original version, as submitted by Muckspreader to Private Eye

Muckspreader 5 nov 03


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We have just seen, yet again, what has become the most familiar of all rituals with our agriculture ministers:  the 180-degree U-turn on OPs, the organo-phosphorus pesticides which have seriously damaged the health of thousands of farmers. The latest minister to go through the ritual dance is  Ben Bradshaw who, after taking office last summer, seemed keen to persist with a high-level seminar on OPs, planned by his predecessor Elliott Morley for December. But recently those billed to contribute were shocked to hear that Bradshaw had decided that the seminar should be scrapped.

This ritual began way back in the early 1990s, when it first emerged that thousands of farmers were suffering appalling ill-health after treating their sheep for parasites with OP-based sheep dips.  The first minister to be told about this was John Gummer. But his officials pointed out that it would be fatal to admit that the sheep dips were dangerous, because use of the products had been made compulsory by MAFF and they had been licensed as safe to use by the government's Veterinary Medicines Directorate. Gummer's response was to rescind the order making dipping compulsory, but without explaining why. The order went out that the one thing MAFF ministers must never do was admit that government-approved OPs had been responsible for a public health disaster. Junior ministers like Nicholas Soames dutifully appeared on television to claim that OPs, nerve-agents which knock out the immune system (hence their efficiency as pesticides), were no more harmful than breakfast cereals.
But gradually an influential lobby emerged, led by the Countess of Mar, herself a victim of OP poisoning, and Lib Dem MP Paul Tyler, to argue the victims' case. Unless the government came clean, they urged, the disaster would only continue. As ever more evidence piled up to show the damage OPs had caused, one minister after another became persuaded that something nasty was going on. They included Gillian Shepherd and William Waldegrave. But each time, after being told by officials that to admit the truth would only lead to massive compensation claims, they fell strangely silent.

  When Labour came to power in 1997, the lobbyists resumed their efforts to talk ministers into holding an independent enquiry, to challenge the officials' stranglehold over the evidence. One minister who followed the case made against OPs with particular care was Baroness Hayman, who soon afterwards lost her job. Another who seemed sympathetic to the evidence produced by spokesmen for the victims, such as Liz Sigmund of the OP Information Network, was Michael Meacher.

It was he who, supported by Elliott Morley, finally agreed that a high-level seminar should be held, at which the issues raised by OPs could have a proper airing. Among those due to speak was Professor Andrew Wattison of Stirling University. Last summer, when Meacher lost his job, the new minister Ben Bradshaw at first seemed happy the conference should go ahead. But last month word went out that "the expense to the taxpayers and officials' time involved in holding a seminar on OPs at this time could not be justified when there is little new to say". "Clearly he has been taken hostage by his civil servants" responded an angry Paul Tyler, "The lawyers are again running scared" of compensation claims against "the big chemical manufacturers and previous ministers"."We believe this complacent and cowardly response is unworthy of the minister and his department". What else could he say?