Fifth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.


Thursday 18 February 1993


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The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mrs. Ann Winterton

Brazier, Mr. Julian (Canterbury)

Chisholm, Mr. Malcolm (Edinburgh, Leith)

Clarke, Mr. Eric (Midlothian)

Cohen, Mr. Harry (Leyton)

Denham, Mr. John (Southampton, Itchen)

Horam, Mr. John (Orpington)

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

McFall, Mr. John (Dumbarton)

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

Nicholls, Mr. Patrick (Teignbridge)

Nicholson, Emma (Torridge and Devon, West)

Onslow, Sir Cranley (Woking)

Pickthall, Mr. Colin (Lancashire, West)

Speed, Sir Keith (Ashford)

Spicer, Mr. Michael (Worcestershire, South)

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

Trend, Mr. Michael (Windsor and Maidenhead)

Wallace, Mr. James (Orkney and Shetland)

Dr. P. C. Seaward, Committee Clerk

3 Fifth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. Thursday 18 February 1993

[MRS. ANN WINTERTON in the Chair]

Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Oil and Chemical Pollution of Fish) (No. 2) Order 1993

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) (Oil and Chemical Pollution of Fish) (No. 2) Order 1993 (S.I., 1993, No. 143). On 8 January an emergency order was made under the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985 to set up an exclusion zone in an area off the Shetlands Islands. The purpose of the order was to prohibit fishing and harvesting of farmed fish within the designated zone because of the risk of pollution of fisheries in that area from oil and other chemicals following the grounding of the Braer. During the debate on the order on 26 January, I told the House that I had decided to extend the western boundary of the zone by five nautical miles from 1 deg 30 west to 1 deg 40 west. That decision was based on test results which had shown higher than background levels of hydrocarbons on the west side outwith the original zone. The new order, which revoked the previous order, came into force on 27 January and it is that order which the Committee is considering. The order is necessary if we are to continue to reassure consumers and industry that fish and fish products reaching the market are safe and of the usual high quality associated with the Shetland Islands. I have arranged for copies of the maps of the new exclusion zone to be available to hon. Members. Sampling offish and water from within and outside the zone continues to be carried out regularly. The latest test results show a progressive reduction in the level of oil contamination, but still suggest the need to retain the zone. I assure the Committee that we shall continue to review the need for the order and will lift it as soon as the evidence warrants that. I am going to the Shetland Islands tomorrow and will check the position. The Government will continue to take the closest interest in the situation there for as long as necessary by monitoring sea water and any other ill effects from the wreck of the Braer.

