PARLIAMENTARY DEBATES

HOUSE OF COMMONS

OFFICIAL REPORT

Sixth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c.

FOOD PROTECTION (EMERGENCY PROHIBITIONS) (PARALYTIC SHELLFISH POISONING) (No. 5) ORDER 1993

FOOD PROTECTION (EMERGENCY PROHIBITIONS) (PARALYTIC SHELLFISH POISONING) (No. 6) ORDER 1993

FOOD PROTECTION (EMERGENCY PROHIBITIONS) (PARALYTIC SHELLFISH POISONING) (No. 7) ORDER 1993

Thursday 8 July 1993

LONDON: HMSO

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1

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Iain Mills

Booth, Mr. Hartley (Finchley)

Brazier, Mr. Julian (Canterbury)

Cann, Mr. Jamie (Ipswich)

Eagle, Ms. Angela (Wallasey)

Fyfe, Mrs. Maria (Glasgow, Mary hill)

Kirkhope, Mr. Timothy (Lords Commissioner to the Treasury)

Macdonald, Mr. Calum (Western Isles)

Maitland, Lady Olga (Sutton and Cheam)

Mitchell, Mr. Austin (Great Grimsby)

Mitchell, Sir David (Hampshire, North-West)

Moate, Sir Roger (Faversham)

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

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

Spink, Dr. Robert (Castle Point)

Tapsell, Sir Peter (East Lindsey)

Trotter, Mr. Neville (Tynemouth)

Wallace, Mr. James (Orkney and Shetland)

Williams, Mr. Alan W. (Carmarthen)

Dr. P. C. Seaward, Committee Clerk

2
3 Sixth Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments, &c. Thursday 8 July 1993

[MR. IAIN MILLS in the Chair]

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) (No. 5) Order 1993 (S.I., 1993, No. 1515).

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 Prohibitions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) (No. 6) Order 1993 and the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) (No. 7) Order 1993.

Sir Hector Monro: As the Committee knows, we discussed this matter in some detail recently, so I propose to speak as briefly as possible to the three orders and will gladly answer any questions later. This is the second series of paralytic shellfish poisoning—PSP—orders. They are similar to provisions recently discussed, although the areas are different and larger. For the sake of simplicity, I have called the three orders Nos. 5, 6 and 7. They have been proposed after careful testing and apply where results show that the safety level of 400 units has been exceeded. The No. 5 order relates to the north coast of the Orkney mainland and extends the previous No. 2 order. The No. 6 order adds razor clams to the No. 2 order, but it is the same area and the No. 7 order relates to the much larger area from the Moray coast up to Fair Isle. I assure the Committee that we would not lay orders unless they were strictly necessary and I appreciate the impact that they have on fishermen. However, we must protect the public from the toxic effect of shellfish. The orders will be revoked as soon as it is safe to do so. All these measures are proposed after careful monitoring. It is essential to introduce them not only because of the danger to human beings but to maintain the reputation of very high quality fishing off the Scottish coast.

