Second Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.





Tuesday 22 June 1993


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The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr Alan Haselhurst

Ainger, Mr. Nick (Pembroke)

Burns, Mr. Simon (Chelmsford)

Cann, Mr. Jamie (Ipswich)

Carlisle, Mr. Kenneth (Lincoln)

Clifton-Brown, Mr. Geoffrey (Cirencester and Tewkesbury)

Evans, Mr. David (Welwyn Hatfield)

Field, Mr. Barry (Isle of Wight)

Forman, Mr. Nigel (Carshalton and Wallington)

Fyfe, Mrs. Maria (Glasgow, Maryhill)

Hamilton, Mr. Archie (Epsom and Ewell)

Hargreaves, Mr. Andrew (Birmingham, Hall Green)

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

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

Macdonald, Mr. Calum (Western Isles)

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

Pickthall, Mr. Colin (Lancashire, West)

Randall, Mr. Stuart (Kingston-upon-Hull, West)

Stevenson, Mr. George (Stoke-on-Trent, South)

Dr. P. C. Seaward, Committee Clerk

3 Second Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. Tuesday 22 June 1993

[MR. ALAN HASELHURST in the Chair]

Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) Order 1993

10.30 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary for Scotland (Sir Hector Monro): I beg to move, That the Committee has considered the Food Protection (Emergency Provisions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) Order 1993 (S.I., 1993 No. 1338).

The Chairman: With the agreement of the Committee, it will be convenient to discuss at the same time the other orders before us namely, the Food Protection (Emergency Provisions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) (No. 2) Order 1993 (S.I., 1993 No. 1413), the Food Protection (Emergency Provisions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) (No. 3) Order 1993 (S.I., 1993 No. 1476) and the Food Protection (Emergency Provisions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) (No. 4) Order 1993 (S.I., 1993 No. 1483).

Sir Hector Monro: Last month, an emergency order was made on behalf of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland to ban fishing for certain types of shellfish in the Scapa Flow area of Orkney. That was due to a build-up of the naturally occurring toxin paralytic shellfish poison. In addition, we are debating a further three orders made since then. The decision to make the orders were based on those results from our PSP monitoring programme that were over the internationally accepted safety level of 400 units. The samples were taken from various areas of sea in the Orkney area and off the northeast coast of Scotland. Two of the orders concern Scapa Flow; one covers an area north of the Orkney mainland; and the fourth order applies to an area of sea off the Caithness coast. The species of bivalve molluscs prohibited in each of the closure areas is determined generally by test results for the individual species in a given locality. In all four areas, mussels, queens and scallops are banned. In the Scapa Flow area, razor clams and oysters also are banned. The first Scapa Flow order was made on 21 May as a result of a fourfold increase in PSP in mussels and queens between 10 May and 21 May, leading to levels of more than 1,200 units, and unacceptably high results at various locations in Scapa Flow. The species affected were limited to mussels and queens. My Department's marine laboratory continued to monitor the prohibited species and other bivalves in the closed area and, by 9 June, the level of PSP in scallops had risen to more than 2,100 units, from a previously acceptable figure. Furthermore, we detected levels of almost 1,900 in razor clams, which had not previously been a problem species. Consequently, scallops and razor clams, as well as oysters, were added to the prohibited species by the second Scapa Flow order. 4 Between the making of the first and second orders, PSP was detected at unacceptable levels in the area of the islands of Stronsay, Sanday, North Ronaldsay, Westray, Papa Westray, Eday and Egilsay. Levels in scallops were again about three times the recognised safe limit and mussels and queens were also significantly affected. Accordingly, an order was made covering an area north of Orkney mainland. The fourth order does not deal with Orkney waters. A sample of scallops dredged in an area to the north-east of Wick contained over 2,000 units of PSP toxin. Samples taken from the same scallop grounds but outside the prohibited area have shown low levels and, in some cases, none at all. The scallop grounds in that vicinity are quite extensive and the area closed in restricted to the area where the problem was identified—an area of about 20 miles by 20 miles east of the Caithness coastline. The Food Protection (Emergency Provisions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) (No. 4) Order 1993 was made on 10 June. The species affected are scallops, queens and mussels. The closed areas and the prohibited species will be monitored regularly, so that each order remains in force only for as long as necessary and no longer. I emphasise that our aim is to ensure effective protection of the public from PSP toxin, with minimum disruption of the shellfish market. The orders will be monitored individually and, in each case, will be revoked as soon as the results of continued sampling and medical and scientific advice indicate that it is safe to do so. However, there has been no significant downturn in toxin levels since the orders were made. Regrettably, therefore, the four orders are still essential for the protection of public health. I am only too well aware of how inconvenient and financially restrictive the orders are to the fishermen. That is why we wish them to be in operation for as brief a period as possible. On the other hand, we have a duty to the public and must bring in such orders whenever it is necessary.

