HC Deb 24 June 1986 vol 100 cc179-88 3.30 pm
The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Malcolm Rifkind)

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

The results of tests on sheep in slaughterhouses in Scotland, the latest findings from which were published yesterday, give no cause for concern. We now have results of tests on young lambs in Scotland. These results are being published today. Generally, they are satisfactory. No readings have been obtained comparable to the highest in north Wales and Cumbria, but there are five readings over 1,000 bq/kg for caesium-134 and caesium-137 together, which is the limit at which, by international recommendation, action should be considered. One of these readings, the lowest of the five, comes from Easter Ross and, at 1,017 bq/kg, is within the margin of sampling error. Three of the other readings were found in Dumfries and Galloway, including the highest at 1,272 bq/kg, and the remaining reading is from Arran.

The animals tested were only two to three months old and will not be ready for market for some weeks yet, by which time the level of radioactivity may be expected to have declined well below the 1,000 bq/kg level. I can say categorically therefore that there is no danger to public health and no reason for consumers to refrain from purchasing and eating lamb.

It is Government policy to insist on the highest levels of safety and, to keep under supervision lambs in those areas of Scotland where relatively high levels of radioactivity have been identified, I have made an order, which will be laid before Parliament, to come into effect today, to prohibit for the next 21 days the movement and slaughter of sheep in Dumfries and Galloway, Arran and Easter Ross.

Monitoring in these and other areas will continue and the restrictions will be reduced or removed as soon as testing confirms the expected fall in levels.

I recognise that these measures may cause some interference with the marketing plans of some farmers in the areas concerned. I am sure that they will understand why this action is being taken. In this connection, I must pay tribute to the responsible and co-operative attitude shown by the National Farmers Union of Scotland. If it should prove necessary, the Government will be prepared to discuss cases of compensation for severe loss in particular circumstances to specific farmers.

Mr. John Home Robertson (East Lothian)

I fear that the right hon. and learned Gentleman's assertion that there is no danger is likely to be about as reassuring as Corporal Jones telling Dad's Army not to panic.

May I thank the right hon. and learned Gentleman for not following the Minister for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, who tried to smuggle his statement through an empty House on a Friday? What percentage of the samples analysed showed excessive levels of caesium, and how many farms and how many sheep are affected by the new restrictions? It must be said that there is no way in which farmers can he held to blame, so Will the right hon. and learned Gentleman say more about compensation?

We should stress that the summer lamb sales are virtually the only source of income for many farmers in Dumfries and Galloway, Arran and Easter Ross. These restrictions could have disastrous effects. During the course of the restrictions lambs could become unsaleable, and the House should insist that the Government accept responsibility for compensating farmers affected by the restrictions—and that should apply not only to farmers whose loss has been assessed as severe in terms of the Minister's statement.

What is being done to cover the effect on the sheep variable premium system of the 25 per cent. collapse in market prices which has already followed the announcement made by the Minister of Agriculture on Friday? May I press the Minister further about contamination of land and farm produce, and remind him that, on 6 May, the Secretary of State for the Environment promised the House that the Government would be explicit, frank and open about that matter?

For several weeks there has been much press comment about hot spots of caesium contamination. How long has the Secretary of State known about those hot spots and how much farm produce — that means milk and vegetables as well as lamb—has been moved from those areas in recent weeks? What does he say to the people who have bought and eaten that food? Can we now have a full public report on all aspects of this monitoring exercise?

Mr. Rifkind

The degree of public alarm will be significantly influenced by whether the Opposition take as responsible an attitude towards this matter as the Government have taken. The hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) should pay careful attention to the responsible attitude taken by the National Farmers' Union of Scotland. The hon. Gentleman sought to cast aspersions on my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture for making his statement on Friday. The hon. Gentleman knows perfectly well that my right hon. Friend introduced the statement at the first available opportunity, and the hon. Gentleman and his hon. Friends would have been the first to criticise my right hon. Friend if he had not done so.

In reply to the hon. Gentleman's detailed questions, I can tell him that 100 samples were taken from 50 sheep. Some five were shown to be over the level of 1,000 bq/kg. Although in all cases the amount over 1,000 has been relatively marginal, some 17 per cent. of the total number of sheep in Scotland will be affected by the order. The hon. Gentleman asked about compensation. I can only draw his attention to what my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture said on Friday about the matter, which I have repeated in my statement. The hon. Gentleman asked how long I have known about the specific results from the monitoring. The figures started coming in yesterday, when I was first informed, and this morning the decision was taken to make the statement that I have made to the House.

