HC Deb 26 January 1993 vol 217 cc995-1011 11.36 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Sir Hector Monro)

I beg to move,

That the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Oil and Chemical Pollution of Fish) Order 1993 (S.I., 1993, No. 17) dated 8th January 1993, a copy of which was laid before this House on 11th January, be approved. In the statement that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland made on 11 January about the Shetland tanker incident, he told the House that an exclusion zone had been declared under the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985, within which fishing and harvesting of farmed fish is prohibited. The emergency order which set up the exclusion zone requires the approval of Parliament if it is to continue in force, and that is the purpose of tonight's motion. Copies of the map of the area are available in the Vote Office.

The purpose of the order was to ensure that, in the light of the Braer incident, there was no danger of fish or fish products reaching the market if they could be hazardous to human health. No sensible fishermen would have fished in the area after the incident—in the light of the weather conditions, I do not think that they would have tried—and fish farmers affected by the spread of oil could similarly have been relied upon voluntarily to keep their product from the market. The fishermen imposed a voluntary ban before the order was made. I pay tribute to the Shetland Fishermen's Association and the Shetland Salmon Farmers Association, and particularly to their respective chief executives, John Goodlad and Jimmy Moncrieff, for their excellent and impressive response to all these difficulties. I pay tribute also to the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) who, in his capacity as constituency Member, has been very helpful and constructive throughout.

Nevertheless, my right hon. Friend and I thought it right to use the power that was available to give legal force to a ban on taking fish from the area. We did this after full consultation with, and with the agreement of, both the Shetland fishermen and the fish farmers. The imposition of the order was part of a three-pronged strategy which also included the establishment of arrangements to sample and test fish being landed on Shetland markets, and the setting up of longer-term monitoring arrangements covering both fish and water quality.

That background to the order is important. In setting up the arrangements, we had in mind the vital importance to the Shetland economy of both the fishing and the fish farming industries. They faced an obvious and immediate threat to their businesses. There was also the danger of much longer term damage if those industries should lose market and consumer confidence.

Therefore, the order, and the other arrangements that I have mentioned, seemed to me of the greatest importance in assuring commercial buyers and consumers that special care was being taken over the quality of Shetland fish products and, correspondingly, that the public should have every confidence in the products when they reach the shops. I know that that approach has the full confidence and support of the industries in Shetland, and with regard to salmon it is reassuring that a number of supermarket chains which have now visited the islands are remarketing Shetland products. I have emphasised the consultation because some newspapers implied that the Government had slapped on an order without considering the interests of the Shetland fishermen when, in fact, the reverse was the position.

Against that background, we must proceed cautiously in considering the future of the ban. It may be helpful to say a little more about the arrangements which underpin the ban. Those are based on a continuous programme of water and fish sampling. The first test is the state of hydrocarbons in the water. If the water is polluted, the pollution will get into the fish. The critical test, from the point of view of food safety, is the fish itself and the accumulation of hydrocarbons in their edible tissue.

The sampling programme has been hampered by extreme weather conditions, but a clear enough picture has emerged which requires a continuing exclusion of fishing and fish harvesting activity in the zone as presently defined. I confess that I had hoped to be able to inform the House this evening that it would be possible to remove the ban on the east side of the mainland. My feeling is that this may be possible soon, but the latest results indicate not yet.

On the west side of the zone, readings remain high, and the unhappy news is that I have had to decide to extend the western boundary of the zone by 5 nautical miles, from 1 deg 30 west to 1 deg 40 west. This is in response to most recent results of tests on water quality, and on sea fish caught in the new area. The new area will not extend the present zone any further north or south. Thus it will not bring the salmon farms at Vaila Sound and Gruting Voe into the exclusion zone.

I recognise that that is not encouraging news for those concerned. However, I thought it right to tell the House at the earliest opportunity. I also emphasise that, while the news in itself is regrettable, it should nevertheless reassure both consumers and the local fishing and fish farming industries that the monitoring arrangements are working effectively, and that fish and fish products reaching the market are safe and are of good quality.

