PARLIAMENTARY DEBATES

HOUSE OF COMMONS

OFFICIAL REPORT

Fifth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.

FOOD PROTECTION (EMERGENCY PROHIBITIONS) (No. 10) ORDER 1986

Wednesday 28 January 1987

LONDON

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The Committee consisted of the following Members:

(Chairman: MR. ALBERT MCQUARRIE)

Brown, Mr. Ron (Edinburgh, Leith)

Canavan, Mr. Dennis (Falkirk, West)

Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James (Edinburgh, West)

Home Robertson, Mr. John (East Lothian)

Johnston, Sir Russell (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)

Mackay, Mr. John (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland)

Malone, Mr. Gerald (Aberdeen, South)

Monro, Sir Hector (Dumfries)

Randall, Mr Stuart (Kingston upon Hull, West)

Steen, Mr. Anthony (South Hams)

Strang, Mr. Gavin (Edinburgh, East)

Thompson, Mr. Patrick (Norwich, North)

Townsend, Mr. Cyril D. (Bexleyheath)

Walker, Mr. Bill (Tayside, North)

Warren, Mr. Kenneth (Hastings and Rye)

White, Mr. James (Glasgow, Pollok)

Whitfield, Mr. John (Dewsbury)

Winterton, Mrs. Ann (Congleton)

Miss P. A. Helme, Committee Clerk.

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3 Fifth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. Wednesday 28 January 1987

[Mr. ALBERT MCQUARRIE in the Chair]

FOOD PROTECTION (EMERGENCY PROHIBITIONS) (No. 10) ORDER 1986

10.30 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. John MacKay): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (No. 10) Order 1986. The House approved the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) No. 8 Order on 24 October 1986. Since then we have introduced the testing of sheep moved under the mark and release scheme and permitted the slaughter of those that are safe to enter the food chain. The Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) No. 10 Order, provides the necessary authority for the slaughter of those sheep. It also consolidates and corrects some errors which unfortunately crept in to the No. 8 order when changes were made by subsequent amendment orders. These errors had no adverse effect on the control on the movement and slaughter of sheep which ensured that food reaching the public was safe. The errors have not put any farmer at an unfair disadvantage, but they should be corrected. We had to act quickly after the accident at Chernobyl. Our task was not made easier by the initial reluctance of the Soviet Government to admit to the catastrophe and to make the necessary information available. Nevertheless, we acted as quickly as we could. The accident occurred on 26th April and the radioactive cloud reached Britain over the weekend of 2nd to 4th May. Between 3rd and 7th May testing was stepped up in Scotland on milk and milk products, grass, vegetables and water. Attention was focused on milk in the early days because of its property of concentrating radio-iodine, the substance which initially gave greatest cause for concern. However, within a short time, other products were also being tested. Sheep meat was first monitored on 28th May. Samples were taken at slaughterhouses. These gave no cause for concern but sampling of grazing lambs told a different story. Restrictions were consequently imposed on the movement and slaughter of sheep in areas of England and Wales on 20th June. The first restrictions in Scotland followed four days later. These restrictions applied originally to Dumfries and Galloway, Arran and part of Ross and Cromarty. In addition to our direct evidence, judgments had to be made on the basis of weather data, 4 such grass and herbage sampling as had been carried out by the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology and others, and the evidence of the intensive milk sampling that had taken place during May. There was also a programme of slaughterhouse sampling all over Scotland in case of any evidence that, in spite of restrictions, contaminated food was about to enter the food chain. That programme continues and only in one instance did it give us grounds for further action. That occurred in North Uist and led to the imposition of restrictions there on 30th July and in South Uist on 13th August. Restrictions were also etxended into further parts of Strathclyde on 30th July when, prompted by readings obtained in the high ground in Dumfries and Galloway bordering Strathclyde, we extended testing across the regional boundary. Fortunately, only the higher ground in Strathclyde presented a problem and the additional area of designation was kept reasonably small. Since mid-July we have been able, on the basis of intensive sampling, to release areas progressively from restrictions. The pattern of release can be followed from schedule 2 to the order. However, some areas are still designated. They are set out in schedule 1 of the order and are the areas from which sheep have been moved marked blue under the scheme announced on 13th August. Those sheep had to be moved because feed was running short and the mark and release scheme gave the necessary authority to move them before the areas from which they came were themselves cleared. In the interests of public health, it was necessary to prevent the slaughter of those blue marked sheep until we were satisfied that levels of radioactivity in them had declined to a sufficinetly low level. On 18th December we introduced a programme of testing to establish that, and of some 5,000 animals tested in Scotland not one has failed the test and had to be withheld from slaughter. That is most encouraging, but until we are satisfied that all blue marked sheep throughout Britain are clear the area must remain designated—hence the need for the current order to continue in force. In those parts of the country where there have been restrictions for any length of time, the farming community has been severely affected. It is in the farmer's interest to ensure that the product that he supplies is wholesome. 1 pay tribute to individual members of the farming community and to the National Farmer's Union of Scotland that throughout the Chernobyl incident they never once suggested that the Government were not right to take prompt and firm action to ensure that the reputation of Scottish lamb was maintained. I am sure that after the appalling summer of 1985 Chernobyl and its consequences was the last thing that our farmers needed. It is to their credit that they have not only recognised the need for the action we have taken but co-operated readily in assisting with the monitoring programme. I should also like to record that my Department has had outstanding co-operation from other sectors of the industry such as auctioneers and slaughterers. 5 The restrictions, coming just before lambs were due to be moved off their summer pasture, could have spelt disaster for many sheep farmers. From the first announcement of restrictions the Govern-recognised that financial compensation was required. We put in place a three tier scheme of compensation that has been welcomed throughout the industry. The three tiers are: First, compensation in respect of animals rejected as over-fat under the sheep variable premium scheme. That applied where marketing had been delayed because of a restriction order and was available to farmers for three weeks after the date of lifting of restrictions. Some 666 applications have been received. To date 555 have been paid at a cost of £ 67,059. Secondly, compensation for farmers for losses arising in the marketing of sheep sold under the mark and release arrangements. The scheme covers marked store lambs and marked finished lambs. Some 360 applications have been received, all of which have been paid at a cost of £ 287,491. Thirdly, compensation for producers for direct costs arising from the restrictions e.g., additional feed costs, veterinary bills etc. Different rates are paid on different categories of animals and to date 1,325 claims have been received of which 1,286 have been paid totalling £ 961,737. Those arrangements have been welcomed by the industry and I think that they are fair for both farmer and taxpayer. 1987 will bring a new lamb crop and further movements of sheep and lambs into the food chain. We are making arrangements to monitor the situation carefully. Caesium levels on the high ground have been remarkably persistent and a number of studies are currently in progress to assist our understanding of the movement and behaviour of radio-caesium in upland pastures and sheep. We hope that the new grass following winter snow and rain will show very low levels of contamination and that no further controls will be necessary. However, we shall not hesitate to take action if it is necessary to protect the public, guided by the facts and by objective scientific evidence. The current restrictions embodied in the Order will not, I hope, be necessary for much, longer but they have to be in place until we are sure that all Blue marked sheep are safe for slaughter. It is to ensure that and to continue our protection of the public that a continuation of the Order is necessary. I commend it to the Committee.

