Scallop Industry

– in the Scottish Parliament at 5:03 pm on 10th February 2000.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord David Steel Lord David Steel Presiding Officer, Scottish Parliament 5:03 pm, 10th February 2000

The final item of business today is a members' business debate on motion S1M-413, in the name of Mr Jamie McGrigor, on the Scottish scallop industry. Members leaving the chamber should do so quietly.

Motion debated,

That the Parliament notes the progress achieved by the Irish Government in alleviating the problems for its scallop industry associated with amnesic shellfish poisoning, and recommends that similar measures be considered to remove Scotland's scallop industry from its present crisis by lifting the current closures under the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985 and focusing the management regime on end product testing without delay.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative 5:11 pm, 10th February 2000

We are having this debate in the shadow of the terrible tragedy that recently befell the Solway Harvester. I would like to convey our deepest sympathy to the family and friends of the brave fishermen who lost their lives in that disaster.

The scallop industry makes an exceptionally important contribution to the economy of many of Scotland's remote rural and fishing communities. Landings peaked in 1998 at just under 5,000 tonnes, valued at more than £8 million. The total value of the industry to the Scottish economy is about £20 million. Last year, the scallop industry, which plays an instrumental part in the lives of our rural areas, was dealt a devastating blow: the decision by the Scottish Executive to close down almost the entire west coast fishery—8,000 square miles—which was the largest closure in our history.

The ban denied employment and an income to those whose lives depended on the scallop industry, and was imposed without any consultation. A scallop fisherman explained how he found out about the ban. Out fishing, he heard through various forms of communication that health and safety officers had gone round hotels telling them to remove scallops from the menu. He then learned, from a message that had been left on a fisherman's answering machine at home, that the whole of the west coast had been closed. He was asked by another member of his association whether a ban had been imposed, and replied that somebody was pulling his leg because, if a ban had been imposed, only boxes that were affected would be closed, and the association would have been informed immediately by the Scottish Executive, as the association was on the Executive's list for information. That was on Friday 9 July; on the morning of Monday 12 July, at

10.49, the association received a fax informing it of the closure.

The testing regime leaves no room for manoeuvre. Scotland's scallop industry is now on its knees as a direct result of the Executive's policy. Many processors are operating at less than 50 per cent capacity. Others had to lay off 50 per cent of their work force. In the central belt, such job losses may be viewed as small beer, as a result of institutionalised urbanism. Does the Executive fail to understand that the effect of those losses in remote fishing communities is simply devastating?

Amnesic shellfish poisoning is caused by a toxin called domoic acid. Scallops graze on the toxic algal bloom that causes it. There must be scientific research to find the source of the blooms that are suddenly affecting our west coast waters. Scallops are filters, which give warning of marine pollution. Neither I nor anyone whose livelihood depends on the industry underestimates the seriousness of the problem or the health risk that it may pose, but the Executive's extreme response does not deal with the problem.

The Scottish Fishermen's Federation has said that, in the interests of protecting public safety, it would be far more appropriate to introduce end-product testing. Experience has shown that processing scallops removes the toxin. If there were end-product testing, there would be no need to introduce widespread, crudely defined closures. End-product testing would benefit the industry and better protect public health. It is common sense that the time to test the product is when the product enters the market.

Between 22 June, when the readings were first taken, and 9 July, when the ban came into force, 273 tonnes of scallops were landed and presumably consumed. Luckily there have been no reported illnesses, but end-product testing would have prevented that blind spot.

If ASP is detected, an entire, arbitrary production area must be shut down. Fishing for scallops in that area is then illegal. People, including ministers, all too often forget that a given area can produce both very high and very low levels of ASP on the same day. The outright ban on scallop fishing is therefore illogical and unnecessary.

I agree that the primary consideration must be to protect public safety but, in seeking to protect the public, it is common sense that scallops should be tested not straight from the sea bed, but when they have been processed and are ready to enter the food chain. With end-product testing, we can ensure both public safety and a future for our scallop fishermen and processors.

