Food Protection

– in the House of Commons at 10:09 pm on 20th January 1988.

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Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling 10:09 pm, 20th January 1988

I beg to move, That the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) Order 1988 (S.I., 1988, No. 11), dated 7th January 1988, a copy of which was laid before this House on 11th January, be approved. The order revokes and re-enacts with amendments the provisions of the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (No. 3) Order 1987 and the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (No. 4) Order 1987. It continues the emergency prohibitions imposed by those orders, restricting various activities to prevent consumption of food rendered unsuitable for that purpose in consequence of the escape in April 1986 of radioactive substances from the nuclear reactor at Chernobyl. [Interruption.]

Photo of Mr George Foulkes Mr George Foulkes , Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. I am interested in what the Minister is saying, but I cannot hear a word of it.

Photo of Mr Bernard Weatherill Mr Bernard Weatherill , Croydon North East

I sympathise with the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

The order also designates again and sets out the areas in Scotland affected by the escape from which the movement of sheep and in which the slaughter of sheep are prohibited. As hon. Members are aware, the restrictions on the slaughter of sheep from the designated areas and the supply of meat derived from such sheep extend throughout the United Kingdom.

Hon. Members will know that in the interests of causing minimum disruption to normal business practice, the Government announced on 13 August 1986 the introduction of a mark and release scheme to enable sheep which failed a monitoring test for radioactivity to be moved from an area where the movement and slaughter of sheep had been restricted by order, but not to be slaughtered. Those sheep were painted on the head with a distinctive paint mark of a particular colour which denoted that they came from a restricted area and could not be slaughtered until they had successfully passed a monitoring test and were ear-tagged to denote that fact or until there was a general amnesty on sheep painted that colour, following comprehensive testing to ensure that the consumption of the sheep would no longer pose any threat to health.

Three colours are used in rotation for this marking—green, blue and apricot. The order provides that, as from Monday 11 January, slaughter controls on green-marked sheep originating in the post-Chernobyl restricted areas are lifted. It follows a substantial fall in radioactivity levels in such sheep, all of which were marked on or before 27 September 1987, following their move to clean pasture.

In addition, with effect from Monday 11 January, the colour mark used to identify hitherto unmarked sheep which are to leave a restricted area after failing a live-monitoring test for radioactivity is changed from blue to apricot. As with previous colour changes, the latest change is to enable newly marked animals to be distinguished from sheep which have moved earlier out of a restricted area onto clean pasture, thus facilitating the eventual release from controls of blue-marked sheep once the readings for radioactivity permit it.

Neither sheep marked blue on or after 28 September 1987, nor sheep marked apricot on or after 11 January 1988 may be slaughtered unless they successfully pass a re-monitoring test for radioactivity and are identified with a special ear-tag.

Those changes in colour continue the central control, designed to protect the food chain, over the movement and slaughter of sheep from the restricted areas and enable sheep once contaminated to unacceptably high levels of radioactivity and in respect of which these levels have now decreased to acceptable levels, to be slaughtered.

Photo of Jim Wallace Jim Wallace , Orkney and Shetland

If there are any difficulties after this year, are there any contingency plans about future colour arrangements?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

If the hon. Gentleman has followed the debate—I am sure he has followed the subject closely—he will know that the three colours operate in rotation and that there is no need for additional colours to be added. The additional scheme of monitoring in the slaughterhouses continues to give added protection to the food chain.

I commend the order to the House.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson , East Lothian 10:14 pm, 20th January 1988

I want to know who chose the colour apricot used in the scheme. I am grateful to the Minister for giving us a brief explanation of the way in which the colour coding scheme is going round in circles. It sounds rather like a variation on the alliance merger negotiations. I am sorry that neither the hon. Member for Caithness and Sutherland (Mr. Maclennan) nor the hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) can be with us tonight. I understand that they may be taking part in something of a greetin' meetin', in keeping with the tactics that the leader of the SDP has recently discussed.

I am grateful to the Minister for giving a brief account of the way in which the restriction scheme is operating. I understand that the areas covered are as before, and that therefore the same number of farms and broadly the same number of sheep are subject to the restrictions. I understand from the National Farmers Union of Scotland that it is as happy as can be expected about the way in which the scheme is operated. Indeed, everyone involved with farming in Scotland recognises how important it is that consumers should be reassured that meat reaching the market place is safe for consumption. It is obviously important that the Government should continue to operate such schemes for as long as necessary.

