Sheepmeat (Caesium Levels)

Prayers – in the House of Commons at 11:18 am on 20th June 1986.

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Photo of Mr Michael Jopling Mr Michael Jopling , Westmorland and Lonsdale 11:18 am, 20th June 1986

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the control on the movement or slaughter of hill sheep and other sheep.

My Ministry and the other agricultural Departments have been carrying out an extensive programme of monitoring of all foodstuffs likely to be affected as a result of the Chernobyl accident. The latest batch of results is being published today. These present a satisfactory picture overall and there is no reason for anyone to be concerned about the safety of food in the shops.

However, the monitoring of young unfinished lambs, not yet ready for market, in certain areas of Cumbria and north Wales indicates higher levels of radio-caesium than in the rest of the country. These are the areas of high rainfall during the weekend of 2 and 3 May. While these levels will diminish before the animals are marketed. my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I have decided to use the powers in the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985 to make absolutely certain that when these lambs are marketed they will be below the internationally recommended action levels for radio-caesium of 1,000 bq/kg.

We have therefore made an order which we are laying before Parliament to come into effect today which will prohibit for the next 21 days the movement and slaughter of sheep within the two areas designated in south west Cumbria and parts of north Wales. This will enable us to monitor closely the sheep flock in these areas.

The areas subject to restriction will be reduced as soon as monitoring results, based on a rigorous sampling programme, confirm the expected fall in levels. Testing is also being undertaken in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where similar restrictions will he imposed if necessary.

The main season for marketing young lamb from the designated areas will not start until July. The Government recognise that these measures may cause some interference with the marketing plans of farmers in the areas concerned, but I am sure that they will appreciate that the measures taken for the protection of the consumer are in the general interest of the British sheep industry. If however it should prove to be necessary, the Government will be prepared to discuss cases of compensation for severe loss in particular circumstances to specific farmers.

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

I thank the Minister for making this statement. May I say to the Leader of the House that once again it appears not to have been possible to give reasonable notice to those affected of the intention to make an agriculture statement?

We recognise that the primary interest and responsibility lies in the safety and health of the consumer. We must recognise also that the areas concerned are heavily dependent on sheep. The economy and livelihood of a number of individuals, and perhaps even an entire sector of agriculture, are likely to be affected. The fact that the right hon. Gentleman has chosen, in my view entirely correctly, to make a public statement is bound to evoke some public alarm, especially in view of the complacency which has been exuded by MAFF up to the present about the affects on the food chain of the Chernobyl accident. For example, we were getting ——

Sir John Biggs Davison:

Not complacency.

Photo of Mr Brynmor John Mr Brynmor John , Pontypridd

The hon. Gentleman, who is making sotto voce remarks—perhaps he is making his only speech of the Session—had better listen to some of the facts on agriculture before he starts interjecting.

There were press stories three weeks ago about the level of caesium and hot spots. Nevertheless, it is only now that MAFF has chosen to act. It is better that the House voices its worries than for worries to be felt and remain unanswered and, therefore, to fester.

I shall ask the Minister a number of specific questions to which I hope he will reply. First, are cattle likely to have a higher level of caesium? Can he be categorical that there has been no effect upon milk supplies? We understand that one of the ways, although a minor way, in which young, unfinished lambs contracted the infection is by grazing on grassland.

Secondly, bearing in mind that in the post-Chernobyl weeks there must have been many movements of lambs, sheep and cattle out of the areas concerned, will the Minister say whether caesium has been traced only in young lambs? Is there any danger of caesium having been contracted by sheep? There was no mention of that in a parliamentary answer that was given on 4 June. Has caesium been traced in older lambs and are they being monitored? When does the right hon. Gentleman think that the presence of caesium in older animals will become apparent. if they have contracted it?

The Minister has referred to areas in Cumbria and north Wales and has said that the order will have a duration of 21 days. A period of 28 days is allowed under the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985, and I hope that the right hon. Gentleman will take action that will lead to parliamentary scrutiny of the order in due course.

Are the other western sheep-rearing areas being monitored and is the right hon. Gentleman satisfied that at present the movement of lambs in those areas represents no danger? The right hon. Gentleman has talked about areas in north Wales and south-west Cumbria and I should like to know the overall area and the number of lambs and sheep that are affected. Is it a matter of a number of hot spots or is there general infection across the areas that he has mentioned?

The Minister has mentioned the assistance that is to be given in compensation. If necessary, I hope that action will be taken in international law to enable proper compensation to be given to those who are affected by the presence of radio-caesium in their animals, and that compensation will not be confined to domestic assistance.

What is the position on the charges that are due under the Agriculture Bill 1986? The Minister has stubbornly maintained so far that charging will take place for public health tests under the new Act. We understand that this radioactive infection of sheep and lambs may occur and continue for many years. May I have the right hon. Gentleman's assurance that no charges will he made to the affected farmers or any other worried farmers in the areas concerned for the undertaking of public health checks? Will he reconsider his attempt to make such checks chargeable under the Agriculture Bill?

