Question for Short Debate
My Lords, I declare an interest. I was poisoned by organophosphate sheep dip in 1989. In fact, it is almost exactly 20 years since I was doused while helping to dip our sheep. Prior to that, I had been chronically exposed to a variety of OPs in common use on farms and in homes. At the time we were led to believe that OPs were safe if used as instructed. It was not until 1991, after a long process of elimination and observation after further exposures, that the cause of my illness became clear to me and to my GP. Contrary to received belief, the signs and symptoms of poisoning were not temporary and, for me, the effects are still evident today. I am extremely fortunate in that I have supportive medical practitioners whose main objective in life is not to poison me further.
Sheep dipping once or twice yearly in the UK was compulsory from 1975 to 1992 as part of the regime to control sheep scab. OPs replaced organochlorines from the early 1980s after the latter were found to persist in the environment. It was in 1992 that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, then Paul Tyler MP, and I independently started to ask questions about the safety of using OPs as veterinary medicines and as both agricultural and domestic pesticides. Indeed, I almost said, “Welcome to the ‘Mar and Tyler Show’” because we have been together on this for so long, but perhaps I should say the ‘Mar, Tyler and Rooker Show’ because the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has also been involved for a long time. In 1992, the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and I first met John Gummer, then the Minister of Agriculture, to ask him to apply a moratorium on OP sheep dips. By this time it was becoming clear that OPs were affecting a significant number of individuals who were using them or were inadvertently exposed to them. At first, the Government assured us that these products were safe and that they presented no risk to human health. Since then there has been progress and their acute effects are readily acknowledged. Many OPs have been removed from the market, while stringent instructions now apply to those that are still in use. But there is still no recognition of their chronic central and autonomic nervous system effects.
Following close on the heels of the sheep farmers and other agricultural workers were some Gulf War veterans who reported very similar adverse health effects following medication with pyridostigmine bromide, a carbamate closely related to OPs, and exposure to OP nerve gas and pesticide sprays. Despite the fact that the US Research Advisory Committee on Gulf War Illnesses recently concluded that some 25 per cent of Gulf War veterans—25 per cent of more than 6,000 people—are suffering the effects of OP poisoning, the British Government persist in their denial that these same exposures have had any effect on our troops. More recently, airline pilots and crew have reported ill effects following exposure to cabin air contaminated by leaking engine oil that produces very toxic OPs when heated.
In all these groups, scientific research has shown consistently that there may be a relationship between long-term, low-level exposure to organophosphates and the development of neurobehavioural problems. The first study of sheep farmers was in 1991, and the latest was published this year. As there have been very few reports of adverse reactions to OP sheep dips in recent years, it is fairly safe to assume that the problems are persistent. It is interesting that Dr Sarah Mackenzie Ross, who conducted the Defra-funded research entitled Neuropsychological and Psychiatric Functioning in Sheep Farmers Exposed to Organophosphate Pesticides, had to eliminate 60 per cent of possible subjects, all of whom were sheep farmers exposed to OPs, because they had other conditions. Among those eliminated were people with a history of acute exposure; those with a neurological condition such as Parkinson’s disease or multiple sclerosis and those with heart conditions and lung disease, all of which are associated with possible toxic causation. This means that those in whom she did find neuropsychiatric problems were likely to have been those who had the lowest exposure to OPs.
When the Labour Party came into Government in 1997, Ministers from all the departments involved agreed that an interdepartmental group of high-level officials should be formed to report to Ministers on the continuing public debate over whether OPs damage human health. This was the Official Group on Organophosphates, also known as the Carden Committee, although I understand that Mr Carden has since retired. The group reported in 1998 and a number of its recommendations, including a research programme, were implemented, for which I am grateful. I understand that the group has met occasionally since then, the last time being 26 June 2007. As the minutes of its meetings are not published, we have no means of knowing the detail of their discussions.
What is clear is that the science has moved on considerably since 1998. The Carden report gives at paragraph 2.2 a simple explanation of the manner in which inhibitors of acetylcholinesterase function, stating:
“In the case of most OPs and all medicinal and pesticidal anticholinesterase OP products the effect is either reversible or recoverable”.
