The sheep dip issue has always been problematic for the NFU balancing the health of farmers, the animal welfare requirement to have effective scab control and the desire to avoid litigation from chemical companies by questioning the safety of their products.
[A secondary concern may have been any financial impact on their sister organisation NFU Mutual, see below].
Former Director General Richard Macdonald described the problem as incredibly difficult, he personally had known farmers affected since 1984 in his previous role in the SW but being cautious 14 pages of the 16 page summary of acquired knowledge he handed his successor were simply copied and pasted from the DEFRA website. Subsequent revision of policy in 2014 was to change the wording to reflect changes used by DEFRA.
It was not always thus; in the late 1980's the NFU became aware of how many members were being affected. A telephone survey of dippers Sept-Nov 1991 found 35% in the South West reporting ill-health, 40% in Cumbria. In May 1992 a meeting for affected farmers in the Exeter office had to be abandoned when they suffered a bad reaction to wood treatment used on the building, several collapsed and one woman had 4 fits in 24 hours.
In June 1995 the NFU arranged a joint seminar with the British Medical Association after which President Sir David Naish declared:
“There is increasingly convincing evidence that organophosphate sheep dips can harm the health of the farmers who use them. The recent published research by the Institute of Occupational health points to long-term effects on the nervous system. There is also a growing volume of anecdotal evidence of ill-effects so this must be taken very seriously.
It is an issue which the NFU has felt for some time must be given a higher place on the political and public agenda, in order that those have suffered ill-effects from OP dips – and those who are potentially at risk – can receive the help they need ... action in which the NFU will play its full part”.
Fine words long since forgotten.
Despite what is commonly believed there is no formal, legal relationship between NFU and NFU Mutual, Richard Macdonald assured the Parliamentary Agriculture committee on 21/6/95, reaffirming "there are absolute Chinese walls" to ensure NFU members are entitled to full support - including through legal assistance scheme - even though if successful it is financially damaging to the Mutual.
In the early 1990s it is reported that the Mutual had set aside £11m as a contingency against possible OP claims, this is understood to have risen to £25m by 2010 but to date it has not been required. The Mutual did spend thousands unsuccessfully fighting a case against a farmworker affected by an OP used in grain stores (Hill v Tompkins) but successfully against one affected by sheep dip. The Mutual wouldn't pay out on a health insurance policy held by severely affected contact dipper as chronic OP poisoning was not a recognised illness (though they did offer to reimburse his premiums).
Any NFU member affected is entitled to help through CallFirst (quoting membership number) or via regional office.