The Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee would consider an investigation into organophosphate (OP) sheep dip poisoning, if Defra continues to let the issue drift, according to its new chair.
Last week, Farming Minister George Eustice denied accusations of a Government cover-up during a debate on OP poisoning in the House of Commons.
He did not comment on calls for an independent inquiry during the debate but was quoted afterwards as saying he felt it would add nothing to the conclusions of the Government’s independent advisers, the committee on toxicity (COT).
Devon MP Neil Parish, formally confirmed as EFRA’s new chair on Wednesday, said the issue was not something that should not be ‘brushed under the carpet’ and ’will come into our radar’.
“My father used to dip a lot of sheep in the 80s and early 90s and I don’t think it did him any good,” Mr Parish told Farmers Guardian.
“An inquiry is something I would consider, yes, but perhaps not straight away. Let’s see what action is taken by Government. If we think there is a need (for an inquiry) I would not rule it out,” he said.
During last week’s debate, MPs led by Labour’s Jessica Morden, highlighted the cases of constituents who have suffered from OP poisoning and called for an independent inquiry into the events surrounding dating back to the 1970s, 80s and early 90s.
“The crux of the debate is that while sheep dipping came to an end in 1992, the survivors’ groups and other campaigners suspect that the Government must have been aware of the risk earlier,” Ms Morden said.
Mr Eustice acknowledged OPs are ‘potentially dangerous substances whose use needs to be controlled to minimise the risks to humans’.
But he referred to a statement produced by the COT committee in March last year, summarising the conclusion of its review of 26 studies into OP poisoning since 1999.
It concluded: “The current balance of evidence suggests that there is no long-term risk of clearly demonstrable peripheral neuropathy from exposure to organophosphates”.
He said the key issue was whether exposure to low levels of OPs ‘that does not cause overt poisoning nevertheless contributes to long-term conditions’. “The conclusion of the (COT) report is that it does not,” he said.
Referring to the alleged cover-up of an HSE report on the dangers of OPs, eventually released earlier this year following a Freedom of Information request from OP campaigner Tom Rigby, Mr Eustice said it was published in 1991.
"I reassure Members that we are not hiding anything. The 1991 report was published at the time, but for the sake of completeness I am happy to ensure that we put a copy in the Library.”
He said he was ‘more than happy’ to meet the Sheep Dip Sufferers Support Group.
Mr Rigby, a Lancashire farmer and one of the driving forces behind the renewed campaign for OP sufferers, welcomed what he described as a ‘useful’ debate.
"I am very grateful to Jessica for her hard work and commitment and those from three other political parties that came to support I would encourage all affected to contact their MPs and ask them to take an interest," he said.
But he said Mr Eustice appeared to be ‘misinformed about a few things’ and maintained it was ‘very unlikely’ the HSE report was published in 1991.
Mr Parish has promised to hold Defra to account over key policy issues as was set to be confirmed as the new chair of the influential Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee.
The Conservative MP, who chaired the EU Parliament’s Agriculture Committee during his time as an MEP and has been a member of the EFRA Committee since his election as an MP in 2010, was elected unopposed to the role held by held by Ann McIntosh in the previous Parliament.
The rest of the cross-party committee will be elected over the next fortnight.
Mr Parish said his committee’s role would to scrutinise Defra and also come up with fresh thinking on key Defra policy areas like the CAP, bovine TB, food security, broadband and flooding.