In mid-December 1999, the European Union declared that end-product testing for scallops was compatible with EU law. That is why the Irish, who have also had a problem with ASP, have introduced end-product testing for their scallop industry. If such a regime is compatible with EU law and is deemed acceptable for the people of the Republic of Ireland, why does it not satisfy the Scottish Executive? Why did the Irish manage legally to save their scallop industry in three weeks when our Executive has done nothing to help our industry for eight months?

The Scottish Scallop Fishermen's Association places the blame firmly at the door of the Deputy Minister for Rural Affairs and his staff. After a recent meeting with him, it said:

"We must admit to being stunned at your evident lack of awareness with regard to the serious situation facing the scallop sector . . . Perhaps your advisers would be better employed in the Sanitation Department, not in an advisory capacity but in the Shovelling Department.

It is unbelievable that after some five months, your staff at SERAD remain unable to brief you accurately on the situation.

For the sake of our industry, we ask that you stop playing silly politics . . . get SERAD's act together and give us consistency in monitoring and sampling procedures."

That is not the view of just one organisation. Alisdair MacLean of the Mull Fishermen's Association said:

"The Minister showed a breathtaking lack of understanding and despite being responsible for fisheries showed no sympathy for the fishermen, shellfish processors and their families, who are going out of business and putting boats up for sale."

That is not an understatement of the trouble facing the industry, and it brings me to the subject of compensation. Financial assistance for the scallop industry has been totally rejected by the Executive. There have been precedents in assisting primary producers whose businesses have been interrupted for reasons of disease. Beef farmers received compensation for BSE. Salmon farmers received compensation for infectious salmon anaemia. Why, then, does the scallop industry fail to merit compensation for the problems visited upon it by the Scottish Executive's policy?

Will the minister follow the lead of the Conservative Government, which, in the early 1980s, offered financial support to the industry in its time of need? Will the minister finally release a copy of the full minutes of the meeting on ASP in Pentland House on 19 January? Both my staff and people from the scallop industry have asked for the minutes, but our requests have been denied.

Will the minister respond to the demands of the industry and ensure that he develops an understanding of what is facing the industry? Will he agree that we can all learn from this disaster so that we never again institute a testing regime that puts our fishermen out of business unnecessarily? I urge him to listen to the Scottish Fishermen's Federation and the various scallop associations when they ask him to put an end-product testing regime in place, so that they can make an honest living once more.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

Five members have indicated that they wish to speak. We have exactly 15 minutes; if speeches are kept to under three minutes, all will be satisfied.

Photo of Duncan Hamilton Duncan Hamilton Scottish National Party 5:19 pm, 10th February 2000

I congratulate Mr McGrigor on securing this debate. He has made strong points—there is a clear division between what has gone before and where the debate should move now. He is right to say that the industry has not been impressed with the actions and response of the Executive. I do not think that the industry representatives left the meeting that he mentioned feeling anything other than frustrated at the Executive's inability to get its act together. Susan Deacon can humph all she likes, but that is a simple fact about that meeting, which she did not attend.

Mr McGrigor was also right to mention compensation. I think that I am right in saying that the Rural Affairs Committee asked for the issue to be revisited and agreed that an industry in crisis deserved more support than it was getting. The example of what is happening in Ireland ties into that. If the Scottish Executive does not want to go down the road of providing compensation for scallop farmers, there is another alternative—a more flexible response to the way in which the product is tested. That may involve studying how Ireland has managed to move towards what is known as shucking—I know that that word has to be carefully spoken.

I would like the minister to confirm that the testing procedures in Ireland are the same as those here. Is it the famed 20 parts per million in Ireland, as it is here? If it is not, why can the Irish move to shucking when we cannot? It strikes me that, whereas Ireland is doing everything that it can to help those in the scallop industry there, our Executive stands accused of doing very little to move on the debate in this country.

