The Advisory Committee

Orders of the Day — Food and Environment Protection Bill [Lords] – in the House of Commons at 6:15 pm on 26th June 1985.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Mr Paddy Ashdown Mr Paddy Ashdown , Yeovil 6:15 pm, 26th June 1985

I beg to move amendment No. 52, in page 36, line 5, at end insert— '(1A.) The Ministers shall, in their appointment of persons as members of the committee, have regard to the general purposes of Part III of this Act, mentioned in section 15(1) above, and review annually the range of expertise required for those purposes.'. The purpose of this amendment is to ask the Government to pay regard to the aims of the Bill, as outlined in clause 15(1). We have used the words "have regard" so that the Government may think carefully about the composition of the Advisory Committee on Pesticides. The Bill sets out the Government's aims which lie at the heart of the Bill, but it lacks any specific indication of the Government's intentions. They will probably be included in the regulations. The Government have resisted giving a date for the publication of the regulations which will put into effect the laudable aims of clause 15(1).

However, we are concerned about a lacuna in the Bill. We want the ACP to be able to put into effect the general aims of clause 15(1). Many believe that the first aim of the Government was to protect not the public but the industry. The mechanism of the pesticides safety precautions scheme has broken down because of the import of cheap pesticides, so we want the Government to fulfil its aims. In the absence of regulations we need to be reassured that the general purpose of clause 15(1) will be fulfilled.

The composition of the ACP is vital. Will it carry out the Government's intentions? To use the words of clause 15(1), will it provide The continuous development of means—(a) to protect the health of human beings,…(b) to safeguard the environment; and (c) to secure safe, efficient and humane methods of controlling pests."? The composition of the committee does not reassure us. Many organisations, including the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds, believe that the committee's expertise is insufficient to protect wildlife, but I wish to concentrate upon human health, one of the aims of clause 15(1).

Five of the 10 full members of the committee are doctors. However, three of them are pathologists whose expertise relates not to the living but to the dead. The other two doctors are academics. None of the ACP members is currently concerned with the care of living patients. The medical expertise that is available on the advisory panels is related more to the dissection of dead rats on laboratory tables than to dealing with people. It is a pejorative term, but in the medical profession they fall into the category that is roughly known — I use the word "roughly" in both senses of the word—as rat doctors.

6.45 pm

This may have been appropriate in the past. The PSPS was concerned primarily with the clearance of pesticides before use, on the basis of animal test data, rather than with monitoring their effect upon human beings after use. However, the monitoring of the effect of pesticides on human beings is one of the main aims of the Bill. Continuous monitoring after use is part of its purpose. If the Minister is serious about protecting human beings on a continuous basis and about safeguarding the environment, should not more emphasis be placed upon monitoring pesticides by the ACP? Will its composition change to take account of what she seeks to achieve? If monitoring is to take place, where will the expertise be found? It will not be found in the ACP. There should be doctors on the committee who have practical experience of dealing with patients, not with dead rats on the laboratory table. If the Government are serious about providing protection, a true clinical toxicologist, with practical experience of caring for people who have been poisoned, should be appointed to the committee. There is no substitute for such expertise. If the Minister can assure us that the constitution of the ACP will be suitably amended, we may reconsider this amendment, even though we should like it to be incorporated in the Bill.

Paraquat is a well-known substance for which there is no antidote. Since its introduction, there have been 331 deaths. Those people died in a uniformly horrible way. Some of them, though not necessarily all, died by their own hand. This substance ought to be reconsidered because of its effects upon human beings rather than upon weeds.

The Black committee investigated the possible increase in the number of deaths in Cumbria from cancer because of Yorkshire Television's allegations about a disproportionately large number of children in the Sellafield area with leukaemia. The numbers were low but the ratio was high. The allegations were taken seriously and led to the appointment of a committee whose report has now been published. The results were largely inconclusive, but the committee said that further research was needed. In reaching those important conclusions the Black committee had the help of two epidemiologists. Is it not precisely this kind of work, relating not to radiation but to pesticides and similar chemicals, upon which the ACP should provide advice? Yet there is no epidemiologist on the committee. The hon. Member for Holland with Boston (Mr. Body) referred earlier to thalidomide, which had been tested on rats before it was brought into general use. Later it was proved to be dangerous to human beings. That danger would have been established if an epidemiologist had served on the committee.