10.35 am

Mr. Robert Maclennan (Caithness and Sutherland): I thank the Minister for that explanation of the orders. This is not the first time it has been necessary to introduce them.

Mr. Barry Field (Isle of Wight): Speak up, please!

Mr. Maclennan: I hope that it is accepted that the Government are acting in the interests not only of the consumers but of the fishermen. It is very important to their trade that the produce be widely recognised to be not only of high quality—for which the waters are well known—but also safe. Many issues arise from the orders. I offer the Minister and the Committee the apoligies of my hon. Friend the Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), who would like to have been here but who was unavoidably prevented from coming. The orders affect the waters in his constituency more extensively than they affect those off the coast of my constituency. I shall refer to certain points to which my hon. Friend drew attenditon in a similar debate last year. First, it is extremely important to ensure that while the coverage of the order is complete—in the sense that all affected areas are subject to the ban—the order should not be so wide as to take in unaffected areas. It appears that in the year since 5 the last debate, PSP has become concentrated in fewer areas and is not quite as widespread. I think that the order reflects that. I should like to ask the Minister about local reports that in Scapa Flow there have been high levels of PSP. Is he monitoring that? Is he satisfied that the order is sufficiently geographically extensive? My second point is that there is understandable concern about the lack of knowledge of the root cause of the algal poisoning. The Minister referred to the research that has been in hand. I understand that it is continuing at the Torry laboratory. It would be interesting to know what progress has been made. I understand that substantial sums of money have been devoted to seeking to understand the nature of the problem—a progress report on the science would be of value. The environmental health officer in Orkney called for a voluntary ban in certain areas not covered by today's orders. That was reported in the press. Apparently, there is also concern in Orkney that razors, which are mentioned in the third order, are prey to certain types of crab caught in waters off its coasts. Can the Minister tell us what levels of toxins have been found in razors in the waters affected by the second order? I listened carefully to his fairly detailed statement and he may have touched on that point, but I failed to record it. What measures can be taken to ensure effective monitoring of a ban when non-Orkney boats are dredging in these waters and catches are being landed elsewhere? I also want to know whether local reports of high levels of toxin in scallops dredged south of Fair Isle may necessitate an extension of the ban to cover waters further north. Readings have been reported of high levels of toxicity in scallops in those waters, above the critical level of 400 units. It is right not to create any unnecessary anxiety about the problem, which seems to be seasonal. As the Minister acknowledged, that is of the greatest importance to the fishermen whose income is often unsupported by other forms of activity. Approaches have been made both to Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the Government in the past 12 months to request financial aid to assist those whose livelihood is solely dependent on such catches, to enable them to sustain the losses which they are suffering. If the Minister can say something about that, it would be most welcome. The fear of many fishermen in the areas affected is that unnecessary publicity will be given to the problems. Serious though they are, it is right to acknowledge that the Government have moved with speed to ensure that toxic shellfish do not appear on the market. There is no cause for unnecessary anxiety as a result of that. I believe that publicity for the bans should be confined to areas where they are in effect. The fishermen recognise the need for the ban, despite the enormous financial strains that it entails. Indeed, there has been a voluntary ban on landing velvet crabs through the summer and autumn months. None the less, it would be counterproductive for fishing at other times of the year when the bans do not apply if a question mark remained over produce which is widely accepted to be of extremely good quality. I am grateful to the Minister for what he said and hope that he can answer my further points.


10.44 am

Mrs. Maria Fyfe (Glasgow, Maryhill): I find myself in the rare position of agreeing with a Conservative Minister, because he was right to say that although we must safeguard the fishing industry's interests and not impose unnecessary limits, public safety is paramount. I wish to ask the Minister a few questions that have occurred to me as a result of the discussions so far. How much of each catch is tested? Is testing carried out on a sampling basis? I can understand the point of imposing restrictions on whole areas in which shellfish fishing is conducted, but I presume that there is also testing of samples taken on shore, and I should like to know more about that. To pick up the point of the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) about the livelihoods of those whose sole income is obtained by fishing for shellfish: it is surely putting temptation to try to break the ban in people's path if they are deprived of any income. What steps, if any, will be taken to ensure that people have some kind of income when they are no longer able to fish in particular waters? Finally, I notice that, on summary conviction, fines will be up to £5,000. Under health and safety legislation covering ships, offices and other work places, fines have frequently been so paltry that they have not constituted a deterrent. What fines have been levied under similar orders, and are they proving to be a deterrent to people who act irresponsibly and risk public safety and health by selling fish that are not fit to eat? I should be very pleased if the Minister would answer those questions. I welcome the moves made today. It is vital that people feel confident when they buy shellfish that they are fit to eat.

