PARLIAMENTARY DEBATES

HOUSE OF COMMONS

OFFICIAL REPORT

Third Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.

FOOD PROTECTION (EMERGENCY PROHIBITIONS) AMENDMENT ORDER 1988

Wednesday 22 June 1988

LONDON

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The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Sir Michael Shaw

Aspinall, Mr. Jack (Wansdyke)

Banks, Mr. Robert (Harrogate)

Buchanan-Smith, Mr. Alick (Kincardine and Deeside)

Couchman, Mr. James (Gillingham)

Devlin, Mr. Tim (Stockton, South)

Fearn, Mr. Ronnie (Southport)

Forsyth, Mr. Michael (The Parliamentary Under Secretary of State for Scotland)

Home Robertson, Mr. John (East Lothian)

John, Mr. Brynmor (Pontypridd)

Jones, Mr. Martyn (Clwyd, South-West)

Macdonald, Mr. Calum (Western Isles)

Maclean, Mr. David (Penrith and The Border)

Martlew, Mr. Eric (Carlisle)

Monro, Sir Hector (Dumfries)

Porter, Mr. David (Waveney)

Stewart, Mr. Allan (Eastwood)

Walker, Mr. Bill (Tayside, North)

Williams, Mr. Alan W. (Carmarthen)

Jack, Dr. M. R. Committee Clerk

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3 Third Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. Wednesday 22 June 1988

[SIR MICHAEL SHAW in the Chair]

Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) Amendment Order 1988

10.30 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Michael Forsyth): I beg to move, "That the Committee has considered the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) Amendment Order 1988". Hon. Members will be aware that, in August 1986, the Government announced the introduction of a scheme of mark and release to allow sheep radiated from the Chernobyl fallout to be moved from an area where the movement and slaughter of sheep had been restricted by order, but it did not, of course, provide for them to be slaughtered. The heads of the sheep were painted to show that they came from a restricted area, and they could not be slaughtered until they had passed a further monitoring test, after which they were ear-tagged. The colours of green, blue and apricot are used in rotation for the marking. It provides a mechanism for releasing for slaughter sheep which were once unacceptably highly contaminated, but which now have decreased and acceptable levels of radioactivity. These measures have had the wholehearted co-operation of farmers and the National Farmers Union, and have been supplemented by a slaughterhouse monitoring programme which has been designed to protect the food chain. That, of course, is the Government's central consideration. Comprehensive monitoring of sheep which have been marked with blue paint has shown that the radioactivity in sheep marked with that colour has decreased to a level at which their consumption could not threaten public health. From 1 June 1988, the order lifts the slaughter controls on blue-marked sheep which were originally marked in the post-Chernobyl restricted areas. The colour to denote sheep from a restricted area which may have unacceptably high levels of radioactivity in their bodies is now apricot. For the present, no sheep marked apricot may be slaughtered unless they pass a remonitoring test for radioactivity and are identified with a special ear-tag as having done so. This is a routine matter to maintain the provisions which were brought into effect after Chernobyl, and I commend the order to the Committee.