It also reminds us that some non-OPs are anticholinesterases and that they have similar toxicity to anticholinesterase OPs, to which I shall come later. There appears to be a genetic susceptibility to OP poisoning. It is recognised that cytochrome P450 enzymes, Paraoxonase-1 and butyrylcholinesterase play important parts in the detoxification of anticholinesterases. It has also been recognised for some time that there are flaws in the traditional methods of assessing exposure to OPs by measuring metabolites for specific OPs in the urine or measuring levels of red blood cell acetylcholinesterase. The scientific paper Identification and Characterisation of Biomarkers of Organophosphorus (OP) Exposure in Humans by Kim et al, 2009, details,
“the development of rapid protocols for extraction of the target biomarker protein from a sample, digesting the enzyme and identifying the OP modified peptide by mass spectrometry”.
The authors go on to state:
“We feel these methods are optimal for filling the void of diagnosing and treating long-term exposures to several ubiquitous OPs”.
In the UK, the Government have funded a few neuropsychological function studies and epidemiological studies of shepherds exposed to OPs. None of these has gone into the detail of the US research on sick Gulf veterans. The US neurocognitive studies found similar significantly poorer performance results on veterans who had been exposed to anticholinesterase chemicals to those conducted in the UK on shepherds. Six out of seven projects that evaluated brain structure and function using highly specialised equipment found significant differences between veterans with Gulf War illnesses and healthy controls, although they qualify their results by stating that additional research is needed. I could go on, and those interested in the detail will find it in the US RAC report of last November. In view of the fact that providing scientific proof has been a virtual impossibility for those who are suffering the effects of OPs, may I ask the Minister how many of the most recent developments have been accepted in the UK?
I cannot express adequately the effect that the somewhat apathetic attitude of those who are responsible for ensuring our health and safety over the past 20 years has had. By failing to study individuals who report symptoms after more than a minute exposure to OPs in the initial stages and by failing to conduct longitudinal studies, they may well have exposed many sick people to at least a poor quality of life or at worst an early death. My own experience has taught me that there is an almost total lack of understanding of the life-threatening heart and lung function damage and of the effects of administering drugs that act on the acetylcholine system. The Health and Safety Executive’s leaflet MS17, Medical aspects of work-related exposures to organophosphates, warns of the effects of repeated absorption of small doses of OPs. However, I can find no warning to the medical profession of the effects of administering any of a wide range of drugs that may have a similar action. First-line drugs for bladder incontinence, asthmatic symptoms and glaucoma are all in this group and the first two are, to my knowledge, also caused by OP damage to the autonomic system.
Is the Minister able to say how much research has been conducted into the effects that drugs which act on the acetylcholine system have on patients who have reported illness following exposure to organophosphate pesticides? If he knows of none, does he agree that this is an important consideration for a large number of agricultural workers, Gulf War veterans and aircrew? Should this not be an urgent consideration?
I have made a brief outline of some of the reasons why I believe that the Official Group on Organophosphates should reconvene. I have barely touched on recent developments in this field. I have asked that it should give the matter priority. I also ask that on this occasion it produces a report on the lines of its 1998 report.
My Lords, I support the noble Countess. Basically, the simple answer to her question should be yes. I am not going to go into all the background details because I am not as up-to-date as I was when I was one of the Ministers responsible in 1997-99 and then again from 2006-08 in one department, but the fact that this issue goes across departments is the central point that I wish to make.
As the noble Countess has said, there has been progress. The lack of exposure today is a result of the work that has been done by the industry, pushed by our officials in the Veterinary Medicines Directorate, in producing better containers from which people could not by accident, irrespective of negligence, be contaminated. There is no question that this was a serious issue in the past. However, this means that no new people from farming are coming into the system for the doctors and the scientists to look at. As I say, the problem transcends that, but there has been stagnation.