I would welcome a response from the minister to the recent press speculation that there is, despite Executive reassurances, a direct correlation between the substances produced by fish farms and the development of paralytic and amnesic shellfish poisoning. Clear evidence from various academic institutions suggests that that link exists. The call must go from this debate that whatever we do, we do on the basis of information for the benefit of public health. If the minister is willing to commit the Executive to research into that potential link, we will all leave this debate a lot happier. The industry deserves better. Scotland's rural and fishing communities deserve better. I hope that the minister will ensure that what has been proposed can happen.

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour 5:22 pm, 10th February 2000

I congratulate Jamie McGrigor on securing the debate. We all need to underline the fact that public health comes first. We know that and so does the industry. There need be only one case of scallop poisoning for the industry to be decimated; we have seen what happened with BSE.

I did not sign Jamie's motion; I should explain why. His motion concentrates on end-product testing. I believe that we need a mixture of monitoring and end-product testing. To move exclusively to end-product testing would mean that our fishermen were permanently removed from the live market, which is a lucrative trade for scallop farmers and divers and should be protected.

Monitoring would continue as at present, but when toxin was detected, we could move to an end-product testing regime for any catches in a closed fishery. The European Commission is considering such a regime at present. It has been pointed out that the current directive would not have to be changed if the EU were to approve end-product testing.

Photo of Duncan Hamilton Duncan Hamilton Scottish National Party

Am I to assume from Rhoda Grant's comments that she is happy to support end-product testing for shellfish from affected areas, thus giving us the flexibility to use several forms of testing to ensure that the market can flourish?

Photo of Rhoda Grant Rhoda Grant Labour

I think that that is what I am saying.

The attitude of the European Commission leads me to believe that there is scope to move to end-product testing now.

A mixture of both kinds of testing would have to be thought through. Systems would have to be put in place to safeguard public health. That is why I am asking for end-product testing to be introduced now. For additional safety, the derogation could be limited to the adductor or white meat only, readings for which fall consistently within the maximum safety limits. That would give the industry and the Executive time to draw up a programme in which both kinds of testing could be used, allowing measured decisions to be made.

Monitoring would continue as normal but, when the boxes were closed, those fisheries could be end-product tested. We need to consult on the best way of policing that system—either by total closure or by a licensing system for fishermen. There are options that must be considered, such as who is to carry out the end-product testing. There is concern that Government laboratories are under much pressure at present with monitoring. More testing could lead to fewer resources for research.

I have been contacted by private companies that would be willing to carry out end-product testing in conjunction with fish processors. That proposal requires consultation and examination. The whole industry needs to be involved in drawing up the long-term solution. Dredgers, divers and farmers each have different requirements, and must have input. We need to be able to ensure public safety, and allow the industry to work safely. By examining those issues, we can ensure safety for the public and for the industry.

I have not mentioned fishermen, but that does not mean that I am not aware of the suffering caused to them. However, it is important that we look at end-product testing—and a mixture of product testing—as that will alleviate their suffering.

Photo of George Lyon George Lyon Liberal Democrat 5:25 pm, 10th February 2000

As was outlined by Jamie McGrigor and other members, amnesic shellfish poisoning is a serious problem that affects many rural communities on the west coast of Scotland. The issue is not just about producers and fishermen; it is about processors and the communities in which scallop fishing plays a vital economic role.

The minister should answer several questions, because the game has moved on since we last debated the matter on a members' motion some months ago. First, why was no official from the Scottish Executive rural affairs department present at the Standing Veterinary Committee meeting in Brussels in December when ASP was discussed? At that meeting, 13 countries voted to re-examine the implementation of directive 92/492/EEC, and to seek further scientific evidence to determine whether they could proceed with end-product testing. It was on the basis of that decision that the Irish Government moved quickly to help its industry.