10.32 am

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland): I am grateful for the way in which the Under-Secretary of State introduced the orders. As he said, this is the second such debate this year. Indeed, when I looked through my increasingly bulging file on paralytic shellfish poisoning, I found an Official Report of a Second Standing Committee on Statutory Instruments on a similar order that sat exactly a year ago on 8 July 4 1992—a date with which I am familiar, as 8 July is my daughter's birthday. It is regrettable that such orders are becoming familiar. There was a series of them in 1990, although they did not relate to the waters affected by these orders. In the latter part of 1991, a series of orders were made that affected Orkney waters. The incidence of this problem seems to be more prevalent now than at perhaps any time in the past 20 years. Will the Minister give more detail about what is being done in various laboratories to gain a better understanding of what causes paralytic shellfish poisoning? I recall pressing this point, which was made to me by a number of fishermen. Is there any way in which some of these shellfish, crustaceans and bivalves can be held in suspension in mid-water, and would that allow for a period of depuration? It would be interesting to know whether any research is being carried out in that regard. When I visited the laboratories in Aberdeen, I became aware that they were trying their best to improve the turnaround in obtaining readings from the samples collected. The Scottish Fisherman's Federation has recently made it clear that many fisherman have expressed concern that the sampling process is too slow, which could result in vessels being tied up in port for an unnecessarily lengthy period. I would welcome a reassurance about the research that is being undertaken to improve the turnaround in results. Have recent results shown that, in any of the waters, levels of PSP are beginning to decrease? I understand that some recent results may show a declining level at Scapa Flow. However, we want to monitor the results because, as the Minister rightly said, the orders are designed to protect not only consumers but the good name of a good quality product. It would damage that product if contaminated consignments were allowed on to the market. We welcome the measures to stop that happening. It is important that we maintain public confidence in a product that I enjoy and I hope that other members of the Committee have time to enjoy it, too. Clearly, a balance must be struck. When the level of poisoning falls below that which requires an order to come into force, the orders should be removed. I believe that the Minister is aware of some fishermen's concern about consignments landed in areas that are not covered by the ban being rejected on the grounds that they are contaminated. Is any fine tuning possible? It is obvious to the Committee that it is costly and wasteful for fishermen to fish legitimately in areas that are not covered by the ban only to find that their efforts are futile because their catch is condemned once it is landed. Compensation has been raised each time we discuss this matter, but we have yet to receive a satisfactory answer. Has the Scottish Office had any contact with Highlands and Islands Enterprise to find out whether it or the local enterprise companies have any special plans to offer relief to fishermen who have cashflow or 5 other financial difficulties resulting from the ban on their activities?

10.37 am

Mr. Austin Mitchell (Great Grimsby): I apologise for arriving late and for seeking to prolong the proceedings of the Committee. I wish to make one point about crab fishermen in Grimsby and along the east coast generally. Three years ago, there was a scare about bivalve molluscs. However, it became a general scare about shellfish, including crabs and lobsters, which form an important trade for Grimsby. Officials from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and environmental health officers panicked, dealing a disastrous blow to crab fishermen and traders in Grimsby. The constituency of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) is crucially affected by the orders. I emphasise the need to make it clear to environmental health officers exactly what the orders deal with. Only recently, I learnt that an environmental health officer in Wansbeck was proscribing shellfish in the same way as occurred three years ago. Again, the result was a threat to crabs. It is essential that environmental health officers are told what the orders cover. A panic such as that which affected Grimsby crab fishermen and traders would be disastrous.

10.39 am

Sir Roger Moate (Faversham): As I have the privilege of serving on a Committee considering paralytic shellfish poisoning, I should like information on a couple of points. When I saw the tie of the hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell), I thought that if anything was likely to cause paralysis on this side of the Committee, it would be that. My constituency looks across the Thames estuary to that of my hon. Friend the Member for Castle Point (Dr. Spink), and it neighbours that of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier). We share an interest in the waters of the Thames estuary, the Swale and the Medway. We also have an interest in shellfish—after all, the great Whitstable oyster comes from the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Canterbury. What theories have been advanced about the causes of this poisoning? That is an issue of wider interest than the very legitimate interest that was expressed by the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland. Secondly, how long in practice have the orders been maintained? How long has it been necessary to impose a ban? What is my hon. Friend's estimate of the damage sustained by fishing interests. Any information that he can provide would be of value.

10.41 am

Sir Hector Monro: I am grateful to hon. Members who have spoken. I know that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland is deeply involved in fishing matters. He has been helpful and constructive over the problems that have occurred this year following the 6 Braer incident. He sees, as I do, the importance of keeping this matter as low key as possible so that the shellfish industry is not affected in any way, bearing in mind, of course, that our primary responsibility is to the public. The 65 monitoring sites in Scotland send samples to Aberdeen, where research is conducted all the time. However, this is not only a Scottish problem; it is an increasing world problem. Other countries are running into the same difficulty. I hope that international research will result in some satisfactory conclusions. Two clear subsequent tests are needed before we can revoke the orders. That will be done as soon as possible, taking each order one by one. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland asked about compensation. The answer is clear, and similar to the earlier one: no compensation is available from the Scottish Office. However, it is up to the Highlands and Islands Enterprise how it spends his money. That may be a way forward. If the ban lasts for a long time and the inshore shellfish boats have to be tied up, cashflow would become minimal. The hon. Member for Great Grimsby (Mr. Mitchell) asked about crabs. We must keep a close eye on that issue. All environmental health officers throughout the United Kingdom are kept informed of the orders. The knowledge that orders have been laid in Scotland should be readily available to officers in Grimsby, who can take any action that they believe is necessary. However, I hope that none will be required.