When we considered this problem in MAFF from very early on in 1997 and 1998, I had discussions with the then Minister, Jack Cunningham, who, with his background as a chemist, took it very seriously. We picked up from other departments that there were issues across government in regard to chemicals. Richard Carden—who, as the noble Countess said, has retired—would take some pleasure in seeing the Carden Committee reconvened. He was a first-class civil servant, in my experience, at MAFF and he chaired a large Whitehall committee which covered many more departments than one would imagine. Obviously, as I moved around Whitehall I did not keep up to date over the years. I regret that the committee’s deliberations have not been made public and I can see no good reason for that.
In that period of time, we had probably three scientific advisers, and now we have a new Government Chief Scientific Adviser. This problem should be the first thing on Professor Bennington’s desk and he should look at it to see what the current situation is. There are grounds for considering it. I have never seen a satisfactory answer to the issue of the airline pilots and the doubts that have been raised about it. I do not want to be controversial but, if one looks at the big picture from the outside—at the nature of the doubts about organophosphates, at the issue of Factor VIII, dirty blood and blood products, and at the issue of Gulf War syndrome from the first Gulf War—one gets the impression of a natural reluctance of the centre to investigate when these issues arise and a pattern starts to be formed. That is the point that I want to make.
In a way, the Carden Committee and what was put together could overcome and answer some of these issues. They go across Whitehall departments. I do not want the Government to be in the dock over them but a pattern has emerged over a period—there may be others of which I am unaware—that there is a reluctance to investigate. Why? “Oh, because there are no new cases; because of the issue of compensation; because the science is not quite clear”. Given what has happened in the United States in the first 100 days, if these matters were put to President Obama I can envisage some executive action coming forth. Not by overdoing the science or taking the scientists’ view, but by giving the issue a push, a spurt, to ensure that we can put it to bed.
There is plenty of evidence—I do not think complete solutions will ever be found—from those who have been injured, if I can put it that way, in the farming industry, from those with Gulf War syndrome and from the issue of the fuel used in aircraft to ensure that the doubts about the use of organophosphates remain. These are matters worthy of investigation. In the way that it does, Whitehall did some joined-up thinking on this. There was genuine joined-up working in the way in which the Carden Committee was put together and worked. I pay tribute to that and I have no problem with it.
I was on the receiving end over a 10-year period of delegations which included the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, and the noble Countess, Lady Mar. I said to officials on one occasion—I think it was in 2006 or early 2007—after the noble colleagues had left, “One day I will be a Back-Bencher and she is my model”. That is true. The noble Countess has shown great tenaciousness in pushing this issue—it is not a vested interest, although she has been affected in many ways—getting to grips with it and not accepting no for an answer. In this case, Whitehall and the Government reached out.
I do not know whether it is time to call for Carden, who is well away into retirement—I shall not mention what part of the country he is in but I had a nice letter from him when I left government, so I know he keeps a watch on what is going on—but I hope the lawyers will not make the final decision; it is important that it is made on the grounds of science and health. The Government have a public responsibility and a duty of care in all these issues. In allowing products onto the market, however they are used, the Government have a duty of care. It may be that people will say, “We have solved all the problems” but, nevertheless, there are too many unanswered questions. It is probably time, given the Whitehall committee structure, genuinely to say to the noble Countess tonight that the answer to her question should be yes.
My Lords, I am delighted to follow the noble Countess and the noble Lord, Lord Rooker. We have over many years worked together on this issue and I congratulate the noble Countess, in particular, on her extraordinary mastery of the facts. My only concern about her case is that she sometimes thinks OP has affected her brain power. However, there is no evidence of that in the way in which she contributes to the debates of your Lordships’ House.
I should put on record that the right honourable Michael Meacher, who has also been a Minister in the department principally responsible for this issue, has been a doughty campaigner, as has the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, in seeking justice for those who suffer from OP poisoning.
As has already been mentioned, since 1992 and through to 2005 I convened an all-party parliamentary group containing Members of your Lordships’ House and Members of the other place, from all parties and from all parts of the country, to deal with this issue.
