Second Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.



Tuesday 25 June 1991


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The Committee consisted of the following Members:


Campbell-Savours, Mr. D. N. (Workington)

Curry, Mr. David (Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food)

Hamilton, Mr. Neil (Tatton)

Hayes, Mr. Jerry (Harlow)

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

Kennedy, Mr. Charles (Ross, Cromarty and Skye)

Macdonald, Mr. Calum (Western Isles)

Mitchell, Mr. Austin (Great Grimsby)

Morley, Mr. Elliot (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

Sumberg, Mr. David (Bury, South)

Thorne, Mr. Neil (Ilford, South)

Townend, Mr. John (Bridlington)

Tredinnick, Mr. David (Bosworth)

Viggers, Mr. Peter (Gosport)

Wardell, Mr. Gareth (Gower)

Williams, Mr. Alan (Swansea, West)

Wilshire, Mr. David (Spelthorne)

Winterton, Mrs. Ann (Congleton)

Wolfson, Mr. Mark (Sevenoaks)

Mr. F. A. Cranmer, Committee Clerk

3 Second Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. Tuesday 25 June 1991

[MR. GERAINT HOWELLS in the Chair]

Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) Order 1991 and the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) (No. 2) Order 1991

10.30 am

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. David Curry): I shall not move the first order, which has been revoked, but I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the Food Protection (Emergency Provisions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) (No. 2) Order 1991. The order refers to an area around Skye where queen scallops have been found to have an incidence of paralytic shellfish poisoning of 772 mouse units—a picturesque name, although not so for the mouse, as it were. We hope to lift the order as soon as possible and regular tests are done. There have been only three restrictions this year. The restriction on scallops in the area round Berwick has been lifted, as has the restriction on nephrops and queen scallops in the area of the Firth of Forth. That leaves a restriction only on the area around Skye, and we shall lift that as soon as we can.

10.31 am

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley): The Minister said that the restriction on the area around Skye will be lifted as soon as possible. Can the Minister assure us that sales will be allowed to commence at the earliest possible opportunity, as soon as levels of toxin are within safe limits? Does the Minister have any information on whether the outbreaks of algal bloom have become more frequent and could be related to higher pollution levels? Is the Minister convinced that environmental health officers have sufficient resources and staff properly to monitor and enforce the order? The Opposition support the precautionary principle of the protection of food, but we are increasingly concerned about the difficulties that local authorities face in funding their obligations under legislation. Further capping will almost certainly be introduced next year. We are concerned about the financial limits set on local authorities, which may restrict the employment of EHOs to carry out their obligations under this and other measures. Further problems will arise if the problem is not solved.

