From Hillsborough to pesticides: establishment cover-ups, lies and corruption

When UK farmers spray their fields with pesticides close to rural homes, residents get no protection, and bizarre court rulings have effectively denied them their legal rights. Photo: Aqua Mechanical via Flickr (CC BY).

When UK farmers spray their fields with pesticides close to rural homes, residents get no protection, and bizarre court rulings have effectively denied them their legal rights. Photo: Aqua Mechanical via Flickr (CC BY).

The British establishment does nothing quite so well as lies, cover-ups and high-level corruption, writes Georgina Downs - whether it's the Hillsborough disaster or permitting polluters to poison us. Georgina won her own High Court legal victory protecting rural residents from pesticide exposure as long ago as 2008 - only to have it snatched away as Court of Appeal judges closed ranks.
Millions of rural citizens have been put in a massive guinea pig-style experiment, for which many of us residents have had to suffer the serious, devastating - and in some cases fatal - consequences.

I felt a mixture of emotions last week as I watched the jubilant celebrations of the Hillsborough families being fully vindicated after their tireless 27-year battle for truth and justice.

I knew only too well the pure hell they have had to endure fighting a battle that they never should have had to - the continued strength and determination needed, and all the sacrifices involved in getting what they always knew was right accepted.

I therefore felt elated for them when I saw the outcome of the jury's verdict - and the critical fact that there is no way that this verdict can be overturned or appealed.

But I also felt a total wave of despair because getting justice for all the rural residents that my pesticides campaign represents is something which still feels such a very long way off.

Last week's scenes then reminded me of 14th November 2008 when I stood victorious on the steps of the High Court in London following the landmark ruling by a Judge that the Government had acted unlawfully in its policy on the use of pesticides in crop spraying, and that public health - in particular rural residents, like me, exposed to cocktails of pesticides from living in the locality of sprayed fields - is not protected.

In the statement I read out on the day I said that I felt fully vindicated by such a ruling as the Judge was the first person to actually properly consider the full evidence and arguments I had been presenting to the Government since 2001 and ruled in my favour unequivocally on every single one of the four grounds involved in the case.

The High Court judgment was extremely damaging to the Government, all its departments, officials and scientific advisors, responsible for pesticides, as it clearly confirmed what I had always said from the outset of my campaign - that the Government had fundamentally failed to protect people in the countryside from pesticides, and had also knowingly allowed residents to continue to suffer from adverse health effects - some of which had led to fatalities - without taking any action to prevent the exposure, risks and adverse impacts occurring.

I ended my statement outside the High Court by pointing out that I should not have had to have spent so many years of my life fighting to get the Government to do something on this when the evidence and arguments I identified were very clear from the outset and the Government should have acted when I first started to present the case in 2001.

But sadly, justice for residents was all too short-lived

The Hillsborough families made these same points about their 27 year fight which they only had to continue fighting as a result of all the establishment cover ups, lies, corruption, false narratives, and simply not being listened to or believed. The disgraceful treatment of the Hillsborough families for so many years will now be forever marked in history as one of the biggest miscarriages of justice.

Millions of rural citizens have been put in a massive guinea pig-style experiment, for which many of us residents have had to suffer the serious, devastating - and in some cases fatal - consequences.

However, unlike the definitive justice that the Hillsborough families have finally received, the justice for rural residents was only short-lived, as following very heavy lobbying on the Government from the pesticides industry and big farming unions the Government appealed against the High Court Judgment in my favour.

That High Court ruling - that had found the Government was in breach of both EU law and Article 8 of the European Convention on Human Rights - clearly had massive legal and political implications on the Government involving issues of responsibility, accountability and liability, especially in relation to the many individuals and families living near crop fields who have suffered adverse health effects from crop spraying.

Furthermore, it was reported in the press at the time that the Government maintained that if the High Court Judgment stood then the "Government's pesticide policy would be fundamentally undermined" and that the policy and approvals system "might even grind to a halt." [1]

The Government no doubt would also have been mindful that, in addition, it would have cost the Government many millions not only in relation to lost income from the pesticide industry to the regulators, the CRD (who were the acting defendants in the legal case on behalf of the Government), but also in the threat of any potential legal action against the Government by the industry if new product approvals were no longer able to be granted, and/or if pesticides the Government had previously approved and that were subject to long approvals were no longer able to be used.

Therefore there was no doubt that the Government wanted the landmark High Court ruling overturned no matter what. And low and behold it was overturned in the Court of Appeal a mere eight months later in July 2009, but only as a result of very wrongly and bizarrely ignoring all my critical evidence and arguments and substituting it with the conclusions of a Government requested/funded report four years earlier in 2005.

A deliberate cover up?