The problem originally arose with sheep farmers—in my case sheep farmers in the south-west, who I represented—and every improvement in the controls placed on the use of OPs and every time more protective measures were placed on their use and on the people who were going to use them was, effectively, an admission that the previous arrangements were inadequate. Of course, the previous arrangements were forced upon sheep farmers by government decree. It was not like thalidomide, where people voluntarily took on a particular form of treatment and then there were difficulties. Sheep farmers had to use OPs—twice a year, under the original arrangements. The Government, as well as those responsible for manufacture, had not just a moral but a legal responsibility for the use of organophosphates.
As has been said, and this is a good moment to make this point again, there is a responsibility for joined-up government. The noble Lord, Lord Rooker—at the instigation, I would like to think, of others outside—took up that challenge and made sure that it happened, and the Carden Committee was the effective vehicle for that purpose. It was not down to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food or, as it became, Defra. It was not down to the Ministry of Defence, in the case of the 1991-92 Gulf War—I should perhaps declare a non-pecuniary interest as a member of the Royal British Legion Gulf War Group. It was not down to the Department for Transport, in the case of the BAe146 aircraft that has proved to be most controversial in this case, where the bleeding into the cabin of some of the OP lubricants in the engine seems to have caused huge problems and considerable risk. Not a single one of those departments can carry the can for the difficulties that have occurred, because every one of them had some responsibility. Hence the significance of the interdepartmental committee to which the noble Countess’s Question refers—that was our hope for joined-up government. Now it has not sat for some 24 months, so what is going on? Is there any joined-up government at all now?
The Carden Committee should be reconstituted because there are urgent questions now across government. In the case of the Ministry of Defence, there has been, as the noble Countess said, an inaccurate response to the research that has been undertaken in the United States, a point that I shall come back to. It is urgent to look at the implications for the British troops who were there serving on our behalf, and who suffered as a result of their service in the Gulf.
In the case of Defra there is an urgent responsibility to ensure that proper funding is put into the remaining research proposals, particularly those that are under the auspices of Dr Sarah Mackenzie Ross, who is the principal researcher in this field. As the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, implies, every day there are people who should be analysed for this purpose but who may no longer be with us.
Then there is the issue of transport. It was not just the BAe146, although the problem seemed to occur particularly on that aircraft; there are wider issues there. As yet, thank goodness, there has not been a disaster, but there could easily have been one if the impact of these chemicals—which, after all, started their life as part of the Nazis’ war effort—had continued to be sprayed around aircraft cabins and cockpits in aerosol form. The potential for disaster is considerable.
My bitter and, I fear, rather cynical experience, after 17 or 18 years of campaigning on this issue, is that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, seems to be right: there is a built-in systemic lethargy that means that eventually, if you string out the research programme long enough, which is what the manufacturers of these products want to do, either the OP products can be replaced by something else so that there is no longer a commercial problem for the manufacturers; compensation can be avoided because you continually block liability claims; or, frankly, the victims die. Understandably, it is that lethargy, stringing out the process, that the victims feel is going on in Whitehall. It would be a tragedy if the considerable efforts made by the noble Lord and others in Whitehall—Michael Meacher being another—to try to create a genuine link-up and real joined-up government came to a full stop, simply because Mr Richard Carden had retired.
I hope that the Minister will be able to give us a cast-iron assurance that the committee will be reconstituted and will give practical expression to the determination of the Government to get to the bottom of this problem. Again, I underline the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Rooker: imagine if this were in the United States under the present President. In fact, we do not have to imagine; a new imperative has been put behind the research programme into OPs by President Obama. Let us therefore take something from across the Atlantic that we can put to good use in this country. Let us have some joined-up government here. I warmly support the noble Countess.
I am delighted that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, has rejoined the human race by coming off the government Front Bench and is now able to use his persuasive powers on his colleagues. I hope that we will have evidence in a minute that he is as persuasive as he ever was in the Government.
My Lords, I do not think that the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, ever left the human race, which is one reason why he was such a good Minister.
