§ 10.5 am
§ The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. John Gummer)
I beg to move,That the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (England) (No. 2) Order 1986 (S.I., 1986, No. 1689), dated 29th September 1986, a copy of which was laid before this House on 30th September, be approved.With permission, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I suggest that it would be convenient to take this and the other orders on the Order Paper together.
§ Mr. Gummer
On Saturday 26 April 1986 the very serious accident at Chernobyl occurred. However, it was not until Monday 28 April that the detection of increased levels of radioactivity by the Swedish authorities alerted the West. On the day after, Tuesday, the Ministry of Agriculture initiated daily testing of milk and obtained meteorological forecasts of wind movements. The air current carrying the radioactive material went in a wide arc over Europe in the course of the next few days, On Friday, an increase in radioactivity was detected by the Ministry's Lowestoft laboratory. Arrangements for more extensive monitoring were immediately put in hand, with particular attention being paid to those foodstuffs that were most immediately affected — milk and leaf vegetables.
Although the House is not exactly full this morning, the details of how we dealt with this problem are important to have on the record simply because we had not expected that the powers that were given under an Act that had been passed only a year before would be so early used. One might say that public confidence is illustrated by the fact that vast numbers of angry, shouting Members of Parliament are not here to complain that the public were not properly looked after. Public confidence depends upon the public feeling that there is an adequate system to deal with even such horrific accidents as this. Therefore, I hope that the House will allow me to sketch quickly those measures that were taken so that if Opposition Members wish to raise particular points about what was done they will do so against a logical background that will be on the record.
It was quickly apparent that the major radionuclides were iodine and caesium and that, of these, radio-iodine was initially the most important. It will be recalled that these radionuclides work according to different time scales. Therefore, one was able to concentrate upon the one rather than the other. However, we also appreciated that radiocaesium would build up over a longer period.
On the Sunday, at 2 pm, the Ministry opened its operations room to enable those who until then had been in constant telephonic communication to co-ordinate their assessment and monitoring results and to handle inquiries from the general public centrally. My right hon. Friend and I have laid down a clear policy that the public should be fully informed of matters of concern such as this. All relevant detail is provided so that the public can rely fully on our statements. However, this policy opens the way for some to add unfounded fears and speculation to very real concerns. To put the figures into context, my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculuture, Fisheries and Food made a number of television and radio appearances over 1447 the bank holiday weekend to reassure the public that radiation levels in food did not present a hazard to health and that there was no need for anyone to change their normal consumption patterns of milk and other fresh foodstuffs.
Our monitoring over the bank holiday weekend showed that levels of radioactive iodine in milk had peaked. Levels in cows' milk generally did not exceed a few per cent. of the derived emergency reference levels—I am sorry that one has to use such phrases but there is no other way to be accurate and if we are not accurate the technical press will soon pick it up—for radio-iodine recommended by the National Radiological Protection Board in line with the recommendations of the International Commission on National Radiological Protection. I think that we can accept that as being a reasonable level against which to measure our concern. Peak levels on individual farms in the areas of highest rainfall did not exceed 20 per cent. of that level.
We made a distinction between giving all the information necessary and not giving particular information about a particular farm. If a farm is tested, but not its neighbour, it would not add to anybody's information and it would certainly increase the difficulties in getting the testing done. We averaged the results and gave the top, bottom and middle levels. We felt that that was the best way and I think that that has been generally accepted.
Activating our existing contingency plans, we set in train one of the most extensive monitoring operations of foodstuffs ever undertaken. As the monitoring of food was only part of a full-scale monitoring of water, air and the environment generally, it was agreed that the composite data would he made available through another of those curious organisations, the co-ordinating technical information centre at the Department of the Environment, and that such data should be available for consultation in London. In addition, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food made food data available at the Ministry's regional offices. Attention was drawn to that in the daily press bulletins put out by the TIC on 10 and 15 May. When the TIC was stood down in the middle of May, my Department continued to issue results of monitoring in press notices.
Our monitoring showed that levels of radioactivity in milk and vegetables declined. However, it was recognised that radiocaesium, being a longer-term problem, would need continued monitoring as it built up in the muscle of animals grazing contaminated pasture. From about the middle of May levels of radiocaesium in young unfinished lambs not then ready for slaughter in areas of high rainfall over the bank holiday weekend showed such levels building up. We immediately intensified our monitoring to identify the exact locations where radiocaesium levels in sheepmeat might cause concern.
We also commissioned the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology to undertake more detailed surveys of deposition patterns across the country to identify the precise areas likely to be affected. That information was available early in June and, with the monitoring results which we had built up, identified areas where levels in sheepmeat were likely to be high.
Since most early lamb comes from lowland areas it was there that action had to be considered most urgently and it became clear by mid-June that we would not be able to 1448 guarantee that radiocaesium in all sheep would fall to acceptable levels before some animals from those areas went for slaughter. Although our acceptable levels have a wide range of safety built into them it is still important to keep them as the clear levels by which we work.
My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales and I therefore decided to use, for the first time, powers available under part 1 of the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985 and an order was made on 20 June placing restrictions on the movement and slaughter of sheep for 21 days in certain areas of Cumbria and north Wales. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland introduced similar controls in parts of Scotland on 24 June. The purpose of those controls was primarily to ensure that no animals with levels of radiocaesium above the internationally recommended action level of 1,000 bq/kg would reach the consumer and also to enable us to monitor closely the levels of radioactivity in those areas.
Soon after the imposition of controls, monitoring showed that radiocaesium levels in parts of the designated areas had fallen to an extent which allowed those parts to be released from restriction. However, levels above 1,000 bq/kg continued to be found, particularly in upland areas where the greatest deposition occurred, and made it necessary to continue restrictions after the expiry of the original 21 days. Therefore, further orders had to be made on 3 and 8 July continuing the restrictions in areas of Cumbria, north Wales and Scotland for a further period of 21 days. Restrictions were lifted progressively as monitoring showed that it was safe to do so.
I am pleased to say that our models were right in predicting falling levels in most areas. However, no model is perfect and in the upland areas we encountered a number of special factors arising from the terrain and grazing habits of upland sheep. We must be clear about the remarkable achievements of the scientists who carry out the preparatory work in the event of an accident such as this. Their models proved to be successful.
However, there are particular elements in upland areas which we have discovered as a result of this accident. I think that hon. Members will agree that it is inconceivable that in making such predictions we would get everything right. We have learnt a good deal, about the effect of the deposition of radioactive material from rain of which we previously had little experience. One factor is the effect of different kinds of soil and the pattern of growth of grass.
§ Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)
When the Minister began by saying how accurate his model had been I was worried that the Government were becoming complacent. It is mainly the upland areas that are affected by sheep restrictions and those are the very areas where he has admitted that things are going wrong. On 24 July the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Robinson), said that there had been alarmist reports that restrictions might be necessary for another six months. It is now clear that the restrictions have not only gone on for six months but are likely to go on for a further six months. Does the Minister now admit that there is a danger that the restrictions could continue for another six or nine months in those areas?
§ Mr. Gummer
We want to be as accurate as possible. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Wales was referring to alarmist views that large areas of the 1449 Principality, Cumbria and Scotland would continue to have restrictions. In fact, restrictions have already been removed from large parts of those areas. Having lived through that time and having been involved from day to day in considering how we dealt with the problem, I can say that one of the difficulties of being open, as we have been, at every point with the information that we had is that there are those who constantly want to pretend that there is something that they have not been told. We were trying to say that we were giving all the available information and acting on it. Widespread restrictions have not gone on for a long time, but that was just one of the predictions with which we had to deal at the time.