10.34 am

Mr. Gareth Wardell (Gower): I shall start by asking the Minister for an explanation of why I was not made aware until I arrived this morning that one order had been withdrawn. I believed that the Committee was to discuss two orders. It is unsatisfactory in the extreme that the Committee was not informed earlier that one of the orders had been withdrawn. 4 I visited the Vote Office yesterday evening to obtain the relevant papers and I was given both the orders that were on the notice that I received from the Selection Committee. I understand that in the original notification, there was a third order relating to the Firth of Forth, and that the Committee was scheduled to sit on 18 June at 4.30 pm. It seems that there was a postponement until today so that the third order could be withdrawn. This morning we find that only the second order is to be discussed. The Minister, having introduced a new order, 1991 No. 1235, the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) Order 1991, made it available in the Vote Office. It applied to an area around the 55°N latitude parallel of the North sea. It is not proper, fair or democratic for the Minister to rescind that order by simply saying that it is no longer valid and is not to be debated. I have said before in Committee that information on designated areas is provided in a wholly unsatisfactory way. I shall now confine my comments to the No. 2 order. Article 3 provides a detailed explanation of the designated areas, and I have studied the map of the Isle of Skye and the areas of the Scottish mainland which it describes. There must be a fault in the system if such detailed information is required and no map is provided. A simple map of the area, rather than a tortuous description to establish the area covered, would be enormously helpful to the Committee. I spent the best part of half an hour trying to establish the geographical limits of the area. I shall not quote the description of the area as it would waste the Committee's time, but if there was ever an example that could perhaps be used in next year's GCSE examination of the inappropriate way in which Parliament avoids using maps, this is it. It is a classic example. The geographical knowledge of the people of this country is such that a little map would help enormously to summarise the position. After all, a map is a shorthand method of description. I therefore make my plea that a small map be inserted in subsequent orders so that the Committee knows the exact geographical area that is involved. The Minister has a map in front of him with a little circle delineating the area. That would be enormously helpful. He finds it helpful; I am sure that we would too. I therefore make my plea that a small map be inserted in subsequent orders so that the Committee knows the exact geographical area that is involved. The Minister has a map in front of him with a little circle delineating the area. That would be enormously helpful. He finds it helpful; I am sure that we would too. I am particularly interested in the "Designated circumstances" in the order. I am amazed that we have not been given a detailed explanation of the designated circumstances that have necessitated the order, which covers such a large geographical area in the west of Scotland. I want the Minister to explain what is meant by the simple sentence: "In the opinion of the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, scallops in the area designated in article 3 below may be affected by the toxin which causes Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning in human beings and are likely to create a hazard to human health if they are consumed." I want to know about the nature of the toxin. What evidence does the Minister have to substantiate the existence of the toxin? Which samples were taken and when were they taken? Which virology laboratory carried out the scientific analysis? What were the levels of the bacterial 5 indicator Escherichia coli in the molluscs? What were the levels of any other indicator showing that the molluscs may be harmful to humans? Was the toxin caused by the discharges of sewage to the sea? Was it caused by algae, which is possible? Was it caused by oil pollution? I should like to know exactly why the toxin could be dangerous to humans. I am aware of the standard scientific evidence from documents such as the 10th report of the Royal Commission on environmental pollution, which I am sure that the Minister has read in great detail. From the evidence that is available from different parts of the world, it appears that it is far more dangerous to consume shellfish that come from grossly polluted waters than it is to bathe in those contaminated waters. Will the Minister tell us what evidence he has about the cause of the toxin and why it has been introduced into the marine environment? What evidence does he have that the shellfish have been sold? What evidence is there that raw, untreated shellfish have been sold? In my constituency of Gower, which has a thriving shellfish industry, a major way of counteracting such dangers is to ensure that shellfish are cooked thoroughly to prescribed temperatures before being sold. We need an order that will prevent shellfish from being sold in the shell without having been cooked first. It would be wrong to accept the order without knowing why it needs to be introduced and—crucially—whether any people who have consumed shellfish harvested from these waters have become ill. Has the public health laboratory service been involved in the sampling? Have general practitioners notified the Department or health authorities of a possible food poisoning outbreak? If the Minister can answer these few simple questions, I shall be a happy man.

10.43 am

Mr. Curry: I seek always to achieve happiness in those around me, and I shall do my best in these circumstances. The hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) asked for an assurance that we shall lift the restriction in the remaining order as soon as possible. I give him that assurance readily. We sample regularly and as soon as we have a safe margin, we shall do so. As for algae blooms, the hon. Gentleman will remember that last year there was a heavy incidence of paralytic shellfish poisoning all round the coast, which caused a great deal of debate. Last year, with an exceptionally hot early spring, we had hot, still conditions. This year there has been little incidence of such poisoning. Given the weather that we have had, we can hardly blame the blooms. We believe that the toxin is a naturally occurring phenomenon. In England, health officers are responsible for these tasks, while in Scotland, fisheries officers are responsible. So there is a slightly different system in those parts of the United Kingdom. In England, the main task is putting notices on beaches. As the mussels that we test are rarely from a commercial fishery, the task is relatively light. Local authorities have not complained that they are carrying an onerous burden. We are anxious, however, to ensure that there is an effective system of control. The hon. Member for Gower (Mr. Wardell) asked about the withdrawal of the first order. When we submitted the documents to the Committee that supervised the statutory instrument, the orders were in force and we had to bring them forward. However, we undertook that as soon as there was a clear safety margin that would enable the 6 industry properly to resume its commercial activities, we would allow it to do so. It would have been unreasonable to defer—release from the order pending the Committee's meeting, given the order's technical nature. The hon. Member for Gower asked about maps. If we have to repeat the performances, I shall try to provide a map, but the hon. Gentleman must accept that we are legally obliged to define areas in words. If the hon. Gentleman accepts a map as an informal guide to help the Committee navigate through the problem, I shall ensure that such a facility is in future extended to hon. Members. The hon. Member for Gower will excuse me for pleading ignorance of the scientific details of the toxin. However, I can rassure him about his general concerns. We know that the toxin is poisonous because it has ocurred for the past 100 years and deaths and serious illnesses have been traced back to it. Analysis is performed at our food research laboratory at Torry, in Aberdeen. Since last year, we have improved and speeded up analysis so that it is all done at Torry. If a sample were taken off the coast of, say, Berwick, at 10.45 am today, we would have the results of the analysis by noon tomorrow. The response time is much faster now. Typical samples would be 15 or 20 mussels or five or six scallops. They are collected at regular intervals. Mussels are collected off the beach and fishermen are commissioned to collect shellfish that do not appear on beaches. Cooking can lessen the risk of illness, but we cannot guarantee that cooking will prevent illness. A toxin can be leached into the cooking water. There is still a danger and it would be wrong for me to suggest that cooking removes the risk. We have no evidence of people having become ill from collecting scallops from around Skye. We conduct regular sampling when the season starts. As soon as our test results reach 400 mouse units, we introduce as limited a prohibition as possible as a precaution. We tested mussels last year, and on the basis of those tests extended the ban to other species. We can now make tests specific to each species and prohibitions are based on the order of magnitude of the problem in a particular species. We no longer have to do a litmus test, as it were, on mussels—we have a more precise measure. Nobody became ill, and the object of the precautionary measures was that no one should become ill. We had the greatest co-operation from fishermen and processors. They accepted our assurance that it was sensible to take precautionary measures and that we would lift the orders as soon as there was a period of clear water with toxin readings consistently below the 400 mouse unit trigger. There is one order left, and we hope to be able to lift it as soon as possible.