I thank the noble Countess, Lady Mar, for initiating this short debate as part of a campaign that has been going on since long before I came to this House. With the noble Countess, the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, and my noble friend Lord Tyler, I feel as though I am among some of the political giants as far as this issue is concerned. My interest in OPs, particularly sheep dips, came about a bit less than 10 years ago when Chris Davies MEP took me up a track on the Saddleworth moors to see Mrs Brenda Sutcliffe, an equally doughty campaigner on OPs in a rather different way, bashing away on what was then her manual typewriter. She is still there and still campaigning, and long may she do so as long as this issue needs resolving.
I shall refer to the most recent piece of research on OPs and sheep dips, which comes from Dr Sarah Mackenzie Ross of University College London on behalf of Defra’s project VM02302 on which, over the past six or seven years, the department has spent nearly £500,000. The project was mooted earlier; it started in August 2004 and ended in 2008, last year. The purpose of the study was to determine whether low-level exposure to organophosphates caused disabling neurological or psychiatric disease in a small sub-group of exposed persons. The significance of this project is that it is concentrated on low-level exposure over a period of time rather than on a higher level and the more acute problems presented by most of the people who have come forward as victims of OPs.
The participants in the study—there were originally 160 but there ended up being 132—are working farmers and farmers who retired on the grounds of ill health and who have a history of exposure to sheep dip. They were compared with a control group, a comparison group, of rural police workers, in an attempt to find similar people in the community who had not been particularly exposed to organophosphate pesticides. That group began as 80 but ended up as 79. The participants were recruited from the south-west and the north of England. My understanding is that the study has been completed—certainly the executive summary has been published—and that we are waiting for the full report to be peer-reviewed. Perhaps the Minister will confirm that. It is with Defra and we are waiting to see what Defra is going to do about it.
The results of this study of low-level exposure were that,
“A range of emotional, physical and cognitive problems were identified in agricultural workers with a history of low level exposure to OPs. In terms of cognitive function, general intellectual ability, reasoning, visio-spatial and verbal ability were relatively well preserved, but agricultural workers obtained lower scores on tests of response speed, working, verbal and visual memory, mental flexibility and fine motor control, than non-exposed controls”.
The report also compared these results with the general population and found a similar difference. The report says that,
“a number of significant correlations were observed between duration of exposure and verbal and visual memory, verbal ability, strategy making and fine motor control. Although weak, they were in the expected direction, consistent with findings from the group analyses and consistent with study hypotheses.”
I am not sure that I understand these words, but I think they mean that there was a correlation and the findings were significant. The recommendation is that follow-up studies should be carried out to determine whether symptoms persist over time, improve or worsen, and to look into recommended treatment protocols for individuals who report chronic ill health following exposure to OPs. This is one reason why the official committee should be reconvened. It is suggested that there is a need for prospective treatment trials. That is from Dr Mackenzie Ross.
Defra has responded. I have looked at the Defra website and failed to find it, but that may be because I am not very good at negotiating websites, or it may not be there. I read in the Western Morning News that a Defra spokesman said:
“The results of this report do not definitively demonstrate that organophosphates cause chronic ill-health, but suggest that a relationship may exist”—
I think that is what Dr Mackenzie Ross is saying—
“It is not possible to draw conclusions on the basis of one report without considering a wider context of published data on OPs and human health”.
That seems to be a fairly weak response from Defra, of the kind that previous speakers have suggested has been forthcoming over the years. It seems to me, again, to be a reason why the committee should be reconvened and should meet to consider these matters. Defra continues to say that,
“our advice to farmers remains to take all necessary protections including protective clothing and to follow instructions supplied”.
That is all very well for people who are around now but it does not really tackle the problem of people who were exposed in the past. I read in my exciting weekly reading, the Farmers Guardian, a quote from Dr Mackenzie Ross herself:
“The worry is that there might be a slow cumulative effect on people. We have got no idea how many people out there are suffering … There was this idea that low exposure is OK but this research would suggest otherwise. We think it is more dangerous than previously thought”.
There follows the same quote from Defra, suggesting that it would rather not do very much.