Our models are based upon a series of different possibilities. One would have been that the rain fell over the lowland areas at a particular time. Another would have been that the cloud was blown in a different direction. All I am saying is that all our models show clearly what would happen. The only areas in which we had difficulties were in the precise prediction of the effect of radiocaesium in a particular mixture in particular circumstances. We have learnt a good deal, but the action that we took was right in protecting the public's health in the circumstances.
I did not want to go through my speech without paying tribute to those who have done such a good job in preparation for such an accident merely because we are bound to concentrate on those things from which we have learnt for the future. That is not complacency. A bit of gratitude, given the hours that those people have worked and their input, is necessary.
The restrictions were lifted progressively. We were able to lift the restrictions in some areas in time for farmers to proceed normally, but in some other areas we could not do that. To meet the problem we introduced a scheme which would allow sheep marked on the head and neck with long-lasting paint to be moved out of the designated areas. Restrictions on the slaughter of such sheep remained in operation.
Since some parts of the designated areas were known to be likely to be ready for release earlier than others, the designated areas were divided into higher and lower deposition areas, depending upon the extent of contamination by radiocaesium. Sheep released from the higher deposition areas had to be marked with blue paint and those from the lower deposition areas with green paint. Restrictions on slaughter were to be removed only when all restrictions in similar areas in the United Kingdom had been lifted.
I am glad to say that it was possible to release green marked sheep from all restrictions from 30 September. The mark and release scheme was extended on 15 September to permit, under consent, the sale and movement of breeding animals inside and outside the designated areas. Such sheep were marked on the head and neck with red paint. I assure hon. Members that none of the colours had any political significance.
All this caused losses to the farmers and from the outset the Government pledged to compensate them. Throughout, we were determined that our schemes would be tailored to real needs rather than to producing speedy solutions which would have turned out to be inappropriate.
Our conversations with the farming unions proved how complex it was to try to find a system which met particular needs. One cannot have a prejudged system to meet such compensation needs. The farming unions were faced with 1450 the same problems in that the situation was changing rapidly and it was not easy to know what their members would need. As the conversations proceeded, the farmers' priorities changed as they saw the effects of the scheme on the ground.
Our first compensation scheme was designed to help producers of those finished lambs which, through being held back by the restrictions, were subsequently rejected for variable premium on the ground of overfatness when their areas were released from the restrictions. Later we introduced a second scheme to compensate producers for their market price losses on marked sheep which were released from the designated areas and presented at store markets and sales, as well as liveweight certification centres. Our third scheme, announced last month, provides assistance towards the direct costs incurred by producers of finished lambs and cast ewes.
This brief account of the principles on which we have based our compensation understandably does not go into the considerable detail of the methods of assessing the market price losses, the "price blight" attaching to marked animals and our headage payments for direct losses sustained on certain sheep enterprises. In trying to work those out, we discovered that the details were complex. The complexity was necessary because the simpler solutions which we sought would not have met farmers' needs.
When one examines how the rest of Europe dealt with the problem it is noticeable that we were the most clearly prepared and that we provided the most carefully worked out and comprehensive compensation scheme. Some countries imposed restrictions on farmers but did not compensate them. Others imposed no restrictions and did not pay compensation. Some imposed restrictions and provided some compensation. No country went to the lengths that we did to ensure that the farmers were properly looked after.
The compensation that we gave to producers was provided as soon as we were able to establish and fully meet the real needs of the situation. Our compensation took account of marketing and sales patterns, already disrupted by the late spring, and poor finishing conditions. Detailed discussions with all the farmers' unions involved have, of course, been necessary. This has been hard work for all concerned. Ministry of Agriculture staff worked all hours. They and the people with whom they dealt in -the farmers' unions should be congratulated.
We believe that the totality of compensation arrangements that we have now agreed—we are giving priority to paying out the sums as quickly as possible—represents a fair and balanced response to the needs of producers.
Looking ahead, I am aware that many farmers are anxious to know how long the controls will continue in force and I should like to say a few words about that. The restrictions introduced on 20 June imposed controls on more than 4 million sheep in Great Britian. I hope that that is remembered by those who suggested that there was an easy way of putting all the sheep under cover. Such people obviously never understood the figures or the details.
Today fewer than 300,000 sheep remain under restriction and many would not normally leave the upland areas before the spring. Progress has therefore been excellent, but radiation levels in sheep in some upland areas have not been falling as fast as in lowland areas.
1451 There is a combination of factors at work and our research has been greatly assisted by the recent development of new instruments by British instrument manufacturers — sometimes good comes out of ill —which were encouraged by the Ministry. They enable us to live-monitor sheep under field conditions.
One of the biggest problems was that there was no accurate way of dealing adequately with live animals. The animals had to be slaughtered and this was followed by a long period of testing. That was a problem which was foreseen but we had to be more restrictive. We had to assume that any one sample was a general sample.
Two factors appear to be contributing to the persistance of radiocaesium in the upland areas: first, the dietary and grazing habits of the animals, both of which are significantly different from animals with unimpeded access to relatively fast growing lowland pasture grass; secondly, the peaty soil conditions in many parts of the upland areas. It is well established that clay and other mineral soil materials have an affinity for caesium and quickly immobilise it within the soil. In well-drained soils whatever is not immobilised tends to be quickly removed by the surface run-off or seepage away from the rooting zone. The problem in the upland areas is that there are pockets of land poorly drained and in some cases totally devoid of mineral-binding agents.
It is quite clear that the sheep themselves show the same biological characteristics as other sheep when transferred out of the upland areas and radiocaesium levels fall away very rapidly once animals are moved to totally clean pasture. This indicates that once the affected areas return to normal the problem will be resolved.
Two natural processes may be expected to make a significant impact on the situation during the coming months. The first is the effect of winter conditions, including frosts, which will break up the soil and allow enhanced drainage of surface water and the second will be the new plant growth which will be coming through in the spring.
There is now extensive scientific evidence from many countries that deposited radiocaesium rapidly becomes immobilised and unavailable to biological systems. There is no reason to expect the long-term behaviour of Chernobyl to be markedly different. We are, however, looking at various ways to see if we can find action to speed things up. That is difficult because we are talking about very large areas which are often high and isolated. Many different holdings are involved. One can talk about reducing the numbers involved from 4 million to 300,000, but we must remember that 300,000 sheep are spread over large areas, so the ability directly to affect the nature of the land artificially is not easy.
Tests have already been carried out on the use of clay-like materials to absorb radiocaesium, both within soils and within the animals themselves. Preliminary results are encouraging and we shall continue to work in the hope that some simple treatment may be available to ensure the earliest possible return of these hill areas to their full productive potential. A considerable amount of research work is already under way both within my Department and by a number of independent research organisations acting under Ministry funding to ensure that we get the right solution.
1452 In the meantime, we shall do whatever we can to ease the burdens on those farmers affected and will keep the mark-and-release scheme under continuous review. Operation of live monitoring equipment should now reduce to a minimum the number of sheep that need marking. In this way we should be able to ensure that any price blight will be minimised and the marketing pattern for sheep in the area concerned returned to normal as soon as possible.
Finally, I pay tribute to the farmers in Cumbria, Scotland and Wales who have co-operated with the Government on the introduction and implementation of the controls which were brought into effect through no fault of theirs.
I remind the House that we have an absolutely prime duty to care for the health of the nation and it must be in the farmers' own interest to recognise that prime duty. If there were any possibility that the Government had acted in any way which was not putting that duty first, considerably more damage would have been done to farmers and to the production of lambs. It is not easy to draw up regulations, They are the product of many months of work and on them depend the lives and livelihoods of many men and their families. For that reason, the actions taken depended very much on the cooperation of the farmers and the actions were taken in circumstances in which they were bewildered and worried about an accident the like of which we had not had before.
