HC Deb 13 February 1992 vol 203 cc1204-12

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Boswell.]

10.11 pm
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

I make no apology for returning to the issue of dioxin in the Bolsover area. What I am absolutely sure started off in the Minister's mind as being nothing more than a nine-day wonder has turned out to be an eight-month scandal.

It all began on 26 June, when the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, in a written answer to a question planted by a Tory—not even in a reply to the hon. Member for Bolsover—informed the House that two farms in the Bolsover area, near the Coalite plant, would have to stop selling milk. It was a devastating blow for the farmers, as can be imagined, and it was also a worry for the people in the Bolsover area. Because the milk could not be sold, it had to be destroyed. It was sent to an incinerator plant in the west midlands. The Minister did not even know whether that plant could burn the dioxin. As a result, the contaminated milk was spread round the west midlands, and finally it was sent up to Ellesmere Port for incineration.

We immediately called for a public inquiry. I reckon that it is the kind of subject that warrants a public inquiry, but we did not even have a statement in this House. The only references to the matter are to be found in answers to questions that I and other hon. Members put to the Minister. When, in October, we heard that another farmer in the Bolsover area had been prevented from pursuing his livelihood we began to wonder whether the Minister cared at all. With the stopping of a third farmer's production, one would have expected the Government to hold an inquiry and pay compensation to the farmers concerned. They have had every opportunity. They have only to study what happens in Holland, where when such events occur the Government pay compensation and then sue the polluter. But all that the Government of this country can do is to keep saying that the polluter must pay. Just imagine three small farmers trying to take on a £40 million giant like Anglo United Coalite. These people have a problem, and they have had to turn to their Member of Parliament and to others to raise it for them.

It is interesting that when the safety levels were measured two farms out of 27—a third was discovered later—would have failed the tests. I made some inquiries because I wondered what happened to the other 25 farms—did the dioxin test apply to them? I found out that only just before the tests were carried out the Government had changed the testing ratio by a factor of 10. The result of my inquiries was the discovery that if the old figures had been used to judge the safety level every farm in that area of north Derbyshire would have been deemed to be producing contaminated milk and putting it into the milk chain. That change of measurement has not been disputed as it appeared in New Scientist on 20 July.

Not long afterwards, the National Rivers Authority got into action. As a result of my representations, it did some tests immediately above the effluent discharge of Bolsover Coalite and immediately below in the watercourse known as the river Doe Lea, a relatively small stream. The NRA had already established that the river Doe Lea was 1,000 times above the safety level. When measured, the level of dioxin sediment above the effluent discharge turned out to be very much higher below that point after the effluent had been pushed into the river.

At that point we were beginning to establish that Coalite was a factor. Hitherto, Coalite had said, "If you mention our name outside, we will sue." About that time some of the workers at Coalite became worried about what might ensue, but they were not worried in the way that Coalite management expected. They turned up at meetings arranged by environmental groups because they and the trade union shop stewards knew that as they worked in the plant they had to be part of a programme to try to clean up the ghastly mess.

Further calls were made for an inquiry—Derbyshire county council, Bolsover district council and the local parish council all joined in and said that there should be a public inquiry. Some of the local authorities took the time to examine everything through the environmental health committees to ensure that they were on safe ground. Not long after that, a report by the BBC said that a cluster of breast cancers which had been reported in that part of north Derbyshire was calculated to be 50 per cent. higher than the national average. Still the Government refused to act. There was still no statement.

During this time the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, when he was not stuffing beefburgers down his kid's throat, went to see the farmers—

Mr. Frank Haynes (Ashfield)

I thought that he was a vegetarian.

Mr. Skinner

No, he is the opposite. He went to see the farmers and gave them the impression that they were not to worry because it would all be over by Christmas: "We know that Skinner is asking for compensation but we shall provide you with a bit of money from the common agricultural fund or from the Ministry and we will pay you to do a bit of research." However, the farmers did not want that—they wanted to get back to their husbandry of cows and to producing milk.

One might think that the farmers were taken in, but the truth is they were not. The matter was not sorted out by Christmas. By this time, the dioxin-contaminated milk had been around for six months. Every time we asked the Minister what was happening, he was very complacent and said that everything would be sorted out. It is still not sorted out. What the Minister thought was a minor blip on the horizon is still a massive scandal. One of my hon. Friends, who might catch your eye, Mr. Speaker, has also raised the problem of an area adjacent to the River Doe Lea, only a couple of miles away.