This latest report is important, partly because it confirms that people have been suffering from OPs, but particularly because it looks at the people who have been subjected to low-level exposure, as opposed to those who have been made particularly poorly by a high level of exposure. This is clearly new evidence and clearly a new report. I ask the Minister, first, what will Defra do with this report? What is its response to it, other than trying to tell the papers that everything is really okay? Secondly, in particular, is it not sensible to put it to a reconvened official committee?
My Lords, I declare an interest as a farmer and grower. We use chemicals in pest and disease control; I will make observations on this in my speech. No one can doubt the commitment of the noble Countess to making sure that the use and effect of organophosphates remains on the agenda. She should be thanked for securing this debate and for the skill with which she has presented her case. She speaks powerfully from a personal experience that has been extremely distressing. Indeed, all noble Lords have spoken with passion on this issue and I am sure that the Minister will be keen to respond and provide the reassurance that noble Lords rightly seek.
I can speak only on the use of OPs in agriculture, but I know that concerns can and do stretch into other areas, which have been widely explored in this evening’s debate. However, I can speak with some authority, since not only are OPs used and recommended as a vital sheep dip, they have in the past been used to dip bulbs prior to commercial planting. In the 1960s I personally sterilised bulbs using the nematicide Phagol, which was withdrawn around the middle of that decade. By good fortune, no one—as far as I know—suffered any ill-effects from its use in this way, although a MAFF employee at Kirton EHS died from mercury poisoning, which was part and parcel of a similar operation. Later, in the 1980s, Nemaphos was widely used for similar purposes here and in Holland on tulip bulbs. It, too, was withdrawn. Again, no ill-effects were reported, but environmental considerations and ground water contamination led to its ceasing to be available.
The work of the noble Countess in battling on this issue is well known, but we need to be careful not to draw the wrong conclusions from this particular issue. I am sure that the Minister will confirm that the Government remain concerned at the change in the definition of pesticides from risk-based to hazard-based. This, regrettably, has been introduced as a European directive, with regulations to follow. This will cut off many vital products. This is particularly true for horticultural growers, of whom I am one. Their permitted use is dependent on off-label approval—testing that manufacturers are not necessarily prepared to pay for. I cannot emphasise strongly enough the role that can be played by horticulture in reviving the productive capacity of the sector.
I may have strayed beyond the strict definition of this debate, but it is important that the principle that we apply to organophosphates is the same: decisions should be based on the science. There is a further point to be deduced from the general to the particular. Any use of chemicals requires the proper respect of the user. At all times operators need to be disciplined in following correct procedures and ensuring their own safety. The most common way for humans to come into contact with OPs, as has been explained in this debate, is through sheep dipping. The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, explained fully how this policy came into effect. The Government’s policy towards its uses takes into account factors including the environmental effects and effect on human health of organophosphates. It is good to see the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, in his place and contributing to this debate. We have all missed him, but welcome him back and are pleased that he is participating in his usual robust fashion.
Concern about the use of organophosphates led to the commissioning of the interdepartmental group on organophosphates, known as the Carden Committee. It drew representatives from several government departments, including the Department of Health and the Ministry of Defence, as well as representatives from the veterinary field, health and safety, the Food Standards Agency and the Office for Science and Innovation, as it was then known. It has not met since June 2007, which was two years ago. As the noble Countess said, many questions remain unanswered. I can think of several. Has any assessment been made of the effectiveness of the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2000—or COSHH in short—when it comes to risk assessments prior to sheep dipping? What further work has been undertaken on finding alternatives to using organophosphate-based products in farming?
Further to these questions, I hope that the Minister will be able to reassure me on two others. How many of the “pour ons” now used in sheep treatment for ecto parasites contain organophosphates? Are the Government satisfied that spreading of waste dip on agricultural ground presents no residual hazard? If ever an issue could benefit from transparency, it is this one. That is why I trust that the Minister will be able to give a positive answer to the noble Countess’s Question.
My Lords, I am grateful to all noble Lords who have contributed to this debate, particularly the noble Countess, Lady Mar, whom we all respect for her committed work over a considerable period on this very important issue. I discussed these issues with her when for a short while I held responsibility for the transport brief in this House. I was well aware of the strength of her arguments and I did my best, from a more limited position than my noble friend Lord Rooker, to see how we could make progress on those issues.