I hope that no one has ever accused me of any kind of complacency. The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) will know that I have Sizewell A and the putative Sizewell B in my constituency and can never be complacent about nuclear power or the possibility of nuclear accidents. The one thing in which we can take a pride is that when the facts were fully expressed and despite the actions of those who wanted to make more of them for all sorts of reasons, we were able to carry on a sensible and rational approach with the support of the farmers. We were able to do that with remarkably little, although some, anxiety and did not have the sort of panic which could so easily have arisen. Throughout, people recognised that food produced and presented on the market was absolutely safe for consumption. They recognised that no one needed to take any special measures about diet and knew that that was because of the action of the Government and the farmers and because of the carefully planned arrangements for monitoring and for taking action. That is a tribute to the large number of people who worked together to make such a situation possible.
We have to learn from this that things may not always turn out as plans predict. Every circumstance will be different. I hope that this sort of thing will never happen again, but we must be prepared for such events. If it did happen again—or if some other kind of accident of a parallel nature happened from a source other than nuclear energy — the shape of the cloud, the movement of the wind, the distribution of rain and the land and soil upon which the fallout took place would all introduce different factors. Even with the experience that we have had, there is no way in which we can predict how best to approach that.
Because we had to go through this difficult period we now know a good deal more. What is more, we have shown that the broad base of the system is satisfactory. What we have done and what we must now do formally is to ensure that all the lessons we can learn are learnt. 1453 That process will go on until the last restriction is lifted and the last alteration is faced. We must learn those lessons so that we can continue to have a society in which by freely admitting the extent of a situation and clearly stating the dangers and the action that we are taking we can ensure that the population can have confidence in the pronouncements of the Government and of scientists. That alone will give people the chance to get through such a difficult period without the sort of panic that some people expected to happen.
§ Mr. Brynmor John (Pontypridd)
I should like to thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for taking all these orders together. It has long been one of my ambitions to have a say in Scottish legislation, and your action has enabled me to achieve that ambition. 1 should like to express my thanks to the technical staff in the Ministry who, as the Minister said, worked long hours unceasingly. The best way in which we can express our gratitude is to make quite sure that the administrative and legislative framework in which they act is as good as possible. That is part of our job in this debate.
Secondly, I express my admiration for the way in which farmers accepted this event and adapted and responded to it. They showed remarkable restraint. I was about to say that farmers adopted a stoical attitude, but that was not always so, as I discovered when I spoke to worried people in Wales. They accepted and adapted to the situation in a remarkable way. We must never forget—the Minister did not, but I do not think sufficient attention was paid to it—that farmers' livelihoods were affected and that at one stage the future of their farms was in the balance. I hope that economic prospects are a bit better for them now, but for a long time they were worried people, not least because they were borrowing at absurd rates of interest which are likely to rise.
Not the least of our problems is the parliamentary procedure for debating this incident and its aftermath. As the Minister fairly said, the orders were made in late June and here we are debating them in late October. I say we are debating them, but that is not strictly true. This week it has not been easy to find out what we were to debate this morning. I first tried the House authorities and drew a blank. I then approached my side of the usual channels, my side being the riparian owners of my side of the usual channels, but they did not know either. They approached the Government side and matters became even more alarming because they did not know which orders were to be debated. It was only when the Ministry was approached that the orders to be debated were specified.
We are not debating the original orders because in many cases they no longer exist. We are debating their grandchildren and great-grandchildren and often much more distant offspring. For example, one of the orders before us, I think it is the Scottish order, is described as the No. 8 order. Orders have come into existence and have been amended and died without the House ever having considered them. It could be said that the reason for that is unfortunate timing. It was close to the Recess and we had a month and the emergency was to deal with other issues. It could be said that that was the main reason, but whatever the reason it has precluded the House from voicing the fears of people who are intimately involved. I recognise that that is far less important than the compensation and the protection for those whose 1454 livelihood is affected, but part of that protection is that we scrutinise regulations to test their adequacy. I hope that one of the lessons that we will bear in mind for the future is the importance of the adequacy of the arrangements for parliamentary scrutiny.
As the Minister said, this is not the first time that we have considered at least the framework in which such happenings occur. I was involved in the passage through the House of the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985. At that time Ministers were adamant that compensation was completely covered by two factors. The first was the principle that the polluter pays and the second was insurance. At that time we urged the Government to set up a national compensation fund as a fallback. There was a long debate about insurance. I want to give the Minister who opened the debate an easy ride, but I will give the Minister who is winding up the most difficult question. How many of the people affected had insurance or were able to insure against that happening? We were pooh-poohed when we said that it was an uninsurable risk, even though various insurance bodies had said that.
Under international law, surely the country of origin of the incident — in this case the Soviet Union — is responsible for paying compensation. However, there appears to be no prospect of it doing so. I want to predicate an event that I hope will never occur and which must be avoided by all means. What would happen if a French nuclear power station had an incident similar to that at Chernobyl? Would the Government take the view that farmers should sue France in the international court? Would the Government sue France? Would the Government once again provide compensation for farmers?
After the incident at Chernobyl, the fine principle about the polluter having to pay came to nothing and the Government had to set up their own compensation fund. I am glad that they did so, but I want to be quite clear on how much of the philosophy of the 1985 Act must now be jettisoned. An agreement should be established now, so that in any future incident either the principle that the polluter must pay is applied or a compensation fund is made available.
Is there not a case for an international agreement, as wide as possible, to cover such contingencies? Should it not establish the responsibility of national Governments to provide compensation when incidents within their countries contaminate other countries? Are the Government pressing for such an agreement, or is Britain's susceptibility and tenderness on the question of acid rain precluding that?
§ Mr. Gummer
The hon. Gentleman's last comment is certainly not true. We are currently discussing these matters with all of the countries involved. I hope that the hon. Gentleman agrees that one important matter is the original notification and details of any accident. The Soviet Union is a closed regime where there is no real public opinion and no real ability to question. Therefore, there is no questioning of the initial placing of a nuclear power station, its building or its safety mechanisms. There are no regular articles in The Guardian discussing how these matters should be handled; there are no Friends of the Earth arguing whether there should even be nuclear power plants.
That is why I made the distinction about the date of the accident and the date when we picked up the information 1455 —we picked it up; we were not told. Our primary concern has been to ensure that a better vehicle for information is established. The Soviet Union has moved some considerable way to meet that objective—as it has had to do under international pressure.
The other issues all predicate upon one point. We have reserved our position on whether the Soviet Union will be required—as it should be if the case is proved—to pay compensation. Whatever comes out of the discussions, whether or not the Soviet Union pays up and whether we have an international agreement, the crucial point for the British farmer is that he knows that compensation is not dependent upon long-winded international discussions. After Chernobyl, the farmers needed to know that compensation would be dealt with immediately.
§ Mr. John
I entirely accept the right hon. Gentleman's last point. It is a pity that the excessively theoretical approach of the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985 about relying on the polluter paying plus any insurance proved to be the source of a great deal of worry —even in advance of Chernobyl.
Like the Minister, I hope that the Soviet regime—which is showing a more refreshing openness about incidents that previously would have been kept hidden from the international gaze — will feel able to release information on disasters promptly and widely. The sinking of the nuclear submarine is an example of its change of heart, and I hope that that continues. Nevertheless, we need a framework of compensation for the future. The current scheme, although it is comprehensive, is ad hoc. I hope that we and other countries will together consider what can be done for the future.