Nevertheless, I am keenly aware of the problems that the situation creates for the salmon farming businesses. I am anxious that, as soon as the evidence warrants it, we should move to more flexible arrangements which will allow fish to be harvested from within the current exclusion zone when it can be demonstrated that they are free of taint and hydrocarbon contamination. We shall be in continuous touch with those concerned to see what progress can be made as further test results come in.

Meantime, only one claim from a salmon farmer has so far been received by the claims office in Lerwick. I understand that the insurers and the international oil pollution compensation fund have today agreed a substantial advance payment in this case to mitigate economic hardship. That will be paid to the producer by the insurers direct. The speedy reaction of the insurers and the IOPC fund to a claim submitted only at the end of last week should encourage other salmon producers to bring forward their claims. I am sure that the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland will have something to say on that.

Additionally, the Government have made available to producers a bridging fund which will be operated for the Government by the Shetland Islands council. Details of the fund's operation were announced in the House on 21 January by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. The purpose of the bridging fund is also to prevent economic hardship to fish farmers and other primary producers facing temporary cash flow difficulties pending settlement of compensation claims. The first payment of £1 million to set up the fund will be made to Shetland Islands council this week.

It is also important for us to assess the ecological effects of the incident. My right hon. Friend has announced his intention of setting up an ecological steering group to consider strategies, in both the short and the longer terms, to deal with the impact of the incident on the local environment.

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

Is the Minister satisfied that there is no danger that oil from the tanker will drift into areas fished by fishermen from other ports in the European Community?

Sir Hector Monro

As I have said, we are monitoring every development extremely carefully, and taking all possible steps to establish where the oil is now. We feel that the only area where it is unsafe to fish is the current exclusion zone, along with the small extension that I have announced today. I think it important for us to continue the detailed monitoring now being carried out so that we can keep a close check on what is happening.

As the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland knows, my right hon. Friend today announced the terms of reference of the steering group, and the appointment of Professor Ritchie as chairman. The group's initial purpose will be to take an overall view of the various ecological and environmental initiatives that are now getting under way, or are likely to be established on the group's initiative.

I trust that hon. Members on both sides of the House will recognise that the order forms part of a pattern of effective Government action and is in the best interests of the fishing industry and the consumer.

Mr. Brian Wilson (Cunninghame, North)

I welcome the appointment of the principal of Aberdeen university to conduct the local inquiry into the environmental ramifications. Is it not a little unfortunate, however, that the wider inquiry, under Lord Donaldson, will not take place in the area in which the incident occurred? Will the Minister give an assurance, on behalf of the Scottish Office, that any witness—or anyone who feels that he can contribute to the wider inquiry—will not be inhibited from doing so on grounds of cost or inconvenience, wherever that inquiry is held?

Sir Hector Monro

Lord Donaldson's inquiry is rather outwith the terms of the order. However, I am certain not only that it will be peripatetic and will take place in various centres but that everyone with important evidence to give will have the opportunity to give it. I hope that people will do just that: we want to ensure that the problems that we have faced in the past few weeks can, if possible, be prevented from recurring.

I hope that I have made clear how seriously the Government are taking the monitoring of the sea around the Shetlands—and, indeed, further afield if that becomes necessary. We are determined that the exceptionally good reputation of fish from the Shetlands—whether they come from the sea or from the salmon farms—is maintained, and I believe that the stringent measures that we have adopted provide the best way of doing that.

11.48 pm
Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland)

I thank the Minister for the further information that he has given us. We do not necessarily thank him for finding it necessary to extend the area concerned, but we recognise that there is no point in trying to take short cuts, or in trying to pretend that something does not exist when it plainly does. I also welcome what the Minister said—and the written answer that I received from the Secretary of State earlier today —about the monitoring committee. It is recognised that the committee will have work to do for a considerable time.

Some may find it appropriate for us to debate the Shetland area on the last Tuesday in January. Traditionally, this is the evening on which my constituents celebrate Up-Helly-a'. For my own part, I confess that I would much rather be in Lerwick; even at this hour the evening is still young, and there is much dancing and singing ahead. I was in Lerwick this morning at the outset of the day's celebrations, where the strong community spirit that has served Shetland well in recent days was clearly evident.