10.46 am

Mr. Barry Field: The hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland is right to tell us that the Committee has been deprived, owing to the absence of the hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy). I rise merely to enquire whether his absence is a result of the consumption of shellfish such as those that the Committee is discussing. If so, I hope that he will make a speedy and full recovery.

10.47 am

Sir Hector Monro: To respond to the constructive points made by the hon. Members for Caithness and Sutherland and for Maryhill, there is, as they will appreciate, a delicate balance to be struck between fulfilling our duty to the public and not over-reacting in any way that affects the fishermen. We appreciate that fishing is their livelihood and that they will lose a great deal of fishing time while the order is in force. I regret that, for some reason, we are as yet extremely vague on the issue of toxins in algae. That is why we have a research programme in Aberdeen, and a great deal of research is going on throughout the world. Nobody has found out why toxins in algae should occur at this time of the year, particularly around the Orkneys and, this year, in the waters between Caithness and Fair Isle. Since these four orders were introduced we have had to introduce two more, which will have to be debated because the legislation provides for affirmative resolution. One will cover an area near to Orkney and the other the Moray Firth scallop grounds. 7 We cannot take any risks. As the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland said, the long-term reputation of the quality of the scallops and other fish from the area is paramount. We must not in any way fall down on our duty to introduce bans where they are necessary. The figures that I quoted this morning show that the ban is necessary, which is why we have had to introduce the orders. The area covered by the orders is the minimum that we feel to be necessary, bearing in mind, as I say, that we must not fall down in any way on our duty to the public. Monitoring occurs locally and regularly, and we ensure that there is a good deal of publicity on local radio and in the local press; but at the same time, as the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland said, we must not exaggerate or create a national scare to the effect that seafood is unwholesome. That is a difficult balance to strike, and I hope that we are playing in the right key and not causing too much of an outcry. That would not be justified—it is just that in these areas fishing cannot take place while toxin levels are as high as at present. We keep a careful eye on foreign boats, because processors are concerned about the landings of scallops. They want to know where they have come from. We cannot afford to let foreign boats fish in banned grounds and sell fish on the market, on the continent as well as in British ports. We must keep a close watch on everybody fishing in the area where fishing for scallops, queens and oysters is banned. I hope that I have reassured the hon. Members for Caithness and Sutherland and for Maryhill. Sadly, we shall have to bring in more orders, because there seems to be a higher level of toxicity than normal this year. We shall have to debate those orders in the not-too-distant future. In the meantime, we are continuing all monitoring that is necessary; we shall not over-react and we shall not under-react; we shall try to get the balance exactly right, to reduce anxiety on the part of the public and fishermen, with whose interests and long-term income from fishing in these grounds I am greatly concerned. I hope that all members of the Committee feel that the Government are acting clearly and fairly by introducing the orders. I give notice that we shall unfortunately have to 8 introduce more orders in the near future; they too will have to be passed by affirmative resolution. I hope that the Committee will agree to pass the orders.

Mrs. Fyfe: May I have a commitment from the Minister that he will give me a written answer to the questions that I have asked this morning?

Sir Hector Monro: Yes, certainly.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) Order 1993 (S.I., 1993, No. 1338).

Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) (No. 2) Order 1993

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) (No. 2) Order 1993 (S.I., 1993, No. 1413).

Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) (No. 3) Order 1993

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) (No. 3) Order 1993 (S.I., 1993, No. 1476).

Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) (No. 4) Order 1993

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) (No. 4) Order 1993 (S.I., 1993, No. 1483)—[Sir Hector Monro.]

Committee rose at eight minutes to Eleven o'clock.


Haselhurst, Mr. Alan (Chairman)

Ainger, Mr.

Burns, Mr.

Carlisle, Mr. Kenneth

Evans, Mr. David

Field, Mr. Barry

Field, Mr. Barry

Fyfe, Mrs.

Fyfe, Mrs.

Fyfe, Mrs.

The following also attended, pursuant to Standing Order No. 101(2): Maclennan, Mr. Robert (Caithness and Sutherland).