About November or December time I had another letter. It came from a constituent who was not engaged in milk production but who owned a little field next to Coalite. He told me that he had sent a letter to the Minister of Agriculture because he was worried about whether he should allow a lady to graze her horse in his field. He was thinking of using the field for cattle and sheep the following year and he wanted to know if it would be safe to do so. He told me that he kept writing to the Minister but that the Minister would not answer his letters.

This was the 64-dollar question, because here we had the Government covering up a scandal. They had neither the guts nor the decency to tell my constituent what to do about grazing a horse. So I took the matter up with the Minister himself.

Mr. Haynes

With this Minister?

Mr. Skinner

No, I wrote to his gaffer, although no one thinks of Gummer as being a gaffer; they used to call him the wart on Thatcher's nose. Finally, the Minister had to respond because the question came from an hon. Member, and the answer was that he did not think that the horse should be grazed there any more.

This was a qualitative change. First of all it was milk production. Then it was another farmer who was not engaged in milk production. Then it was another one with another field where the tests had not been done. But they were so scared that they had to tell him not to go ahead.

Hon. Members can imagine that by that time everyone in Bolsover was beginning to call for an inquiry. We have a petition here with thousands of signatures. Everyone has signed it, including all the political parties. Even the Liberal party told me that I was doing a great job—I was almost on the horns of a dilemma. They all know that it is wrong. This is one of the most dangerous toxic substances in the world, and the Government will not face up to the consequences.

The Bolsover district council has also written to the Minister, asking for a survey of atmospheric dioxins. It has received no answer.

I wonder what has happened to the citizens charter. The people of Bolsover keep asking about that. They ask why it is that the Prime Minister rabbits on every single week, going on television outside 10 Downing street, telling the nation about the citizens charter and how people can complain to the Government and get their problems solved, and yet they have had this problem for eight months and nothing has been done. We have to judge people not by what they say but by what they do, and it appears that the Prime Minister and his gang do not care about the people of Bolsover.

There is another problem that the Minister ought to turn his attention to—the history of the area. He ought to consider whether it is not just some airborne dioxins from a faulty incinerator which have been deposited. Could it be the fault of the 1968 fire, when 245T was produced and when the debris was flung hundreds of yards, that we now have dioxins embedded in those fields? Maybe when the two barrels of 245T went up in 1986 and the fire took place at Coalite, that too could have contributed to some static dioxins in the area, rather than just something happening because of a faulty incinerator.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

It needs investigating.

Mr. Skinner

All these things need investigating, as my hon. Friend says.

Then I had a letter from the new Bolsover primary school.

Mr. William Ross (Londonderry, East)


Mr. Skinner

I am sorry, but we have not got much time.

The little kids asked me only this week to raise the matter with the Minister in order to get it resolved. Fortunately, an election is on the way. When it has taken place and we have a Labour Government, something will be done. The shadow spokesperson for agriculture made a statement when this whole saga began. He said that a Labour Government would set up a public inquiry. That is why, in a few months time, perhaps we shall have our public inquiry, and people will be able to express their views. Until then I ask the Minister why, even after eight months, he does not start a public inquiry.

If dioxin in milk, and all the rest of it, had been found anywhere near the Houses of Parliament or Buckingham palace, or in some Tory marginal seat, there would have been a public inquiry. If that would be good enough for those people, it should be good enough for the people of Bolsover as well.

10.25 pm
Mr. Harry Barnes (Derbyshire, North-East)

Pollution knows no boundaries. North-east Derbyshire, Chesterfield and Bolsover constituencies and districts are intimately interlinked. The river Doe Lea, which was mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), runs into the river Rother, which was known as one of the most polluted rivers in the country. But clearly at the moment the river Doe Lea is the most polluted river in the country.

There are many industrial plants along the river Rother, which add to pollution problems in the area and create difficulties for people living nearby. Plants such as Leigh Environmental, at Killamarsh—about which I once introduced an Adjournment debate—Staveley Chemicals—which is now known as Rhone Chemicals—and the Avenue coke works produce problems with airborne pollution and effluent. Forty million gallons of effluent a year are lost in deposits at Grassmoor lagoons, because the National Rivers Authority, rightly, will not let the effluent go straight into the river Rother without being treated—that would create extra problems. That causes difficulties for my constituents who live in the Grassmoor, Tupton, and Wingerworth areas.

A problem common to my hon. Friend the Member for Bolsover and myself is that when we pursue such matters we have to deal with a host of different authorities. There are the National Rivers Authority, different Government Departments—such as the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, the Department of the Environment and the Department of Energy—and a range of planning authorities at district and county level.

Something must be done to draw the threads together and co-ordinate the investigations, such as the public inquiry that my hon. Friend suggested in the dioxin case, or an environmental audit, operating through the Department of the Environment, to draw together the problems caused by the Avenue coke works. If those things do not happen, we find great difficulty in tackling the problems on behalf of our constituents.