With that in mind, I should be grateful if the Minister could give us some suggestions about how long the Government's experts advise that the restrictions should remain in effect. This morning my hon. Friend the Member for South Shields (Dr. Clark), the shadow Minister of Agriculture, gave me a copy of a cutting from the Manx Independent of 8 September 1987. That article quoted an unnamed scientist from the industrial pollution inspectorate in Scotland who confirmed that sheep farms could remain under Government restrictions for years. He told the paper: Caesium levels will decay by half their value in 30 years, and because of the nature of much upland pasture, readings which are considerably above the trigger levels in operation, suggest that caesium pollution could be a problem for many years. Clearly that is a matter of some concern. It has bearing on the considerations that the House and the nation may give to future aspects of nuclear power, nuclear waste disposal and so on. Over the years, we have had many reassurances that we have no need to worry and that we will be all right. We have been told that nothing possible could go wrong and that if it does we will be perfectly safe and that there are ways of dealing with such problems. However, here we are facing a problem that occurred hundreds of miles away nearly two years ago—

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson , East Lothian

Yes, indeed. I am grateful to my hon. Friend. That problem occurred nearly two years ago, but farms, businesses and people's jobs and way of life are being disrupted in Scotland.

I make no complaint about the fact that the Government are introducing the order. Indeed, I wholeheartedly support it. However, I should be grateful if the Minister took this opportunity to say how much longer such restrictions are likely to be in effect.

Photo of Mr Hector Monro Mr Hector Monro , Dumfries 10:17 pm, 20th January 1988

Although hon. Members may greet the debate with some hilarity, I believe that there is a serious side to the problem, on two counts. First, the Government were quick to react to the problem and introduce the scheme, soon after the Chernobyl accident, in the interests of consumers. However, at the same time, it was equally important that a scheme should be provided to help farmers sell their fat lambs at the appropriate time and to ensure that they were clear of caesium contamination.

I believe that the Government and the Scottish Department, of Agriculture and Fisheries, which has administered the scheme, often with particular difficulty, have done so with great good will and good nature. Farmers are satisfied that they were helped through this difficult period by that Department, and particularly by regional offices such as that in Dumfries.

In the first six months when the scheme was new many difficulties arose. I appreciate that it took some time for that scheme to be understood in the markets and in the farms. However, the compensation that was paid and the arrangements that were made have, in the long run, proved satisfactory. However, I appreciate that many farmers have been greatly inconvenienced by the order, especially in south-west Scotland.

I am grateful for the opportunity to thank the Minister and his Department for being so helpful and understanding and for administering the scheme in the best way possible.

Photo of Mr Richard Livsey Mr Richard Livsey , Brecon and Radnor 10:19 pm, 20th January 1988

I apologise for being a fellow Celt and not a true Scot. My wife is Scottish, and in the past I farmed 1,500 acres in Scotland, so I know a little about the farming scene there. It is sensible to continue with the order. We have had a similar problem in north Wales. The hon. Member for Penrith and The Border (Mr. Maclean) has also experienced similar problems in his constituency.

The main point is that the health of the public must be protected. All farmers accept that. That is a fundamental requirement of the order. It is also necessary to protect farmers' products and markets long term.

The CEGB proposal to conduct an experiment at Trawsfynydd power station in Wales is irresponsible. It could cause problems if it is not monitored carefully. I do not think that it is wise to proceed with it. It should be remembered that the original experiment at Chernobyl caused all the trouble that we are discussing. It must also be remembered that farmers are now into the third year of disruption and are not able to market sheep from the upland areas. The Scottish Office should ensure that those farmers are adequately compensated. Considerable compensation has been given but, as I have just said, this is the third year in which the upland sheep farming system will be affected.

Upland areas throughout the United Kingdom have been affected. The Scottish colleges should monitor farm accounts closely to find out the long-term effect on the profitability of the Scottish upland farms. The Government should try to ensure that there is not a continuing decline in farm incomes. Therefore, the Minister should take careful note of the monitoring from the point of view of the contamination of the sheep and the effect on the profitability of sheep farming systems.

