PARLIAMENTARY DEBATES

HOUSE OF COMMONS

OFFICIAL REPORT

Second Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.

FOOD PROTECTION (EMERGENCY PROHIBITIONS) (PARALYTIC SHELLFISH POISONING) ORDER 1992

Wednesday 8 July 1992

LONDON: HMSO

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The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. David Knox

Ainger, Mr. Nick (Pembroke)

Ainsworth, Mr. Robert (Coventry North-East)

Bowden, Mr. Andrew (Brighton, Kemptown)

Bruce, Mr. Ian (South Dorset)

Grant, Sir Anthony (Cambridgeshire, South-West)

Kellett-Bowman, Dame Elaine (Lancaster)

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

Macdonald, Mr. Calum (Western Isles)

Mandelson, Mr. Peter (Hartlepool)

Martlew, Mr. Eric (Carlisle)

Monro, Sir Hector (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland)

Nicholson, Mr. David (Taunton)

Page, Mr. Richard (Hertfordshire, South-West)

Peacock, Mrs. Elizabeth (Batley and Spen)

Porter, Mr. David (Waveney)

Wallace, Mr. James (Orkney and Shetland)

Wardell, Mr. Gareth (Gower)

Wilson, Mr. Brian (Cunninghame, North)

Dr. P. C. Seaward, Committee Clerk.

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3 Second Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. Wednesday 8 July 1992

[MR DAVID KNOX in the Chair]

Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) Order 1992

10.30 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Sir Hector Monro): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) Order 1992 (S.I. 1992, No. 1387) This narrow Order deals with toxins, A number of such orders must be laid each year. Last month an emergency order was made on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to ban fishing for certain types of shellfish in an area off the Orkney Islands. This was due to a build up of the naturally occurring toxin, paralytic shellfish poison—PSP for short. The decision to make the order was based on test results from our PSP monitoring programme, which were over the internationally accepted safety level of 400 units in samples of shellfish taken from various areas of sea, south of Orkney mainland, in Scapa Flow. The order, which was made on 12 June, prohibits the fishing for mussels and queen scallops in the area detailed in the schedule to the order. I have arranged for copies of a map showing the area in question to be available for hon. Members. The order will remain in force only for as long as is necessary and no longer. I emphasise that our aim in taking this action is to ensure effective protection of the public from PSP toxin with a minimum disruption of the shellfish market. The order will be revoked as soon as the results of continued sampling and medical and scientific advice indicate that it is safe to do so.

10.31 am

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland): I thank the Minister for that explanation. Last year we had to consider a series of orders. I am somewhat alarmed that the Minister hinted that this might be the first of many. I would be happy if we did not have to debate any further orders this year, because they involve a period of difficulty for the industry. My constituents involved in the industry accept that a fine balance must be struck. It is important to exercise caution, because it is not in the industry's interests that contaminated consignments of shellfish reach the market. We found out with bovine spongiform encaphalopathy that food health scares are no friends of the industry. We must also recognise the importance of the shellfish industry to the community. Fishermen earn their living from fishing scallops, mussels and other shellfish. Retailers suffer cash-flow problems and general financial problems as a result of restrictions. Divers also experience problems during a protracted ban on crabs at the end of last year, 4 fishermen in my constituency suffered considerable difficulties. Orkney Enterprise went some way to help those who approached it. If such orders are to be a recurring feature affecting Orkney and other parts of Scotland, the Government must give further consideration to what help can be made available to the industry. The industry has to cope with bans, often at short notice. The shellfish industry brings employment and prosperity to parts of the country where other sources of economic activity are not easily found. If the industry is going to survive, the Government must give it more help than in the past. It is in the Industry's interests to stop contaminated food going on to the market. Careful monitoring is also important. The bans should not go further than is necessary. That applies to the species on which the bans are imposed—in this case, queen scallops and mussels—and to geographical areas. A specific site ban is preferable to a blanket ban. To be fair to the Scottish Office, at later stages of the PSP outbreaks last year, it accepted that point and became more careful about the areas on which the ban was imposed. I hope that the Minister can assure us that that approach will continue in the coming year. The industry is worried principally because it is dealing with something unknown. The Minister said correctly that toxin comes off an algal bloom, but no one knows why it appears in particular areas. I am told that the area most affected in 1990 experienced no recurrence in 1991. The current state of scientific knowledge of the toxin is such that nobody can predict accurately where it will appear next. That emphasises the importance of the research into the phenomenon. In February of this year I visited the Tony research station, under the directorship of Dr. Hobbs, and the Government's marine laboratory, under the directorship of Dr. Hawkins, both of which are in Aberdeen. I am impressed by their work and the attention that they are giving to this problem. In the financial year 1991–92, £355,000 was spent on research specifically directed towards paralytic shellfish poisoning and a further £1.38 million was spent on research related to it, including trying to discover the basic process that give rise to the algal bloom. I know also that the marine laboratory, in conjunction with the polytechnic of central London, conducted an investigation into sedimentary sampling for PSP cysts. I hope that the Minister can tell us today about the proposed research programmes for 1992–93. When I last corresponded with Lord Strathclyde, he said that the programmes were still at the planning stage. However, I hope that the Minister can give us information on the progress of current research and also on any further plans that may be put into operation during the present financial year. If PSP is going to recur around our coast, it is important to try to understand as much about it as we possibly can. I hope also that the Minister can tell us about the tests that are undertaken. In November last year, there was a great scare when all Scottish shellfish appeared to be under the ban on exports because of discrepancies in tests conducted by the Belgian and United Kingdom authorities.

