With permission, Madam Speaker, I, too, would like to make a statement about the Shetland tanker incident, covering those aspects of the matter that fall within my departmental responsibility: in particular, the areas of health, agriculture, fisheries and the environment.
The Government have been especially concerned to ensure that the local community's health is protected. The Director of Public Health in Shetland, in conjunction with the Islands council, has given local guidance on the steps which should be taken to avoid exposure to the oil, and advice has been made available to general practitioners about how they might best respond to patients who present with symptoms or who have worked in areas of high exposure.
I arranged for the Director of the Environmental Health (Scotland) Unit to travel to Shetland on 7 January. The unit has considerable expertise on environmental health issues, and the director has been working closely with the health board and the Islands council. Expert advice has also been made available on toxicological aspects. Regular environmental monitoring of total hydrocarbons in the atmosphere is being carried out, and the levels observed so far do not indicate any long-term hazard to health, although there have been some cases of eye, nose or throat irritation and feeling of nausea, particularly involving people working outside in close proximity to the incident. But, clearly, the situation will be carefully monitored over the coming months. A health survey has already been announced, involving the islanders living in the affected area.
I visited Shetland on Saturday, accompanied by my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment. During the course of the visit we had useful discussions with representatives from the agriculture, crofting, fishing and fish-farming industries, in addition to a range of environmental interests. We also met members and officials of the Shetland Islands council. The efficiency which they have demonstrated in this incident has been considerable, and I pay tribute to the way in which their staff have risen to the challenge in difficult circumstances.
My officials and the local environmental health officers have been particularly concerned to avoid any risk of oil contamination to food. Action has been taken to condemn crops of vegetables in the south of the island, and independent monitoring arrangements have been established, with the co-operation of the farmers and fishermen, to ensure that there is no contamination of milk supplies or of fish entering the market.
We are also concerned about the health and welfare of farmed animals. Cattle in the affected areas are being housed inside with supplies of clean water and feed. Local vets are monitoring the impact on sheep which have been grazing on areas affected by oil spray. Officials of the marine laboratory are monitoring the impact on the fish farms that have been affected by oil in the water. Farmers have also been asked not to send sheep for slaughter for the time being.
The fishing and fish-farming industries are of fundamental importance to the economy of Shetland, and it is clearly essential that we do everything that is necessary to safeguard and protect their long-term futures.
The key immediate issue is that of confidence in the industry's products. My Department has, therefore, already instituted arrangements for the sampling and testing of sea fish landed in Shetland. We also announced on Friday an exclusion zone under the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985 within which the taking of fish is, in the meantime, prohibited.
The spillage is causing serious damage to wildlife and their habitats. It also threatens to despoil coastal landscapes as well as some inland areas which are under threat from windblown oil. Quendale bay is already heavily polluted. There are a further nine sites of special scientific interest currently at risk. Further sites could be reached by oil within days if the present trend continues.
Staff of Scottish Natural Heritage are advising on the natural heritage implications of the clean-up operation as part of the joint response committee, and are also playing a key role in co-ordinating voluntary effort and liaising with local groups.
It is too early to predict what the final impact on wildlife and their habitats will be. However, I fear that we can expect over time several thousand mortalities, in total, of different species. The operations staff and volunteers are doing all that they can to minimise that total.
The adverse ecological consequences are cause for widespread concern. I have therefore instructed my departments to establish an ecological steering group with membership which will include representatives of the Shetland isles, environmental specialists drawn from Scottish Natural Heritage and elsewhere, and those involved operationally in handling the oil spillage. Its immediate task will be to develop urgently the best strategies, both in the short term and in the longer term, for dealing with the implications of the spillage for the natural environment of the Shetland isles.
We should also draw more general lessons for the future from what has happened. Accordingly, I have agreed with my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment that the group should also initiate and oversee a special study of the ecological effects of the incident and how best to handle them should a similar event occur at some time in the future. It will report back to Government on this wider consideration in due course. The membership of and remit of the steering group will also reflect the wider consideration and appropriate support will be made available to it. The study will build on the foundations of the extensive Government-funded investigations of fish and birds that are already carried out in the area.