Although I concede that in the latter stages of the incident the position very much improved, I do not think that the Minister's description of everything having run smoothly at Government level from the start is a fair reflection of what happened. The Government were caught on the hop and there was considerable confusion and chaos. Many lessons were learnt and we must ensure that they are applied in future—
§ Mr. John
I shall not give way. The right hon. Gentleman made a three-minute intervention in my speech, having already spoken for well over half an hour. He must listen occasionally. He cannot have the last word, the last but- one word and the word before that. If he listens he may pick up a scintilla of information that he does not already possess and that might be helpful to him.
The Minister did not take part in the debate on the 1985 Act, so I can tell him that it proceeded very much on the basis that we were discussing a domestic nuclear incident. We discussed areas of land close to nuclear power stations that would be affected. As the Minister conceded, Chernobyl threw up a different position because the contamination came from outside Britain and initially was not specific to any area. The Department of the Environment, which was originally nominated as the lead department, did not handle matters well. One problem was that it did not have the same familiarily as MAFF with procedures for communicating with farmers. I am actually giving the Minister a plug for his Department, so I do not know why he is looking so choleric. When MAFF became 1456 the lead Department the position improved. When something happens for the first time, it is a learning process for the future. We are now assessing what happened. Several Departments, along with the National Radiological Protection Board, had unclear remits. In future we must avoid such contradictory and confusing information.
The Government have launched an internal review of procedures that is due to report before the end of the month. Indeed, it may even be on Ministers' desks already. I urge the Minister to publish the report in some suitable form so that the whole country will know the lessons that have been learnt and what we propose for the future. The European Commission recently proposed common European procedures to deal with nuclear accidents. That is superfically attractive, but I do not know whether it is just a pious hope rather than a worked-out scheme. The Government do not appear to be too receptive to the proposal. Will the Minister address himself to that point when he replies and inform us of the Government's attitude to the European proposal?
We have to deal with the time scale. I understand the question of the radiocaesium and the time scale that affects it as opposed to that which affects iodine. However, the contamination reached us on 2 and 3 May, but the order was made on 20 June. That seems a long delay, particularly as there were stories in the press about high radiation levels for about three or four weeks before the order was made. Therefore, we have to ask whether the restrictions could have been made sooner. I assume that the Ministry is satisfied that no contaminated lamb got into the food chain, but nevertheless if restrictions are to be made, the sooner the better in such incidents.
With hindsight, we realise that it would also have been better if the Government had been more frank with the industry when the restrictions were imposed. The idea was given that this was a short-term matter and the situation would soon be back to normal. It would have helped farmers had they known the length of time that the restrictions might have been in effect, because they would have been able to make arrangements to cope better.
The point raised by the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) about how long the order will last is important, and needs to be dealt with. In certain areas, levels are dropping more slowly than had been anticipated, as the Minister said. A number of people have been given a voice by the hon. Member for Caernarfon. They feel that these restrictions will be in existence in some areas well into 1987. The Minister did not answer the question about how long the restrictions would be in place. One always hopes that such restrictions will be short-term and that there will be more amending orders and more farms being taken out of the restriction zones as quickly as possible. We must know whether it is likely that another three, four, five or six months may be involved.
What plans do the Government have if such areas are to remain under restriction for next year? Do they plan anything about the sheep and the effect on grazing areas? There will come a time when the Government will be invited to cut their losses and slaughter and dispose of sheep that are still above the safety limit. Those questions must be answered frankly if we are to know what the future holds. What advice are the Government to give farmers about grazing?
Despite the Minister's talk of alarmism, I must raise what reputable agriculturalists such as Professor John 1457 Bryn Owen of Bangor have been raising about the longterm possible genetic effects on sheep. I do not know the truth of this. I was excluded even from O-level classes in biology, never mind the rarified levels in which these debates are conducted. Serious problems are being raised, and the Farmers Weekly carried an item about them recently. I should like the Government to assure me that they will monitor the long-term effects of this kind so that we shall know whether there have been effects. The Minister did not concede that in his encomium of openness. Nothing will be gained by hiding long-term genetic defects and I hope that monitoring will continue.
Contamination of silage affects cattle rather than sheep. Again, the Government have given reassurances that it can safely be fed to animals. I presume from that that the Government are satisfied that no risk is involved. Again, a continuing monitoring process would be helpful.
Compensation is dealt with in three different ways— the original fat lamb scheme, the compensation associated with market release and, now, agreed only on 7 October, compensation for direct losses. The farmers' unions to which I have spoken are reasonably happy with the final package, although on the third element, being paid on a headage basis will mean rough-and-ready justice. It is justified because individual assessment on a farm-by-farm basis would be a difficult and lengthy process.
However, the farmers' unions are critical about the way in which the Ministry has dragged its feet about these matters. First, there was a reluctance to accept that compensation was justified, and then the principle of compensation for direct losses took a long time to agree. As the restrictions impinged on the commercial activities of farmers, and they readily accepted it, should not the Government have responded in the same spirit by offering a realistic compensation package at an earlier stage? I hope that a Government compensation scheme will be clearly in place, and will leave no one in any doubt that, should, unfortunately, people be affected by another such instance, they will be financially indemnified from the consequences.
For how long will compensation provisions continue? Can the Minister give us an assurance that, as long as farmers continue to suffer indentifiable losses as a result of the Chernobyl disaster, they will be compensated for those losses? For example, if it turns out that there are long-term genetic effects, or a loss of fertility, will compensation be paid? That is important.
I hope my speech has not criticised in a partisan way or carped about the deficiencies, but the job of the House is to learn from experience so that the future is better safeguarded. If the Minister answers my questions, we shall have taken some steps towards doing that.
§ Mr. Simon Coombs (Swindon)
I am sure that the House will wish to thank my right hon. Friend the Minister for his exposition. I wish to associate myself with his remarks and those made by the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) in thanking not only the staff for dealing with the emergency when it arose but the farmers who had to bear the brunt. I also express the thanks of the House to consumers, who had a deal to contend with, partly as a result of the campaign in the media which tended towards hysteria, particularly in those portions of the press which rely more on pictures than on words for 1458 appeal. The people responded in a placid manner, and that is to be welcomed. Consumers have a voice in this debate and as I represent no farmers I shall speak for them.
I associate myself with many of the remarks made by the hon. Member for Pontypridd, but I rather parted company with him when he referred to chaos and the Government being caught on the hop, and made other remarks that nearly brought my right hon. Friend the Minister to his feet, but he was pushed back. That is not a fair reflection on the way in which the matter was dealt with. The speed with which the Government responded to an emergency that they could never have predicted, far away in the Soviet Union, is a remarkable achievement.
The order relating to England speaks specifically about Cumbria. I want my right hon. Friend the Minister to make it clear that the reason for the place of Cumbria in the order has nothing to do with Sellafield. I mentioned the media's attitude to these matters. Unfortunately, there has been a tendency to hint that the presence of Sellafield in the part of Cumbria which is affected by this order may be the reason for its continuation as a restricted area. That is an unfortunate suggestion, and I hope that the Minister will make it abundantly clear that this order relates only to the after-effects of the Chernobyl disaster, not to any activities by British Nuclear Fuels plc at Sellafield. It has its own problems, and it is right that those problems are clearly dissociated from the problems that we are discussing today.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Mark Robinson)
I assure my hon. Friend that that is precisely the case. These orders are limited to the aftereffects of Chernobyl.
§ Mr. Coombs
I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for that assurance. It is important that that should be put on the record, because some people will still insist that the opposite is the case. Only by continuing to state that fact can we hope to give the lie to remarks that are sometimes made outside the House.