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North): I think that the hon. Gentleman is questioning whether we now have a level playing field in scallop's genitals.

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Mr. Wallace: Although that may put us off the gonads, if I may use the technical term, there are other parts of the scallop's body—I am not sure whether body is the right word, but the Committee will know what I mean. Part of the problem is that different European countries have different eating habits. Some people mash up the whole fish and eat the lot whereas others are more particular and eat parts that we should perhaps never dream of eating. Different means of testing are often due to different eating and cooking habits in different parts of Europe. The hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) is right: we must have a level playing field. After the problem last November, it was established that the testing carried out by the Torry research station was accredited widely as being of a very high standard. That was able to satisfy the European Community authorities that proper testing had taken place and the ban was lifted quickly. We need to know what steps are being taken to achieve the so-called level playing field and whether it is possible to be able to certify separately different parts of the shellfish. If two or three parts of the shellfish were edible but, say, the gonads were not because of a toxin concentration, that could be certified. The certificate would make clear what was edible and what the public should eat only at their own risk. I hope that this order is not the first of many. If that is not the case, it is clear that the more information that is available and the more reassurances on the matter from the Government that we can obtain, the better it will be for the industry.

10.40 am

Mr Ian Bruce (South Dorset): I rise briefly to relate an incident that happened to me on Sunday. I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister, when he replies to the debate, will specify what his Department is doing about publicising the imposition of a ban to ensure the health of shellfish eaters and to make clear that other shellfish that are not subject to the ban remain wholesome to eat. On Sunday, I was in a Trusthouse Forte hotel. I was told that that company had been informed that it could not buy oysters or other shellfish because of a general ban imposed for fear of the toxins that those shellfish might contain. The ban was a safety-first exercise to prevent customers being poisoned. There is an oyster farm in my constituency, which is world famous for the oysters that it provides to the market. The managers of that farm go to great lengths to ensure that its produce is cleansed before it reaches the market. When a ban is imposed in Scotland and elsewhere, we must ensure that the Scottish office and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food do everything possible to publicise the imposition of controls that ensure that any shellfish that come onto the market are wholesome and can be eaten and enjoyed in safety.

10.42 a.m.