As regards the cost of all the work now being undertaken and the costs incurred by islanders and local businesses, my right hon. Friend has made it clear that the Government strongly uphold the polluter-pays principle.
There is every reason to believe that the resources available for compensation from the international fund will be sufficient to meet all eligible claims. As my right hon. Friend has said, the Government are pressing the international oil pollution compensation fund to facilitate early possible payments, particularly in cases of economic hardship. I welcome the immediate payment on account made by the insurers to Shetland Islands council in this regard. There is, however, understandable concern in Shetland about the cash flow problems which may face businesses, particularly the farming, fishing and fish-farming industries, in the period before claims are settled in full. In view of the significance of these industries to the Shetland economy, my Department is proposing to make resources available through a special bridging fund to help them with particular economic hardship pending the settlement of compensation claims.
Arrangements for administering the bridging fund will be announced as soon as possible following urgent consultations already in hand between my Department, the Shetland Islands council and other interested parties.
Once the extent of the damage is more fully known, Shetland Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise will work with Shetland Islands council to assess the impact on the island's economy. I shall consider carefully any recommendations made to me as a result of this assessment.
I am also following up welcome offers of help from the European Commission and will make further details available as soon as they are agreed.
Damaging and distressing though the circumstances of this serious environmental accident are, the response of the people of Shetland and of the wider community, nationally and internationally, has been impressive. I am satisfied that all the organisations, voluntary bodies and individuals involved in the efforts to limit and repair the damage are working well together, with a shared commitment to succeed.
My hon. Friend the Scottish Minister responsible for the environment was prevented today by bad weather from paying his second visit to Shetland since the incident, but he hopes to get there tomorrow and he and I will pay further visits as and when it is helpful to do so. It is our purpose to ensure that we do all that we can to help Shetland and the people of Shetland to restore quickly and effectively their beautiful environment and their way of life.
While I welcome the suggestion made today that we shall have a wider inquiry rather than a narrow departmental one, and while I welcome the Secretary of State's assurances about health aspects and about reviving the Shetland economy, Opposition Members remain concerned about the complacency and confusion which have surrounded initial responses from the Government. That is reflected in the anxieties that have been expressed to several Opposition Members.
May I also take this opportunity to praise, as the Secretary of State has done, the efforts which have been made by all involved—statutory services, local council people and the voluntary sector—to tackle the devastating crisis which now faces the Shetland Islands.
As I said, it is difficult to extend the same praise to Scottish Office Ministers—[Interruption.] That is an important matter which has to be mentioned on the Floor of the House because concerns have been expressed to us.
In the brief time available I must mention three issues on which the Secretary of State commented. I am afraid that his comments on the extent of compensation were equivocal. The people of Shetland will be disappointed that the Secretary of State has not stated clearly that no person on Shetland will be at a disadvantage in the immediate future because of the consequences of the tanker spillage. Compensation is crucial, not only to the well-being of many islanders, but to reassure them that the Government are with them and to build confidence during a difficult time for the community in the north of Scotland. We agree that the polluter should pay, which is equally important, but surely to goodness, even with the set-up that the Secretary of State mentioned in his statement, islanders will be worried that the amount of money to be made available will not cover the tremendous costs involved as the story unfolds during the months and years ahead.
I note that the Secretary of State said that there is every reason "to believe" that the resources available will meet all eligible claims, but Shetland islanders want something more specific. I want the Secretary of State to tell the House this afternoon that no Shetland islander whose economic well-being is affected will be worse off. It would be appalling if we had to wait until the due processes of law had taken place to know the terms of any compensation.
The saga has been a cruel irony in that the Shetland isles and the islanders are a model of the way in which an authority should handle complex oil-related issues. Through no fault of their own a tanker has gone down, in astonishing circumstances, and they are being left to foot the bill. My plea is that this afternoon the Secretary of State will assure them that they will not be out of pocket.