§ Mr. Wigley
Do the hon. Gentleman and the Minister accept that we should monitor the total radiation that affects animals? To the extent that radiation from civil nuclear power stations may contribute to that total radiation, as has been shown in the case of the fish in Trawsfynydd lake, it must be taken into account together with anything that comes from Chernobyl.
§ Mr. Coombs
I am not sure whether my hon. Friend would wish to take responsibility for dealing with that question, which lies well outside his brief, but from my experience and knowledge of the matter, I assure the hon. Member for Caernarfon that that is indeed the case. There is continual monitoring in the area around Sellafield. Indeed, it has been established that if a man were to eat 50 tonnes of whelks from Morecambe bay in one year, he might be slightly ill, but it is hard to say whether it would be as a result of radioactivity or as a result of overeating.
My hon. Friend the Minister has dealt with my first point, and I need not press him for any further comments when he replies to the debate.
My right hon. Friend the Minister of State did not say, when he opened the debate, whether there had been any prosecutions under the orders which are supplanted by those before the House today. It might be helpful to know whether the proposals in the previous orders have had to be put into effect by way of prosecution.
1459 I wish to reinforce the remarks of the hon. Member for Pontypridd on compensation and the maintenance by the Government of their efforts to ensure that compensation is considered as an international matter. It cannot be right that the British taxpayer should shoulder the burden for an affair which is in no sense the responsibility of the British Government or people. I am sure that my hon. friend the Minister will give that assurance to the House when he replies to the debate and that the Government will be unceasing in their efforts to ensure that there is adequate compensation, as a matter of international agreement, when this affair comes to an end.
My right hon. Friend the Minister of State said that 4 million sheep were initially affected by the orders, and that the figure is now down to 300,000 sheep. That is to be welcomed, but it would be wrong for the Government to be tempted to remove the restrictions a moment sooner than was safe for the British people, especially in relation to the lamb which they might eat at a later stage. I entirely sympathise with hon. Members who represent the areas seriously affected by the orders, and for their sake I can only hope that the restrictions will be lifted soon. But at a time when it is clear that the orders must continue, at least for the foreseeable future, it would be wrong for hon. Members to press for a commitment which might put the Government in an invidious position later. We are debating public health. Public health must be the paramount consideration for the Government and the House.
It is probably too early to go too deeply into the lessons that can be learnt from the affair, but I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will say whether he believes that lessons can be learnt about the position of lowland areas. Clearly, we shall learn much about the biological impact on the uplands, which will be extremely valuable, but it is important to those of us who represent the bulk of the United Kingdom to know whether similar lessons can be learnt from Chernobyl. I hope that my hon. Friend will comment on that when he replies.
§ 11.5 am
§ Mr. Dafydd Wigley (Caernarfon)
I am glad that this debate is taking place. We have had far too little debate on this serious issue, which has been especially serious in the county of Gwynedd, which is home to a large proportion of the sheep that are still restricted. It is unfortunate that we do not have a larger attendance in the House this morning. I should have though that such a subject would dictate the presence of more than 10 hon. Members, but I am glad that at least one Member from each of the four parties in Wales is in the Chamber, and I am glad that the Under-Secretary of State for Wales will respond to the debate.
I make it clear at the outset that I have not criticised and I do not criticise the Government for introducing the orders. It was necessary to give complete confidence to domestic consumers and those abroad, who are an important part of the sheep market, that the Government would take all the steps necessary to maintain safety for the general public. I also underline the congratulations and thanks that have been given to those who have undertaken considerable hard work over long hours in this matter.
The Minister of State should have given even greater thanks to the farmers than he did, because farmers have 1460 abided by the restrictions in a remarkable way, despite the great difficulties that many of them have faced. Not one instance has been reported of a farmer infringing the restrictions. That is something for which they deserve considerable thanks and congratulations. In that context, perhaps they were justified in wanting to know more about what was going on and wanting more coherent information at an earlier date. Although the compensation package is now broadly acceptable—some details still cause problems — even as late as 18 September the National Farmers Union issued a press statement entitledGovernment sheep scheme a shambles.That shows the uncertainty that existed for several months after the problems arose.
There is also a question about the degree of safety since the Chernobyl disaster. We must not only monitor what has happened at Chernobyl, but must keep a close eye on what happens in our nuclear industry. Some people with a scientific background who are in a position to know suggest that dangers arise from our nuclear industry. We should always bear that in mind.
I am not sure whether we should take the line that the Soviet Union should be taken to court and made to pay compensation. I disagree with hon. Members on both sides of the House about that. The Russian people have suffered enough and have had to pay an enormous price for their suffering. If we continued to say that those who caused the disaster should pay for it and we take the Soviet Union to court, where would we stand in relation to the difficulties that we have caused to the Scandinavian countries because of our contribution to the acid rain problem? I would advise caution on that.
§ Mr. Wigley
I agree with the hon. Gentleman. It is difficult to enforce the principle that the polluter must pay and we need greater international co-operation on pollution matters, particularly those relating to radioactive pollution. The conference in Vienna on 25 August was satisfactory and open. The delegates from Wales were impressed by the openness shown by the Soviet Union at that conference. We must build on that for the future.
We should not be too complacent about how public health could have been affected by the Chernobyl incident and we ought to note the comments of some people on the scientific side. A New Scientist article entitled "How Ministers misled Britain about Chernobyl", written by Mr. David Webster, who has been an adviser to our Select Committee on the Environment, aroused considerable attention and led to a leading article in the magazine. The leader said:While the National Radiological Protection Board was advising the government on the likely health effects of the accident, ministers were making misleading statements to the public … Kenneth Baker, the environment secretary, claimed that there would be no risk to health in Britain. Perhaps Mr. Baker does not count 'a few tens' of deaths, the NRPB's first estimates, as a health risk.When ministers make such stupid statements, is it any wonder that people do not believe them when they claim that it is safe to build nuclear power stations?That needs to be put on the record. We should not be alarmist, but nothing will be lost if we admit openly that 1461 when there is an increase in radiation there will be greater risks and some people will suffer. That is unfortunate, but it is a matter of fact and we should not try to hide from it.
The NFU briefing to hon. Members on today's debate says:the Government must now make clear that the high levels of radio activity measured are exclusively the result of the Chernobyl accident, and not linked to nuclear power stations in the area.In view of the radioactivity levels in fish to which I referred in an intervention, we need to monitor and identify, as far as we can, what radioactivity is directly associated with the Chernobyl accident and how much is general background radioactivity. If some radioactivity is identified with our nuclear power stations programme that should also be identified. Such a breakdown of information would make it easier for us to have confidence.
The Government clearly did not expect the restrictions to last for so long. I quoted in another intervention the comments of the Under-Secretary of State for Wales, the hon. Member for Newport, West (Mr. Robinson), who suggested that I had made alarmist comments in the debate on 24 July when I referred to reports that the restrictions might have to continue for another six months. In fact, there is every likelihood that the restrictions will continue for another six or nine months. It would be useful if the Government acknowledged that that could be so in some areas.
Figures on radioactivity levels have been published, and the Government figures for Gwynedd a couple of weeks ago referred to 2,200 bq/kg of caesium in lamb. One farmer in my constituency said that he had a level of 4,000 bq/kg on his farm. If it takes 70 to 90 days for radioactivity to halve its intensity, it will take nearly three months for the level on that man's farm to fall to 2,000 bq/kg, another three months to halve to 1,000 bq/kg and nearly another three months to fall to 600 bq/kg, which is the safe level that the Government look for to clear areas. If that is the case, let us be open about it and admit that a limited number of people may be in that position. It would have been much more satisfactory if that had been done at the start.
There have been criticisms about the delays that occurred in the testing for radioactivity. We must avoid that mistake at all costs. We are on new ground and there have been helpful technological developments so that if, God forbid, a similar accident happened in the future, we would be in a stronger position.