The Avenue coke works produces smokeless fuel, which is environmentally desirable, so the process should continue. The jobs associated with it should also continue, but there is no reason why the health hazards and pollution should continue.

It is possible to square that circle, if there is a proper investigation and the correct assistance is provided at Government level.

10.27 pm
The Paliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Mr. David Maclean)

The hon. Member for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner) has laid a number of charges at the Government's door with which I will deal.

Dioxins have long been the focus of considerable public interest. They are ubiquitous and long-lasting environmental contaminants. They are unwanted by-products of some chemical processes, produced in minute quantities by combustion processes such as waste incineration, coal burning and forest fires. As a result, they can be found in trace quantities in the environment in all the industrialised countries.

Although such substances have throughout history been part of the environment, it is only in the last couple of years that the complex analytical techniques have been developed that have made it possible for us to measure down to the minuscule levels that enable us to set a figure on their level with any accuracy. I want to make it clear that we are talking, after all, of a few parts per thousand million million.

I will deal in some detail with the one very localised problem that our thorough and extensive safety surveillance has revealed. Last summer, our monitoring work disclosed the presence of higher levels of dioxins than usual in milk from two farms near Bolsover. We had also monitored milk at retail level as it reached the public and were well aware that levels there were quite normal, presenting no health risk to consumers.

The higher farm results, however, clearly necessitated action, and we immediately notified the milk marketing board, which found that the level of contamination in this milk was such that it did not meet its contract conditions. The board therefore took no further supplies from those farms, which were then unable to dispose of their milk for human consumption. There was therefore no possibility whatever of the contaminated milk getting into the public supply once the result of the monitoring was known.

It was, of course, necessary to put in place secure arrangements for the safe disposal of the milk that could no longer be sold. The hon. Member for Bolsover inquired about those arrangements by letter last August, and he has already received an explanation, so on this occasion I will do no more than mention briefly the salient points. The temporary arrangement set up in the early days was to have the milk transported to a water authority sewage plant, where it was mixed with a considerable quantity of sewage to dilute the dioxin content to a negligible level. The resulting sludge was then incinerated. The temporary arrangement came to an end on 2 August and was replaced by disposal of the milk to an incinerator equipped to carry out destruction of the material without the need for dilution.

The Department acted immediately to set up a further programme of testing both on the two farms and on a number of others in the locality where the levels were found, although not requiring action, to be higher than normal. The further testing programme brought to light a third farm in which the level of dioxins in milk necessitated further action. In this case, however, the farmer had not been selling milk for public consumption for some years. He was simply operating a suckler cow herd.

It is important to understand the comprehensive action that the Department undertook as a result of the situation, which our food safety surveillance has now revealed. A very detailed research programme has been devised, which is now approaching its conclusion. All three farmers have agreed not to move animals off their farms while further testing is carried out. The programme has included the examination of dioxin concentrations in meat, covering animals of different age, sex and breed from a range of farms in the area as a whole and seeking to establish variations in dioxin concentration in edible tissues.

In milk, the programme has studied how changes have occurred in the dioxin concentration in milk from animals fed dioxin-free feed. The study has examined also how the level varies with time. Further information has also been obtained to establish the seasonal variation in the concentration of dioxins in milk taking account, for example, of changes in farming practice and the type of feed available.

Beyond those animal studies, dioxin concentrations in soil and herbage have been obtained from a range of different sites on the farms. All that work will help to enable detailed advice to be given on future farming and business operations, and the soil and herbage data in particular will allow valuable comparisons to be made with findings in other parts in the country.

Mr. Skinner

The Minister seems to be clear about the prognosis. Why did the Ministry promise the farmers that the matter would be cleared up by Christmas? One of the farmers, Mr. Murphy, wrote to me on 4 February, and I have sent his letter to the Ministry. He said, "Mr. Skinner, they promised that the matter would be cleared up by Christmas. The Ministry then told us it would be January. The Ministry then told us it would be February. It has still not been completed." I have an answer from the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. On 11 February, he said that the Ministry is now not sure that it will even get the tests completed by mid-March, and that it might take longer than that. It is almost a year since the process began.

Mr. Maclean

I assure the hon. Gentleman that we will publish the full data, the full research and all the conclusions. We will publish the report as soon as we can but it is a technical and complex area. We are searching for parts per quadrillion—parts per thousand million million—and it is not easy to do that and get it right. We are also conscious of sensitivities. Farmers' futures are at stake, and they and their representatives will have to decide what action to take in the future. It behoves my Department to get this absolutely right and ensure that, when we publish the report, the figures are absolutely correct so that everyone can rely on them.