The second issue that has been mentioned by a number of my hon. Friends concerns the routing of tankers and the Secretary of State for Scotland must have a role to play in that. Concerns have been expressed about the Minch. There are valuable and sensitive environmental areas around the entire British coastline. While I accept that the International Maritime Organisation and the European Community should review tanker routes, would it not be appropriate and in the interests of Scotland for the Secretary of State to remove tankers from sensitive areas at this stage, pending the outcome of the review?
We have talked about the economic well-being of the Shetlanders and the damage to wildlife, the ecology and environmentally sensitive habitats, but there is also growing concern about the possible impact on health of hydrocarbons in the air and I welcome the Secretary of State's statement about monitoring that impact. I sincerely hope that, during his visits and those of his hon. Friends, they will do everything possible to minimise the impact. The community is particularly fearful of the impact on children and, as parliamentarians, we must talk seriously about that issue.
Finally, we must deal with the question of spraying. I welcome the Secretary of State's comments about the possibility of further damage being done to the environment by adding toxicity to the problems created by hydrocarbons spewing from the tanker, but I want his reassurance that that toxicity is being monitored. There has been speculation in the press about the damage being done by spraying. I hope that he and his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport will deal with that issue.
I was about to apologise for my absence. No discourtesy was intended to the Secretary of State for Transport or to my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott). Unfortunately, because Glasgow was snowbound, I could not get here to listen to the first 20 minutes of the exchanges.
Finally, the statement went far enough on certain issues, but we must have reassurances on compensation, routing, the use of toxic chemicals and health. The people of Shetland are demanding those reassurances and it is incumbent on the Secretary of State to provide them.
I fear that the hon. Gentleman's opening remarks about complacency and confusion fall below the actual record of events. I suggest that perhaps he, too, should visit Shetland where he will see that all those involved, including the Scottish Office, which has sent more than 20 officials, other Departments' officials, voluntary bodies, local government and other organisations are working together efficiently and with complete dedication to repair the damage that has been caused in Shetland and to minimise the risk. The hon. Gentleman's opening remarks were completely misplaced.
On the question of the immediate disadvantages faced by the people of Shetland, it was precisely with the interests of those people in mind and the difficulties that can arise as a result of economic hardship and cashflow problems in the short term—before people are able to secure settlement of insurance claims—that I decided to establish the bridging fund that I announced today. An office has already been established in Shetland to manage that compensation fund and the insurers have already advanced £200,000 to the Shetland Islands council to meet immediate, interim and short-term problems on account. The Shetlands Islands council has also made funds available to the agricultural sector. The European Community, through Commissioner Paleokrassas, has already made emergency aid available and it is having discussions with my Department about possible further aid. When one takes into account all those factors, one can see that resources are being brought to bear as needed and that procedures for clearing up this damaging environmental incident will not be in any way inhibited by lack of funds.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of Stale for Transport dealt with the routing of tankers in his statement. I understand why the hon. Member for Fife, Central (Mr. McLeish) was delayed by travel problems and was unable to get to the Chamber in time to hear that statement.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that health is an immensely important aspect of the incident. I underline the importance that we attach to the careful monitoring that is now taking place. That monitoring involves a number of individuals with considerable expertise and access to high-quality advice on toxicological matters. That monitoring will continue for some considerable time and clear advice will be given to the people of Shetland as to how to respond to events.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport also dealt with dispersants. It is worth repeating that today's statement from the director of the Shetland Islands council environmental services, the director of marine pollution control, the director of the Scottish environmental health unit and the director of public health for Shetland indicated that the dispersant, if used according to correct methods, meant that the risk to the public is
so low as not to be measurable".
That helps to put the issue into perspective.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that, vital though it is, it is not just with the immediate devastation that the Government must concern themselves? Will he give the House the commitment that long after the television crews have gone, he and his Department will still be working with the Shetland islanders and their leaders to ensure the return to the quality of life to which those people are accustomed and which they deserve?