10.38 am

Mr. Stuart Randall (Kingston upon Hull, West): It is good to hear that the industry is pleased with the compensation arrangements and I am sure that the Committee welcomes that. Most of the Minister's comments related to Scotland. I thought that the controls and powers were to be extended especially as the main areas 6 affected were in Wales and Cumbria. Will the Minister explain why the emphasis is on Scotland. He talked at length about slaughtering procedures in Scotland. Surely such measures are being implemented in England and Wales. Is that perhaps not the essence of the instrument?

Mr MacKay: Perhaps I can help the hon. Gentleman. The order relates entirely to Scotland. That is why I concentrated on Scotland.

Mr. Randall: I appreciate the Minister's comments. It is now clear why there was that slant in his speech. The caesium levels have remained high and we are all anxious that the 1987 lamb crop should not be affected. What plans for further compensation does the Minister have if the problems persist, because the three schemes that he described may not be sufficient for 1987? Is there a time limit on those measures or are they open-ended? I presume that they are restricted by the time limit laid down in the order. When will it be possible to lift all controls? People in the industry would like to know how long the problems are likely to persist. The Minister believes that the Government reacted quickly to the Chernobyl disaster. I am sure that the Government made a great effort, but it resembled a shambolic mess. The Secretary of State for Education and Science and the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food argued on the Floor of the House about who had powers to do what. The Secretary of State appeared to win, but many Ministers were anxious about the fact that Government Departments did not know who should have done what and who had the final responsibility. It was several weeks before we knew who was responsible for monitoring and for making the major decisions. How long does the Minister expect the caesium levels to remain above the defined safety levels? What have the scientists and advisers been telling him? He said that the snow and rain might wash away any deposits, but the public and the industry need to know more about the advice that he has received. The Government lacked proper procedures, so the decision-making process and the availability of information to the public were questionable. Handwritten lists of information are not good enough. What are the long-term measures? Is the Minister satisfied that procedures have been tightened since Chernobyl? What is happening at the EEC level? A nuclear cloud does not respect national boundaries. Joint operations might find favour with people in the industry and with the public. Do any international conventions or actions impinge upon the order, particularly in terms of future action? On monitoring and compensation, the Minister said that for the old fat facility he had received about 600 applications, but fewer than that had been paid out. Could the Minister tell us why some people 7 did not get compensation? Were the regulations unclear about compensation? People in the industry are anxious mainly about the 1987 crop. If the residues remain in the ground, and if there is a restriction on sheep movement, can the Minister assure us of Government sympathy towards the plight of the many farmers in that sector of the industry?