Mr. Gareth Wardell (Gower): I want to raise several points. Will the Minister tell us why the order is signed by the assistant secretary at the Scottish Office and not by the Minister himself? He has brought the Order before the 6 Committee, so he, and not a Civil Servant in the Scottish Office, should be responsible for it. I should be grateful for an explanation. When a similar order was brough before a similar Committee on 25th June last year, I asked about maps, and I am delighted that a map has been made available today. That conforms with the assurance given to the Committee by the then Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and food and recorded in the Hansard record of that Committee's deliberations. The map that has been made available is very helpful. However, Article 3 of the order explains the designated area. The explanatory schedule defines the area in terms of the latitude and longitude of Scapa Flow, but it would be helpful if, in future, the Scottish Office could ensure that the lines of latitude and longitude were shown on the map. On this occasion, the map has a system of grid reference using the numbers 2, 3, 4, 5 along the bottom edge. That system does not even conform to the standard Ordnance Survey grid reference system used in the 1:50,000 land range series. The schedule is faulty and technically flawed. The Minister must examine the order, and I wonder whether he might amend it to correct the error. I shall not go through all the lines of latitude and longitude. I am sure that the Minister is intimately aware of the area, as he comes from Scotland. However, I should like to refer him to the latitude and longitude of Cantick Head and Hoxa Head. Will the Minister confirm from the Ordnance Survey map of Scotland that Scapa Flow lies entirely within the latitudes 58deg. and 59deg. north of the equator? I assure him that it does—unless it has migrated, suddenly and rapidly, since the order was made. The latitude given in the order for Cantick Head should not be 57deg. north of the equator, but 58deg. The same is true of Hoxa Head. Therefore, the schedule describing the designated area is technically incorrect. An order is in existence, but which cannot exist for these lines of latitude must plainly be false. The error must be rectified. Who is responsible for the error? Is it the Minister, who has got out of this nicely by not putting his signature to the order? Or is Mr. Davison, the Assistant Secretary at the Scottish Office, responsible?

Sir Hector Monro: The hon. Gentleman is going down a rather strange road. I was in the Shetlands on 12 June. It was essential that the order was laid forthwith, so I did it by telephone, as that is the quickest way.

Mr. Wardell: I am grateful for that wholly unsatisfactory answer. The Minister does not want me to continue down this road, but I shall pursue the argument. Will the Minister look at Scapa Flow on the map and tell me whether the line of latitude given in the order is correct? If it is not, as I suggest, what will the hon. Gentleman do about it? Will he withdraw the order and bring forward a new one? How will he correct the error? That brings me back to who made the error. Did the Minister read the order? Does he confirm that the coordinate in the order is incorrect? Is Mr. Davison responsible for the order, or the Minister? What sanction will the Minister impose on himself if he is responsible? I do not suggest that he denies himself lunch today, or anything like that. However, who will put the error right? 7 That is an important point. If we are required to discuss the order, it is not good enough for it to include a flaw of this kind. I should be very pleased if the Minister will tell us who is responsible for the error and how it can be corrected. The order relates to bivalve molluscs. It is strange that last year, when the two orders regarding the Isle of Sky were before us, it was an Agriculture Minister who was in Committee to debate them, yet a Scottish Office Minister is in Committee today. I should like to return to the point of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetlands (Mr. Wallace) about the Torry research station. What is the Scottish Office position, in relation to that of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, on EC directives 91/492 on bivalve molluscs and 91/493 on fishery products? The Tony research station has been active in trying to classify waters in respect of bivalve molluscs. I have an interest in this because there is an active cockle fishery on the north Gower coast. The bivalve molluscs directive, which relates both to Scapa Flow and to the north coast of Gower, required MAFF to clarify the waters in which bivalve molluscs flourish in order to apply the directives that will be effective from 1 January next year. Has the Scottish Office been in contact with MAFF about the directives? Has the Minister had the same problem in Scotland that we have had in Wales? The bivalve mollusc directive was published in the official EC journal on 24th September 1991 and the fishery products directive was published on 22 July. Does the Minister think that MAFF has been extremely slow to classify those waters, thus forcing people who are gathering and processing bivalve molluscs into a difficult position when they are faced with the directives that will come into effect on 1 January next year? The Torry research station has now approved a method of processing the shellfish, but the processors find that they have only until 1 January to comply with the directives. MAFF is only now getting its act together and classifying waters. It has not finished yet. By September or October, categories A, B, C and D, as required by the bivalve molluscs directive, will be known to the gatherers and the processors. MAFF has only just applied to the European veterinary committee for approval of the Torry process.