The research programme has necessarily involved considerable disruption to the farmers concerned. Their normal farming activities have had to be dramatically changed, and considerable constraints have been necessary to their activities generally. In recognition of the considerable disturbance, inseparable from their co-operation in the research—co-operation that, I recognise, has been readily given—contracts have been drawn up with all of them under which payments have been made to them promptly and regularly for their part in the research work.

The hon. Member for Bolsover has been somewhat unfair to my right hon. Friend the Minister because, throughout this whole unfortunate incident, my right hon. Friend and I have been acutely conscious of the position of the three farmers principally concerned. The disruption of their lives and the uncertainty that still hangs over the future of their farms results from factors entirely outside their control. As the hon. Member will be aware, my right hon. Friend visited the two farmers who were first involved as soon as possible after the news had been broken to him. He was able to hear from them direct about the extent of the problems facing them, explore matters fully with them, and form his own view as to what needed to be done.

I have underlined the fact that we lost no time in setting up our comprehensive research programme, devoting considerable resources to analysing the dioxin problem on the farms and providing guidance and help on the problems that those families are facing during what is inevitably a period of great uncertainty.

The programme is drawing to an end, and we hope that the detailed results will be available by mid-March. That will enable us to assess all aspects of the situation, so that full and detailed advice can be offered to the three families on their business and husbandry options for the future.

Mr. William Ross

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Maclean

If the hon. Gentleman does not mind, I shall not give way, as this is an important matter for Bolsover and Derbyshire, and I should like to get my remarks on the record. I do not want to be accused of a cover-up.

I well understand that the farmers, their advisers and their representatives are anxious to have all the information as quickly as possible. I give the hon. Member for Bolsover a categorical assurance that I share his concern. I am determined that there will be no avoidable delay in completing the work and presenting the results in full, but all of us—whether farmers desperate to know what the future holds, parliamentary representatives, like the hon. Gentleman, determined to ensure that the best interests of their constituents are served, or Ministers anxious to ensure that the fullest information is available to back the decisions that are taken—must remember that we are working at the very limits of the science.

Our scientists are conducting highly complex tests, analysing for minute traces of substances that will be present only in a few parts per thousand million million. That work is complicated and necessarily extremely time-consuming. It cannot be simplified, we will not cut corners and we cannot accelerate.

We shall complete the job, we shall do it properly, and we shall do it well. That is our firm undertaking. I reiterate and re-emphasise our unequivocal further undertaking that, as always, all the results of our programme will be published. Indeed, if the hon. Gentleman has read the copy of the report "Dioxins in Food" which was sent to him by my Department, he will have seen the detailed tables of statistics relating to the range of foodstuffs that we have monitored over the years. I assure him that he and everyone else concerned will have the same opportunity to study the figures resulting from our detailed investigations in the Bolsover area.

The hon. Gentleman has argued for a public inquiry. I have described the action taken in this case at some length to demonstrate that there really is no case for that. First, there is no evidence that there has ever been a risk to health from what has occurred here. The milk reaching consumers has been tested and tested and found to present no risk. The cows on the affected farms have since been dried off and no further milk is being produced for human consumption. The contaminated milk has been safely destroyed.

Secondly, a comprehensive programme of further investigations has been undertaken on food products, on herbage and soil, and on emissions from the nearby chemical plant. Thirdly, categorical assurances have been given in the House several times—and I have repeated them tonight—that all the results of the testing programme will be published so that every scrap of relevant evidence will be available to be evaluated by all the parties to the affair to aid them in deciding on any future action that they may wish to contemplate.

Despite the criticisms laid at our door by the hon. Gentleman, I believe that the record clearly shows that the rapid and wide-ranging action taken by the Government over the Bolsover incident will stand up to any scrutiny. It was the very quality of our food surveillance programme—the equal of any in the world—that brought the problem to light in the first place. It was the highly specialised expertise and the experience we have built up in this very complex area of analysis that has enabled us to assess the problem.

Our action has immediately removed any possibility of public concern that might have existed—and we have devoted a very considerable effort to further research that will guide us forward in future. We are, moreover, giving all the support that we can to the farmers involved, both through the research contracts that we have agreed with them, and the guidance and help we have offered to them in their difficult circumstances.

We shall be able to offer more precise and detailed guidance when the research programme is complete—and let me repeat that we are very close to being in that position now. We hope to publish the results by mid-March. We have made a very clear commitment to publish all the results of our work to reassure the public about the situation and to place the farmers concerned in the best position to decide on their future course of action.

The motion having been made after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, MR. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at nineteen minutes to Eleven o'clock.