Mr. John Corrie (Cunninghame, North)

Is my right hon. and learned Friend aware of the dismay that this will cause to my farmers on the island of Arran? Can the Minister give us some information about beef? Is the same sort of monitoring being done for beef animals as for sheep? What is the situation about private slaughter? Does the Order totally cover the slaughter of all sheep in these areas? Do we use the same scale of monitoring as is used in other European countries?

Mr. Rifkind

The level of 1,000 bq/kg is the internationally recognised standard; that is why the Government think it right to take the action that we have described. I share with my hon. Friend the Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Corrie) the dismay that will be felt by farmers who are affected. However, they were the first to say that they understand entirely the reasons why steps of this kind might be necessary and they are fully prepared to co-operate with the Government in the action that we are taking. I can assure my hon. Friend that all the beef sampling suggests that there is no comparable difficulty. I can confirm that the ban on slaughter will apply to all sheep in the areas designated.

Sir Russell Johnston (Inverness, Nairn and Lochaber)

The Minister must not be touchy about this matter, as he was with the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson). If a member of the public is told that there is no problem at all and no danger whatever, and then told in the next breath that there will be a ban on slaughter, he is puzzled, and that is perfectly understandable. I am not asking the Minister to deliver a lecture in simple science, but would it not be helpful to everybody if he made some attempt to explain clearly what caesium is, what effects it has, how its radiation compares with the radiation from other known sources, and why it is that we are concerned only about sheep and not apparently about cattle, or for that matter about fish?

The hon. Member for East Lothian asked about compensation. Would it not be fair to ensure that farmers receive the guaranteed price for lamb and will the Minister do anything about those in abattoirs and the hauliers?

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman has asked a perfectly reasonable series of questions in a perfectly constructive way. The three areas have been designated not because there is any immediate danger to the health of the public but because, by designating those areas and preventing the movement of sheep outwith those areas for 21 days, it will be easier for us to monitor the sheep in those areas where lambs have been found with a level of radiation which is not at a dangerous level but which is slightly above the level at which we would normally begin to consider action.

Let me put the matter properly in perspective by saying that if we look at the most potentially vulnerable members of the community—young children—a 10-year-old child could consume more than 12 oz of lamb, much higher than most would wish to consume, with 1,000 bq/kg, every week for a year and would still receive less that one eighth of the body dose level at which, by international recommendation, action should be considered.

We have had to take into account the fact that there is no risk to the public at the moment, nor in the foreseeable future, but because the public quite properly expect the Government to apply the highest standards of safety it is right and proper to take this opportunity to monitor carefully lambs in the designated areas which, although at the moment not due to go to the slaughterhouses, will be due to go in several weeks time. Therefore, it is right and proper that we should be able to give total reassurance not only now but in the weeks to come.

Mr. Nicholas Fairbairn (Perth and Kinross)

Will my right hon. and learned Friend reassure the public that, in applying these safety measures, the public are not at risk and that they are at greater risk from walking along the streets of Aberdeen because of the radioactivity of Union street, from having an X-ray or from looking at an alarm clock? Will he also take into account that, as the public will not know from where their lamb comes, it will do harm to farmers in areas such as Perthshire who are not nominated? Will he take this opportunity to condemn the Socialist Republics of Russia for the assault on humanity which it tried to keep secret?

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. and learned Friend is right to draw attention to the absolute safety for the public. The average member of the public absorbs a dose of radiation from natural sources of 2mSv a year and the total dose for a year for the average consumer, assuming that he eats meat at the average consumption rate throughout the year of 5 kg, would be 0.15 mSv. That again illustrates that it is perfectly safe for the housewife to continue buying lamb and I recommend that hon. Members and the public as a whole continue to eat it.

Mr. Donald Stewart (Western Isles)

Is the right hon. and learned Gentleman aware that his statement will give rise to great concern and indeed anger in Scotland in the light of the lapse of time between this announcement and the accident taking place in Russia? Did the monitoring take place before or after the discovery of radioactivity in sheep in Wales? Will he guarantee to the Scottish people that there will be total monitoring of animals for slaughter, and of root crops, grass and water in Scotland?

Mr. Rifkind

Of course we are doing general monitoring. For some considerable time now we have been monitoring sheep at the slaughterhouses because it is at that stage that sheepmeat would normally enter the food chain. It was only with evidence that young lambs with several weeks to go before they were likely to reach market had abnormally high levels of caesium that it seemed sensible to have similar monitoring in Scotland. Because the figures show that in some areas levels are slightly higher than the level at which we would usually consider taking action, it seems right and proper to make the order that I have described today.