Photo of Mr Bill Walker Mr Bill Walker , North Tayside 10:21 pm, 20th January 1988

I welcome the introduction of the order and the fact that the Government are continuing to act sensibly and sensitively, as they have done from the outset, on the problems faced by sheep farmers. After all, it was not the action of sheep farmers that brought about the difficulties. It is wise to remember, as the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) has said, that such things are with us and that they could happen again.

What comes through clearly is that, whatever we decide to do in the United Kingdom, it will not in the end have any impact upon totalitarian regimes wherever they are, and particularly on the one that initiated the problem. We can only hope that our example will encourage or embarrass that country so that never again will we face a similar situation.

The Government have adopted a realistic approach. We have dealt with the effects of the fallout and we have put into operation a system of monitoring that continues to protect the consumer while at the same time ensuring that farmers do not go out of business during the term of the order. On that the Government are to be congratulated.

Photo of Mr George Foulkes Mr George Foulkes , Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley 10:23 pm, 20th January 1988

I declare an interest from the point of view of my constituency, which is affected by the order and by the contamination, as the Minister knows. As the hon. Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) knows only too well, my constituency is large, being 800 square miles in area. It is interesting to note, in view of the debate in which I participated earlier, that my constituency is twice the size of Hong Kong, which has a population of 5·5 million. My constituency is sparsely populated; it is rural, with many high parts, and has a heavy rainfall. It was one of the areas most seriously affected by contamination because, unfortunately, we had very heavy rainfall just after the Chernobyl incident.

I agree with the hon. Member for Dumfries that this is not a humorous or facetious issue. It is important in terms of compensation and effect. We must remember that this incident, involving serious contamination and restriction on the slaughter of sheep, took place almost two years ago, yet it is still having a serious effect. We must also remember that it was not a nuclear explosion. It was a conventional explosion in a nuclear power station resulting in the emission of radioactive material which went into the atmosphere, was transported through the atmosphere and deposited, in particular, in Scotland, Wales and Cumbria. It was a case of caesium contamination, which decays very slowly.

It is a very serious matter, but there is no harm in bringing humour into a serious matter—as I have been known to do from time to time — because it can sometimes illustrate a point extremely well, as the Minister managed to do in his reference to the colouring of sheep.

This matter has caused a great deal of concern in my constituency. I have raised the post-Chernobyl effect with the Minister on several occasions, but, like his predecessor, he tends to shrug it off in a Pavlovian way. In my younger days, I studied psychology a little, including the matters studied by Pavlov. Scottish Office Ministers tend to react in that sort of way when hon. Members, particularly Opposition Members, raise such issues.

I have mentioned on previous occasions the effect of the build-up of radioactivity after the Chernobyl incident in the bodies of people in south-west Scotland. Although there is a restriction on the slaughter of sheep which register above the 1,000 becquerel level, contaminated sheep below that level are still being slaughtered and sent to market. Sheep are also being slaughtered and being sent to market at a later stage when the becquerel level falls.

There has not been sufficient study of the other ways in which accumulated radioactivity gets into the body through food chains and accumulates. If that effect is evident in sheep and lambs, it must surely be present in the bodies of other animals that we eat. It must be present in grain and root crops and is therefore coming through all the food chains into the body. That is why I have been urging the Minister to institute a systematic study of whole-body monitoring.

Photo of Mr Richard Livsey Mr Richard Livsey , Brecon and Radnor

The becquerel level of a married couple farming in north Wales has been monitored. The becquerel level recorded in the wife was 4,500 and the level in the husband was 4,800.

Photo of Mr George Foulkes Mr George Foulkes , Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley

I can give other similar examples. The Minister, the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Lang), brought the matter to the attention of the media. He supplied other figures for me and then shrugged them off. I regret that he does so. There were high radioactivity levels for trout in Loch Doon, for rabbits—the level for rabbits in my constituency was very high—and for deer. Of course, radioactive material is concentrated in animals' bodies.

I have been arguing for systematic whole-body monitoring. The Minister said that it is already happening because volunteers are going to east Kilbride. Professor Baxter and his staff at the Scottish university research and reactor centre are doing whole-body monitoring. But that is not a systematic study to try to compare one part of the country with another. Of course, volunteers are not always those who need to have their radioactivity levels checked. I hope that the Minister will reconsider the matter. Opposition Members were worried recently by a report in The Observer that the radiation monitoring unit at the Ministry of Defence had warned against—

Photo of Mr Hector Monro Mr Hector Monro , Dumfries

That is quite incorrect information. A fortnight ago, I received a letter from the Ministry of Defence — it was well publicised in the press—stating that that was a lot of nonsense.