Mr. Wallace: The hon. Gentleman has raised an interesting point. Does he accept that he is in a slightly better position in Gower? The Department of the Environment has specifically made funding available to local authorities to help with the collection of shellfish samples, whereas the Scottish Office has not made a similar amount available to Scottish local authorities and has left them to pay for it out of their own general revenue account.

Mr. Wardell rose—

The Chairman: Order. I have been fairly tolerant and have allowed this discussion to continue. I would be grateful if the hon. Gentleman would make any further comments on the subject very brief.

Mr. Wardell: Thank you, Mr. Knox. I was drawing my remarks to a close, but I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for making that point. Local authorities are funded and are carrying out the monitoring, but MAFF was slow to get the classification off the ground. With the lack of funding in 8 Scotland, the EC directives, the passing of the algal blooms and the need for the provision of a new statutory instrument to remedy the latitude problem that he now understands, are the Minister and the Scottish Office confident that on 1 January next year, not a single bivalve mollusc collector or processor in Scotland will be unable to gather or process molluscs because the Ministry has been slow? Who was responsible for the error? There must still be a few geographers in the Scottish Office. There must be some individual who knows how to read latitude and longitude. I am grateful for the map. It is a tremendous innovation. I hope that in future all Ministers will follow the excellent example of the Scottish Office and produce a map. It is superb and I pay tribute to the Minister. It is wonderful to know what area we are dealing with. The Minister should ensure that we are able to follow the schedule with the aid of the map. The schedule and the map should accord with each other so that we are able to read the co-ordinates from the schedule on to the map, follow precisely the position and ensure that the latitude is correct. I am certain that the Minister will be able to point the finger at whoever was responsible for the error. It may have been a proof reader—there is always the defence of the famous printing error. The Minister may say that at the last minute the old printer was out of order, or that the figure seven was printed instead of the figure eight. I am a little surprised that the error was not picked up by staff at the Scottish Office or by the Minister's eagle eye: I am sure that he went through this order with a fine-toothed comb. I am certain that in future orders will be rigorously scrutinised so that Committees do not have to consider faulty documents. I am sure that the cartographers and geographers at the Scottish Office will pay attention to the Minister's response and ensure that this minor, but crucial error of geography is remedied.

10.57 am

Mr. Wilson: I was in Committee until 4.30 a.m. this morning discussing the Bankruptcy (Scotland) Bill. I thought that paralytic shellfish poisoning would be a bit of light relief, but I am beginning to wonder. I am sure that my hon. Friend the Member for Gower (Mr. Wardell) has struck a significant blow for cartographers everywhere. We will await with interest the Minister's answer to my hon. Friend's questions about bivalve molluscs. I do want to go over what the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said. This has become an annual event and there are two major areas of concern to shellfish producers. First, the tests should be as local as possible so that a localised problem does not result in a general ban. I welcome the fact that considerable progress has been made on that matter. The Scottish Shellfish Growers Association want to see localisation taken further and to have local environmental health departments more involved, with funding to back them up. The second and broader concern is that the problem should be dealt with because the more often it occurs the greater the threat to the livelihoods of shellfish producers. I welcome the research that is being carried out at Torry. It is a mysterious business and requires sophisticated research. Perhaps the Minister will tell us what resources are being devoted to on-going research and what progress is being made. 9 The need to protect public health is paramount—the Committee does not differ on that—but the need to protect the livelihoods of shellfish producers comes a close second. Those interests are compatible under the order, so we will not oppose it.