Mr. Barry Henderson (Fife, North-East)

Can my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that the worst fall-out in Scotland from Chernobyl has not amounted to as big a close as someone would get from an X-ray in hospital? Would my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the reason why there should be no anxiety on the part of the public is that the Government have been extremely cautious in making such arrangements, which allow the public at large to buy meat in the shops with confidence knowing that it will do no harm to them or their families?

Mr. Rifkind

The average exposure from X-rays during the course of the year is almost exactly the same as would be the total dose in a year to the average consumer of 5 kg of lamb at 1,000 bq/kg level of radiation. That puts the matter in its proper perspective.

Mr. Ron Brown (Edinburgh, Leith)

To stop those anxious to make a fast buck irrespective of safety standards, will the Secretary of State ensure that all meat — all beef and lamb products in butchers' shops and supermarkets— is checked, bearing in mind that we do not always know the source of those products? Not all of them come from Scotland.

Mr. Rifkind

Lamb or other products which enter the United Kingdom can be monitored. Various steps are taken to ensure compliance with international recommended actions. It is only with regard to young lambs several weeks before they are due to go to market that the problem appears to have arisen. Therefore, it is in that area——

Mr. Ron Brown


Mr. Rifkind

Of course, we can only go on the basis of the evidence that we have. The hon. Gentleman would not wish to be so irresponsible as to suggest anything beyond that.

Mr. Michael Forsyth (Stirling)

Would my right hon. and learned Friend confirm that caesium is a short-lived isotope, that becquerels are a measure of disintegration rather then the energy of radiation and that the risk to public health is minimal? Will he take this opportunity to repudiate the remarks of the hon. Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) and other Opposition Members who, as part of their campaign against nuclear power, are deliberately whipping up public hysteria on this matter and adding to the burden of hard-pressed farmers in Scotland?

Mr. Rifkind

The biological half-life of caesium is about 20 to 30 days. Therefore, there will clearly be continuing reductions as the days go by in the level of radiation to levels which are very small. I have already shown that I believe that there is a duty on the Opposition, as much as on the Government, to try not to cause needless alarm in areas where there is no danger to the health of the public.

Mr. George Foulkes (Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley)

If the Secretary of State is claiming openness and honesty in this matter, can he tell the House why Ministers overruled the advice of Government scientists that milk should not be drunk in Scotland for two weeks after the events at Chernobyl? Will he also say why the information in relation to the regular monitoring of sheep thyroids in Caithness being transmitted to MAFF laboratories in Weybridge is classified? Will he arrange for that information to be declassified? Otherwise, in this and other matters, he will be continuing the attitude of the Government towards this whole issue, which is one of secrecy and complacency.

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman is being utterly absurd. First, he should address any questions on MAFF to my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture. Secondly, with regard to the question of overruling advice from my officials on the banning of milk, I have to say that at no time did I receive any advice from any of my officials to ban the consumption of milk. Therefore, there was no advice for me to even consider, much less reject. The hon. Gentleman should check his facts before he makes foolish allegations.

Mr. Teddy Taylor (Southend, East)

As these events and the Opposition's irresponsible reaction to them have caused a sharp fall in the price of lamb, would the Secretary of State explain whether that loss is paid for by the farmer or by the taxpayer through the deficiency payments system? Could he give us some indication of the extra cost to the taxpayer of the fall in lamb prices?

Mr. Rifkind

It is not possible at this stage to give any indication of what the implications for lamb prices will be over an extended period. However, we have said that if any individual farmer suffers from severe economic loss, we shall be prepared to consider compensation. I cannot usefully go beyond that at this stage.

Mr. Robert MacLennan (Caithness and Sutherland)

Has the monitoring of food products now been sufficiently extensive to enable the Secretary of State to say that he is satisfied that there is no risk of consumption of irradiated or contaminated products in Scotland, outside the matters of his statement today? While I fully accept the necessity of what he has done, does he realise that it will have a damaging effect, not only on the individuals in the areas where the movement has been restricted, but on the market generally, despite his undoubtedly justifiable reassurances? Experience in Wales and Cumbria suggests that a compensation scheme will be necessary for individuals, and that the income of sheep farmers generally will take a severe knock. The Government must bear that in mind.

Mr. Rifkind

If anything, the Government could be criticised for being over-cautious and for imposing safeguards which may be beyond what is absolutely necessary for public health. The public would expect us to err, if we were to err, on that side rather than in the opposite direction. One appreciates that in such circumstances there is some uncertainty, which can have implications for the farming community. For that reason, I paid tribute to both the National Farmers Union of England and Wales and the National Farmers Union of Scotland for their constructive response at this difficult time for their members.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

Order. I remind hon. Members who represent English constituencies and who seek to catch my eye that the matter refers to Scotland.