Yet in reviewing a High Court judgment the Court of Appeal would have needed to have based its judgment on the same cogent case, detailed factual evidence and arguments that led to that landmark victory in the High Court, but it clearly did not.

The Court of Appeal Judgment was a complete whitewash and I said at the time it came out and will reiterate it again, the Government could not have wished for a better result than if it wrote the Judgment itself!

In fact it was clear to a number of those who attended the Court of Appeal hearing in May 2009 that the Judges came in with a pre-formed view, and did not display any genuine interest in the case, evidence and arguments presented by my side. But why did they come in with a pre-formed view? Was it indeed, as I always believed it to be, just part of the cover up?

Listening to the various statements being made last week by those involved in fighting for justice for the Hillsborough victims and how the cover up went right to the heart of the judicial system in this country then I am even further convinced that some sort of 'arrangement' was made to ensure my historic victory was quashed.

The Supreme Court subsequently refused permission to appeal. This was always highly questionable considering how bizarre and inaccurate the Court of Appeal Judgment was - as anyone who reads my six Witness Statements will see that it simply was not based on the cogent factual evidence and arguments I had presented, and that were in full support of the legal arguments involved in my case.

Human rights? You must be joking

I then tried to take the case to the European Court of Human Rights but it was simply not interested in the plight of residents and turned its back, just as it had done on one of the Hillsborough family's when they had applied seeking justice in their case.

The Strasbourg Court had decided in October 2012 - nearly two and a half years after I had lodged my detailed 1785 page application - not to even consider the merits of the residents case and refused to give any reasons as to why.

I then discovered that this was in clear breach of Article 45 of the European Convention on Human Rights that states: "Reasons shall be given for judgments as well as for decisions declaring applications admissible or inadmissible."

Hillsborough families QC Michael Mansfield, who is a supporter of my campaign, said to me in an email at the time that a decision without any reasons given for inadmissibility was "extraordinary" and advised me to "press hard for these."

I did pursue the reasons - especially considering that crucially all the admissibility criteria had definitely been met - but over a year later and still with no explanation given to substantiate the court's decision then I had to give up and walk away as dealing with that court was a nightmare in itself, and due to the very structure of it there was simply no one of any higher authority to go to regarding what happened.

In fact I have never admitted this in public before but my experiences with that wholly unaccountable court led me to initially consider ending it all, as I was left feeling even lower in life's rankings than axe murderers, terror suspects, rapists, paedophiles and other criminals that the Strasbourg court often rules in favour of.

It seems the words 'human rights' have become synonymous with criminals rights and not those of the victims of crime or in this case of a flawed Government policy.

Fighting back

However, just like the Hillsborough families had done each time one door was slammed shut on their case, I was determined to fight on and so soon bounced back.

Indeed at the end of 2013 a review of the policy on pesticides that DEFRA Ministers had requested as a direct result of the original landmark ruling in the High Court led to the Government finally acknowledging that the risk assessment approach relied upon to date had been inadequate, as it publicly committed to various changes to the policy and approach for assessing the risks to people from agricultural pesticides.

Yet, despite again vindicating the crux of my critical campaign arguments (that residents are simply not covered by the existing short term bystander model), overall the changes Ministers committed to were still woefully inadequate. In any event, 2½ years on and the Government still does not appear to have implemented the changes it previously committed to do.

In fact, in relation to one of the key changes that Ministers committed to undertaking - that both acute and longer-term exposure assessments will be required for residents - DEFRA has recently stated it will not be expecting applicant companies to undertake any assessment for acute exposure. [2]

It is therefore a matter of fact that there is still no actual risk assessment for the real life exposure of rural residents who live in the locality of sprayed fields (however much DEFRA may try and insist there is), as the Government's current approach continues to exclude entirely many of the exposure factors and routes that are necessary to include in the calculations for a residents specific exposure scenario.

Yet no pesticides should ever have been approved for use in the first place in the absence of all the necessary risks assessments being undertaken, as the relevant legislation is clear in that it must be established before a pesticide can be approved for use that there will be no immediate or delayed harmful effect on human health.

Facts and data ignored in favour of unevidenced industry assertions

The actual facts, evidence, and data of the reality of residents exposure, direct from residents themselves, has continued to be sidelined by regulators in favour of the unevidenced assertions of the manufacturers and producers of pesticides as to what they maintain the exposure of residents involves!

Yet the primary concern of the pesticides industry has always clearly been to protect the sales of their products and related profits and to keep such pesticides being used.

Pesticides are obviously very big business. Sales of pesticides in the UK alone each year is around £627 million [3] and reports have put the value of the world pesticides industry at around a staggering $53 billion.