10.32 am

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland): I am grateful to the Minister for the way in which he moved the order and confirm that people in Shetland, especially in the seafood industry, will accept the orders for as long as necessary. As the Minister said, it is in no one's interest to take shortcuts or to allow produce that is less than wholesome to reach the market. It is important to stress that the order before us came into effect as we were discussing the original order and 4 that we are discussing now not a further extension, but the extension that was announced on 26 January. I welcome the Minister's comment that the most recent tests suggest a reduction in pollution, but we must be certain of that before reducing the area covered by the order and that may take some time. Perhaps the Minister will tell the Committee whether there is any possibility of lifting the order in respect of the east coast of Shetland where pollution was not as great initially. Perhaps he will also tell the Committee what monitoring is being carried out at the boundary of the zone and whether there is any monitoring outwith that to reassure us that the extent of the damage is not greater. The Minister suggested in his letter of 1 February that the Scottish Office would publish with the minimum delay bulletins giving the results of the monitoring. He wrote that, from 28 January, the marine laboratory would issue two bulletins a week. Is that still the case and when was the most recent bulletin issued? I ask that because there has been concern in Shetland about the dissemination of results from the tests. No one wants to create scares where none exists and I accept that the findings of the tests must be presented in proper context, so that people do not gain false impressions. However, one large salmon marketing company in Shetland had to make representations last week before it was able to gain access to the results. I should have thought that that company had a legitimate interest, being responsible for the marketing of salmon, in knowing the results. It eventually received the results but it had to press for them. In his letter of 1 February the Minister said that the marine laboratory had, "responded promptly to any inquiries addressed to them by organisations and individuals." Last week, the Shetland Times quoted that sentence, but added: "we were told: That doesn't necessarily include the media.'" It is widely recognised that the local newspaper has a legitimate interest and that it would approach the results with a proper sense of responsibility. I hope that the refusal was a hiccup in the system and that it can be resolved. The Minister is aware that we are discussing events which have generated rumour and speculation, but it was suggested to me earlier this week that there has been a delay in obtaining results from the tests. That is due, first, to pressures resulting from Government legislation and policy, which oblige laboratories to take on more commercial work. Therefore, they would not compromise their commercial clients to give precedence to some of the tests. That may or may not be true, but we should be assured that the tests are taking priority. Secondly, the Warren Springs laboratory, which is the responsibility of the Department of Trade and Industry and is a leading laboratory for tests on water, is contracted to the Tanker Owners Federation. The laboratory was signed up quickly for that. Therefore, that leading Government laboratory cannot provide information for the Government because it is already contracted to another interested party. If the Minister cannot respond to that, can he tell me whether the tests being carried out by the Warren Springs laboratory are first and foremost available to the Government and may be published? The Minister spoke at length about the bridging fund during a debate on 26 January. I welcome the setting 5 up of the bridging fund. Inevitably, there were teething troubles, but several have been resolved. The agreement about the slaughter of the 1991 salmon yield has meant that there is a prospect of interim compensation being paid to several salmon farmers protected by the order, which will help them to meet their financial difficulties. However, I am still not satisfied that all possible sources of hardship caused by the Braer disaster are covered. I do not want to give details that might give away commercial confidentiality but I shall give a few hypothetical examples, which prove that there are circumstances in which it is not yet possible to show a demonstrable loss. The international oil pollution compensation fund is making payments under the bridging fund only if a demonstrable loss is shown. If a bank is not prepared to extend credit facilities because of uncertainty arising from the Braer disaster about whether stocks from salmon farms in the restricted area are to be sold or slaughtered that could be a case where there is no demonstrable loss. My understanding is that the administrators of the bridging fund are being extremely difficult about allowing companies that find themselves in that situation access to funds. The administrators say that responsibility must be with the banks and they are trying to give all sorts of assurances to the banks. One hopes that the banks might accommodate them. It is fair to ask why the banks should take a risk that the Government or the administrators of the compensation fund are not prepared to take. I hope that the Minister shares my view about this matter which, I am sure, is the view of the whole Committee. No company should be allowed to go out of business because of what happened to the Braer in Shetland on 5 January. Will the Minister assure the Committee that he is satisfied that the arrangements, which are being put into place and which will affect farms covered by the order, are such that no company need go out of business because of the disaster?

10.41 am

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton): I thank the Minister for his statement this morning. As in the debate on 26 January, he has our approval for this extension. At that time, we said that fishermen in Shetland want the order and they introduced the voluntary ban before the order came in. Consumers and people living in the Shetlands need to be assured about the Shetland economy. When I visited Shetland, the case was being made by environmentalists and scientists that long-term monitoring was essential. The press was expressing the view that perhaps the cruel sea had cleared up the problem, but we know now that that is manifestly not so and that long-term monitoring is essential. I think that overt commitment by the Government on that issue is essential for scientists and environmentalists. We must come back to that important issue. On 26 January, the Minister kindly agreed that the Government would be last in line for the IOPC fund. That assurance was well received in Shetland. As the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) said, at that time some banks were ready to foreclose on some accounts in Shetland. That was not the fault of fishermen or farmers, nor was it the fault of the Government, but I think that those islanders should be reassured that every effort is being made to ensure that the businesses remain viable. 6 I am the first to say that the Government are not to blame for this disaster; there are other people to blame. In order that in future the Government do not have to foot a bill which others should meet, the wider issues concerning tankers and travel through the Shetlands have to be dealt with quickly. When I visited the Shetlands fishermen, farmers and others emphasised that the domino effect would mean that, if one industry went down, others would follow. The community needs reassurance. That factor lies behind our support for the order. The Minister should feel free to request the support of the House any time. The quality of life in Shetland is very important. We shall support the order because we know that the local community wants its provisions to be applied.