10.47 am

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries): I should like to add a few words because much of the order applies to my constituency and to that of the Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Scotland, my hon. Friend the Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Lang). Both of us wish to thank the Government for their helpful actions following the Russian accident last spring, and we should like to thank the Minister for his response to the problems that we put to him about compensation. The Government acted promptly and correctly, particularly in terms of compensation. I should like to congratulate the Department on the speed with which it paid compensation, and I know that farmers were impressed by that also. I declare an interest as I am one of those farmers, and I was paid within a fortnight of submitting my application. The Department has been as helpful as possible to the Scottish farming industry. I believe that such an accident is unlikely to happen again. However, if the Department has a lesson to learn, it is that its press releases are not necessarily printed in the papers. When such releases appear to be humdrum announcements about complicated farming procedures, I am not surprised that editors may push them to one side and say, "Well, who is going to read that?" The Government may have to advertise formally in the newspapers to ensure that the information gets to the farmers although the information was always available at the auction marts. This is not a major issue, but it should be borne in mind.

10.49 am

Mr. Charles Kennedy (Ross, Cromarty and Skye): I apologise to the Minister as I find myself on the Committee at short notice. My hon. Friend the Member for Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber (Sir R. Johnston) is down as a member of the Committee, but unfortunately he is also down with flu. I am here as a last minute stand-in. However, I welcome the Minister's remarks about monitoring this year's lamb crop. The Department should be congratulated on that. As the Minister said, the NFU is involved in, and endorses, that approach. I speak for an area of Easter Ross which, along with that part of the country represented by the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), had severe restrictions imposed. The restrictions had a considerable impact on the market economics of farming, and the subsequent compensation was necessary and welcome. 8 I should like to underline the Minister's remarks about the importance of subsequent monitoring. Given the unprecedented nature of the post-Chernobyl effect, our monitoring and, to an extent, even our understanding of the effects of radioactivity in the natural environment, can perhaps be improved still further. I hope that the Minister, his Department, and other relevant Departments will take all possible steps in that direction.

10.51 am

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian): I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) for stepping in to debate the order from the Opposition Front Bench. I should point out that the title is slightly misleading, as it implies that certain aspects of its affect England and Wales. Nevertheless, it appears that the Government eventually did everything for farmers and consumers that was necessary to prevent contaminated food from coming on to the market, and to compensate producers for the effects of consequent restrictions. Confusion was inevitable at the outset, because for a long time we had all been assured that such an accident could not possibly happen at a nuclear installation anywhere. Perhaps too many people believed those assurances, so that when such a catastrophic disaster took place, the chains of communication were not what they might have been, and contingency plans did not appear to be in place. Consequently, some time elapsed before the monitoring exercise was set up and the necessary precautions taken. Fears have subsequently been expressed that some milk may have been marketed before the monitoring exercise and the consequent restrictions could be put into effect. I have corresponded with the Prime Minister and Government Departments on that subject, and there is conflicting evidence. Although I do not criticise anyone at this stage, I feel that a review should be made of the lessons that have been learnt by such an experience. It must have been extremely alarming, not only for industry but also for the authorities. I hope that the Government are reviewing their procedures and lines of communications, because such an accident could happen again. I urge the Minister to publish the outcome of such a review. Finally, I hope that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Scottish Office will make their views knowns to the Department of Energy before a decision is taken on the proposed reactor at Sizewell.

The Chairman: Before I call the Minister, it might be for the convenience of the Committee if I were to point out that in paragraph 4—"Restrictions throughout the United Kingdom "—it is clear that, although the order is a United Kingdom order, its provisions apply to Scotland. The idea presumably is that, if the sheep cross the border, they take the restrictions with them.