I am happy to give my hon. Friend that assurance. He is right to say that long-term issues, as well as the short-term immediate problems, will be of considerable importance. We will not lose sight of them and the ecological study group that I announced today will be concerned to monitor matters for some considerable time.
I preface my remarks by apologising to the House for not being here earlier. Perhaps I should explain that the weather conditions were atrocious and that I got here as early as I could.
I thank the Secretary of State for Transport for his statement, but I should like to address my remarks to the statement made by the Secretary of State for Scotland. I understand that he has announced a bridging fund, which seems to be along the lines of that which we discussed on Saturday. Obviously, if he is able to provide any further detail on that fund today that would be welcome. He will be aware of the immediate need faced by a number of salmon farmers who would have undertaken a scheduled harvesting of their salmon this week. Substantial cashflow problems could arise. If the fund is not sufficient to meet those needs, will the right hon. Gentleman reconsider it so that the response from Government is adequate to ensure people's livelihoods?
Will the right hon. Gentleman also confirm to the House that the response that he saw on Saturday from the farmers and particularly from the seafood industries, which were ahead of the Government in announcing a voluntary ban, shows their determination to ensure that Shetland will maintain its reputation for the high quality of the produce that it puts on the market? That will be extremely important in the long term.
I understand, as does the rest of the House, why the hon. Gentleman was unable to be here earlier. I am happy to pay tribute to the commitment that he has shown to the interests of his constituents in all aspects of this matter.
As I said earlier, we are involved in urgent consultations with Shetland Islands council and others over the precise details of the bridging fund. I will make further details available as soon as I possibly can, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will understand that it is not possible at the moment to spell out in more detail the way in which it will operate.
I am happy to endorse what the hon. Gentleman said about the actions of the Shetland Fishermen's Association and others in relation to the need to maintain confidence in the quality of the island's produce. I imposed an exclusion order on the area most affected around Sumburgh last week to maintain confidence in their produce, particularly fish and farmed fish. I welcome the support of the Shetland Fishermen's Association, which took an extremely responsible posture in supporting me. I hope that confidence in its products will be quickly restored.
Those of us who represent seats at the other end of the United Kingdom from Shetland and whose constituents rely on farming, fishing and tourism for their livelihood feel for the constituents of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) and for the damage that they have suffered. I know that my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, who has been on the Shetland Islands this weekend and who also represents Kent, would share that view.
As chairman of the all-party animal welfare group, may I say how much we appreciate the voluntary work that has been done to help to mitigate this disaster, in particular the work done by the Scottish Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals, the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds and others. I echo the request made by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Robertson) that my right hon. Friend should try to ensure that those voluntary bodies, which have spent considerable sums of their funds in assisting in the clean-up operation, are able to seek recompense from those liable—not in order that they may make a profit, but so that they may continue to help with the long-term work of restitution that will be necessary.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his earlier comments. I also join him in congratulating and complimenting the voluntary organisations on the dedicated work that they are doing and on the way in which they are working together.
My hon. Friend may like to know that a number of voluntary groups working on the islands, including the World Wild Fund for Nature, the Shetland Bird Club, the RSPB, the Scottish Wildlife Trust and the SSPCA, are getting together to form the Shetland Conservation Consortium. Funding has been provided immediately by the Scottish Office under the special grants environmental programme and by Scottish National Heritage to help that new organisation. SNH is also empowered to give further funding to voluntary bodies as needed.
The Secretary of State will be aware that I am parliamentary consultant to the National and Local Government Officers Association and in that context I thank him for his kind remarks about the prompt and efficient action taken by local government officers on Shetland. Can he give an assurance that those officials and in particular the environmental health officer will receive the fullest possible support from Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution, or whichever officials of his Department arc appropriate, to deal with this situation and to give the best possible advice and support to the community of Shetland?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his opening remarks. I repeat that the officials and the councillors of Shetland Islands council, both groups of whom I met on Saturday, are working very effectively to deal with this difficult incident. They are getting as much co-operation and assistance as is possible from officials in my Department, in particular the director of the environmental health unit, Dr. Forbes, has been to the islands, as has the chief scientist of SNH. Contacts are continuing at all levels between those groups. Some 20 or more officials from my Department are on the islands fulfilling various tasks and I intend to ensure that that co-operation is maintained for as long as is necessary.