The hard question is: are we exploring the option of end-product testing? Are we looking hard at what the Irish are doing? Will it benefit our industry if we go down that road? We want answers to those questions today. Has the minister considered the proposals of the Association of Scottish Shellfish Growers, which are based on the Standing Veterinary Committee's decision in Brussels?

On the subject of testing procedures, and the longer-term issue of the scientific investigation into what is causing ASP blooms, is not there a case for separating scientific investigation from the body that implements the regulatory process? There is a conflict, which must be addressed. The Marine Laboratory at Torry is responsible for investigating the science and enforcing the regulations. Those roles do not sit well together, and they should be separated.

In the longer term, what strategy does the Executive have in place in case the algae bloom recurs next year? The bloom is receding slowly, but there are no guarantees that it will not come back next year and wreck rural communities. I seek reassurances from ministers that everything possible is being done, and that the Irish solution is being investigated, so that tomorrow I can tell the scallop fishermen and communities of Mull, "Yes, the Executive is doing everything possible to explore a new way forward and to put in place a long-term strategy."

Photo of David Davidson David Davidson Conservative 5:28 pm, 10th February 2000

I congratulate Jamie McGrigor on obtaining the debate. The subject is just one of the important issues affecting our fishing and coastal communities. This is a serious problem, but unfortunately we saw over reaction and over-regulation, instead of an approach that used the tremendous science at the Marine Laboratory at Torry in Aberdeen. The laboratory does a wonderful job, but its job is science.

I appreciate Rhoda Grant's suggestion that we should seek suitably licensed contractors to operate a testing programme with the processing industry. I know from people in the processing industry that they would be delighted to examine ways of implementing such a scheme, which would be practical, and would be applied during processing. The scheme would not rely on a body that is already over stretched and does not have the remit to carry it out. The Marine Laboratory at Aberdeen is not the way forward. We need more joined-up government.

The two ministers who have direct responsibility, one for public health and the other for the needs of the fishing communities, are here. They must put their heads together and consider the minimum amount of regulation that is required to ensure public health. They must consider how to ensure that our rural communities, which are under tremendous pressure in all aspects of life—be it at sea or on land—have sensitive, hands-on government and not blunderbuss shots from the Scottish Executive rural affairs department.

Photo of Richard Lochhead Richard Lochhead Scottish National Party 5:30 pm, 10th February 2000

Many of the points that I was going to make have been covered. I congratulate Jamie McGrigor on securing a debate on the issue.

We must remember the importance of the shellfish industry, especially scallops, to Scotland; in the area affected by the ban, I understand that, in 1997, it generated an income of £8 million for that economy. There is a disproportionate impact when that industry is affected.

End-product testing has to be a way forward. However, I commend Rhoda Grant on her comments that it is not the only regime that we need; we must bear in mind the importance of the live export sector as well. To be fair to Jamie McGrigor, his motion does not say that end-product testing has to be the only testing regime.

We have not got to the bottom of the Scottish Executive's policy on compensation for the industry. We were told that compensation is not payable for losses that are the consequence of natural events—such as ASP—because that was the policy of the previous Government. This is a new Government; it does not have to copy the policies of previous Governments.

John Home Robertson's one-line response on 25 January, to a parliamentary question that I asked on a separate matter, stated:

"The Scottish Executive cannot comment on the actions of a previous administration."—[Official Report, Written Answers, 25 January 2000; Vol 4, p 161.]

The Executive cherry-picks; when it wants to follow the previous Administration, it does so. Whose policy on compensation is it? When was it decided and who decided it?

Ministers come to the chamber and rightly take great joy in announcing hundreds of millions of pounds for farmers, or £9 million for salmon farmers; they even announced £2 million for Scottish Opera when it was in trouble. However, ministers have never come to the chamber to announce a penny of assistance for the fishing industry, particularly the catchers.

