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.