Amendment 52

Part of Environment Bill - Report (3rd Day) – in the House of Lords at 5:00 pm on 13th September 2021.

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Photo of Lord Whitty Lord Whitty Labour 5:00 pm, 13th September 2021

My Lords, this amendment should be recognised as absolutely necessary and straightforward but it is one, unfortunately, that the Government have resisted. Like the air quality debate that we have just had, it concerns human health, but it also has wider environmental implications. The detrimental effect of chemical pesticide spraying on those who live, work and congregate close to where spraying is carried out is well established. The medical effects are now well known—although, as the Minister himself had to admit the other week, not the particular effects of specific combinations of chemicals included in the cocktail of chemicals that are often sprayed these days.

In earlier stages of this Bill and the Agriculture Bill, the detrimental effects of spraying on individuals and families over long periods have been spelled out in great detail; they are familiar to GPs and medics here and around the world. Some effects are acute and some short term, such as breathing difficulties; some are utterly chronic, and some are lethal. The most vulnerable are those right next to the spraying and, in particular, those who are subject to repeated doses because they live there.

Noble Lords will be aware of the views from most scientists, the royal commission and, broadly speaking, global medical opinion. Noble Lords will also have been made aware of particular concerns of individuals who have been affected and have suffered chronic ill health and eventual disability because of this exposure. I have met some of the victims and have heard of large numbers of others.

It is the essential human issue that we are attempting to address in this amendment, but there are, of course, wider arguments. In the terms of some of the responses during Committee and through the passage of the Agriculture Bill, the arguments got mixed up. It is true that many people, including myself, would wish to see the eventual phasing out of all chemical pesticides. The numbers of people wishing for that outcome apparently, according to the news last week, include President Macron. However, irrespective of my views on the longer term, this is a very specific issue, for now. It means that we would protect from current pesticides the health and well-being of literally thousands, or potentially hundreds of thousands, of rural residents in this country. This amendment is not about the bigger picture; it is very specifically about the protection of our rural residents in their homes, gardens, schools and public places. It is an in principle amendment, leaving details subject to the regulatory process. Protection for our rural population is essential, but the regulatory process will obviously allow opinions on the detail. If we adopt this amendment tonight, that process will start now.

Unfortunately, the Government have found all sorts of reasons for resisting this amendment, or a similar amendment, starting with the early stages of the Agriculture Bill. Ministers have adduced a whole range of metamorphosing reasons for opposing the amendment. At first, they said that it was unnecessary because Ministers already had the power to make regulations on distancing of spraying of pesticides and, at that time, they sort of did—but it was under EU law, which left it discretionary on the member state to implement it. We never used that discretion and, with the end of the transition period, that power disappeared; it was not transposed into UK law. The reality is that that power had been there for over a decade and successive Governments had never used it; that is why we need a specific amendment requiring the Government to introduce regulations to implement that principle and not leave permissive powers mouldering on the statue book for another two decades.

The Government then argued that this country’s licensing system for pesticides was world beating—to use that phrase—and did not need any improvements, and that the danger of residents spraying pesticides in their houses and gardens was negligible these days. Yet the Minister was unable to tell the House what tests were made on cocktails of pesticides and, also, on medical evidence, which in particular my noble friend—or, I should say, my noble co-signatory—Lady Finlay adduced during the passage of the Agriculture Bill and this Bill.

There are multiple incidents of acute harm, burns and breathing problems but, far more disturbingly, there are large numbers of cases where long-term effects are seen on neurological and immune systems, lung function and foetal health. These are dangerous. Of course, we are protecting other people; those who use the pesticides are protected by very strict health and safety regulations, wear protective clothing and are usually within a cab. Consumers are protected by very strict rules about pesticide residues being left on vegetables and fruit that reach our shops and markets. The people who are not protected are those who live in our countryside, right next to where this spraying is carried out. I find that omission appalling, and I do not understand why the Government are so reluctant to do something about it. I hope that I have the wholehearted support of this House in instructing the Government to do something about it. As I say, the details of that can be sorted out in regulation, but let us at least make the principle clear tonight.

In Committee, I refrained from quoting anybody, but a couple of examples caught my eye when I was going through this the other night. One woman said:

“My family have always lived next to fields sprayed with chemicals. My husband and my son died from neurological diseases. Our neighbouring farmer and his wife both have MS”— and, she says, it is all down to those chemicals. Another said:

“I am sprayed with cocktails of pesticides by my neighbour, a fruit farmer, around 20 times per year. As a toxicologist I know that these agents are not meant to be used anywhere near residences and yet my home is covered with these chemicals every time he sprays”.

The Government themselves recognise this issue. In the codes of practice, they require farmers and others to notify nearby premises, but that is not enforced, and, in most cases, it does not happen. There is no such notification and, even when it does happen, there is no notification of what precisely is being sprayed because, by and large, by that stage, the particular application is not clear. However, it is clear everywhere else; it is clear to the medics and to the manufacturers, who put very strong warnings against inhalation or skin contact on the containers for these pesticides—and rightly so, because they are being responsible. I am asking the Government to take their responsibilities at least as seriously and today adopt an amendment that will give some hope to those families who historically have seriously suffered debilitation and sometimes worse, and to ensure that it does not affect families in the next generation.

I hope that the Minister will change course on this issue, accepting the need to look at it again and to take action to introduce regulation. Unfortunately, successive Governments have not done that, which is why I require the amendment to instruct the Government to take action. I hope that the House fully supports me on because too many people’s lives have been blighted to ignore this problem. I hope that the House can support this amendment today.