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Volume 706: debated on Tuesday 16 December 2008


Asked By

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they will take in response to the judgment of the High Court on 14 November in the case of Downs v Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs about the effect on residents of pesticide spraying.

My Lords, the protection of the health of those who live, work or visit the countryside remains our highest priority. In the Downs v Secretary of State case, the Secretary of State has been given leave to appeal.

My Lords, I am not sure how grateful I am to the Minister for that Answer. Can I press him a step further? Would he agree that everybody wants to find a rapid solution to this problem? Indeed, there has been much co-operation already. Georgina Downs has worked with the NFU to try to find a solution, for example. Would he accept that indecision, uncertainty and lack of clarity is what everybody needs to avoid? Would he also accept that it is very important for his department to avoid the infamous reputation for dragging its feet that the old Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food had in the case of organophosphate pesticides?

My Lords, I do not recognise any dragging of feet in Defra. Of course I agree with the noble Lord on the question of certainty, but we need clarity. The Secretary of State has appealed and it is not appropriate for me to go into the details of that appeal. However, at the end of the day, we all want to see good practice and proportionate regulation.

My Lords, if the Government think that the decision is wrong, is there any reason why the Minister should not give the House some indication of what the grounds of appeal actually are?

My Lords, coming from the noble and learned Lord, that is a very tempting invitation, but I think I will resist.

My Lords, do the Government envisage any new, approved criteria for pesticides? Would the Minister agree that, if they accept the criteria of hazard presently being considered by the EU, they will probably need to rule out painkillers such as paracetamol?

My Lords, the noble Duke refers to the current negotiations within Europe about a new approach to pesticide control and the directives involved. He is absolutely right to draw attention to a matter of great concern for this Government. We are very active within Europe in making those concerns known.

My Lords, has any research been carried out into the incidence of cancer among people who have lived at some stage in the vicinity of fields subject to crop-spraying with pesticides?

My Lords, as far as I am aware there is no hard evidence of the long-term effects referred to by my noble friend. My department and, indeed, the Department of Health would always be alert to such evidence. We are not complacent, but, as I have said, I have no hard evidence to suggest that my noble friend is right that that might be the case.

My Lords, does the Minister accept that if we are to produce enough food, the use of pesticides is essential? The balance surely must be between that and farmers spraying in a sensible way—and obviously they have to be qualified for that. Anybody outside the Chamber listening to the debate might be slightly horrified by the suggested way that pesticides are used. If one wants to have enough food, they have to be used, but safely. That is really what the voluntary agreement is about, and there is very tight regulation within it.

My Lords, I cannot disagree with one word that the noble Baroness has said. Pesticides are a very important aid to farming and food production. Clearly, they must be used as safely as possible. We believe that we have a very tight regulatory regime. I echo her remarks that the voluntary initiative, the work of the stakeholders and the NFU in ensuring that pesticides are used as safely as possible should be commended and supported.

My Lords, I have the utmost sympathy with the Minister in answering this Question, as it is so difficult to express a belief one way or the other. Are there regulations about warning people when pesticide spraying is to go ahead, so that those who do not wish to be outside when an aeroplane is flying low over their land are made aware of it before it happens?

My Lords, I am ever grateful for the sympathy of the noble Baroness in the plight I am in. There are a number of scenarios set out in the pesticides code of practice as to when people, authorities and organisations need to be contacted before a chosen pesticide is used. As she suggested, they can include aerial application of pesticides and a number of other scenarios. There are some practical problems with prior notification. Often there may be a tight window of opportunity, such as suitable weather or very short timescales for the application of pesticides. We have to recognise some of the practical issues, but I have to say that, alongside the code of practice, our best approach is the encouragement of good practice, with which the voluntary initiative is very much concerned

My Lords, does the Minister agree that it would be a small help if people were advised frequently to wash fruit and vegetables thoroughly before eating or cooking them?

My Lords, that is very good advice. Many people know that, but one can never underestimate the need to put good advice across to the consumer. Overall, I believe that our regulatory regime, whether in terms of the application of pesticides, their licensing or the impact of residue that may be left on food, is very tight. However, we can never be complacent and we are ever alert to the need to make improvements, provided they are practical and proportionate.

My Lords, I want to follow on from what the noble Baroness, Lady Trumpington, said, and to say what I feel is happening now. Farmers or their staff used to do the spraying themselves, and we certainly told everyone where we were going to spray and, if possible, when. The new idea that all farmers should use contractors for everything means that contractors are much sloppier, and, judging by the way they are behaving around us, do not carry out these things properly.

My Lords, clearly, the farmer must take responsibility for the work undertaken on their farm by the contractor. The good practice code is clear about the benefits of giving the kind of warnings that the noble Lord has suggested. However, we should never be complacent and must do everything we can to ensure that where notification is appropriate, it is duly given.