Therefore it has never been in the interests of the pesticide corporations to have the real life exposure of rural residents and communities properly recognised, as it is absolutely clear that if a proper assessment was undertaken to assess the exposure and risk for residents, then the result would be that pesticides would simply not be allowed to be approved at all for use in the locality of residents' homes, as well as schools, children's playgrounds etc.

There is also a striking and astonishing fact related to the continued reliance of the regulators on the unevidenced assertions of the pesticides industry - in that the Chemicals Regulation Directorate (CRD) which is part of the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), receives approximately 60% of its funding from the agro-chemical industry.

This is broken down into the fees charged to manufacturers for applications, and a charge on the UK turnover of pesticide companies. [4] This results in the CRD receiving around £7 million or more per year from the industry. This has always been a completely inappropriate structure.

Therefore, even though CRD's main priority is supposed to be to protect public health and the environment from pesticides, this absolutely conflicts with the fact that its main customers/clients are the big agro-chemical giants.

This may go some way to explaining why the CRD has always, very notably, been far more concerned with the protection of industry and business interests, particularly applicants for approval, rather than the protection of the public, especially residents.

CRD and pesticides industry behind latest outrageous EU proposal

In fact, the CRD, along with representatives of the pesticides industry, appear to be behind the astonishing proposal currently being considered in Europe - in a EC draft Technical Guidance [5] - to interpret pesticides being applied in "closed systems" and "in other conditions excluding contact with humans" as being applicable to the outdoor use of pesticides from crop spraying applications on fields in the open air.

This is in order for the exposure of residents to then be deemed so low and insignificant that it is included within the context of the term"negligible exposure."

This is yet again outrageous, especially considering that EU law already recognises that the exposure for residents living in the locality of pesticide sprayed fields is high, as residents are now specifically defined as a "vulnerable group" in Article 3, paragraph 14, of the EU Regulation 1107/2009, which clearly recognises and clearly states that residents are "subject to high pesticide exposure over the long term."

Thus what is currently being considered in Europe is again not in line with existing EU laws, in which residents exposure cannot possibly be considered as "negligible".

My campaign is battling hard in Europe to try and get these proposals scrapped.

A catalogue of adverse health impacts

It is now beyond dispute that pesticides can cause a wide range of both acute, and chronic, adverse effects on human health. This includes irreversible and permanent chronic effects, illnesses and diseases.

High quality, peer-reviewed scientific studies and reviews have concluded that long-term exposure to pesticides can disturb the function of different systems in the body, including nervous, endocrine, immune, reproductive, renal, cardiovascular, and respiratory systems.

Such studies have concluded that exposure to pesticides is associated with a wide range of chronic diseases including, cancers of the breast, prostate, lung, brain (including childhood brain cancer), kidney, testicles, pancreas, oesophagus, stomach, bladder, bone, as well as non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, multiple myeloma, soft tissue sarcoma, leukaemia, (including childhood leukaemia).

Other chronic health impacts that pesticides have been associated with in studies include, birth defects, reproductive disorders, neuro degenerative diseases (including Parkinson's, Alzheimer's, Amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS)), cardio-vascular diseases, respiratory diseases, diabetes, chronic renal diseases, and autoimmune diseases (such as rheumatoid arthritis, and systemic lupus erythematous).

Such findings add further support and vindication to the many residents who have continued to raise concerns over the association of pesticides and such chronic conditions.

The most common chronic long-term effects, illnesses and diseases reported to my campaign from residents living in the locality of crop sprayed fields include neurological conditions such as Parkinson's disease, Motor Neurone Disease, and neurological damage, as well as various cancers, especially those of the breast and brain, leukaemia, non-Hodgkins lymphoma, amongst many other chronic conditions.

The economic costs of the health conditions that pesticides can cause are massive. Obviously it goes without saying that the personal and human costs to those suffering chronic diseases and damage, and the impacts on all those around them, cannot be calculated in financial terms.

I myself have also known a number of residents lose their lives, or the lives of their husbands or wives, sons or daughters. It has been heart breaking to watch this happening, especially knowing that if pesticides were not sprayed in the locality of residents' homes then such health conditions would have been totally preventable.

Real effects, real people

Take Douglas Lee, for example. Douglas and his family lived in the locality of pesticide sprayed fields. Douglas lost his son to leukaemia and had also previously recorded three other cases of leukaemia, seven cases of cancer and six neurological diseases from just 50 properties in his area.

In addition, he reported that several dogs which walked through fields shortly after crop spraying had died from cancer, and that entire ponds of fish had also died following spraying. Douglas himself subsequently succumbed to cancer a few years ago. I spoke to him two weeks before he died and he asked me to use his name and to carry on campaigning on behalf of all those affected. Mrs Lee lost both her husband and her son.

There is also the tragic case of Keren Robbins. She was subjected to years of pesticide spraying in the locality of her home, while suffering from both a neurological condition, and Multiple Chemical Sensitivity (MCS).