There also appear to have been delays in communications between the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Welsh Office in May. Following replies to correspondence after the debate on 24 July, I am far from satisfied, that we were ready to act as quickly as we should have acted in Wales. I do not believe for one moment that the public have been endangered, but we need to examine how we can act more quickly.
I underline, as I do every time that I speak on this subject, that I do not believe that there is any danger to people who eat lamb. Steps have been taken and there is confidence. I encourage the public not to be misled by alarmist stories that suggest that there are dangers in the lamb in shops. I do not believe that.
We need machinery for monitoring live sheep as quickly as possible. If that had been done this year we could have reacted quickly to move animals without 1462 causing great difficulties for farmers. There have been difficulties. Some farmers have moved their sheep just before the restrictions were introduced. Some sheep were moved in preparation for being taken to market and I know one farmer who moved his sheep a few miles inland. Those sheep were locked in for weeks.
The traditional pattern in agriculture in Wales is that sheep spend the summer on the high land and come down to the low land in the winter. The Minister of State gave the impression that sheep would remain on the high ground throughout the winter. Many sheep would have been moved for the winter and the fact that that could not be done involved farmers in considerable costs. Many do not believe that they have been adequately compensated for their loss.
Farmers who did not take their lambs to market within three weeks of the ending of the ban are suffering. Many just did not know what to do at that time. They were afraid that markets would be flooded with a glut of animals and were unsure about how things would work out. Some were under other agricultural pressures and did not realise that the three-week period would be critical. It would be unfair if they missed out on compensation.
The Farmers Union of Wales suggested that a buy-up and relocation policy would have prevented many of the problems that occurred. Under such a policy the Government would have bought store lambs from the affected areas, taken them to graze in areas where radiation levels were lower and recouped the money spent on buying lambs and paying for grazing by selling the animals. The Government should have considered adopting that policy. I hope that it will be on the agenda if similar problems arise in the future.
The fat lamb compensation appears to be adequate. The mark and release scheme was introduced to release pressure in other areas, but between 19 and 25 August the system was a shambles. Farmers experienced considerable difficulties. It was 11 September before the situation was put right, following discussions with the Secretary of State for Wales and no compensation has been paid to farmers who suffered from the confusion that arose. That point should be looked into.
I turn to the direct losses. The headage payment had to be accepted not because it was the best way of paying compensation but because assessing the compensation due on an individual basis, which would have been much fairer, would have taken a year to 18 months, and there would have been cash flow difficulties. Thus, there was an element of rough justice, and some people may have missed out.
There is also the allied question of compensation for those farmers who have suffered from the effects of radiation on their silage. The topic was raised earlier, and is obviously directly relevant. The situation has been highly unsatisfactory. Bryn farm in my constituency, three miles from Caernarfon, is farmed by Mr. Peter Sturrock. In late July and early August the level of radiation in the silage was found to be 563 bq/kg. That silage was to be fed to dairy cows which would consume between 40 and 50 kg per day, amounting to between 20,000 and 25,000 bq per head. The farm was initially told that the safety level was 5,000 bq per head per day. In other words, that silage would have contained five times the safe level of radiation. Obviously, the silage was not used to feed the cows. Indeed, a consultant was taken on who worked for five days and who advised the farmer on how to cope.
1463 Eventually, about six weeks later, the Welsh Office told the farmer that apparently, as a result of tests done in Germany, the silage was safe and could be used without diluting it by one part in five, as previously advised. But when it was asked whether it was safe to feed dairy cows the silage and to drink the milk there on the farm, as the farmer's familly normally did, there was some hesitancy as to whether it would be safe, undiluted.
Such confusion does not add to confidence. Perhaps the Minister will clarify the situation relating to silage. Why has such uncertainty persisted? A few weeks after saying that the level of radiation was five times too high, how could it be said to be perfectly all right to use? Will the Minister also clarify the reports that employees at the Trawscoed agricultural research centre in Aberystwyth have refused to work with soil because of the level of radiation? Such reports lead to great uncertainty and dissatisfaction, and that does not help anyone.
We must draw lessons from the disaster, so that if there is any difficulty with our nuclear power stations or with those of other countries, we can deal with it more coherently, fairly and quickly. Although a reasonable compensation scheme has been arrived at, we must ensure that those who have missed out because of the rough justice meted out are shown some flexibility. That is necessary if confidence is to be maintained in the industry.
Welsh lamb, in particular, is close to my heart, and I hope that the Government will help to project Welsh lamb and will help the marketing programmes for it so that after this year's hiccups, farmers can look forward to a more confident future, and so put this chapter behind them.
§ Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnor)
I support what has been said by the other Opposition Members about the consequences of the Chernobyl disaster, but I must first congratulate officials from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and from the Welsh Office on having worked so hard to establish the facts. A tremendous amount of work was done. Farmers have suffered greviously, but they have adopted a very responsible attitude. They have suffered severely financially and in many other ways, and so they, too, are to be congratulated.
Understandably, farmers have shown great concern from time to time, but we can learn from mistakes in the past so that they do not happen again. When the emergency first arose, officials seemed to be unsure about the working of the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985. They were somewhat muddled in their approach at the beginning. In some parts of north Wales the first three days of restrictions were busy days, because lamb is marketed on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Sometimes vehicles were not stopped. Indeed, I refute the suggestion that there was no confusion. There certainly was confusion, and there is some evidence that, as a result of the uncertainty about invoking the Act, problems arose.
Many farmers are unhappy about how the boundaries were drawn for restricted areas. The boundaries did not always follow farm boundaries, but often followed roads and streams instead. As a result, holdings were sometimes split in two. On one farm, half of a flock of sheep was 1464 inside the restricted area, while the other half was not. Thus, the Welsh Office did not conduct a very confidence-inspiring operation in that regard.
Some farmers have still not received the results of animals slaughtered as long ago as last May or June. That is a very unsatisfactory state of affairs. There is also some evidence that in the initial period there was not very good communication between the Welsh Office and the county emergency planning officers. As time went on, that problem was ironed out, but once again, a lesson can be drawn.
The frontiers of the restrictions on the movement of lamb and sheep were gradually moved back, and that is understandable. But it led to very slow movement and caused some uncertainty. In future, we should be more precise about announcing what is to happen. I know that that is difficult when one is waiting for the results of tests on lambs, but perhaps a more formal method could be worked out for the future.
There is evidence of price reductions of up to 20p per kg for some lamb sold in parts of north Wales. That means a £3 loss per head for a 15 kg lamb. The marking of lambs has also caused problems. I agree with the hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) that on the whole the fat lamb compensation scheme is not too bad but the situation affecting marked lambs, and particularly blue marked lambs, gives rise to concern. They are being held until January, and there is some evidence that farmers with cash flow problems have been forced to sell to dealers, even though the lambs cannot be marketed until January. Some of those buying blue marked lambs will make a tremendous profit, because farmers have had to sell them at very low prices. That is unhealthy, as the money should clearly have gone to the primary producers.
There is still a feeling that compensation should have been paid on a weekly basis. The arguments have been exercised as to why, on an individual farm basis, that would have taken a long time to sort out. Perhaps the element of rough justice that has been mentioned must stand in this case.
I ask the Minister whether any lambs were tested in the areas affected before the disaster occurred in early May. If any lambs were tested as a matter of routine, are results available with which we can compare post-Chernobyl results? I do not know whether such work has been done, but it would be useful to know whether it was and whether any information is available.