I take this opportunity to acknowledge the valuable work and co-operation of the salmon farmers' association, the Shetland Fishermen's Association, crofters in the National Farmers Union and officials of the Shetland Islands council, who have conducted themselves with exemplary professionalism.

Perhaps the local mood might best be judged by the proclamation that was published this morning by the Guizer Jarl in Lerwick. Under the heading "Stop Press" —I think that the pun is probably intended—there is the following notice:

Contrary to some immediate predictions our outlook is less BLACK as various expressions would have it to be. Crude and slick exaggerations do us no favours and are unfounded, thanks to the 'rolling sea' and the 'foaming tide'. we are sure that raising the 'flaming brand' will help brighten our outlook once more. Although that is humorously intended, it emphasises a clear need for balance in our approach to events since the grounding of the Braer on 5 January. It has been necessary to be alert to possible health risks but, equally important, not to overstate them and cause undue alarm. This order is necessary because there has been some contamination, but it is important to stress the determination of Shetlands' food industries, which the Minister has acknowledged, to maintain their reputation for high quality produce, which over many years they have justly earned.

In a way, the order reinforces that commitment because, as the Minister has acknowledged, fishermen and fish farmers imposed a voluntary closure before the statutory order was promulgated. The Minister mentioned the industries' co-operation with the closure orders.

It is in no one's interest that produce that fails to meet stringent quality tests should be marketed. The order is a safeguard, which I hope will reassure potential customers. The Minister referred to the monitoring conducted by some of the industries, including the salmon farmers' programme. Samples taken from fish harvested outwith the closed area have shown no traces of contamination. After inspecting that monitoring programme and visiting salmon farms last week, food technologists from Marks and Spencer expressed their satisfaction with what they found and lifted the temporary suspension on Shetland salmon.

The House should be in no doubt that in protecting the longer-term market integrity of our natural products there will inevitably be some short-term and perhaps medium-term pain, depending on how long it is necessary to keep the closure orders in force. I am told that, at this time of year, but for the ban, most Shetland fishermen would fish in the closed area. Most of the vessels involved are capable of going further afield, but that inevitably involves additional costs. They may have less knowledge of where stocks are likely to be, and for a number of smaller vessels, principally white fish or shellfish vessels operating out of Scalloway or Burra, there is no alternative but to tie up.

For a number of salmon farmers, crisis is imminent. It has not been possible to harvest because of the closure order, and cash flow problems quickly loom. Others may be missing a key window for bringing in smolts, and that problem will increase if the ban is maintained for some time. All in all, economic hardship mounts up, particularly on certain individuals.

It was against that background that the case for immediate Government assistance to tide over businesses and individuals pending settlement of claims was made.

I welcome the fact that in his statement on 11 January the Secretary of State for Scotland said that a bridging fund would be made available. Some might have quibbled about the timing, but the most important thing is that it was established. Some expressed disappointment that a figure was not mentioned, but I took some reassurance from that because I should have been rather alarmed if a cash-limited figure had appeared when no one could have been entirely sure—and still cannot be—how much would be needed.

On 11 January the Secretary of State also said: There is … understandable concern in Shetland about the cash flow problems which may face businesses, particularly the farming, fishing and fish-farming industries, in the period before claims are settled in full. In view of the significance of these industries to the Shetland economy, my Department is proposing to make resources available through a special bridging fund to help them with particular economic hardship pending the settlement of compensation claims."—[Official Report, 11 January 1993; Vol. 216, c. 626–27.] That was followed last week by a written answer from the Secretary of State in which he again referred to the bridging fund and said that it was designed

to help in particular the farming, fishing and fish-farming industries in Shetland, and prevent economic hardship to primary producers facing temporary cash-flow difficulties pending the settlement of compensation claims. My concern is that there may have been some initial difficulties in activating the bridging fund. The Minister said that, to date, there had been one claim. I understand that one of the reasons why claims have not been made more quickly is that the original form issued by the international oil pollution compensation fund contained a requirement for the claimant to state that it was a complete and accurate account of the loss suffered and costs incurred". At this stage, no one—especially a salmon farmer—is in a position to say that he can offer a complete account. To be fair, the matter having being raised with IOPC representatives in Lerwick, there is some movement in the nature of the form to be submitted.

