Third Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.



Tuesday 23 July 1991


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The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Norman Hogg

Cummings, Mr. John (Easington)

Forsyth, Mr. Michael (Minister of State, Scottish Office)

Graham, Mr. Thomas (Renfrew, West and Inverclyde)

Hood, Mr. Jimmy (Clydesdale)

Hughes, Mr. John (Coventry, North-East)

Jones, Mr. Gwilym (Cardiff, North)

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

King, Mr. Roger (Birmingham, Northfield)

Kirkhope, Mr. Timothy (Leeds, North-East)

Lord, Mr. Michael (Suffolk)

McCrindle, Sir Robert (Brentwood and Ongar)

Macdonald, Mr. Calum (Western Isles)

Marlow, Mr. Tony (Northampton, North)

Martlew, Mr. Eric (Carlisle)

Mills, Mr. Iain (Meriden)

Nicholson, Mr. David (Taunton)

Norris, Mr. Steve (Epping Forest)

Onslow, Mr. Cranley (Woking)

Wilson, Mr. Brian (Cunninghame, North)

Mr. F. A. Cranmer, Committee Clerk

2 3 Third Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. Tuesday 23 July 1991

[MR. NORMAN HOGG in the Chair]

Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) (No. 4) Order 1991

10.30 am

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Mr. Michael Forsyth): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) (No. 4) Order 1991.

The Chairman: With the agreement of the Committee, it will be convenient to discuss at the same time the other order before us, namely, the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) (No. 5) Order 1991.

Mr. Forsyth: The two orders ban fishing for bivalve molluscs, which include mussels, cockles, scallops, queens, razor shells and oysters, in defined areas off the west coast of Scotland. The decisions to make the orders were based on results from our PSP testing regime which monitors the build-up of the naturally occurring toxin, paralytic shellfish poisoning. Our aim in making the bans is to ensure effective protection of the public from PSP toxin with the minimum disruption of the shellfish market. I have arranged for copies of maps to be available for hon. Members. Those give an informal guide to the areas in question. The orders will be revoked when we are satisfied on scientific and medical advice that it is safe to do so.

10.31 am

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North): I am sure that we agree that the Committee should have convened in situ, rather than in a Committee Room in steaming hot London. Obviously, there is no political controversy about the orders, but those affected by them want to raise some serious points. Although the orders apply to a specific area in Wester Ross, the Sound of Raasay and parts of Skye, the problem goes wider. It has become something of an annual event and crops up in different parts of the coastline in different years. There is no argument that everyone's shared aim is to protect public health. However, there is much frustration in the affected area at the way in which the orders are to be implemented. That reflects the feeling in the north-east last year when similar measures were taken there. The orders are seen as a blanket approach to the problem, whereas a more specific approach is required. I have spoken to some of those who deal in shellfish in Skye and Wester Ross. They believe that on-site sampling should be done on a much more regular basis than it is at 4 present. They tell me that it is possible to get a four-hour read-back on samples of shellfish; but the samples are sent to Aberdeen and the results take a week to come through. On-the-spot testing, on a daily basis, for example, would have much less impact on the trade. We must put that into the perspective of an important and developing industry. A few years ago, most of the species were scarcely fished or collected on a commerical basis. Now, lorry loads of them are being sent daily to Spain and other parts of the continent. There is a growing demand for shellfish—scallops, razor fish, cockles and mussels—from the west coast of Scotland. There is a knock-on effect on the companies dealing in the products. I am told that several people have given up; divers are particularly affected. Nobody contests the basic point, but it seems that the algae is with us to stay. We cannot permit the industry to be affected to quite such an extent for so long a period. The industry wants on-the-spot testing. At present, local authorities collect samples from a large geographical area and send them for testing, which is a haphazard approach to the problem. That might have been all right a few years ago when much less of a commercial stake was involved, but it is not adequate today. I am not asking for answers this morning, but I should like to know the practicalities of on-site testing and whether circumstances change sufficiently on a day-to-day or week-to-week basis to make such orders inappropriate over a period of two months, which is a large part of the season for the industry. Although a four-hour read-back is possible, it takes a week to get test results. I spoke to a dealer this morning who had taken his own samples to Aberdeen, so avoiding the long testing delay. He got the read-back promptly and knew that taking shellfish from a particular part of the Skye coastline was healthy and in order. If a dealer can do that, it is not beyond Government resources to provide a similar service. On a specific point, is the velvet crab included in the prohibition? The industry is becoming increasingly important. It affects the livelihoods of only a relatively small number of people, but that does not diminish the extent to which the Government have an obligation to protect them and not to impose any unnecessary disruption on them. Looking ahead beyond this season, whenever algae is identified, could a much more responsive testing system be devised in which tests take place locally, there is a quick read-back, and the situation is monitored daily, thereby minimising disruption to the industry?