A number of speakers suggested that the Government have been tardy in responding to these issues out of an unwillingness to commit resources, or from anxiety about compensation that may be payable. Those are unfair charges. The issue is straightforward, as the noble Lord, Lord Taylor, emphasised; namely, that we must make progress on the basis of the scientific evidence. As I understand it, the problem is that we do not have a secure enough scientific base to know exactly what to do. That is not to say that we are not aware of studies such as the one to which the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, referred. After all, that was commissioned by Defra. I am sorry that the noble Lord did not find the response on the website; I shall give it now. The researcher, Dr Sarah Mackenzie Ross, found that the results suggested there may be a relationship between long-term, low level exposure to OPs and the development of neural behavioural problems. This is an important piece of research but we have commissioned two other research reports as a result of COT’s work in 1999 and we await their publication. We cannot publish them yet because they have not been subjected to peer review and proper scientific vetting and analysis. All these reports, and our response to them, will be produced in the very near future.
That brings me to the question: what has happened to the Carden Committee? As the noble Lord, Lord Rooker, indicated, it has changed its name as Mr Richard Carden is now retired. Therefore, the committee reverts to its original title, the Official Group on Organophosphates, which produces the appalling initials OGOP, which I shall mention once but not refer to again in those terms; rather, I shall refer to it as the committee. It would take me more time than is available to me in this debate to list all the contributors to the committee but representation on it is an example of joined-up government. There is not a single government department relevant to this issue that is not actively represented on the committee and forms part of its composition. The only thing that is missing from there is any direct reference to lawyers. Given that it was suggested that they might be the very contributors to delay, I should hope that the noble Lord, Lord Tyler, will feel reassured by that omission. Not that I am saying that no lawyers are ever present with a government committee of this kind; I am merely indicating that the legal contribution is not important. What is important is the scientific support and the contribution of the government departments that all have an interest in this area; for example, the Health and Safety Executive, the Food Standards Agency, the Health Protection Agency, the Department of Health, my own department and others. I merely summarise the contributors. I would be happy to publish a list.
When will the committee meet again? It will meet shortly. Noble Lords are right to say that we have not made sufficient progress in the past couple of years to justify the committee meeting. I noted the criticisms made by noble Lords that they were not aware of what the committee did at its 2007 meeting. In 2007, the committee did some very important work. It looked at an Australian review of diazinon. The Australians seemed to have made progress with regard to sheep dips. However, when we examined the progress that they had made we found that it fell short of being a conclusive position that we could adopt. It was clear that where the Australians had tackled issues with regard to sheep dips and offered advice on the basis of their experience, they had not conducted the supervision of sheep dipping in quite the way that we do in the United Kingdom and we could not translate their results directly to our own experience. This conclusion was reached on the basis of very clear analysis of the Australian activity.
Since then, the committee has reviewed the research projects to see whether sufficient progress is being made to bring the group together. I heard that what this country needs in this area is a bit of a zip behind it such as President Obama has produced in the United States. I am at one with the House in thinking that most things good in America at present result from the election of President Obama and the work that he does. He certainly has insisted that additional work is done with regard to Gulf War veterans. That work will produce results in February 2010 because you cannot speed up such work. When that United States research and the other pieces of research I mentioned that we have commissioned, and which have received scientific validation, are completed, our committee will meet and address these issues further.
The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, asked about the timescale in the most trenchant terms and asked whether it constituted an exercise in procrastination. That is not the case. This is an exercise in dealing with what we all recognise is a very difficult issue on the basis of making progress and of having a committee which is equipped to do this work. Its timescale is clear and fits in with crucial pieces of evidence that will be available to us in the not too distant future.
