Control of Pesticides etc.

Part of Orders of the Day — Food and Environment Protection Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 3:46 pm on 26th June 1985.

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Photo of Simon Hughes Simon Hughes Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 3:46 pm, 26th June 1985

Yes. We are constrained by the fact that the amendment proposed by the hon. Member for Holland with Boston goes as far as we shall be able to go today. He has imposed a condition too. He has restricted disclosure relating to commercial interests, for reasons that I understand although I may not entirely share them. If the Parliamentary Secretary accepted that premise, we would be making progress. She said that she was satisfied that the preponderance is on making information available to the general public. We must not have battles year after year when Governments always resist and have to be dragged through the hedgerows until they are forced to give a concession. Countries that learned democracy from us have long before us established the right to know. The High Court has decided that councillors have the right to know. That means that not only officials but the people who are concerned with the issues have the right to know. They include farmers, business men, researchers and legislators. I ask the Government to say that those people need to know now.

I give one bizarre and important example which shows how ridiculous the position is. I am told that research is being conducted in London university on lemons sold in shops in London. After they are harvested, a fungicide called hydroxydiphenyl 2 is sprayed on them. That fungicide is governed by World Health Organisation limits, because it is dangerous when used above a certain limit. WHO says that the acceptable limit for that fungicide is 10 parts per million. The fungicide on lemons sold in London shops regularly measures 200 parts per million.

4.15 pm

This is what happens to the lemons. They are harvested and then scrubbed to remove the pesticide. They then look a little withered and as though they will not appeal to the consumer, so they are dipped into a wax fungicide mixture to make them yellow, shiny and appealing. When one washes those lemons there is no problem because the fungicide does not react in any way. The water runs off them because the skin is protected. However, if one regularly dips a lemon into one's gin and tonic, alcohol causes a chemical reaction.

One might need to drink a few gins and tonics in a day for this to have any effect. I may have vices, but that is not one of them, although there may be some hon. Members present who are worried about this information. The chemical reaction dissolves the wax and releases the fungicide into that drink at nearly 20 times the recognised international level.

This research was conducted by an eminent and respected group of people at London university who thought that they should ascertain whether the Ministry knew about this. They telephoned the Ministry and asked about its findings. The answer was, "I am sorry. We cannot tell you. It is governed by the Official Secrets Act." Here were researchers offering the Government information, which may save Conservatives more than any others by protecting them when over-indulging in gin and tonic—yet the Government could not say whether they were researching the same issue.

That is an amusing example, but it is an example of a fundamental point. If science is to be of benefit to our society, it must be of benefit to everyone in our society and not selectively of benefit to those who take unto themselves the rights that go with being in the Civil Service.

I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to give the House an assurance in exactly the same terms as the assurance that she gave on television and consider what the Government would do to go even further than the amendment proposed by the hon. Member for Holland with Boston.

Amendment No. 26 provides that, on payment of "reasonable fees", information will be made available. I accept that there must be a reasonable fee, but the Parliamentary Secretary knows that we are again considering the question of definition. What is "reasonable"? It is clear that, since the last stage of this Bill was considered, the Treasury has been at work on it. We are considering several small amendments that quietly emanated from the Treasury and add little money-recouping measures. This is one of them. I do not object to the Treasury suggesting that a reasonable fee is required. Of course we must pay for photocopying and the like, but we cannot have fees that reflect the cost of the work going on and partly pay for the research and the officials. They are there anyway. The officials' time is given in the public service, for which they are paid. Members of the public, who may not be on big salaries paid by the British Agrochemicals Association or any other firm, need to be assured that we are talking about matters of pence, not pounds, and that the fees are reasonable at all stages. If the Government are committed to access and to freedom of information, they must not put up barriers, whether of cost or of bureaucracy.

I ask the Parliamentary Secretary to think again and ask her—reflecting in the glory that she is partly enjoying by having pulled her Government from resistance to a welcome of freedom of information—to go the whole way and do the job properly.