Thursday, 26 May 2011

Big Society is Big Business says pesticides campaigner

“Big Society should be changed to Big Business.” So says campaigner Georgina Downs in response to the coalition government’s watering down of fresh European legislation designed to protect the general public from pesticides.

Downs, whose chemical interest began after a move to the Sussex countryside led to a serious health problem, has waged a decade long battle to protect rural residents, especially from pesticides in crop spray.

Her own meticulous research and analysis of the government’s own figures helped Downs win five legal cases against the Government in 2007 and 2008. Safety limits had been exceeded and witness statements revealed a failure to act had created health problems in the countryside.

Celebrating after a High Court victory

She’d hoped, after meeting the then Environment Secretary Hilary Benn, that Labour would strengthen the law. This would have made it compulsory for residents to be given advance notice and introduced a ban on crop spraying around homes, schools and public areas.

Instead of which she was left stunned when the Department of Environment Food and Rural Affairs [DEFRA] application to the Court of Appeal to overturn her evidence, on grounds she isn’t a scientist, was accepted.  She’s now mounting an appeal against this decision at the European Court of Human Rights.

Meantime the European Parliament has itself been taking steps to safeguard the public’s health by establishing a framework for community action aimed at achieving safe, sustainable use of pesticides.

New legislation includes a legal obligation for farmers to provide residents with information on the pesticides they employ. There are also options for a new legal requirement for prior notification before spraying. Pesticide use in areas used by the general public or by ‘vulnerable groups’ including residents is to be banned. With the Government’s figures showing the main poisoning pesticide incidents are from crop spraying this was good news.

With these significant changes starting on November 25th this year DEFRA was given the job of consulting with stakeholder groups on their implementation, prior to the Government making the domestic legal changes required to make them effective.

According to DEFRA Minister Lord Henley - or ‘Henley the VIII” as he’s dubbed because of his grand lifestyle by residents close to his Cumbrian castle estate - that can be done “by making small changes to our existing approach as no compelling evidence was provided to justify further extending existing regulations and voluntary controls.”

Downs met Henley in July last year. She’s convinced, that in addition to Henley’s voluntary methods being in breach of European legislation, his promise to examine her evidence has not been kept saying: “otherwise he could not possibly have come to such an inaccurate conclusion.”  She accuses the government of ignoring evidence that the damage to people’s health from pesticide exposure is costing the NHS billions.

“The Government is not interested in protecting the health of the very people they are expected to serve. The Prime Minister’s pledge that it will be the ‘greenest ever’ is an absolute farce, and ‘Big Society” should be changed to ‘Big Business” said Downs who is now looking at mounting a further legal challenge.

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