I appreciate the work that the noble Countess, Lady Mar, has done in this regard. However, until she mentioned it this evening, I had not appreciated that she had suffered illness in this context. I express my concern about that and I am therefore not at all surprised at the anxiety that she expresses on behalf of others who may have come into contact with the problem. I say to her and to my noble friend Lord Rooker, who, as ever, was bold and assertive in his comments and confirmed exactly how he would have acted in government, that we are obliged to work on the basis of the best scientific advice. It is certainly government practice to—
My Lords, I am reluctant to say very much although I know quite a bit about this subject. However, can the Minister assure us that as regards the inordinate delay that has occurred—literally thousands of sheep farmers in the UK are medically proven to be affected by this issue—his department and other government departments have not been put upon by the Treasury not to accept any liability or proof whatever that OP has the effect which many medical practitioners accept is the cause of the terrible condition from which many of these people suffer?
My Lords, I do not think it is anything to do with Treasury pressure; this is to do with a proper, intensely scientific investigation which has to establish cause and effect. I am merely saying to the House that at present we are not in a position to do that.
The noble Lord, Lord Tyler, and the noble Countess, Lady Mar, referred to the HS146 issue and cabin air quality. When that issue was presented to me five years ago, I was shocked by the representations that were made. I did my very best to discover the nature of what we knew about this issue, how much had been substantiated and how dangerous it was to passengers and to cabin crew and pilots. My voice would be but a bleat in the wilderness compared to that of BALPA and airline pilots across the world if an aircraft as popular as the HS146 was capable of producing a persistent and threatening illness. HS146 is not grounded on that basis; crews do not refuse to fly the aircraft. I know that there are anxieties about the issue, which needs full investigation. I am not saying that there are grounds for complacency, far from it; the last impression that I want to give from this debate is any suggestion of complacency.
We have the machinery in place to examine this fully to produce answers to these very difficult questions.
My Lords, I am sorry to interrupt but the noble Lord’s time is running short. The crux of my question was about the serious health effects that some medicines cause to people who have been exposed to OPs. It can kill people. It very nearly killed me; I know from my own experience. I do not want what happened to me to happen to anyone else. Will he kindly address that?
My Lords, I understand that point entirely and I value the strength with which the noble Countess presents that position. The committee, and the Department of Health in its contributions to the committee, are in a position to address themselves to exactly those kinds of concerns. But I emphasise again that the committee is bound to be able to act effectively only when the research is sufficiently conclusive to guide how we can act.
My Lords, as far as the committee is concerned, which together with the noble Countess's concern is what this debate is about, the issues which it has had to address, and which have been part of its brief, are within the framework of the research it has commissioned and all the other research which it is evaluating across the world, including the American research which is due fairly shortly. I give the House the assurance that the committee will of course address these issues at that time.
The noble Lord, Lord Taylor, asked me some specific questions, one of which was on the question of alternatives to the use of OPs in farming. There is work on developing alternative sheep dips. That work is continuing with regard to the possibility of vaccine development and we have also been looking at the use of a hormone to disrupt the metamorphosis of the sheep scab mite.
Progress on both projects is going to be reviewed by Defra in the very near future. It is not known whether any of these projects will lead to product development. The research after all has to be translated into a viable product that a company can market for the industry. Work on the biological control of the sheep scab mite has been stopped, because it was shown to have no effect when it was used on sheep. Although in the laboratory encouraging progress was made, when it was applied in the field, I am afraid the results were negative. Alternative treatments to sheep scab are available but are not effective against the same range of external parasites as OP sheep dips. That is why we continue with that position.
I want to assure the House—I have inadequate time to respond to a debate of such significance and such importance and I value very much this opportunity of responding—that the reason why my noble friend, Lord Rooker, with all his persistence, was not able to come up with a straightforward answer in a short period of time, after all his work with the department, is because we are genuinely facing some very difficult issues which relate to essential research. I know the noble Lord, Lord Greaves, tried to suborn me by introducing research and lobbying from Saddleworth Moor, because he knew that I would be instinctively responsive to that, because of its closeness to Oldham. I do have to say to him that the basis of the Government’s position is bound to be scientific research and advance. I want to give this hope and expectation to the House that this committee will be meeting in the not too distant future, with additional research to hand, some of which may be extremely significant in terms of producing solutions to these problems, which we all recognise are very acute and very important to the people for whom we have responsibility.