Photo of Mr George Foulkes Mr George Foulkes , Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley

If that is the case, I look forward to receiving a copy of the letter from the hon. Gentleman. The information was certainly not refuted at the time. Many weeks ago, a full account appeared in The Observer, including a quotation from a Ministry of Defence spokesman, stating that the Department had warned against military personnel going to the south-west of Scotland because of the danger of radioactivity in the Purple Warrior exercise. I observed that exercise and had certain comments to make.

There is general concern not just because of the post-Chernobyl effect but because there are other potentially radioactive nuclear establishments in the area. There is Hunterston in the north. Right in the centre there is the radioactive establishment of great interest at Chapelcross, which many people forget. Not only is it a generating station but it has other significant functions as a producer of tritium and plutonium. Therefore it is important in terms of the weapons programme. It is right in the centre of south-west Scotland. Sellafield is south of south-west Scotland.

We know about the concern that has been expressed about Sellafield. The latest Sellafield proposal is that the enriched plutonium that is brought here from Japan for reprocessing should be flown back from Prestwick airport. A previous Energy Select Committee pointed out that the most dangerous radioactivity scenario that one can envisage is an aeroplane crash. The hon. Member for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) is an expert on the matter. There is concern about road and rail transportation and possible accidents. The worse possible scenario is an air crash, a subsequent fire, and the effect of radioactive discharges and the contamination that should take place.

We in south-west Scotland consider that the area is targeted. [Interruption.] The hon. Member for Dumfries mutters away. His majority is reducing progressively as mine rises progressively. Bit by bit, the people of southwest Scotland are giving their verdict. There will soon be few Tories in that area. I receive letters from the hon. Gentleman's constituency and from the neighbouring constituency, stating that the Conservative Members are not adequately reflecting local people's concerns.

There is genuine concern that the south-west of Scotland is targeted. Of course, we cannot blame Chernobyl; it was entirely an accident. There was certainly no intention to target any part of the country. It was an unfortunate thing, and it added to people's worries. They are already concerned about the incidence of radioactivity and the potential for further radioactive contamination in the area.

I hope that the Minister will give a more positive reaction about the monitoring for which not only I but other people have been calling. If he does not, we shall continue to press him in order to obtain a response. I hope that he will, for once, show some concern. He is following the path of his predecessor in accepting the bland assurances that he is given by his Department and regurgitating them. He should remember what happened to his predecessor the Earl of Ancram, who is no longer a Member of the House.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling 10:35 pm, 20th January 1988

By leave of the House, I shall try to answer some of the main points that have been made.

The hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) said that I follow a long line of Ministers who repeat what the Department says. I took the trouble to read some of the speeches that the hon. Gentleman has made on this issue. He seems to make the same point over and over again and, although it is answered, he does not accept the answers that are given. He has a characteristic of trying to stir up anxiety about these issues because of his particular antipathy to nuclear power. It is slightly mischievous of him to create needless concern among his constituents.

With regard to the hon. Gentleman's point about whole-body monitoring, he knows very well that there is a project being carried out at East Kilbride, which he mentioned. He says that it is not a proper project because it is based on particular selected volunteers. My understanding is that to make the data from the project valid, it is essential to have volunteers whose dietary behaviour has been considered to obtain worthwhile results. I would rather take the word of the scientist responsible for the project on the best ways of achieving that than take that of the hon. Gentleman.

Photo of Mr George Foulkes Mr George Foulkes , Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley

Will the Minister confirm that scientists have put to him a proposal that has not been approved by the Department?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

We are supporting the project that is currently being undertaken.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

I am not dodging at all. It has shown quite clearly that the assumptions on which our action was based were valid.

I am grateful to my hon. Friends the Members for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro) and for Tayside, North (Mr. Walker) for the tributes that they paid to the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which handled an extremely difficult matter extremely well. It has served the people of Scotland very well indeed.

The hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley must not try to imply that the levels of radioactivity concerned are anything but nominal. Even at the 1,000 bq/kg level in lamb, if someone consumed 5 kg per year it would be equivalent to the levels in half an X-ray. We should bear that point in mind.