10.37 am

Mr. Michael Forsyth: I am grateful to the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) for raising those issues. To answer his specific question, velvet crabs are not covered by the orders. The hon. Gentleman asked whether such orders could become an annual event. The Food Safety Act 1985 provides for making such orders to close 5 designated areas. In the past, we had to rely on general advertising of the dangers arising from PSB. The making of orders is more acceptable to the industry because it does minimum damage to public confidence in the shellfish industry which is important to the west of Scotland and elsewhere. The hon. Gentleman raised a specific point on sampling and testing. I am advised that it is not possible to test on the spot because special laboratory facilities are required, which are available only at certain places, mainly at the Victoria research station at Aberdeen. None the less, it is possible to get speedy results. Furthermore, it is important to get a central overview of the pattern around the country. I understand that the build-up of PSB in shell-fish, which is measured in mouse units—I shall not go into how those units are defined—means that care must be taken about the timing of the imposition and removal of orders. A rapid change could be made in a very short time. The hon. Gentleman mentioned sampling. Samples are provided with the co-operation of local fishermen. I wish to put on record our appreciation of the positive and responsible stance that the industry has taken. I shall ensure that the hon. Gentleman's remarks are drawn to the attention of my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland so that consideration can be given to ways of making the impact of orders on the industry as slight as possible, while maintaining the important principle of protecting public health.

10.41 am

Mr. Wilson: I am grateful for that assurance. I have been told that frustration about communication on the issue has been a problem in recent weeks. I suspect that that was also true in the north-east last year. Very few firms export or deal with the species of shellfish covered by the order. It should be possible to inform those firms regularly about the Department's views and any fluctuations in the tests. This season, attention should be paid to communications so that people know daily where they stand. What would it cost to install the necessary equipment in one or two other locations? Everyone 6 admires the work that is carried out at Torry, where there is much specialist knowledge. However, that knowledge also exists in the west coast and other parts of Scotland. If the four-hour read-backs cost relatively little when set against the increasing economic importance of the shellfish industry, we should seriously consider installing the equipment in other places. It would be mutually useful to us, as well as helpful to the shellfish industry, if the Minister could write to me about that.

10.42 am

Mr. Forsyth: Although shellfish need to be sent to places such as Torry, that does not limit the ability to respond quickly. Results are available within hours. If results show that action is required, people are informed immediately and action is taken immediately. The hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) mentioned the week's delay. Results are distributed once a week to the trade bodies and environmental health officers. I shall discuss methods of improving communications with my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland. If the hon. Gentleman will provide details of specific matters that worry him, we shall follow them up.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) (No. 4) Order 1991.


Resolved, That the Committee has considered the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) (No. 5) Order 1991.—[Mr. Michael Forsyth.]

Committee rose at sixteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.


Mr. Norman Hogg, (Chairman)

Forsyth, Mr. Michael

Hughes, Mr. John

King, Mr. Roger

Kirkhope, Mr.

Lord, Mr.

Nicholson, Mr. David

Onslow, Mr.

Wilson, Mr.