deaths were reported from their use in medicine, and I understand that by 1937 their use for medical purposes had been discontinued. In spite of that fact, these substances were introduced for use in agriculture, and it is because people using them for that purpose have become seriously ill, and in some cases have died, that this Bill has now been introduced. I hope we are not going on in that way, and that other substances are only going to be dealt with after the necessity has been brought to our notice by such disastrous means as that. It is on that account that I am proposing that the Bill shall apply to substances which have been introduced in recent times.

The date which I have suggested in my Amendment, January 1, 1935, appears to be somewhat arbitrary, I agree; but I think it is fairly certain that all the highly dangerous substances in use in agriculture have come into use since that time. It is true, I admit, that there are other poisonous substances which were in use before then. Preparations of lead and preparations of arsenic have been used in agriculture for a very long time, but at any rate with them there is the safeguard that they are very well-known poisons, and the care that should be exercised in respect of them is more or less common knowledge. But when we come to these highly complex synthetic chemicals which have been introduced in recent times—as pesticides and so on—we are dealing with a very great potential danger, and I am therefore suggesting to the Committee that none of these substances should be allowed to be used in agriculture except with the permission of the Ministry of Agriculture and subject to regulations which the Ministry have laid down with regard to each one of them. That is the purpose of my Amendment—to provide that these substances shall not be used except and until the Ministry have laid down the conditions under which they are to be used—if indeed, they are to be used at all. Some of them, possibly, ought not to be used under any consideration whatsoever. But I do not go so far as that. I say merely that these new substances ought to be subject to scrutiny, and that the regulations should apply to them as well as to the two classes of substances specifically mentioned in the Bill. I beg to move.

Amendment moved—

Page 8, line 3, at end insert the said paragraph.—(Lord Douglas of Barloch.)

I must confess that when I first saw the noble Lord's Amendment on the Marshalled List I was rather at a loss to understand for what purpose he had put it down, because it is very wide indeed. I think perhaps I ought to explain once again that the intention of this Bill as it now stands is threefold. First of all, it is designed to bring within the scope of the regulations all dinitro compounds. Secondly, it is designed to bring in all organo-phosphorus compounds. Thirdly, it gives the Ministers powers to make regulations about any other substances which at some later date may involve a substantial risk of poisoning to the workers concerned. The noble Lord's Amendment would seem to make the Bill very much less specific than it now is by including any preparations or mixtures, whether they are poisonous or not, which have come into use in agriculture since January, 1935. As I explained during my speech on the Second Reading—I know the noble Lord does not agree with me about this, but I assure him once again that it really is so—at the present time only the dinitro and the organo-phosphorus compounds involve risk of poisoning to the worker using them. No other substance—D.D.T., for example, about which I know the noble Lord is concerned—involves any risk to the operators. Moreover, the noble Lord's Amendment seems to suggest that the Minister should be able to make regulations about any substance he likes without any specific authority fog its inclusion and without any criterion based upon its dangerous qualities. As I have mentioned, there is ample power in Clause 9, subsections (2), (3) and (4) for the Minister to include any new substance which he considers might be dangerous to workers on the land. I regret, therefore, I am unable to accept the noble Lord's Amendment.

I am sorry to hear the noble Lord say that. I think part of his remarks are based on a misconception of the meaning of my Amendment. Obviously it relates only to poisonous substances. I would draw the noble Lord's attention to Clause 1 (1) which says:

"Provision shall be made by regulations under this Act for the purpose of protecting workers against risks of poisoning by substances to which this Act applies.…"
Obviously, if there is no risk of poisoning, the substances do not come within the scope of my Amendment. If the noble Lord agrees with the spirit of my Amendment, the point could be met simply by making "any substance" into "any poisonous substance," although I should have thought that was obvious from the whole scope of the Bill.