The hon. Gentleman asked about deer, rabbits, trout, grouse and other animals that have been affected. One would have to eat about 20 grouse per year to reach the levels with which we are concerned. The higher levels that are sometimes referred to occurred on the leg meat of the grouse, and there is not much leg meat on a grouse.

Photo of Mr George Foulkes Mr George Foulkes , Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley

I did not mention grouse. I mentioned rabbits, trout and deer. I specifically did not mention grouse because very few of my constituents are able to afford it. Some of them manage to catch trout, and the Minister will recall that the level in trout in Loch Doon was about 4,500 bq/kg. The Minister is shrugging off concern about such information.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

The reason why I mentioned grouse--the hon. Gentleman is right, he did not mention grouse specifically—is because the highest levels of radioactivity have been encountered on the leg meat of grouse; I was giving the worst case to reassure the hon. Gentleman's constituents. The levels of bq/kg discovered in deer, rabbit and trout are very much less. The point that I am trying to get across to the hon. Gentleman is that the quantity of meat consumed determines the dosage. The dosages concerned are very low and are comparable to half an X-ray. It is irresponsible of the hon. Gentleman to imply that his constituents are somehow threatened. If they were, the Department would have taken action, as it has done over the sheep problems.

The hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) asked why we chose particular colours. It arose because of the dyes. I am sure that he will be relieved to know that red is used only in England and not in Scotland. The hon. Gentleman assumed that the number of farms affected would be broadly the same, and went on to say that this problem would be with us for a considerable time. This year 69 farms are covered, compared with more than 2,500 the previous year. The worries expressed by the hon. Gentleman and some of his colleagues do not appear to be reflected in the number of farms affected.

The hon. Gentleman talked about sheep farms being affected for years to come and quoted the 30-year half-life of caesium. What matters is not the half-life of caesium but the time that it takes for the caesium to be dispersed. That is affected by rainfall, soil and vegetation structure, and so on.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson , East Lothian

The Minister referred to the 69 farms covered. I understand that that is precisely the same number of farms that were covered by the order that we debated on 16 November, which, incidentally, included a number of farms that had not been covered by previous orders. There seems to be an indication that there was a build-up in some areas. I press the hon. Gentleman again to take the opportunity to give some sign of the Government's view, on the strength of the scientific advice available to them, of how much longer this type of restriction is likely to have to remain in force.

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

There are 69 farms involved, and about 124,000 of the sheep population in Scotland of 8·;8 million are affected. The hon. Gentleman is right to point out that some additional farms came within the system. As he has studied these matters, he will know that, for example, the structure of the vegetation in some areas results in a concentration of caesium. That is why some farms came back into the system, as I explained when we debated the matter previously, along with the orders that applied to other parts of the United Kingdom.

The Government will continue to operate the system so long as our monitoring indicates that it is necessary to do so to protect the food chain. I hope that the hon. Gentleman supports us.

Photo of John Home Robertson John Home Robertson , East Lothian

I am sure that the whole House would support any responsible Government in applying restrictions where they are necessary. I am trying to press the Minister to throw some light on one point. I am certain that his officials have given him some information on the likely prognosis. How long is it likely that such restrictions will have to remain in force, either on these farms or on others? Are we talking about weeks, months or, indeed, years?

Photo of Mr Michael Forsyth Mr Michael Forsyth , Stirling

The hon. Gentleman may believe that the Scottish Office is omniscient, but it does not have the qualities of precognition. There is no way of predicting exactly how quickly dispersal of the caesium will take. The position that the hon. Gentleman appeared to think existed is not nearly as bad as he suggested.

The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Livsey) referred to compensation. To date, the compensation paid in Scotland amounts to £1·4 million. The hon. Gentleman talked about the tests to be carried out in a nuclear power station, which is something of a red herring. I refer him to the excellent reply by my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister in the House yesterday, which he obviously has not had an opportunity to read.

We shall keep the situation in Scotland under review to ascertain how far restrictions will need to be maintained in 1988. For the immediate future, however, we believe that the present movement and slaughter controls represent the most practicable way of ensuring the continued safety of the food chain and of maintaining public confidence with the minimum disruption to farmers' normal husbandry practices. I commend the order to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved,That the Food Protection (Emergency Prohitions) Order 1988 (S.I., 1988, No. 11), dated 7th January 1988, a copy of which was laid before this House on 11th January, be approved.