10.44 am

Sir Hector Monro: I am grateful to the hon. Members for Orkney and Shetland and for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) for their important speeches. I am especially grateful for the support that I have received from the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, who has represented his constituents' problems in a helpful and satisfactory way. I should like to say to the hon. Member for Dumbarton, who is the Opposition spokesman in the Committee, that I am also grateful to the Opposition for their support. More than one Opposition Member has been to the Shetlands to see the problem and, generally, we have maintained a united approach. We are monitoring the east coast as stringently as we are monitoring the west, both inside and outside the zone. The east coast has suffered the least pollution, and we hope that the area will soon be free of pollution. I appreciate that that area is used for inshore fishing rather than being immediately near the wreck of the Braer. Monitoring is being carried out in great depth. I have a long list of the different laboratories involved, such as Torry Research in Aberdeen and the Macaulay Land Use Research Institute. Many other bodies are helping to monitor the problem and that will continue for as long as necessary. The hon. Gentleman knows that we have set up a committee which will be chaired by Professor Ritchie.

Mr. Wallace: When will the membership of that Committee be announced? There has been a gap between the announcement of Professor Ritchie's chairmanship and the establishment of the committee.

Sir Hector Monro: An announcement is imminent, I hope. I have approved and welcomed some of the names submitted and I hope that the membership will be announced within days. We want it up and running and carrying out its duties as soon as possible. The bulletin is issued weekly, and the last one was published on Wednesday. I shall check tomorrow that it is freely available to everyone who requires it. I hope that information will be available to those concerned, such as the Shetland Times, which was helpful in publishing information. The bridging loan and compensation are important and we have made substantial progress on them. A letter has been sent from the insurers to the salmon farmers setting out the terms of the compensation. I do not think that I shall breach commercial confidentiality by giving the 7 figure. The agreed sum for the 1993 harvest is substantial and there will be a 10 per cent, addition to the valuation for loss of weight because the fish were not fed for a period of time. Of course, the insurers will pay for the disposal offish that have to be slaughtered. Five claims, totalling more than £220,000 have been paid to salmon farmers. There are 44 claims from islanders that, including the £220,000, total £300,000. Those claims are for problems with vegetables and animal feed and to pay for the loss of fishermen's income, extra labour and cleaning houses. The system is working well. It is a one-door approach. The Shetland islands council is greatly involved. I hope that those who need support from the insurance fund get it without any problems. The insurers expect to pay about £7 million for the disposal of this year's salmon. They are well aware of what it will cost them. However, that cost is reasonable considering the importance of the salmon farming industry to the Shetlands. Salmon farmers must not be out of pocket as a result of the Braer. Substantial progress is now being made. I shall double check on that progress when I visit Lerwick tomorrow. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland rightly said that the banks had been less than helpful. However, a letter has been sent to the Shetland Salmon Farmers Association. The farmers will receive compensation and the banks should continue to offer the financial support that they have given in the past. In any event, compensation should quickly be paid by the insurers to those salmon farmers who were to harvest their fish in the immediate future. The problem should be solved completely in the next few months. 8 We are making substantial progress. In March, some of my colleagues will return to the Shetlands. I shall make another visit, as will my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)

Mr. Wallace: I note what the Minister has said and hope that the terms of the letter will reassure people. I do not wish to criticise the considerable attention that the Minister has already given to the issue, but will he make it his business to ensure that the terms of the bridging fund are such that no business will be threatened with insolvency as a result of the grounding of the Braer?

Sir Hector Monro: Certainly; that threat should not exist. The bridging loan of £1 million, which we have offered with the help of the Shetland islands council, is for distribution to anyone who is in immediate need of help. I hope that, eventually, that money will be repaid by the insurers, but it is important that no one should be hard up now as a result of the wreck of the Braer. I give the hon. Gentleman that assurance and I shall speak to people in Lerwick tomorrow to ensure that everything is going according to plan. Indeed, I am glad that we have made substantial progress on the salmon farming issue and I hope that support for the salmon farmers will continue in the forthcoming months.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Committee has considered the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Oil and Chemical Pollution of Fish) (No. 2) Order 1993. (S.I., 1993, No. 143).

Committee rose at eight minutes to Eleven o'clock.


Winterton, Mrs. Ann (Chairman)

Brazier, Mr.

Clarke, Mr. Eric

Horam, Mr.

Kirkhope, Mr.

McFall, Mr.

Monro, Sir Hector

Nicholls, Mr.

Nicholson, Miss Emma

Onslow, Sir Cranley

Trend, Mr.

Wallace, Mr.