Mr. D. N. Campbell-Savours (Workington): The Minister used the words "naturally occurring phenomenon" and said that the history of the problem went back 100 years and that there had been deaths. What work has been done on the origin of the formulation of the toxin? Could it result from sewage outfalls of 100 years ago? Is it unconnected with sewage outfall? Is it linked with some man-made chemical pollutant, or do we not know its origin? What about the Italian experience? A stretch of the Italian coastline was infested with the algae. What work have the Italians done on the matter and have we liaised with them?


Mr. Curry: We liaise with continental countries because the phenomenon is observed outside the United Kingdom. The hon. Gentleman asked whether the problem was related to pollution. Our information is that it is not, especially if one considers where it occurs. The water around the Isle of Skye must be some of the cleanest in the United Kingdom, as anyone who has taken a boat trip to Oban or Skye and seen the beautiful, crystal water will know. The coast of Berwickshire is far from being the most polluted in the United Kingdom. The phenomenon does not occur in some of the most polluted areas, so no correlation can be established. If the hon. Gentleman agrees, I shall write to provide him with details of the research that has been carried out and the scientific evidence that is available on the origins of the problem.

Mr. Wardell: As the Minister knows, anxiety has been expressed by various organisations about possible pollution problems as a result of fish farming in Scotland. Is there any evidence to justify more research into escapes of chemicals that enter the waters in which fish are artificially harvested on the west coast of Scotland? Those discharges could be by legal consents or the unfortunate escapes of chemicals such as nuvan. Is there evidence of a link between the increase in fish farming in Scotland and 8 the formation of algal blooms? Is research being carried out to ascertain whether the frequency of the formation of such algal blooms is increasing and, if it is, into whether the growth of fish farming could increase the rate of formation of algal blooms?

Mr. Curry: There are worries about the environmental impact of fish farming and the products to which the hon. Gentleman referred. He will know that the licences for some of those products are of limited duration pending research to find replacement products. We agree that we wish to tackle that problem. I am not aware of anything between it and algal blooms. If that statement is not correct—and I am aware that an Englishman and a Welshman are now debating a Scottish order—I shall ask the relevant Scottish Office Minister to write in detail.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) (No. 2) Order 1991.

Committee rose at seven minutes to Eleven o'clock.


Howells, Mr. Geraint (Chairman)

Campbell-Savours, Mr.

Curry, Mr.

Hamilton, Mr. Neil

Sumberg, Mr.

Viggers, Mr.

Wardell, Mr.

Wilshire, Mr.

Winterton, Mrs. Ann

Mr. Peter L. Pike (Burnley) also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(2)