10.59 am

Sir Hector Monro: I am grateful to the hon. Members who have participated in the debate. As the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland said, it is a question of balance. I must be careful about the health of the population, but I do not wish to make life difficult for fishermen who have to earn their livelihoods fishing in a hostile environment. That is why it is important to adopt a low-key approach to the issue. We shall introduce orders as soon as they are required and give publicity to that fact. However, we want to avoid the issue of bans on scampi, lobster and so on being blown up. We are considering the narrow issue of Queen scallops. The local press give the orders publicity and we issue press releases nationally, but we do not want to overstate matters because, as my hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) said, people pick up the wrong inference and believe that shellfish generally are dangerous and that is not so. Last year, there were 15 cases and the year before 12. That is above the average level, which is probably in single figures. The present case is the first this year. It is a natural phenomenon and nothing whatever to do with pollution. We have known about the problem since 1814, but no one has yet found a solution. The hon. Member for Cunninghame, North rightly asked what research was being carried out. A great deal is being done at Torry, at Nottingham and Dundee universities, at the marine laboratory and the polytechnic of central London and at the university of North Wales. All are considering aspects of the problem and perhaps they will find an answer. As I said, it is a natural phenomenon. It is not a matter of saying, "Right, we will raise pollution standards here or there." It is just something that happens in the sea, unrelated to the local environment. We cannot predict that it will occur in, say, Orkney and Shetland today and Argyle tomorrow. We just do not know. However, a team of officials is monitoring the problem at many sites in Scotland. When the level of 400 units is reached, an order must be laid and we do that quickly and effectively. That is why, as I told the hon. Member for Gower, the order was signed in the usual way by an official because it had to go out at once. As I was attending a conference in the Shetlands on the fishing industry we agreed over the telephone that the order should be laid at once and I take full responsibility for it. The hon. Member for Gower raised an interesting point. He thanked us for producing an effective map showing what he believes is an error in the order in respect of latitude. I shall look into the matter. I do not have a Mercator or a navigational chart in front of me so I have no means of checking the latitude and longitude. However, the key issue is that the Orkney and Shetland council which must enforce the order knows exactly what we are talking about, as do the fishermen involved. I shall, however, investigate the matter to discover whether there has been a typographical or factual error in specifying 57 degrees instead of 58 degrees. 10 I have been to Scapa Flow on many occasions and I have looked at the map. There can be no doubt what is meant. The enforcing authorities are equally certain.

Mr. Wardell: I have the Ordnance Survey map in front of me, so the Minister can read the latitude of the area now. I can guarantee that the latitude specified is there for him to see. If the Minister finds that it is wrong, as he will, what will he do about it? Will he withdraw the order and issue an amending order or will he leave this order unamended and incorrect for all to see? That would be a slight on Britain as a nation of geographers.

Sir Hector Monro: I listened with interest to the hon, Gentleman. The key issue is that the order is in force and that the authorities and fishermen know what we are talking about. The ban might be lifted by the time a correction was made. I want the ban to be lifted as soon as possible so that the fishermen of Orkney and of Scapa Flow, in particular, can get on with the business of selling high quality shellfish to the nation, which they do exceptionally well. We do not want to put unnecessary problems in their way. There should not have been an error in the latitude reference in the schedule. I have to own up—it is not usual for Ministers to get out their charts to check the latitudes and longitudes of every schedule. When I was flying aeroplanes, I wanted to get back in one piece to Scapa Flow—whatever the latitude or longitude—especially if I was going to get a nice shellfish supper. I should not really answer the question about the EC directive as it is not part of the order and deals with a different problem. However, I assure hon. Members that MAFF and the Scottish Office are co-operating on the issue and all the proper information will be in place long before the directive comes into force on 1 January.

Mr. Wallace: I may be straying, but we must establish a common playing field for testing between Britain and the continent and decide whether there is scope for certification of different parts of the shellfish.

Sir Hector Monro: I do not want to spoil hon. Members' lunch by going into details about the part of a shellfish, but I have read up on it. The eating habits of the Belgians interested me. They have a different view and test different parts of the fish, There is no disagreement between us but I do not want to refer to the EC directive because it is not part of the order. Besides, it deals with bacteria, not toxins. I have taken on board what the hon. Member of Gower said, with his great navigational expertise. We shall ensure that, in future, latitude and longitude references are checked. I hope that the Committee accept the order.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) Order 1992 (S.I. 1992, No. 1387).

Committee rose at eight minutes past Eleven o'clock.

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THE FOLLOWING MEMBERS ATTENDED THE COMMITTEE:

Knox, Mr. David (Chairman)

Ainger, Mr.

Bowden, Mr.

Bruce, Mr. Ian

Kirkhope, Mr.

Macdonald, Mr.

Mandelson, Mr.

Martlew, Mr.

Monro, Sir Hector

Page, Mr.

Peacock, Mrs.

Porter, Mr David

Wallace, Mr.

Wardell, Mr Gareth

Wilson, Mr.

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