Sir John Farr (Harborough)

I congratulate my right hon. and learned Friend on the sensible precautionary step that he is taking. In the long term, will he look at the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985 in which we endeavoured to set out a framework for the role of proper consultation and compensation to deal with natural and man-made disasters of this nature? I mention that to my right hon. and learned Friend because the relevant orders from that Act will shortly be coming before the House. Could we not include an order to cover this sort of eventuality in future, as some of us wanted to do at the time?

Mr. Rifkind

I am grateful for my hon. Friend's suggestion, which I shall certainly consider.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

For 19 years successive editors of New Scientist have thought me sufficiently responsible about nuclear and other industries to write a weekly column. I do not take it easily or kindly to be told that I am irresponsible about these matters. Can I press the Secretary of State on his answer to my hon. Friend the Member for East Lothian (Mr. Home Robertson) that he was first informed yesterday? The heavy rain fell on 3 and 4 May. I am informed that MAFF in England was told of the problem of caesium-134 and 137 in mid-May. Are we being told that the Scottish Office was not informed by MAFF, and that the responsible journalism about when MAFF was first told, which we have all read, is completely wrong? I believe that the Secretary of State may not have been informed, but what about his officials and the Under- Secretary of State for Scotland, the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. MacKay)? When was the Scottish Office first told? It is incredible to many of us that the Secretary of State should give the impression that he was first informed yesterday, although a good deal of information was available in mid-May.

Mr. Rifkind

The hon. Gentleman is suffering from a considerable misunderstanding. He should know, and if he does not he can read it in the Official Report tomorrow, that I was referring to the specific monitoring done on young lambs in Scotland during the past few days. He should also be aware that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food first received its figures for young lambs last week, and that, as a consequence of that, a statement was made by my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food last Friday. We initiated our monitoring in the light of the figures that were emerging on young lambs in England and Wales, and as a consequence we have decided to take the action that I have announced today.

Mr. Michael Lord (Suffolk, Central)

I acknowledge the reasonableness of my right hon. and learned Friend's answers. Nevertheless, I ask him to consider that the general public are still extremely confused. I have seen reports that suggest that one can eat lamb every day of the year without getting any more radiation than one gets from a visit to the dentist. I am not sure whether that is a recommendation to carry on eating lamb or one to stop going to the dentist. Will my right hon. and learned Friend accept this at least? Unless we can establish a scientifically correct yardstick that is more easily understood by the general public, we shall have more problems both with the Chernobyl-type incidents and, more particularly, with our continued nuclear programme.

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. Friend makes a reasonable point. The difficulty under which we all labour is that certain figures have been adopted for international purposes, but many experts think that these figures are far too low and that higher figures would be consistent with the safety of the public. Nevertheless, these are the present figures available for the international community. Therefore, it is right and proper that, if these are the figures that it is recommended that one should consider, it is only reasonable to respond in that way.

Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

Is the Secretary of State satisfied with the sampling methods employed in this monitoring process? Has a similar monitoring process been carried out on recent imports of fish from north-east Atlantic countries?

Mr. Rifkind

I cannot speak in detail about the products of other countries, but I have no reason to doubt the reliability of the sampling that has been carried out in Scotland.

Mr. Richard Alexander (Newark)

In conjunction with my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, will my right hon. and learned Friend reconsider restricting compensation to cases of severe loss? If someone suffers loss as a result of a Government decision, for whatever reason, is he not entitled to compensation? What action are my right hon. and learned Friend and the Government taking to get this loss back from the perpetrators of the incident, the Soviet Union?

Mr. Rifkind

My hon. Friend will appreciate the difficulties that would be inherent in any such attempt, but compensation is a delicate and difficult problem. We hope that, for the vast majority of farmers, the lambs in question will in due course be safe and will go to market, so any loss sustained will be minimal, if it exists at all. This will be more apparent as the days go by.

Mr. Gavin Strang (Edinburgh, East)

When the Secretary of State uses phrases such as "no risk to the public", will he acknowledge that any increase in the exposure of the population to radiation leads to an increase in radiation-linked diseases, albeit a small increase? In that context, will the Secretary of State give us some further information as to the level at which the radio-caesium content of the lambs will have to fall before the meat is deemed suitable for human consumption? Can we be assured that it will be below half the level of 1,000 bq/kg?

Mr. Rifkind

The internationally recommended level is 1,000 bq/kg. The highest figure in Scotland of which we are so far aware is only 1,200 bq/kg. There is a biological half-life for caesium of 20 to 30 days. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that, in the vast majority of cases, in those lambs that at the moment have contamination above the level of 1,000, the level will fall well below the internationally recommended level during the period of this order.