Today I received a press release from Friends of the Earth which calls for a ban on the sale or use of all pesticides containing the chemical loxynil. There is evidence to support the theory that it causes a certain number of birth defects. That is unproven, but should not the ACP advise on just such a claim? How could it provide advice if none of its members has the appropriate medical qualifications to form a reasonable judgment? This is not a fanciful point. The suspicion that the high incidence of cancer in farm workers is caused by pesticides is being investigated by the Medical Research Council. Should not the ACP be able to investigate that allegation, too? If the Government wish the health of human beings to be protected on a continuous basis, the ACP must be provided with the necessary means.

The Bill will have little effect if it becomes an instrument for the continuous clearance of pesticides before use by the study of dead rats instead of monitoring pesticides in use by examining their effect upon living human beings. We ask that the ACP be restructured to take account of the changed needs that result from this Bill and we welcome that change. If the Minister were to accept this extremely limited amendment, it would make sure that in future the ACP reflected, at least in some measure, the Government's concern. This amendment does no more than give effect to that wish, which we hope the Government share. I hope that the Minister will feel able to accept it and commend it to the House.

Photo of Mrs Peggy Fenner Mrs Peggy Fenner , Medway

I am grateful to the hon. Member for his explanation. I hope that he will forgive me if I respond rather predictably by saying that we cannot accept the amendment because it is unnecessary, since clause 15(7), which enables Ministers to establish an advisory committee, makes it absolutely clear that the area of activity of the committee and indeed the reason for its existence are the general purpose of part III of the Bill. That being so, I can assure the House that this Government at least—I venture to say, any Government—would not consider making any appointment to the ACP without having regard to the general purposes of this legislation.

The hon. Member made some astonishing comments about the members of the ACP. Professor Kilpatrick, the chairman, is concerned with living patients, as is Professor Berry, the chairman of the scientific sub-committee, whose expertise also includes carcinogenicity and teratogenicity. I remind him that pathologists are not solely concerned with the dead but are also greatly concerned with diagnosis of ailments in the living.

As for the future, I have already said that we shall be reviewing the structure and composition of the ACP and the sub-committee and panels that assist it in the light of the changes which the legislation will bring. We have already had some preliminary discussions with the committee on the implications of extending the pesticides screening system to cover efficacy and humaneness as well as safety, and we are looking at ways of benefiting from user and supplier experience by giving those groups access to formal advisory panels.

I should, however, make it clear that it is our firm intention to invite the present chairman and members of the Advisory Committee on Pesticides to serve on the statutory committee, and I very much hope that they will agree to do so. This Government and preceding Governments are greatly indebted to the advisory committee and its scientific sub-committee for their meticulous assessment of the risks attached to the use of pesticides and for the sound and unbiased advice that they have given us over many years. That the general public do not always realise just how well they have been protected is a fault of communication on our side, and I am glad to take this opportunity to express our appreciation of the considerable service which the advisory committee provides.

Photo of Mr Paddy Ashdown Mr Paddy Ashdown , Yeovil

I am extremely disappointed with the Minister's answer. The phrase that I used—and I have it noted down — was: "None of the ACP members is concerned currently with the care of living patients." There is no provision for a clinical toxicologist or an epidemiologist on the committee.

Photo of Mrs Peggy Fenner Mrs Peggy Fenner , Medway

I am getting some more advice, and I would like to reassure the hon. Gentleman. Professor Knowelden, who is an ACP member, is an epidemiologist.

Photo of Mr Paddy Ashdown Mr Paddy Ashdown , Yeovil

I am looking in her answer to me of 12 February 1985 for the name of the learned professor to whom the Minister now refers. Perhaps this is something which has changed since I asked the question, but that was my understanding. In any event, there is not on the ACP at the moment a clinical toxicologist, even if an epidemiologist has now been put on it.

The Minister has not given the assurances that we have sought in order to ensure that the balance of the committee is corrected. I make no criticism of those who serve on the committee or of the way in which they have served it in the past. I think that the Minister is absolutely right to identify them as people who have shown diligence and care. The point that we make is that the committee needs to be changed so as to reflect the changed nature of its job as a result of this legislation.

I am disappointed that the Minister felt unable to give a stronger assurance along those lines, and I must ask the House to consider this matter a bit more seriously.

Amendment negatived.