It is also a matter of concern that there were signs, certainly at the meeting I had this morning with regard to meeting the cash flow problems, that IPOC representatives were showing a certain unwillingness to act as bankers, as it were. As recently as yesterday, it was said that they claimed to know nothing about the bridging fund. Objectively, the idea is that claims should go through the claims office opened in Lerwick. The Minister said that a payment had been made today. As that relates to a cash flow problem, I hope that it means that that difficulty has been overcome.

I appreciate the fact that matters are developing from day to day, but in view of the fact that the purpose of the bridging fund was to meet cash flow difficulties, there was concern that that particular difficulty seemed to be causing a blockage. I shall certainly want to monitor what happens during the rest of this week because, although I do not want to overdramatise, we are talking of days rather than weeks before difficulties arise for some companies.

I know that the Minister has taken a close interest in events in Shetland as they have unfolded. Will he therefore satisfy himself that the bridging fund which the Government have set up and which they have said will pay £1 million to Shetland Islands council this week is operating as the Government intended. If it appears at some stage that there are inadequacies in the fund and that it is not meeting the need, will he assure us that there will be a willingness to show flexibility so that individual hardships can be dealt with?

Initial claims are to be channelled through the IOPC office. In the written answer to which I referred it was stated that claims from businesses which qualify under this scheme and which are, in the view of the club and the IPOC fund, likely to receive compensation in due course will be passed to the islands council".—[Official Report, 21 January 1993; Vol. 217, c. 411.] Will the Minister therefore confirm that persons submitting claims for assistance under the bridging fund are in no way excluding the possibility of taking other courses of action? I do not believe that it is for politicians, either as members of the Government or as constituency Members of Parliament, to give legal advice on whether people should pursue their claims through compensation funds set up under international convention or through United States attorneys. That must be a matter for legal advisers with the full range of knowledge about what the options are. However, I should like the Minister to confirm that options are not being foreclosed by those who wish to take advantage of the Government's bridging fund.

The reason why the order is before us tonight is the grounding of the Braer. I was grateful and interested when the Minister said in response to the hon. Member for Cunninghame, North (Mr. Wilson) that the Donaldson inquiry may be peripatetic.

What is causing concern is that the inquiry into the circumstances of the grounding is being undertaken presently by the marine accident investigation branch. As a result of the way in which the branch works, the inquiry is being carried out in confidence and in secret. People want openness about how the vessel ran aground in Shetland. I have looked through the statutes, and I find that it is open to the Secretary of State for Transport to order a formal investigation by a sheriff under section 56(1) of the Merchant Shipping Act 1970. I hope that he will take the opportunity to do so.

On the economic impact that will flow from the order and from what has happened in Shetland, I was also, interested by a comment by the Secretary of State for Scotland in his statement on 11 January. He said:

Once the extent of the damage is more fully known, Shetland Enterprise and Highlands and Islands Enterprise will work with Shetland Islands council to assess the impact on the island's economy. I shall consider carefully any recommendations made to me as a result of this assessment.—[Official Report, 11 January 1993; Vol. 216, c. 627.] We should like to hear more commitment than just a reference to a consideration of any recommendations. It will be necessary to have a longer-term economic impact assessment of what the effects will be. A closure order, such as this one, could apply for some time. It could have implications for the economy in terms of having to regain markets. That will not necessarily be easy and may not be covered by any compensation fund supplied by the insurers.

We want to be satisfied that Shetland businesses and Shetland individuals will not be out of pocket at that stage. Shetlanders are well aware of the importance of the marine environment to their economy. The Select Committee on Agriculture, when examining fish farming, commended Shetland salmon farmers on the environmental controls they had introduced. The Minister knows from his own experience that Shetland fishermen tend to be at the forefront when it comes to promoting technical conservation measures in the fishing industry.

The Government have recently announced environmentally sensitive area status for Shetland, which shows that, after a difficult start, harmony has been built up between crofting and farming interests and environmental interests. We in the isles understand the importance of a clean environment for our economic prospects.

People have felt badly let down for a number of years. Shipping safety measures were not taken at national or international level to protect the environment. Shetlanders must not have to pay for what has happened. A Government commitment in the longer term to the economic well-being of the islands, apart from the announcements already made, would be very welcome.

