Amendment 52

Part of Environment Bill - Report (3rd Day) – in the House of Lords at 5:45 pm on 13th September 2021.

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Photo of Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Baroness Jones of Whitchurch Shadow Spokesperson (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 5:45 pm, 13th September 2021

My Lords, I declare an interest through my involvement at Rothamsted Research. I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in a clearly very important debate. Amendments 52 and 53 tackle the pernicious effects that pesticides are having on our environment and on human and insect health. The amendment of my noble friend Lord Whitty once again raises the important human health implications of spraying noxious chemicals in fields next to residential and workplace areas. He asks that regulations should set out minimum distances from homes, schools and public places. We do not think this is an unreasonable request. As he said, at least farm workers have protective clothing and some sort of choice about their work environment, whereas local people have no choice and no information about what is being sprayed on particular days. As we have discovered in the past, the health implications of exposure to such chemicals can sometimes take years to be revealed, as the example given by the noble Baroness, Lady Boycott, of DDT, clearly demonstrated.

Of course we welcome the Government’s overarching commitment to reducing pesticide use. We see that there are considerable advantages to precision applications and integrated pest management for the future, but the very fact that the Government are taking those steps is an acknowledgement of the dangers of widespread pesticide use. In the meantime, until those techniques become commonplace, we should at least be taking steps to protect public health, and my noble friend’s amendment is one step towards doing this.

As we discussed in Committee, and again today, the threat to public health is made worse by the spraying of cocktails of pesticides. The Minister conceded in his subsequent all-Peers letter that it is not possible to assess the potential human health and environmental impacts of every possible combination of the chemicals in the environment. As a result, we cannot know for sure the extent of health damage being done by indiscriminate spraying.

This is an issue that we raised and voted on in the Agriculture Bill, and I am sorry that the Government have felt unable to address these concerns. My noble friend’s amendment raises important issues about health protection for the future, and I hope that the Minister can give further reassurance in his response that these concerns are being addressed and that the Government are prepared to look again at this issue.

Meanwhile, the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, set out decisively why further action to protect pollinators is so important. She set out why research into the longer-term impacts of pesticides on wider groups of pollinators, not just honey bees, is so important, particularly as the impact on bees is not necessarily an accurate measure of the impact on wider species. We are now much more aware of the importance of a diverse group of pollinators to deliver flourishing crops and rich habitats. Yet, since 1990 the UK has lost 13 out of 35 of its native bee species and, as I said, it is not just honey bees that fertilise our plants: there are myriad pollinators in the insect world whose contributions to natural diversity can all too easily be overlooked.

This is why greater action to protect pollinators is so important, and it is why we are concerned that the emergency use of chemicals such as neonicotinoids continues to be sanctioned by the Government. Although the emergency threshold for their use was not met this year, presumably the Government are retaining that emergency power for future years. As noble Lords have said, it is particularly frustrating as other natural solutions and other innovations are coming on stream.

In Committee, the Minister was supportive of much of what the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, and I had to say on the issue. I have no doubt about his personal commitment. As he said:

“It is impossible to exaggerate the existential damage that would be done were we to see the continuing decline of pollinators on the scale that we have seen in recent years”.

He went on,

“I … take these amendments extremely seriously and I share the intention behind them.”—[Official Report, 5/7/21; cols. 1102-03.]

He also argued that the current risk assessments for pesticides are subject to public consultation, but this so-called public consultation is buried away on the Health and Safety Executive’s website, the first dossier being 2,570 pages long with 360 questions. Until very recently no one even knew that this public consultation was there. I hope that, in his response, he will be able to give more reassurance to the noble Baroness, Lady Bakewell, that further measures will be taken to carry out more comprehensive research into the potential harmful effects of pesticides, with proper consultation backing it up. If he is not able to do so, I confirm that we will support her if she calls a vote.

We also support Amendment 123 in the name of my noble friend Lord Browne of Ladyton, who has been a tireless campaigner on this issue. We share his frustration that action to ban the use of poisonous lead ammunition in game shooting has not been introduced more urgently. As my noble friend made clear, there are no safe levels of lead: it affects all major systems of animals, including humans. It has been banned in all other applications, including paint and drinking water, yet its use continues unabated in countryside sports. As my noble friend and other noble Lords have made clear, there is growing consensus in the UK shooting community that there should be a switch to non-toxic shot, but it needs government leadership to move away from a reliance on voluntary efforts in this regard.

In Committee, the Minister expressed some sympathy for my noble friend’s amendment, but he reported that the Health and Safety Executive has been asked to produce a GB REACH restriction dossier on the risks posed by lead in ammunition. I can tell him the outcome of that risk assessment now: it will report that lead is poisonous. We know this already, so it is unclear why the Government felt it necessary to take this overcautious step, which is simply resulting in further delays. In the meantime, the Minister committed to meeting my noble friend and the noble Earl, Lord Shrewsbury, to discuss this matter further. I am sorry that there was not a more positive outcome from this meeting, given the broad consensus across the House that action to ban lead shot is needed now. I therefore hope that, even at this late stage, the Minister can give my noble friend more positive news on this issue and confirm that the ban will indeed be implemented by July 2023. We look forward to his response on all these important issues in this group.