We in Wales are concerned about the problems of marketing and, in more recent times, the collapse of Welsh Quality Lamb, which was a sad case. There is no doubt that the delay in the marketing of lambs in north Wales must have been a contributory factor in the collapse of Welsh Quality Lamb. Obviously it is difficult to put one's finger precisely on how the disaster affected that organisation, but clearly it did. There may have been a case for the Welsh Office giving direct support to Welsh Quality Lamb to keep it going through a difficult period. The difficulties that exist between the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and the Department of the Environment have been mentioned.
The orders before us relate to lamb. However, I shall make some general comments as I feel that we have some lessons to learn for the future. I believe that access to information should be automatic and accessible from the start of any like emergency. From some of the comments made this morning, that was not the case in this instance. 1465 There are problems of regional differences and inconsistencies. I believe that tests should take place in all areas —perhaps that was done in this case, but it was not always made clear—and the results should be published over the period of the emergency for all areas so that we can have a factual discussion and some confidence in the results regarding the production of food in unaffected areas. The information published was not clear enough. There needs to be better communication in the form of leaflets as well as the press information that was given out at the time.
I believe that there should be uniform standards throughout the EEC, and perhaps over wider areas than that. There is no doubt that there is evidence that this country's standards are inadequate for measuring radioactivity compared with those of other EEC countries. That needs to be sorted out. On some occasions, coordination with local authorities on market restrictions on a regional basis could have been better so that inconsistencies could have been ironed out a little better. Advice for consumers and producers must be concise and informative from the beginning. I have already mentioned the publication of leaflets.
I and many other people are worried about the omission of certain livestock which might be expected to show increased radioactive caesium concentration. For example, at a late stage, fish stocks were identified as a problem area. Perhaps those results were known earlier, but certainly they were not published. That is a worrying matter. Some of the radioactivity levels in fish in the River Conwy were extremely high. I ask whether there have been results from other herbivores in the wild; in other words, were rabbits or hares tested? Clearly, they were also affected by the incident. I am sure that grass samples were tested. They should have been tested — perhaps they were, but we do not know — at different heights of growth, in grazing areas and in grassland.
Mention has been made of the testing of forage and the unknown factors, especially in silage, and even hay, although hay was not badly affected. However, we need better information on silage. Obviously, testing took place on water supplies. That needs to be monitored carefully in future. Milk is well catered for regarding testing, but what about butter, cheese and other milk products made from the milk tested? It was difficult to get blanket testing in this case. We must not forget imports of dairy products from Europe.
There are many lessons to be learnt from the Chernobyl disaster. The farming community has been tolerant. It has suffered seriously financially. Certainly, in terms of cash flow, the incident has been a disaster. There have been problems from a marketing angle. I congratulate those consumers who have stood by lamb as a product and have continued to consume it. They have shown a great deal of sense, and they need our congratulations.
There are many unanswered questions about the incident. We can learn a great deal from it. I hope that in future we shall have a better ordered investigation. I hope that such an incident does not occur again, but we must be prepared for whatever may confront us in future. We must use information wisely and go on our way with confidence.
§ The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Wales (Mr. Mark Robinson)
We have had a constructive debate. 1466 Hon. Members from all parties have taken part in debating an issue that has been of great concern to three specific parts of the United Kingdom for many months. My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, in opening the debate, gave a detailed background of the chain of events that led to the tabling of the orders. I shall not attempt to repeat that chronological account or to deal with it in terms of the Welsh position except to say that all the steps that he illustrated have been undertaken with equal determination in both Wales and Scotland. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Scotland—the hon. Member for Argyll and Bute (Mr. MacKay)—is present for today's debate.
When the ban on movement and slaughter of sheep in north Wales was first imposed on 20 June, it affected 5,100 holdings and 2.1 million sheep throughout north Wales. With the most recent lifting of restrictions on 16 October, around 323 holdings and 143,000 sheep are still affected — less than 10 per cent. of the original total. Throughout that difficult period we moved to lift restrictions as soon as we were in a position to do so. As my right hon. Friend said in opening, we will not keep areas still covered by these orders restricted for a moment longer than necessary.
The hon. Member for Caernarfon (Mr. Wigley) and others have asked how long the restrictions will continue, and the hon. Gentleman referred to my remarks in the debate that took place on sheep radioactivity on 24 July. The press reports that were flying around at that time were alarmist and suggested that wide restrictions were likely to remain in force for a long time to come, but the events of the summer have shown that those reports were inaccurate. I would not want, however, to say precisely when the final restrictions will be lifted. We are in the business of safety and not that of gazing into crystal balls. As the hon. Member for Caernarfon said, safety has been paramount in the decision to impose restrictions.
The hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) spoke about the procedures of the House. Far be it from me to comment on that, but it would be a sad state of affairs if lengthy procedures were to prevent restrictions being lifted the moment that we were in a position to take that course. Throughout the summer recess we have made announcements that restrictions would be lifted as soon as possible. That has been our response at all times—hence the real change that has taken place since July.
I associate myself with all the tributes that have been paid to the farming community and the farmers' unions, specifically in Wales. They have been involved throughout in consultation processes in respect of compensation and they have done whatever they can to help allay confusion and uncertainty. It is inevitable that both confusion and uncertainty will arise when we find ourselves in the uncharted waters that the Chernobyl incident has produced. The hon. Member for Pontypridd and others have talked about polluters, an issue which I think my right hon. Friend covered in his comments. It is worth reporting that the United Kingdom has reserved its rights in respect of any compensation claims that it might consider making to the Soviet Union. These issues are better discussed in wider international forums so that international agreements can be reached to cover such events in future and more certainty can be introduced than is currently the position.
My hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs) emphasised the responsible way in which the 1467 farming community reacted at a time of great difficulty. It was important to allay confusion as quickly and constructively as we could. There is no point, however, in jumping the gun and providing incorrect information, which only results in making things worse. I can assure my hon. Friend that we shall be examining the lessons learnt from this unfortunate incident. I am sure that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food will take note of the suggestion that we should consider publishing a report of the conclusions when they are ready.
The hon. Member for Pontypridd said that he was reserving the difficult questions for me. He asked a specific question about insurance and asked me to produce figures. I suspect that he knew that I would not be in a position to produce them. Such insurance policies, if they exist, would inevitably be in the hands of private firms and the statistics would not necessarily be easily available. It is unlikely that farmers took out such insurance, even if they knew of its existence. If they had done so in any numbers, we would not have faced the requirement to provide compensation with which we were confronted. That illustrates that the Chernobyl incident resulted from what insurers like to describe as an "act of God", although the Chernobyl instance was perhaps an act of man.
It has been said that there is a need for openness. I can say categorically that in the aftermath of the Chernobyl incident the Government have done everything possible to provide information to the public. I have a weighty folder with me containing all the information that has been presented over the past months to those concerned in Wales, and this information will continue to be presented.
It has been suggested that incidents such as the Chernobyl disaster are seen in isolation, but that is not so. Our regular monitoring processes were in operation before Chernobyl, and the moment that there were readings showing higher levels of radiocaesium in Wales, we intensified the monitoring activities. Those activities will continue and all the information that is gleaned will be analysed so that comparisons can be made post-Chernobyl with pre-Chernobyl and the time of the disaster.
§ Mr. Geraint Howells (Ceredigion and Pembroke, North)
Can the Minister say whether lamb consumption is back to normal in Wales and in Britain generally?
§ Mr. Robinson
The figures show that lamb consumption is at a healthy level, especially when compared with consumption last year. One of the reasons for this is that the Government acted swiftly to reassure the market. Ministers have been at pains in all debates and discussions following the Chernobyl incident to emphasise the importance of convincing the public that Welsh lamb and other lamb is safe to eat and is safe in the food chain. The figures show that that has been a successful exercise.