We must bear in mind the contribution that that sector makes to the Scottish economy. Scallop fishermen pay income tax, corporation tax and VAT just like people in other sectors. They also have to pay the increased fuel taxes to the Treasury. In its time of need, the industry is as deserving as every other industry.

I urge the ministers to announce today that they are willing to reconsider the matter of compensation and to take advantage of the European regulation, which has been on the table since 1 January, to help this beleaguered industry.

Photo of Susan Deacon Susan Deacon Labour 5:33 pm, 10th February 2000

I welcome the opportunity to speak in the debate. The issue has been discussed, in some detail, in this Parliament and in both the Health and Community Care Committee and the Rural Affairs Committee.

I am glad to have the opportunity to explain the action that the Executive has taken, in accordance with EU legislation, to protect consumers against the risk of shellfish poisoning. I am also glad that many members—including Jamie McGrigor—have made the point that, first and foremost, our interest must be public health. I could not agree more with Mr McGrigor's point that people ought not to play politics on the issue—I hope that some of the comments made tonight have not been an illustration of members doing so.

My first priority, as health minister, is the protection of public health. My colleague, John Home Robertson, the minister responsible for fisheries, has made the point that it is also in the best interest of the Scottish fishing industry to ensure that consumers can be totally confident in the safety of Scottish seafood.

Photo of Susan Deacon Susan Deacon Labour

I have a short time. It is important that I respond to points that have been made in the debate.

Marine biotoxins and the recent ASP contamination, affecting scallops in large areas of Scottish water as well as the waters of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, are unpredictable. It is a worldwide problem—I remind members that in 1987 there were four deaths in Canada as a result of an ASP outbreak. Last month, Greece closed some of its production areas following the identification of diarrhetic shellfish poisoning toxins. At present, all Northern Irish waters are closed to scallop fishing because of high levels of ASP.

In Scotland, and in the rest of the UK, we have robust, long-standing control systems in place, which allow us to manage those problems when they arise. Since 1990, closures of affected production areas have regularly taken place when high levels of marine biotoxins have been detected.

In order to meet our EU and food safety obligations, the Scottish Executive, as the competent authority, must ensure that the requirements of the appropriate EC directive are fully met. One of those requirements sets an upper limit for ASP in the edible parts of molluscs.

The directive also requires that the competent authority should monitor production areas. When monitoring reveals contamination above the upper limit, the production area concerned must be closed until the situation has been restored to normal. The EU directive bans marketing of the flesh of scallops from areas where high levels of algal toxin are present. I stress that we have, throughout, ensured that we have fulfilled our obligations in all those respects.

Mention has been made of Ireland. The marine biotoxin surveillance and control systems in the Republic of Ireland differ from the UK system in some respects. We have looked into that, as we have been asked to do, and we are advised that the Republic of Ireland either closes scallop production areas if results of tests on the whole flesh exceed the EU upper limit or prohibits the sale or use of scallops if results of tests on the gonad or muscle exceed the upper limit.

We are advised by the Department of Marine and Natural Resources in the Republic of Ireland that that twin-track approach is a short-term measure and that it is developing a unified system that will close production areas when toxin levels are above the EU upper limit, as in Scotland and the rest of the UK.

EU inspectors checked our procedures as recently as February 1999, and their report confirms that we are fulfilling the relevant requirements in Scotland. I refer members to that report, a full copy of which will be placed in the Parliament's information centre tomorrow.

Mr David Byrne, the EU commissioner for health and consumer protection, recently confirmed that white meat from scallops taken from ASP- contaminated areas cannot, at present, be sold for human consumption under the EU legislation. Unilateral action to relax those controls would lead to infraction measures by the EU. In any case, I would not be prepared to take any action that could expose people to a risk of food poisoning.

Reference was made to the EC—

Photo of Susan Deacon Susan Deacon Labour

I must continue, because I want to pick up on points that have been raised.

Reference was made to the EU Standing Veterinary Committee—

Photo of Susan Deacon Susan Deacon Labour

I am trying.