Is the Secretary of State aware of the widespread concern felt at the lack of priority and lack of urgency shown by the Government in their response to this catastrophe? For example, why did it take more than four days for the Secretary of State to visit the scene of the disaster? Why has he made only a qualified statement about compensation? Why does not the Secretary of State copy Holland's example, where the Government pay victims compensation immediately and then sue the polluter to recover the money?
On the lack of urgency, the hon. Gentleman seems to overlook the fact that the Scottish Office Minister responsible for the environment, my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro), went to Shetland the day after the incident, as did the Minister for Aviation and Shipping from the Department of Transport. Since then, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport and my right and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and I have visited Shetland and spent a considerable time talking to a wide range of interest groups involved. My right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment would have been in Shetland again today for his second visit but for the weather. So there is no lack of urgency or commitment on the part of the Government, as is reflected in the statements by my right hon. Friend and I today.
On compensation, I hope that the hon. Gentleman upholds the fundamental principle that the polluter pays. In the meantime, to deal with short-term economic hardship, I have announced the setting up of a bridging fund to help to meet the anxieties that he identified.
May I welcome the positive aspects of the Secretary of State's announcement and endorse the praise for the Shetland islanders and their response to the disaster. My hon. Friend the Member for Fife, Central (Mr. McLeish) was right about the crucial nature of the compensation to Shetland islanders in the meantime. Is the Secretary of State aware of the pathetic sight that he presents to the House, compared with the Secretary of State for National Heritage, who guaranteed millions of pounds for the repair of Windsor castle? The Secretary of State for Scotland had come forward with £200,000 for the Scottish people. What support will he give the Shetland islanders in pursuing their legal claims against the polluter? What guarantee can he give that, while that legal operation is taking place, no Shetland islander will go bankrupt or out of business because of the disaster?
The incident with which the hon. Gentleman compares the circumstances of the Shetland Islands is not comparable. Windsor castle is a Crown property for which the Government have administrative responsibility and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for National Heritage made that position clear at once. We are concerned about the longer term compensation, legal liability and consequential loss that affect a large number of people following this serious incident. I have tried to identify how the Government can best help to meet areas that are not immediately covered by compensation aspects, in that they will take some time to come through. That is why we have set up a bridging fund to deal with the short-term problems and economic hardship that can arise.
The Secretary of State will recognise that the disaster is not simply a local problem for the Shetlands but is of considerable importance to the whole of Scotland because of the importance of tourism and the quality of our food and maritime products. That is one of the reasons why a speedy response is necessary. We must ensure that, wherever possible, money does not constrain protective measures that can prevent extensive pollution, nor does it encourage anybody to break an embargo that is essential to ensure that the quality of products is re-established.
Will the Secretary of State take up the point made by the hon. Member for Falkirk, West (Mr. Canavan), that the Government must make it clear that nobody will be denied cash when they need it and that, in the long run, full compensation will be paid?
The hon. Gentleman will realise that the purpose of the bridging fund that I have announced, the emergency help offered by the European Community, the fund operated by the Shetland Islands council, and the advance payment made by the insurers is to ensure that such short-term difficulties do not arise.
On the quality of food, I agree that it is important to restore confidence in the quality of Shetland's produce. That is one of the reasons why I imposed the exclusion zone and why fish landed is being tested daily and will continue to be monitored in the long term. It is important to restore confidence in the quality of Shetland's produce as quickly as possible.
Why have I received an appealing letter in the past week from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds on the disaster in the Shetland islands if what the Secretary of State says about compensation being made available to the voluntary organisations is right? Why does not he give a commitment to the House, as the Secretary of State for National Heritage did on Windsor castle, and say that he will underwrite all costs involved in the disaster?