The hon. Member for Caernarfon referred to a paper by Dr. Webster. The paper is based on some fundamental misunderstandings and serious factual errors. The result is unnecessary alarm. The National Radiological Protection Board has already rebutted publicly the arguments that are advanced in the paper and has issued statements that milk is entirely safe to drink. Our tests show that even peak value levels of radioactivity are well below those at which appropriate action should be taken.
1468 The hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Livsey) referred to the monitoring of other products, and we have continued the monitoring of agricultural products throughout the recess. The programme has been undertaken throughout the United Kingdom and has not been limited to the areas where we imposed restrictions on the movement and slaughter of sheep on 20 June. The produce tested includes milk and milk products, cereals, vegetables, fruit, game birds and other meats, and the results confirm that all the foodstuffs produced in the United Kingdom are perfectly safe to eat. In accordance with our policy, we have already published and will continue to publish the results of this monitoring programme.
Various hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor, asked about silage. The issue, which was also raised during the summer was whether any problems were likely to arise from feeding silage with levels of radiocaesium to livestock. That was especially a cause for concern in Wales. As part of the general monitoring programme, agricultural Departments carried out a comprehensive testing of silage, particularly in areas of high deposition, to obtain a full picture of the situation. In north Wales about 400 such tests were made. They confirmed that generally first cut silage produced in the higher deposition areas had been the most affected.
The results have shown some variability between samples with the maximum levels found in silage being 854 bq/kg in north Wales, 302 bq/kg in Cumbria and 454 bq/kg in Scotland. Experimental work carried out by the United Kingdom agriculture Departments, including feeding silage with known levels of radiocaesium to dairy cows to assess the uptake in milk, have confirmed that no problems for human or animal health are likely to arise from feeding silage to livestock and there remains no reason to believe that restrictions will be necessary of the feeding of silage to stock.
§ Mr. Wigley
Can the Minister clarify whether the Government reconsidered their position during August? If a level of 5,000 bq/kg per head per day was the danger level on 30 July for the farm of Bryn near Caernarfon, why was that regarded as safe by early September? Did new information become available?
§ Mr. Robinson
Throughout the whole Chernobyl incident we have been constantly reviewing our procedures and ensuring that the information that we were receiving was the information that we needed and that it was accurate. That has been our guiding principle. As every item of public concern has been raised, including this one, we have considered it intensively. I can assure the hon. Gentleman that we are satisfied that the results of our research are accurate and that the position is as I have described it in my speech.
Our information is also supported by trials carried out in Germany which involved feeding silage with levels up to 4,000 bq/kg, which is more than four times the levels found in the United Kingdom. The experimental work that we have undertaken and the tests in Germany have shown that, on a daily basis, less than 10 per cent. of the amount of radiocaesium taken in from silage is carried through into milk. The levels of uptake of radiocaesium and radioiodine in milk are well below any level at which any action would need to be considered. The results of our 1469 experimental work will be published in due course. I assure the hon. Member for Caernarfon that reports about silage turning blue are not evidence of radio-iodine.
Chernobyl has focused the public's attention on radiation, and people are rightly concerned for their welfare and for the natural environment in which they live. We wish to do everything possible to meet this concern. That is why we shall continue to publish all the data that we have collected. I am sure that the House welcomed my right hon. Friend's announcement in July that he has arranged for the survey of radiation levels in Wales being carried out by the Atomic Energy Research Establishment to be extended to include data obtained after the Chernobyl accident. This survey, commissioned by the Welsh Office in 1984, was designed to establish a baseline of radioactivity in soil, crops and sewage and the extension will make it possible to assess the impact of the Chernobyl emissions upon these. This is a further example of the Government's responsible approach to the matter.
§ Mr. Coombs
Before my hon. Friend gets too far into his conclusions, will he deal with the two questions that I put to him? The first is about the number of prosecutions, if any, under the orders previously in existence. The second is about what may be learnt by lowland farmers as opposed to upland farmers from the activities since the Chernobyl disaster.
§ Mr. Robinson
I was coming to my hon. Friend's first point, but I shall gladly answer him now. There have been no prosecutions. That emphasises the highly responsible way in which farmers throughout the United Kingdom have responded to this difficult situation. Regarding the implications for lowland farmers, we shall monitor all the lessons from the incident and see how they should affect our future policies. In that respect we have heard a great deal about how the Government should have blueprints to deal with these incidents, but any disaster of this scale and nature is bound to produce its own set of circumstances. With the best drafting will in the world it is not possible to cover all the eventualities that may arise.
Our discussions on compensation and why the Government did not do earlier all that they have done rightly formed and important part of the debate. Hon. Members asked why the Government did not produce a comprehensive package instead of announcing three separate stages. The need to provide compensation has evolved as the position has developed. When the initial restrictions were announced nobody knew how long they would last. We have been in constant discussions with the farmers' unions and as a result compensation has been agreed. It is already being claimed and the system is working satisfactorily.
I note the point of the hon. Member for Caernarfon that some farmers may feel that they missed out on compensation because they did not claim it on time. Tremendous publicity has been given to each compensation scheme as and when it has been announced. The farmers' unions have done everything in their power to disseminate information. The schemes are hardship schemes and the reason for time limits on them is to encourage farmers facing genuine hardship to come forward as soon as possible. It is always open to the hon. 1470 Gentleman to draw our attention to specific cases in which extra hardship has occurred. If he knows of such cases, I hope that he will write to me about them. Our paramount principle is compensation for direct loss, not incidental loss.
The hon. Member for Caernarfon also mentioned the fears at Trawsgoed. I must point out that they were allayed on the day they were expressed. The advice of the NRPB is that trials undertaken there have posed no hazards to the operators undertaking them.
I remind the House that we faced new problems with the Chernobyl fallout which affected many areas. The Government reacted quickly and restrictions were imposed as soon as there was evidence of radioactivity levels in sheepmeat high enough to cause concern, should they enter the food chain. We have continued to test sheep and other agricultural produce. We have published the results of all the monitoring that has been undertaken and will continue to do so in the future.
That has placed a great strain on civil servants in all the agricultural Departments and I would like to pay my small tribute to all who have worked extra hours to ensure that everything has been implemented as swiftly as possible.
We have adopted a flexible approach to permit farmers in restricted areas to move their sheep, while at the same time ensuring that no sheepmeat enters the food chain until it is absolutely safe to do so. We have introduced fair and equitable compensation schemes for producers affected by the restrictions and we have released areas from restrictions as quickly as it is possible so to do. We shall continue to do that.
In this debate hon. Members have emphasised the importance of monitoring the long-term effects. Once again, I say to my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. Coombs) that I agree entirely with the sentiments that he has expressed. We are already doing that as we shall publish our conclusions.
The measures that the Government have introduced were necessary, and they remain necessary. I have already said that they have successfully maintained public confidence in the sheepmeat in our shops. After the initial reaction, the demand for lamb has remained buoyant and prices for lamb have remained as steady as one could have expected in the general market conditions. Were it not for the action that the Government have taken and for the wholehearted co-operation of the farmers who were affected, the situation could have been very different. I commend the orders to the House.
§ Question put and agreed to.
That the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibition) (England) (No. 2) Order 1986 (S.I., 1986, No. 1689), dated 29th September 1986, a copy of which was laid before this House on 30th September, be approved.
That the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Wales) (No. 2) Order 1986 (S.I., 1986, No. 1681), dated 29th September 1986, a copy of which was laid before this House on 29th September, be approved.
That the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (No. 8) Order 1986 (S.I., 1986, No. 1574), dated 10th September 1986, a copy of which was laid before this House on llth September, he approved.—[Mr. Neubert.]