At a meeting of the committee in December, it was agreed to form an expert working group to consider the issues surrounding ASP in scallops and, in particular, to reach a consensus on which parts of the animal should be tested as part of member state statutory monitoring programmes. The working group is expected to meet shortly. I can give an assurance that the Scottish Executive will be fully involved in those discussions.

It is clear that the control systems that are in place in Scotland are what the EU requires at present. We have checked and rechecked that throughout. A fundamental change in the directive would be needed before a provision allowing harvesting of scallops with levels of ASP above the action level in the edible parts could be made. At the meeting on 19 January, which has mentioned today, Scottish scallop fishery organisations were advised of that. With regard to the publication of that minute, I can give the assurance that it will be circulated as soon as it is available.

Photo of Jamie McGrigor Jamie McGrigor Conservative

I wanted it before the debate.

Photo of Susan Deacon Susan Deacon Labour

I give an assurance, having checked in response to Mr McGrigor's comment, that that information will be available.

Scottish Executive officials explained at that meeting that we are prepared to examine proposals for the future. In the absence of that minute, I will explain to Mr McGrigor and other members some of the ways in which that might be done. For example, if an alternative method of production during the periods when scallops were affected by toxins could be found, that would be carefully considered. We have said that throughout; I have said it in the chamber and I have said it to the industry. However, any alternative proposals would need to be fully evaluated and approved by the EU and also by the new food standards agency.

I was pleased to be able to announce that another section of water on the west coast was reopened to scallop fishing on Tuesday. That means that over 50 per cent of the Scottish waters that were closed to scallop fishing during 1999, because of ASP, have now been reopened. We will continue to monitor the remaining closed areas and will open them as soon as test results indicate that it is safe to do so. I said that to the Health and Community Care Committee when I addressed members on the issue many months ago. That is the practice which we have followed subsequently and which we continue to follow.

Many points have been made about the scallop industry. I have met industry representatives to discuss the health issues. My colleagues and I are very sensitive to industry concerns. I want to outline some of the other discussions that have taken place. Following discussions in the new Scottish inshore fisheries advisory group, John Home Robertson has approved the relaxation of the licence conditions on certain vessels with category C licences, allowing them to fish for prawns off the west coast for six months. He is also considering ways in which to help scallop fishermen to diversify, by acquiring different fishing gear. There might be further opportunities for scallop fishermen to take part in ASP monitoring work for the Marine Laboratory. Reference has also been made to research—

Photo of Susan Deacon Susan Deacon Labour

I have less than a minute left. It is significant that Duncan Hamilton rose to his feet at that point.

Photo of Susan Deacon Susan Deacon Labour

I want to respond to the point about research that Duncan Hamilton raised, because it is important. I reiterate the point that I made to the Health and Community Care Committee: research into the subject is continuing. There is no definitive answer in this country or anywhere else in the world as to why we are experiencing algal toxins in the form and at the level that we are. Various pieces of research have been put forward at different times, with different suggestions of possible causes. We continually re-examine that and we support research.

It is dangerous for Mr Hamilton to suggest that there is a definitive answer and for him to scaremonger on the issue by suggesting that this is a result of salmon farming. He asks us to respond to that research. That response would involve further closures—of fish farms. We are not prepared to take such action unless we have sufficient evidence to suggest that we should. When we have evidence and data, we act on it. That has been demonstrated throughout our response.

Photo of George Reid George Reid Scottish National Party

I am obliged to conclude the debate within the next 30 seconds.

Photo of Susan Deacon Susan Deacon Labour

I can assure members that the Executive is doing everything possible. We continually put our heads together to consider the best way in which to make progress.

The most important point that I want to put across is that we have not arrived at the present monitoring and control programme in haste. It is a carefully thought out and long-standing programme that meets our EU obligations as well as protecting public health. That is in the best interests of the health of the people of Scotland and of our fishing industry.

Meeting closed at 17:44.