Mr. Keith Raffan (Delyn)

Will the announcement that my right hon. and learned Friend has made affect the movement of sheep from unrestricted areas to abattoirs within the restricted areas that he has designated?

Mr. Rifkind

If it were desired to move sheep from unrestricted areas to abattoirs in restricted areas, that would be permissible, as long as the sheep did not stop in transit. If they stopped for any length of time, they would become subject to the requirements of the order.

Ms. Clare Short (Birmingham, Ladywood)

I am not trying to spread panic, but I find the situation increasingly frightening. I do not think that the Government's position adds up. If it is necessary to stop selling lamb now, it is not good enough for the Secretary of State to say that there is no danger. He would not be making this statement if there were no danger. If this is necessary now, what about the vegetables, crops and milk that have already been consumed? I am not satisfied. The Government are not protecting the public properly. I think that I am typical of many people in finding, in the Welsh ban on sales and now this, great cause for fear and a great sense that the Government are not protecting our interests properly.

Mr. Rifkind

I suspect that the hon. Lady would not be capable of being satisfied by any announcement that the Government made on this issue. All the lamb in the shops at present is absolutely safe, and on all the information that we have, the lambs that are at the slaughter houses at the moment are safe. The reason for the order is that a number of lambs have been identified —for the most part young lambs, and several weeks will elapse before they are ready to go to market — and it is therefore sensible to continue to monitor in those areas where findings have been taken that are above the internationally recommended level. However, the level to which I have referred is not a level above which it is unsafe to eat lamb. The level for that is much, much higher. In fact, 1,000 bq/kg is the level at which Governments are recommended to consider taking action. In other words, that is quite different from the implications of the hon. Lady's remarks.

Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

The Secretary of State said that the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland was not monitoring young lambs at the time that the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food was doing so. Why was that?

Mr. Rifkind

We were concentrating upon those lambs that were at the slaughterhouse, because lambs at the slaughterhouse were to go immediately to the shops and to be eaten by the public. That seemed to us to be a clear priority, and that view was taken throughout the United Kingdom. There was additional monitoring in England and Wales of young lambs some weeks before they were due to go to the slaughterhouse. In the light of those findings, it seemed reasonable that we should take similar samplings.

Mr. Home Robertson

The Secretary of State said that he received the results of these tests only yesterday. If he really wants to allay public fear, will he answer my question? What information did he have during the month of May about the concentration of caesium contamination on pasture, or in animals, or elsewhere? There are many more questions that need to be answered. In the presence of the Leader of the House, I suggest to the Secretary of State for Scotland that there is an urgent need for a debate in this House on the whole issue.

Mr. Rifkind

We are perfectly happy to make available to the public all the results of the sampling that we have done. It is precisely that decision that I have announced today and that we have put into practice during the last few weeks. This is the first time that we have had figures relating to young lambs that imply levels above 1,000 bq/kg. Therefore, the House and the country would expect us to take action of the kind that I have described, and that is what we have done.


Mrs. Ann Clwyd (Cynon Valley)

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. As you so clearly ruled, in reference to the statement on Scotland, that it was Scottish business, are you in a position to tell us whether a similar statement will be made on Wales? Are we to have a statement from the Secretary of State for Wales? Many hon. Members would like to put questions to him. The concern in Wales is just as extreme as it is in Scotland. I believe that a statement should be made in this House along exactly the same lines.

Mr. Speaker

I do not know whether the hon. Lady was present on Friday, but Wales was covered then.

Mrs. Clwyd

But not by the Secretary of State for Wales.

Mr. Alex Carlile (Montgomery)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. The Secretary of State for Wales is the Agriculture Minister for Wales, not the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The Minister of Agriculture for England has made a statement and the Secretary of State for Scotland has made a statement, but all that we have seen the Secretary of State for Wales do is slink in and out of the House with a guilty expression whenever somebody else wants to make a statement.

You have told the House frequently that you protect the position of Back-Benchers—as you do, Sir. We ask you to ensure that the Secretary of State for Wales comes to the House and makes a statement on the caesium levels in sheep in Wales. Half of Wales is now affected by restrictions, including much of my constituency. Welsh Back-Benchers should be given the opportunity to question the Secretary of State on this matter.

Sir Geoffrey Finsberg (Hampstead and Highgate)

Further to that point of order, Mr. Speaker. Is it not correct that all Secretaries of State are interchangeable and that the statement could have been made by the Secretary of State for Employment?

Mr. Speaker

It is not for me to call upon the Secretary of State for Wales to make a statement. I do not possess that authority. A number of Welsh Members were called on Friday when the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food made his original statement.