The ‘sheep dip lady’ vows to keep up the fight on organophosphates
THE Countess of Mar, who has spent much of the past two decades campaigning on behalf of fellow victims of organophosphate poisoning, tells Alistair Driver her extraordinary story.
The 31st Countess of Mar and 24th Lady Garioch has not been well of late. Problems with her heart and lungs have confined the peer to her Worcestershire home.
This has kept her away, to her intense frustration, from the place upon which she has spent the past 34 years imposing her indomitable will.
When the House of Lords held an election to retain 92 hereditary peers in 1999, Lady Mar topped the poll. The reason is the Lords love a fighter.
“I am well liked around the House. Everyone smiles at me when I go around the corridors as you have just seen,” she responds, when I ask her why.
She is a ‘sociable character’ who has ‘thrown herself’ into the activities of the House and has been a deputy speaker and chairman in the Lords since 1999.
“But mainly I am known because of the OP campaign. I am known as the Sheep Dip Lady. I have asked thousands of questions. I think they appreciated my persistence,” she says with a smile.
We are sitting in the appropriately austere House of Lords tearoom on one of the rare occasions she has been well enough to attend lately.
Over teacakes and oriental teas, I hear her extraordinary life story and occasionally savage views on the injustices that lie behind what she describes ‘the major tragedy in agriculture of the last two decades of the 20th Century’.
It all started, for her, on a sunny day in June 1989 when she was dipping sheep with her husband, John. “I was the dunker at the front. My husband had a recalcitrant lamb. When he finally caught it, it made a splosh - it wasn’t his fault - and I got a tidal wave into my wellies,” she recalls.
“The instructions were tiny on the packet and didn’t say you had to take all your clothes off and have a shower straight away. So I just kept dipping.
“We stopped to have lunch. Then in the afternoon I can remember sitting on the log. My nose was running. My chest was tight. I was wheezing. I had a headache. It all went off by next morning but then about three weeks later, I felt as though I had been pole-axed. I was so tired I had to go back to bed.”
She did not immediately make the connection between her illness and the OP sheep dip. Her doctor ‘helpfully’ told her she was tired and it was ‘your age, my dear’.
It was another three years before the penny dropped. “In that time even I was beginning to think I had gone barking mad because we could not pin anything down,” she says.
“I can’t describe the pain. Touching my skin was excruciating. I used to weep when I was getting dressed and there was the pain in bed at night and the loss of appetite. I have an old photograph where I look like a skeleton with hollows around the back of my eyes.”
The ‘Eureka’ moment happened while Lady Mar was reading a magazine from a GP trade association she was patron of and came across an article on ‘dipper’s flu’.
She had already been told by a complimentary medicine practitioner her liver had been poisoned and they then quickly narrowed the problem down to OPs. “We went through my history and every time I had dipped or sprayed OPs I was sick,” she says.
She was seen by neurologist Goran Jamal who carried out tests that ‘eliminated everything else, meaning it could only be the OPs’.
She has continued to suffer health problems ever since, some life threatening. “My heart packed in at one point, which is why I have got a pacemaker. The damage is still there,” she says.
It is a fight still worth fighting and I shall go on raising it at every oportunity
Countess of Mar
But the knowledge of what was causing her illness partially lifted the psychological cloud she was under and unleashed a one-woman campaign to find answers and justice.
She had entered the House of Lords in 1975 when she assumed the oldest peerage title in the UK, on the death of her father, the Earl of Mar.
Despite the grand title, her early years were not typical aristocracy. She was born Margaret Lane in 1940 – her father’s title was only officially recognised in 1959 - and brought up on farm in Kenya. “It was fantastic. I couldn’t have had a better early upbringing,” says Lady Mar, who came over to England as a teenager.
Her early working life took in farming, the Ministry of Pensions in Birmingham (she was rejected by MAFF), nursing and British Telecom.
A crossbench peer, not allied to any political Party, she was active in her first 17 years but it was when she began asking questions on OPs in 1992 she started getting noticed. At times, she was asking six a day. Not everybody liked it.
“They all thought I was barking mad. One peer asked if there was a danger of the noble Lords getting OP poisoning because of all the questions I was asking.
“But they eventually realised I had a point and I gained the respect of the House,” she says.
Lady Mar, who has chaired an All-Party Parliamentary Group on OPs and worked closely with LibDem MP Paul Tyler on her campaign, is proud of what she has achieved in terms of safety improvements and raising awareness of the OP’s dangers.
She highlights the skull and crossbones now on OP packaging and the requirement for users to have certificates of competence as examples.
But she is frustrated at the continuing lack of recognition and proper medical help for OP victims and the continuing lack of accountability for the problem.
The Government, the Veterinary Medicines Directorate and other advisory committees, the OP manufacturers the Health and Safety Executive., the medical profession and even the farming unions and trade bodies. They are all in her eyes, are partly to blame for the tragedy and the failure to help its victims.
Even today, nearly 18 years since Lady Mar began her campaign, the Government still refuses to admit a link between long-term, low-level OP exposure and ill health, despite extensive research on the subject.
She cites a ‘misplaced’ fear that admitting the link could open the floodgates to expensive legal claims as the reason why it has been so hard to uncover the truth.
“The duplicity was awful. There was a huge amount of deviousness and intellectual corruption that went on,” she says.
“If only these silly people had just realised that compensation wasn’t important. The Government is here first of all to protect our borders and then to protect the safety of our citizens. That’s what they have neglected - partly because of fear of massive pay-out,” she says.
She has never campaigned for compensation for OP victims, partly because of the proven difficulty in making individual claims stand up in court
“I have had a lot of contact with victims. I have got drawers full of letters, some of them awful, the worst being when children have been affected.
“Every single farmer who has written to me has asked how they can get recognition and treatment and how can they stop it happening to anybody else? I have never once had a letter saying ‘I want a big pay-out’,” she says.
She accuses the medical profession of a ‘complete lack of curiosity, understanding and awareness’ over OP poisoning, which has left many victims unaware even today they are affected. “That recognition is so important because you realise you are not going mad,” she says.
There may have been thousands of farmers affected, mostly before the early 1990s when OP dipping stopped being compulsory and safety improvements were made, many now dead, some still battling in the dark. Many have seen their lives collapse and their families broken up as a result.
“I could weep for them. I am so frustrated that I have not been able to do more for them. But it is a fight still worth fighting and I shall go on raising it at every opportunity,”says Lady Mar who was back in the Lords this week, and ‘on good form’.
The Countess of Mar’s key dates
- 1940: Born Margaret Alison Lane, in Kenya.
- 1959: Father’s title recognised. She becomes Margaret of Mar.
- 1963: Has daughter, Susie, from first marriage.
- 1965: Father becomes 30th Earl of Mar. She becomes Lady Margaret of Mar.
- 1967: Becomes Mistress of Mar when her brother dies.
- 1975: Enters House of Lords as the 31st Countess of Mar and 24th Lady Garioch when her father dies.
- 1985-2006: Member of Immigration Appeal Tribunal
- 1989: Serious OP poisoning incident. Becomes very ill.
- 1992: OP poisoning diagnosed. Asks first OP question in Lords. Forms All-Party Parliamentary Group on OPs
- 1997-2005: Member of select committees on farming, environment and public heath.
- 1999: Elected a deputy speaker in Lords.
- 1999: Tops poll in Lords vote to retain hereditary peers.