From The Guardian, 27 April 2015. Story by Tom Levitt.
Cross-party support for inquiry and parliamentary debate after newly-published documents reveal government knew of health risk of mandatory chemical dip.
A former environment minister and more than a dozen MPs from across the political spectrum have backed calls for an inquiry and parliamentary debate into whether farmers were misled over the use of a dangerous chemical.
At least 500 farmers across the UK were left with debilitating health problems after using organophosphate-based (OP) chemicals to protect their sheep against parasites, under the government’s compulsory dipping programme which ran up until 1992.
Last week the Guardian revealed the then-government was privately warning of the dangers of exposure to even low doses of the chemical and criticising the safety measures offered by manufacturers, yet publicly criticising farmers who refused to use the chemical.
Shadow health secretary Andy Burnham called it a “major scandal” and demanded a Hillsborough-style disclosure of what was known, by whom and when. He has now been backed by MPs from the Liberal Democrats, Labour, Conservatives and Democratic Unionist Party, as well as a number of peers.
The list of supporting MPs includes former environment minister Michael Meacher who said he wanted a fully independent inquiry led by a judge or senior lawyer, and four members of the environment, food and rural affairs select committee.
Labour MP Jessica Morden said that if re-elected she would apply for a parliamentary debate on organophosphates and sheep dips, which would have to be addressed by a government minister.
Legal experts have also responded to the revelations by suggesting a number of farmers may have valid compensation claims.
“The fact that the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) was aware as far back as 1991 of the health risks associated with organophosphate use is shocking, particularly given that such knowledge has been denied for decades,” said Gene Matthews, a partner at the law firm Leigh Day.
“Had this HSE evidence been released shortly after it was written those individuals allegedly affected by OPs would have had an increased chance of holding the government, and the relevant companies, to account for the harm they claimed to have suffered,” he added.
The difficulty in directly linking chronic ill health and the use of OP chemicals has seen previous legal claims fail. The only successful court settlement in the UK was brought by a farm worker John Amos Hill in 1997. He won a compensation claim against his employer after suffering chronic ill health after using OPs, having not been given adequate warnings of the health risks of using the chemical or protective clothing.
A Sheep Dip Sufferers Support Group has recently been set up by Lancashire farmer Tom Rigby to help campaign for recognition for victims still alive today, many of whom have to pay for private treatment because the NHS does not officially recognise OP poisoning as a medical condition.
The full list of supporting MPs and peers calling for an inquiry or debate includes: Andy Burnham, Jamie Reed, Jessica Morden, Edward Leigh, Margaret Ritchie, Jim Shannon, Russell Brown, John Thurso, Lindsay Hoyle, Roger Williams, Neil Parish, Mary Glindon, Jesse Norman, Andrew George, Michael Meacher, Margaret Mar and Paul Tyler.