Finally, it is inconceivable that the effects noted in the United Kingdom should not be present in other EEC member states or countries outside the EEC. If we are to learn something and come out of this episode somewhat wiser, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that he is re-examining the restrictions on trade between any two countries to ensure that the ban on potentially affected animals is as tight as it can be? Will he undertake to make information on our experience of radioactivity in lambs as widely available as possible, so that all countries in a similar plight may benefit?

Photo of Mr Michael Jopling Mr Michael Jopling , Westmorland and Lonsdale

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) for what he has said about his belief that it was correct to make a statement today. I think that he was wrong when he said that the statement might give rise to alarm. There is no reason for that to happen. As I said clearly in my statement, there is no reason for anyone to be concerned about the safety of food in the shops. We have taken the steps which I have outlined as a precaution. to ensure that young lambs coming on the market in future— July, August and September are the months when they are likely to come on the market—can be the subject of a proper check.

The hon. Gentleman asked me about the effect on other animals. The monitoring that the Minister has been carrying out shows low levels of radio-caesium in food generally, including vegetables, dairy produce and meats other than lamb. I can give the hon. Gentleman that assurance. I utterly reject the hon. Gentleman's remarks about complacency on the part of the Ministry.

I believe that we have been in the forefront of all European countries in testing meat, and especially young animals. It is that testing which has come up with these results, which have caused us to take precautionary steps about future supplies. The order will last for 21 days, and I hear what the hon. Gentleman says about the need for parliamentary scrutiny. My right hon. Friend the Leader of the House is present and he, too, has heard the hon. Gentleman's remarks.

We shall continue to monitor other areas as well as those to which I have referred. We are continuing with sampling and work is continuing through the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology, which has undertaken most helpful work in allowing us to identify the areas concerned. Rather than attempting to explain in detail the exact area that the orders will cover, I shall deposit in the Library today maps of the two areas concerned so that Members are able to see for themselves.

The hon. Gentleman referred to ADAS charging. I assure him that, during the running of the order which I am laying today, no new steps will be taken to introduce any new arrangements for ADAS charging.

Photo of Mr Cyril Townsend Mr Cyril Townsend , Bexleyheath

Does my right hon. Friend agree that the cautious but sensible measures he announced this morning will be widely perceived by the public as having achieved the right balance between over-reaction and under-reaction? Will the Government continue to take all measures appropriate to reassure the public?

Photo of Mr Michael Jopling Mr Michael Jopling , Westmorland and Lonsdale

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for what he has said. We shall continue to monitor the position in terms of the rigorous monitoring programme that I mentioned earlier. I am sure that my hon. Friend is right when he says that we have set the right balance between realism and prudence. We intend to do that. I think that the public will understand that there is no reason for anyone to be concerned about the safety of food in the shops.

Photo of Mr Robert Maclennan Mr Robert Maclennan , Caithness and Sutherland

I welcome the Minister's decision to make a statement today. I believe that the steps he announced were prudent and wise. They are a means of ensuring that caesium does not come on to the market from young unfinished lambs. There is a general assurance in the Minister's speech that the position overall is satisfactory. However, the Minister said that in Scotland and Northern Ireland specifically there is a possibility of imposing similar restrictions, if necessary. To avoid any doubt, can the Minister say that the satisfactory position covers Scotland and Northern Ireland? I believe that the rainfall was heavier in those areas.

Photo of Mr Michael Jopling Mr Michael Jopling , Westmorland and Lonsdale

I am astonished that the hon. Gentleman, in the course of a short question, said that I was prudent and wise. It is rather unusual to hear such kind words from him. I am most obliged to him. As I have said, the overall position is satisfactory. Testing is being undertaken in Scotland and Northern Ireland. I know that my right hon. Friends will make similar restrictions if they feel that that is necessary.

Photo of Mr William Hughes Mr William Hughes , City of Durham

Generally, I welcome the measures announced by the Minister. I raise three or four small points. First, is the caesium concentrated in specific organs in the bodies of lambs? Secondly, will kids and goats be included in the restricted orders, since they were born at about the same time as the young unfinished lambs, and, presumably, were faced with the same intake of enriched rain? Thirdly, what is the position regarding compensation to the owners of abattoirs and markets and hauliers whose livelihood will be severely affected? It is not just farmers who will be affected. Fourthly, what is the position over fallen stock? Can the Minister assure the House and the country that fallen stock meat from those bodies does not enter the animal food chain in the form of meat for dogs, cats, and so on? What happens to the meat from animals in the field which die while the order is in operation?

Photo of Mr Michael Jopling Mr Michael Jopling , Westmorland and Lonsdale

We have found that the radio-caesium is spread evenly throughout the muscular tissue, which is the carcase of the animal. It is not concentrated in parts of the carcase. I shall consider the question regarding kids and goats. I am not aware of any problem regarding goats. The order which we are laying today refers only to sheepmeat. I have heard what the hon. Gentleman has said about compensation for people other than farmers. I can only repeat that, if it should prove to be necessary, the Government will be prepared to discuss cases for compensation for severe loss in particular circumstances to specific farmers.