Mr. Austin Mitchell: The National Federation of Fishermen's Organisations protested about a specific incident in Wansbeck. Notices went up banning shellfish, and that was taken to include crabs. These orders could lead to a repeat of the panic that occurred three years ago when the crab trade was hit by a problem that affected bivalve molluscs.

Sir Hector Monro: Each order specifies which shellfish are included. Whether the order referred to by the hon. Gentleman included crab I cannot say, but I shall write to him, if that will help, to clarify what happened at Grimsby. I do not want to overlook the point that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland made about boats landing after catching shellfish in a clear zone, only to have their catch refused. That must have been the action of the processor, who is of course entitled to decline to buy what has been landed if he considers shellfish not to be up to standard. The catch could also have been condemned by an environmental health officer using his normal powers. I should gladly follow any case through if the hon. Gentleman would give the exact circumstances of the incident. My hon. Friend the Member for Faversham (Sir R. Moate) asked a tongue-twisting question about what PSP is. It is a difficult problem concerning algae. It is a 7 group of toxins produced by certain species of dinoflagellates present in phytoplankton. Its presence in shellfish is often related to an algal bloom where dinoflagellates are present in large numbers. The toxin is potentially a health hazard and can cause death if taken in sufficient quantities. Few people know—and research is being undertaken into this—why the problem happens, and particularly why it seems to happen around Orkney and Shetland year in and year out and in other parts of the world in similar situations. It is not easily understood, which is why we are putting sufficient money into research to seek the answer. It may occur, in world oceanic terms, in such a way that any country would have great difficulty in establishing how to prevent it. More information about it would be a tremendous help.

Mr. Wallace: Will the Minister confirm that he understands the algae to arise naturally—although we may not know how—and that it is unrelated to any known pollutant? Will he also respond to my question about steps being taken to obtain a quicker turnaround of results after samples have been taken?

Sir Hector Monro: The first answer is yes, the hon. Gentleman is right. The problem is a natural phenomenon and is not caused by any known pollutant.

Mr. Austin Mitchell: Unlike the Liberal party.

Sir Hector Monro: The hon. Gentleman's tie is provocative enough, without his making such comments.

8

The answer to the second question of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland is that work at Aberdeen is completed as quickly as possible, but we shall consider carefully whether there is any way in which we can speed it up, bearing in mind the need to bring samples from, say, the Shetlands, Orkney or the west coast before tests can start. We shall do all that we can to speed up the process, always bearing in mind the fact that the public is our first concern and fishermen our second, along with the high regard for, and reputation of, Scottish shellfish.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,

That the Committee has considered the draft Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) (No. 5) Order 1993 (S.I., 1993, No. 1515).

FOOD PROTECTION (EMERGENCY PROHIBITIONS) (PARALYTIC SHELLFISH POISONING) (NO. 6) ORDER 1993 (S.I., 1993, NO. 1523)

Resolved,

That the Committee has considered the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) (No. 6) Order 1993. (S.I.,1993, No. 1523).

FOOD PROTECTION (EMERGENCY PROHIBITIONS) (PARALYTIC SHELLFISH POISONING) (NO. 7) ORDER 1993 (S.I., 1993, NO. 1606)

Resolved,

That the Committee has considered the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Paralytic Shellfish Poisoning) (No. 7) Order 1993. (S.I.,1993, No. 1606).

Committee rose at eleven minutes to Eleven o'clock.

THE FOLLOWING MEMBERS ATTENDED THE COMMITTEE:

Mills, Mr. Iain (Chairman)

Booth, Mr.

Brazier, Mr.

Eagle, Ms.

Fyfe, Mrs.

Kirkhope, Mr.

Macdonald, Mr.

Mitchell, Mr. Austin

Mitchell, Sir David

Moate, Sir Roger

Monro, Sir Hector

Spink, Dr.

Tapsell, Sir Peter

Wallace, Mr.