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10.45 am

Mr. John MacKay: You are absolutely right, Mr. McQuarrie, as one would expect. I shall not follow the hon. Member for West Lothian down the highways and byways, as he invited me to do—[Interruption.] I am sorry, I should have said the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson). Without being too contraversial, I think that, at least on scientific matters, the hon. Member for the West Lothian area could be relied upon to be more accurate than his hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian. I suspect that the evidence about milk to which the hon. Gentleman referred is a conflict almost entirely in his own mind. I do not believe that there is a conflict in the industry or in the scientific evidence. I shall briefly answer some of the points that were raised. The hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, West (Mr. Randall) and I often meet in debates on fisheries, and I advise him that schemes 1 and 3 are effectively closed. They are the sheep variable premium scheme and the scheme relating to compensation for direct costs. The second scheme relating to compensation for market loss on marked sheep remains in force. There is nothing sinister about the fact that some farmers are still to be paid. We hope to pay the balance soon but some of the claims are complex and need querying. However, we hope to get the queries resolved and payments made as quickly as possible. I advise my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) that I take the point made about press releases. I came across the same point on a number of occasions in the summer and autumn when travelling in Scotland. However, the Department put out immense amounts of paper on the monitoring of pages of results. The simple fact is that the press did not think that they were terribly newsworthy because they did not reveal excursions and alarms so the newspapers did not print them. However, my hon. Friend made a valid point in saying that people felt that they were not being kept informed. That is one of a number of matters that the Government are considering. I freely admit that this time last year we had no experience of anything like this matter but, we have learnt a great deal in the past few months. If the event were ever to recur, we are now better able to react and operate than we were in 1986. I pay tribute to all the officials in my Department, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Scottish Development Department and the Department of the Environment for the way in which they buckled to in dealing with an unknown problem. They worked very hard and I believe that they arrived at the right solution for farmers and, perhaps more importantly, the consumers.

Mr. Home Robertson: I join the Minister in paying tribute to all who were involved and I am sure that he was right in saying that everyone has learnt important lessons from the exercise. 10 There is a case for putting together the evidence and experience that was accumulated in the past year and publishing it in the form of a report. That would make people aware of the nature of the risk and the contingency plans that are in place to cope with it.

Mr. MacKay: The hon. Gentleman widens the scope of his questions each time he asks them. Now, he wishes us to discuss the risks. This case related to the method of construction of a power station in the Ukraine, but access to what goes on there is not easy to obtain. However, I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Government have carefully studied the lessons that we must learn. Ministers have made clear in speeches what the Government have done and are still doing, and that leads me to the question that was asked about the future. I cannot provide an answer about what I think will happen in the next few months. We have our scientific advice and we are monitoring events heavily. The scientific evidence will be the basis on which we decide whether we need to take action later this year. If action is required, 1 assure the Committee that we will take the necessary steps to act. However, at present it is impossible to say what the scientists will find.

Mr. Kennedy: I apologise for interrupting the Minister as he appeared to be concluding his remarks. I accept the point he made, but will he and his Department bear in mind a matter which I am sure the NFU has raised with them? Help can be given by trying to do more to assist the promotion of products and goods. Will the Department give all possible assistance in that regard? There is bound to be a residual element of concern in the minds of a section of the public and anything that can be done to overcome those worries will be welcome.

Mr. MacKay: No one is more mindful of that than me. In recent months, some of us took steps to eat lamb to demonstrate to the public that there was nothing to fear from it. Not only were we saying that there was nothing to fear from it, but we ate it to demonstrate that. I do not wish to be parochial and hope that colleagues from south of the Border will not complain, but I must say that there is nothing like a good piece of Scottish lamb for a good dinner. Scientists are continuing their monitoring. If anything that causes concern is discovered, I assure the Committee that we shall act as rapidly as last year. I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries and the hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy). I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Galloway and Upped Nithsdale (Mr. Lang) has expressed his thanks privately to my Department for its work. Coming as I do from a sheep farming constituency, I appreciate the problems caused to farmers and consequently to local Members of Parliament. It is a great tribute to 11 them that they understood the difficulties that we were in and the great importance of taking steps to assure the public that lamb going into the shops was safe for consumption.

Mr. Randall: I believe that it is important for the Government to provide more information about their procedures for dealing with such incidents. Does the Minister intend to make available information about the procedures to be followed? Perhaps he can write to me about the contingency plans and programme for such accidents. That way we can be clear about what the Government will do and it will also restore public confidence. I am sure the Minister is right—the Government did a good job and the Department worked hard—but it would be nice to know a few points on procedure to restore confidence.

Mr. McKay: I would be taxing the Commitee's patience by launching into a technical or scienti- 12 fic lecture about how our scientists carry out monitoring and sampling and how they obtain results and interpret them. I shall write the hon. Gentleman a note about the Government's past procedures, which we will have in hand for future emergencies. We are already using them to see what happens in spring this year. You will be pleased to hear, Mr. McQuarrie, that I do not have a peroration. I think that I should leave the Committee with what I consider to be a sensible order that has resolved a tricky problem.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (No. 10) Order 1986

Committee rose at three minutes past Eleven O'clock.

The following members attended the committee:

Mr. Albert McQuarrie (Chairman)

Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James

Home Robertson, Mr.

Mackay, Mr. John

Malone, Mr.

Monro, Sir Hector

Randall, Mr.

Thompson, Mr. Patrick

Townsend, Mr. Cyril D.

Walker, Mr. Bill

White, Mr.

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 101: Kennedy, Mr. Charles (Ross, Cromarty and Skye).