I urge the hon. Gentleman to read what I have said today. He will then understand that I am meeting the area of need that has been identified to help people in the short term until they can secure full compensation, as I anticipate they will be able to do, from the insurers.
I apologise for being late. I am sure that the Secretary of State understands that transport difficulties in Scotland are pronounced today.
Is there a limit to the bridging fund proposed by the Secretary of State? Does he understand Opposition Members' concern that no one should be in cash flow difficulties? No one disputes the principle that the polluter should pay. None the less, we are concerned that no one in the Shetland Islands conducting a business should find himself in straitened circumstances because of delays in compensation. We have very much in mind the fact that the Amoco Cadiz disaster took 14 years to settle.
Does the Scottish Office have a view on rights of passage? In the light of this disaster and bearing in mind the fact that only 20 per cent. of tankers are following the recommended route to the west of the Western Isles, does the Scottish Office agree that there must be a firm new look at rights of passage? Does the Scottish Office intend to have an input to provide some security for the sea passageways?
As I explained in my statement, the details of the bridging fund are still the subject of consultation and will be announced as soon as possible. The navigational matters were largely covered by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Transport, but I wish to ensure that all Scottish interests are fully reflected in the outcome of any consideration of those matters.
Like the Secretary of State for the Environment who is sitting next to him, the Secretary of State for Scotland had a fruitful visit to the royal botanical gardens in Edinburgh recently. Will he therefore take into account the view of the director, Dr. David Ingram, that there is not only a short-term problem on which great attention and expertise is being deployed, but a long-term—probably 10 to 20 years—problem of maritime algae and marine photosynthesis? It so happens that the deputy director is one of the world's leading experts on such matters. Could a fund be set up urgently or Government money be devoted to a long-term project, which this unique tragedy requires? A long-term scientific study must be funded from somewhere.
We must wait until the details of the ecological steering group's remit is fully set up before we can be precise about the specific long-term matters that it will undertake. It may develop long-term strategies, including overseeing appropriate research studies to monitor the impact on and subsequent recovery of the environment and it will report to my right hon. and learned Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment and me. On funding, we shall ensure that measures on which we embark subsequent to that report or in the light of advice from the steering group will be adequately funded.
Will the Secretary of State respond to the suggestion by the hon. Member for Ross, Cromarty and Skye (Mr. Kennedy) that tankers be required to be piloted through the Minch straits? The Secretary of State for Transport has already said that the Government do not have powers to ban traffic entirely. Will he clarify whether they have powers to require that tankers be piloted? Will he investigate that possibility as an interim measure?
The Secretary of State will realise that the Opposition echo his compliments to the Shetland Islands council. I hope that he also understands that we applaud it for its work outside times of crisis because he has attempted to cut its budgets and staffing over a long period. There is therefore much cynicism about the vagueness with which he has answered questions on funding and compensation. The only sum that has been mentioned so far is £200,000 for the bridging fund. He has spoken of compensation and support for the voluntary organisations.
How much money is there in the fund? How much money will be made available? Will he let us know later on paper, or even state today, the level of compensation that will be given to the people of the islands? Will they be given complete compensation if money is not supplied by the international fund? What level of reinstatement can be expected? Will the fund ultimately turn out to be something to take the heat out of the issue, not enough to deal with the real problem of recompensing the people and reinstating their lifestyle?
The issue of reinstatement is not for the bridging fund, but for the insurers. It relates to the compensation that individuals will seek under the polluter-pays principle. The bridging fund is designed to help, in the short term, people suffering the sort of hardship that could arise from a delay in the settlement of their claims. The £200,000 to which the hon. Gentleman refers is the advance payment made by the insurers to help immediate claims to be met in the short term. I cannot yet put a firm figure on the bridging fund, but anticipate that, if there is a need for several million pounds, we shall seek to meet it.