I was also sorry to hear the noble Lord assert with such dogmatism that there are no other substances beyond those named in the Bill which are in use at the present time and which are poisonous. There is a whole class of compounds, of which D.D.T. is one—chlordane, and others—and I should be greatly surprised to learn that the noble Lord's scientific advisers say these substances ate not poisonous. At any rate, there is a serious risk to persons who are engaged continually in using such substances. In the United States, it has been found that men engaged in using D.D.T. continuously have accumulated that substance to the extent of 100 parts per 1,000,000. It is true that they have not died of it, but what we have to be concerned about is not only the effect after a short period but also what the effect may be if such a substance is used year after year. There are many substances which are toxic only after ten or twenty years. There is a classic example of that in the use of radium. At one time it was extensively used for the purpose of making luminous the hands and dials of watches, and there were many cases in which the people concerned developed symptoms of radium poisoning but only after fifteen or twenty years had elapsed. I beg the noble Lord to realise that many of these substances are of classes which are known to be toxic if used for long periods, or if allied to other substances which are known to be toxic, and very great care is demanded of agricultural workers or others who come into contact with them. I hope that the Ministry are not going to jump lightheartedly to the conclusion that the two classes of substances mentioned in the Bill are the only ones which are potentially dangerous.

I do not think if I stayed the whole of this evening I should convince the noble Lord that what I said is true. So far as we know—and we know a good deal about this—the only two substances in use in agriculture to-day dangerous to the people who use them, to the agricultural workers and the contractors' men who put these substances on the ground, are the organo-phosphorus and dinitro compounds. I know that the noble Lord does not agree with me; and I do not agree with him. Perhaps I may say one other thing that I did not say in my first remarks. We are satisfied that if any new substances which may be dangerous to the workers come into general use in agriculture, we have power under this Bill to deal with them and to protect the workers. If I may say so with respect, I do not think the noble Lord is doing a very great service to agriculture in this country by continually stressing the dangers there are in putting these poisons on the land. There really is no danger, except a very limited one with which we are taking full steps to deal in this Bill.

I do not want to prolong the discussion, but I should like to ask the noble Lord one question. What steps are his Ministry taking to become aware of the properties of new substances which are being introduced for this purpose? At what early stage do they become acquainted with them? I have given the noble Lord an illustration, which he knows well, of the poisonous effect of a substance becoming known only after a long period of time.

That is the reason why we are bringing in this Bill. Obviously, it is the duty of a manufacturer of a new weed-killer to see that its properties are well known. He should carry out the necessary tests and trials and state clearly on his tins and containers what danger there is in the use of the poison. I do not agree that it is the duty of the Ministry of Agriculture to test out every single spray which has ever been invented in this country or any other. It would not be possible. It would mean engaging an enormous staff at great expense to test these new substances, in all sorts of places and all sorts of conditions, and it would mean considerable delay in bringing into use these extremely beneficial weed-killers, which have done a great deal to help our agricultural production. I am certain that that is the job of the manufacturer and not of the Ministry. The noble Lord asked me how we got to know what new substances were introduced as weed-killers. We have excellent contacts and relations with the manufacturers of these substances and we are not entirely ignorant of what goes on. We are quite satisfied that we have sufficient power under this Bill to deal with any eventuality that might arise.

On Question, Amendment negatived.

Clauses 9 and 10 agreed to.

Clause 11 [ Application to Scotland]:

moved in Subsection (3) (b) to leave out sub-paragraphs (ii) and (iii). The noble Lord said: This Amendment relates to the application of the Bill to Scotland and arises out of differences in procedure between Scottish and English law. In Scotland, separate proceedings on the instance of the Public Prosecutor are necessary to bring another person before the court where it is alleged that the contravention was due to that other person and not to the person charged. In England it is possible, as provided for in Clause 5 of the Bill, to convict that other person straight away if it is shown that the contravention was due to an act or default on his part. That difference in procedure makes it unnecessary in the case of Scotland to have the provisions which I am asking your Lordships to delete and, accordingly, I beg to move that they be omitted.

Amendment moved—

Page 9, leave out lines 22 to 25.—( Lord Carrington.)

On Question, Amendment agreed to.

Clause 11, as amended, agreed to.

Remaining clause agreed to.

House resumed.