10.33 am

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian): Clearly, there is universal support for the implementation of proper controls to safeguard consumers and regulate the movement of animals which have been contaminated, so there is no controversy about the 4 order. But the Committee allows us the opportunity to raise a few matters of detail in connection with both general and specific aspects of what is happening now and what has been happening since the Chernobyl disaster in April 1986. On the detailed point about the release of blue-marked sheep, the Minister said that the level of contamination in those animals is now acceptable and that it is now safe to release them for slaughter and human consumption. What is the level of contamination in those sheep? Presumably its intensity has fallen significantly below 1,000 bq/kg—a measurement that has become so familiar to us in the past two years. It is more than two years since the original disaster occurred more than 1,000 miles away in Chernobyl in the Soviet Union. It has been alarming for people around the globe to discover that an incident that occurred so far away has had such wide-reaching effects in Britain and other European countries. It has concentrated people's minds on the insidious and dangerous nature of radiation. Recently, some interesting reports have been published. The report of the committee on the medical aspects of radiation in the environment, in which the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State was involved in relation to Scotland, showed that other factors contributed to contamination of animals, arising at either Chernobyl or nearer home, at Dounreay or other nuclear installations. I hope that lessons are being learnt and that the Government are improving their capacity to monitor the contamination of the atmosphere and of farm crops and farm animals because of the evidence that is becoming available. For so long we have been told that we should not worry, that nuclear power is the safest source of electricity for the future, and that nothing could possible go wrong. Unfortunately, things go wrong all too often. The order continues existing controls. It would help if the Minister would confirm which areas are still subject to marking regulations and advise us of the number of sheep affected and the costs to the Government—which are likely to continue—as well as the costs to the farmers. At the time of the last debate on this matter, earlier in the year, 124,000 sheep on 69 farms in Scotland were still affected by these controls. It would be interesting to know whether the figures still broadly apply. As the Minister rightly said, industry and the public are more than willing to co-operate with the regulations. We all want to be satisfed that they will be applied effectively and perhaps more efficiently in future, in the light of the unhappy experiences. Information has been gleaned by the Select Committee on Agriculture, which has studied the way in which British authorities have responded to the Chernobyl contamination and the way in which the restriction scheme has operated in different parts of the United Kingdom. I understand that there has been some implied criticism of the way in which the scheme operated in Scotland. It was almost voluntary: farmers were virtually invited to pick up the paint themselves and take responsibility for 5 marking sheep in the appropriate way, whereas in England Ministry officials did the job. My hon. Friend the Member for Carlisle (Mr. Martlew) discovered that, at one stage, 8,000 Scottish sheep were released without marking for marketing in England—for reasons understood by Scottish officials but perhaps not so well understood in England—on the understanding that they would be used for breeding and not be slaughtered and enter the food chain. The assurance given by officials to the Select Committee was that it was unthinkable that those animals would get into the food chain because of market consideration—because the price that was paid for them would be too high to have been relevant to sheep for slaughter. I understand that a more detailed analysis reveals that some of the sheep were sold at low prices and might easily have got into the food chain. I do not want to make a big issue, but I hope that the Government Departments learn from experience and are sharpening their capacity to monitor radioactive contamination from whatever source and that, in future, there will be prompt and effective controls to ensure that possibly dangerously contaminated food does not get into the food chain in the United Kingdom.

10.40 am

Mr Ronnie Fearn (Southport): I have read the order and do not find anything wrong with it, but I have some questions, I cannot understand what happens to the sheep with the apricot-coloured markings. They cannot be slaughtered, so do they simply die of old age? Where do they go? Do they move on to other farms? Are some areas worse than others? I have heard that Wales is still the worst affected area. How long will the monitoring duty continue? Is there a programme for that?

10.41 am

Mr. Michael Forsyth: I shall deal first with the questions asked by the hon. Member for Southport (Mr. Fearn). The colours are used in rotation. The hon. Gentleman mentioned the sheep marked with an apricot colour. At some time—especially when they move from higher ground to lower pasture—the radioactivity in their bodies will fall to a level at which it is possible to say that all sheep marked with that colour are suitable for slaughter and human consumption. The hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) asked at what level that conclusion was reached for the sheep marked with blue, to which the order relates. The Department works to the figure of 700 bq/kg. The Becquerel measure relates to radioactive disintegration; it is not a measure of dosage. Dosage relates to consumption. Perhaps I may put the matter into perspective, because the hon. Gentleman highlighted the fallout from Chernobyl and sought to widen the debate into the risks arising from nuclear power. The limit of 1,000 bq/kg means that if someone consumed 5kg of lamb each year—which is an average amount—

Mr. Home Robertson: Quite a good dinner.

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Mr. Forsyth: As the hon. Gentleman says, it is quite a good dinner. However, the dosage arising from that 1,000 bq/kg level would be equivalent to rather more than half of one X-ray. The dosage levels are very small indeed. We still take these measures, not because of any particular dangers from nuclear power but because of the very high standards which we set for public health. The hon. Member for East Lothian mentioned the COMARE report. There have been suggestions that the Dounreay and Chernobyl positions may be connected and that there may be some links in Wales. But one distinctive feature of Chernobyl is the inprint of the fallout because of the ratio of casesium-134 to caesium-137 isotopes. It has a distinctive fingerprint. We can therefore distinguish between fallout from Chernobyl and that from other sources of radiation, including the background count which is a major source in many parts of the country. The hon. Member for East Lothian asked also about the numbers of sheep and farms affected. They are exactly the same as when we discussed the matter before. Nothing is changing, other than the colour of the paint on the heads of the sheep. In Scotland, the figure is 69 farms and 124,000 sheep out of what, I am reliably informed, is a total sheep population of 8.8 million.