The hon. Gentleman referred to fallen stock. If the animal has died, as he suggested at the end of his question, that is one thing. Under the regulations there is no question of meat from animals which have died coming into the human food chain. The slaughter of animals will be permitted for welfare reasons. That is already provided for in the order, on condition that the meat does not go for human consumption or feeding stuffs.

Photo of Frank Dobson Frank Dobson Shadow Minister (Health)

Can the Minister guarantee that the irradiation concerned results exclusively from the Chernobyl incident? Is there any connection between the areas concerned and the nearby locations of nuclear installations in this country?

Photo of Mr Michael Jopling Mr Michael Jopling , Westmorland and Lonsdale

I thought that a Member such as the hon. Gentleman would not have missed the opportunity to make that point. I make it clear that we are dealing with two caesium isotopes—caesium-134 and 137. The ratio between those two isotopes which are found in lambs are characteristic of the Chernobyl fallout. I am glad to be able to tell the hon. Gentleman that it is not characteristic of anything to do with Sellafield.

Photo of Mr Tony Banks Mr Tony Banks , Newham North West

Is the Minister aware that when he turns up during the middle of an arts debate mob-handed and tells us all not to panic, it will be a little difficult not to feel concerned, especially as he made this statement on a Friday when people will be out purchasing meat for the weekend? Perhaps he should have waited until Monday before he made the statement. That would have been more convenient for those hon. Members who wish to discuss the arts. An article which appears in today's Guardian states that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food is understood to be postponing publication of the latest radiation readings from monitoring stations all over Britain. If that article is true, why is that so? Perhaps the Minister should give the people of this country some advice over the weekend that if they intend to eat any hill sheep they should add some iodine to the mint sauce.

Photo of Mr Michael Jopling Mr Michael Jopling , Westmorland and Lonsdale

The reputation which the hon. Gentleman has achieved since he became a Member of Parliament is entirely in keeping with such foolish remarks. If the hon. Gentleman would care to listen—clearly he has not been listening— [Interruption.] I know that he would have been one of the first to be critical if we had waited until Monday and had not come forward as soon as we believed it was right to take such steps.

Action is being taken as soon as it became apparent that there was a risk of meat above the action level reaching the market in the near future. We shall be able to prevent that. I am sure that all Members would agree —the hon. Member for Pontypridd said so—that it was right to come forward today. The hon. Gentleman referred to an article in the Guardian newspaper. That is why I accused him of not listening. If he had been listening, he would have heard that I said in my statement—that the latest batch of results will be published today.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson , East Lothian

It is right that the Minister should have made this statement. However, some aspects of the statement pose more questions than they answer. The Minister said that the order would prohibit, for the next 21 days, the movement and slaughter of sheep within the two areas designated. Can we take it that that includes the movement of sheep in and out of the designated areas? That is an important point of detail that he should cover. As a Scottish Member, I am bound to say that the statement will arouse considerable concern and uncertainty among sheep farmers north of the border. Can we expect a statement from the Scottish Office on this subject? We all know that, at the same time as radioactive rain was falling on Cumberland and north Wales, there was heavy rainfalls in Scotland.

What arrangements are the Government making to compensate farmers and other producers for the direct effect of these restrictions and for the disposal of carcases, where necessary? What compensation will there be for the inevitable disruption of the market which is likely to flow from the alarm that will inevitably be felt, whether the Minister likes it or not? I trust that the long-term costs of monitoring agricultural produce will be carried by the Government, not by the farmers, in the severe cases to which the right hon. Gentleman referred and in others.

Is it not emerging that the Government should have given advice to farmers to bring livestock in milk—both sheep and cattle—indoors while the radioactive rain was falling? That action was taken in Denmark, the Netherlands and other European countries. Why on earth has it taken so long for that information to get through in this country? If lambs have excessive levels of caesium, what assurances do we have that calves and, indeed, humans have not picked up larger amounts than they should have?

Will the right hon. Gentleman join me in appealing to the Secretary of State for Scotland to think again before commissioning another nuclear site at Torness in my constituency?

Photo of Mr Michael Jopling Mr Michael Jopling , Westmorland and Lonsdale

There will not be market restrictions on sheep brought from out of the area for sale in the area. Markets in the affected area which are no longer allowed to market sheep that emanate from within the restricted area will be able to bring in sheep for sale from outside that area.

The hon. Gentleman will have heard me say that testing is proceeding in Scotland and Northern Ireland. The Secretaries of State for Scotland and for Northern Ireland will not hesitate to impose similar restrictions, if they feel that that is necessary in the light of emerging monitoring.

As I said earlier, the Government will be prepared to discuss compensation.

The hon. Gentleman asked about animals being brought indoors during the period when the Chernobyl cloud was moving over the United Kingdom, and I suppose that I should not have expected anything else from an eastern counties arable farmer. I point out that it would have been totally impractical on the mountains and hills of the Lake District and the Snowdonia range to house sheep indoors during that period. Those facilities did not exist.

I realise that the hon. Gentleman threw in the point about Torness at the last minute. I hope that he will refer that question to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment whose responsibility it is.