Keren was left feeling so powerless to stop the chemical onslaught that, after a spraying application in 2009 in which she suffered further adverse effects on her health, she took her own life by jumping in front of a train. Her husband was left utterly devastated at the loss of his wife.

Millions of rural citizens have been put in a massive guinea pig-style experiment, for which many of us residents have had to suffer the serious, devastating - and in some cases fatal - consequences. There are so many horrific stories of people being poisoned from crop spraying in the locality of their homes and many involve children.

Despite this - and despite the fact the primary duty of any Government is supposed to be to protect its people - successive Governments' have continued to fail to act to secure the protection of rural residents from exposure to these harmful chemicals.

They have instead just continued to shift the goalposts, cherry picked the science to suit the desired outcome (of maintaining the status quo wherever possible), and misled the public over the safety of crop pesticides sprayed on UK fields - as there has never been any evidence of safety for residents, or children attending schools near sprayed fields, just successive Governments' own unfounded assertions.

Disgraceful 'Honour' for failing to protect people from poisons

The most recent outrageous development in relation to this issue has been the disgraceful MBE awarded to a Government official, Paul Hamey, who has been at the very heart of the long standing and catastrophic failure to protect rural residents from exposure to the cocktails of poisons sprayed on crops across the UK.

Mr. Hamey was the official that represented the Government in the legal proceedings and wrote/produced the majority of the Witness Statements on its behalf.

The fact that he was given the responsibility of representing in the UK courts the policy approach taken by DEFRA - and in doing so he was really defending his own work, as the official in charge of human exposure and risk assessment - only further demonstrated the influence he has on the policy decisions taken by DEFRA.

Therefore awarding him an MBE just adds further insult to injury to all those affected from the lack of duty of care in protecting people in rural areas and it goes way beyond rewarding for failure. This is rewarding someone directly involved with one of the biggest public health scandals of our time, and which can only be described as a national disgrace.

It would actually be akin to an MBE or other such honour being given to David Duckenfield who was the senior police officer and match commander during the fateful match at Hillsborough on 15th April 1989 and who has now been held fully responsible by the inquest jury due to a clear breach of his duty of care.

Following an objection I made regarding Paul Hamey's MBE I was assured by the Cabinet Office that there would now be an "assessment". [6] However, it is ludicrously being assessed by the same Government department that nominated him to receive the honour in the first place! So what are the chances of it being revoked? Not much.

Truth and Justice

Following the Hillsborough verdict the Home Secretary, Theresa May, said in a statement in the House of Commons that the Hillsborough families have faced "hostility and obfuscation. And the authorities that should have been trusted have laid blame and tried to protect themselves instead of acting in the public interest.....But the families have never faltered in their pursuit of the truth."

One of the leading campaigners of the Hillsborough families, Trevor Hicks, said following the jury's verdict, "I think if anyone is a winner today, it's society at large in that, no matter who you are, how big you are, or where you are in your organisation, the public will come after you if you do anything wrong."

The long fought justice for the Hillsborough families gives heart to all of us fighting for the truth and justice of an appalling scandal that has destroyed human lives. It is now very long overdue for other such scandals and cover ups to be fully recognised and acted on.

Many rural residents are waiting for the day we get a Hillsborough-style victory for the 'double injustice' we have endured from: firstly being poisoned by the Government's very own policy; and then having to fight for years for recognition of the damage caused and for the necessary protection to prevent other families suffering the same.

Despite all the great difficulties involved with continuing to campaign, including the many obstacles presented by the 'agents of self-interest' - regulators, politicians, the big business players of the pesticide industry and farming unions, and even state and EU funded charities and NGOs - I shall carry on doing my best to get that result.



Georgina Downs is a journalist and campaigner. She has lived next to regularly sprayed crop fields for more than 30 years and runs the UK Pesticides Campaign.

This article was originally published on CounterPunch.


1. These quotes appeared in various articles in the UK in May 2009, including Farmers Weekly.

2. As stated by David Williams from DEFRA in an email dated 20th September 2015, and again in an email from Adrian Dixon, Head of Policy, CRD, on 15th January 2016.

3. Taken from an email from the finance department of the Chemicals Regulation Directorate (CRD) on 25th September 2012 confirming this figure.

4. Source: paragraph 3.1 of a 2011 DEFRA document.

5. European Commission draft Technical Guidance on points 3.6.3. to 3.6.5 of Annex II to Regulation (EC) No 1107/2009, in particular regarding the demonstration of negligible exposure to an active substance in a plant protection product under realistic conditions of use. The latest draft is November 2015 which is unpublished.

6. As stated in a letter dated 14th. March 2016 from the Honours Diversity and Outreach Co-ordinator at the Cabinet Office.

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