Mr. Home Robertson: The Minister made a rather disturbing comment—he said nothing had changed. We are now more than two years on from this disaster and the restrictions still apply in broadly the same areas. I put this question to the Minister when we last debated the issue in January. What advice are the Government receiving from their scientists on how much longer the controls are likely to have to remain in place?

Mr. Forsyth: For reasons which I explained, the controls will remain in place for as long as we consider them necessary in the interests of public health. I cannot give the hon. Gentleman an estimate of how long that will be. Our experience of these wholly new conditions is that there are variations, depending on the vegetation and the soil structure, in the extent to which caesium is dissipated and concentrated. Some root structures and sub-soil structures seem not only to retain caesium but to concentrate it. There is evidence that levels of take-up in sheep can increase through time, which is one reason why we had to introduce restrictions in further areas last year. In the long term, caesium will be dissipated, but there will be differing patterns across the country.

Mr. Alan W. Williams (Carmarthen): I wish to press the Minister further on that point. My parents-in-law are involved in a restricted area in north Wales. When the restrictions were first introduced, the Ministry was confident that they would continue for only weeks or months, but they remained for a year and now have been applied for a second year. What professional advice is the Ministry receiving from experts in soil structure, hydrology and so on? 7 My impression is that on moorland and peaty soils, such as in the areas affected, minerals do not percolate through but are retained in the soil. If so, and if we are waiting for the natural radioactive decay of caesium-137, we must realise that its half-life is 30 years. We are talking about decades of restrictions. What is the best advice that the Minister is getting from the people who should know about these matters?

Mr. Forsyth: I cannot give the hon. Gentleman a comprehensive answer, but we are making use of all the scientific advice available to us. A number of experiments are being conducted to find ways of accelerating the process of dissipation. Among other things, they have included fencing specific areas, feeding sheep with particular material and treating grass. A number of agencies are looking at the problem. The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that I cannot give him a comprehensive account off the top of my head, but I shall be happy to write to him, setting out the various programmes in train.

Mr. Home Robertson: The Minister has given us a useful and interesting piece of information. I am pleased to hear that the Government are exploring ways of accelerating the dissipation of this contamination in grazing land. I should like to keep pressing him to learn approximately how long his scientists think that the controls must remain in effect. However, if it emerges from the studies which the Minister described that it may be possible to accelerate the dissipation of the contamination by grazing, fencing or other treatment of the land, will the Government be prepared to assist with the costs of carrying out such activities?

Mr. Forsyth: The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that before making such a commitment I should 8 need to have the results of the research and to know what the prospects were. I am sure that he will not expect me to be drawn on that matter. Although I acknowledge the hon. Gentleman's compliment about my comments being helpful, I am slightly surprised that he is so enthusiastic. When we discussed the matter in April last year, the Government made it clear to the House that experiments were being conducted into the nature of the take-up of caesium in sub-soil and vegetation. We are merely building on our existing knowledge and taking matters further. We should all be grateful to the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland and to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for all their work on the matter, given that it is completely new ground. I believe that I have covered the main questions brought to the Committee's attention. The hon. Member for East Lothian asked about the breeding of new lambs which were sold in England. I think that he knows that this was done on the basis of it being strictly controlled. Once our mark-and-release scheme came into operation, the arrangements were discontinued. No doubt, these matters will be discussed in the Select Committee which, I understand, is considering the matter today. I am sure that my hon. Friends will be able to answer any questions raised.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, "That the Committee has considered the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) Amendment Order 1988.

Committee rose at nine minutes to Eleven o'clock.

THE FOLLOWING MEMBERS ATTENDED THE COMMITTEE:

Shaw, Mr. Michael (Chairman)

Apsinwall, Mr.

Banks, Mr. Robert

Buchanan-Smith, Mr.

Couchman, Mr.

Fearn, Mr.

Forsyth, Mr. Michael

Home Robertson, Mr.

Maclean, Mr.

Porter, Mr. David

Stewart, Mr. Allan

Williams, Mr. Allan W.