12.2 am

Mr. John McFall (Dumbarton)

I concur with the comments of the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) and I commend him on his industry and his work since the unfortunate accident.

The Opposition will support the order, for a number of reasons. The Minister has mentioned that the exclusion zone will be extended westwards. We support that because the Shetland people themselves wish the zone to be extended, despite the hardships they will face.

The Minister mentioned John Goodlad and Jimmy Moncrieff. I spoke to both of them today on the telephone. The Shetland Fishermen's Association said that, although it recognised that the introduction of the zone was causing serious problems to fishing and farming in Shetland, the industry remained of the view that the objective must remain the protection of its quality reputation for producing some of the best fish and fish products in the world. With that and the maintenance of quality and consumer safety in mind, the industry fully supports the continuation of the ban. We concur with it on those points.

The economic problems caused by the incident must, of course, be addressed. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland mentioned that. My comments will focus on compensation and monitoring. The fishermen and the salmon farmers have mentioned to me that the marine laboratory in Aberdeen has done excellent work in sending 25 individuals to Shetland to work alongside those in the islands. Scottish Office personnel have also done excellent work. I pay tribute to them.

I was in Shetland last week with my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury (Mr. Smith), who has the shadow environment portfolio. We were impressed by the good work that was being done by Scottish Office and marine laboratory representatives and environmental personnel in the Shetland islands. I pay tribute to Shetland Islands council. We are all aware that Members of Parliament are often criticised. But district and regional councils are also criticised. There was not one criticism of Shetland Islands council among all the comments made to me by people on the island that day, including farmers, crofters and fishermen. Shetland Islands council has stepped in and written an open cheque for the farmers and fishermen to go ahead and do what they think is necessary.

While good work has been done on monitoring from scratch and in terrible conditions, there is anxiety about the Government's commitment to long-term monitoring. The headline in the Shetland Times last week when I was there was "The cruel sea cleans it up." The fact that the water is clear does not mean that the problem is removed. The latest press reports say that oil has been found in the flesh of some farmed salmon in the south of the Shetland islands. Volunteers from British Divers Marine Life Rescue have discovered what they term as an ecological disaster in Spiggie bay four miles north of Quendale bay. Those reports show that both short-term and long-term monitoring is essential.

I visited the wildlife co-ordinating rescue centre in the south part of the island on the day of my visit. It did a tremendous job. It was up and running within 48 hours, not because a Government scheme was in operation or the Scottish Office moved fast but because of the existence of Sullom Voe. Monitoring arrangements were already in place. Indeed, Sullom Voe has a budget of £200,000 per year for monitoring. The existence of that body meant that the response to the incident was instant and something could be done.

I suggest that if Sullom Voe had not been in existence, the position could have been entirely different and more detrimental to the interests of people on the islands. While we are glad that the wildlife co-ordinating committee responded so quickly, we have to recognise that the Government had no system in place. If, God forbid, another accident happened, perhaps we should not be so fortunate in the location of that accident close to facilities such as those at Sullom Voe. That is worth remembering.

The fishermen and others agree with the Secretary of State that the polluter should pay. I do not think that anyone would disagree with that. But the problem is that a time scale is associated with it. If a benign view is taken of the polluter—pays principle, we could be talking about a time scale of five to 10 years. That is far too long for salmon farmers, because the problem for them is immediate. I said that they had imposed a voluntary ban. They imposed it 12 hours before the Government did so, simply because of their recognition that their worldwide reputation had to be maintained. They have also monitored outwith the exclusion zone and taken flesh samples of salmon harvested in that zone. The industry is paying for that itself to reassure the trade—firms such as Marks and Spencer, Asda, and Tesco, which have sent their food technologists to the area. They are satisfied with what is being done. The exercise is being paid for by the industry. The Minister should direct his attention to that, so that the fishermen's expenditure can be recognised and the Scottish Office will act quickly.

In a statement earlier this month, the Secretary of State for Scotland said: the Government strongly uphold the polluter-pays principle. There is every reason to believe that the resources available for compensation from the international fund will be sufficient to meet all eligible claims."—[Official Report, 11 January 1993; Vol. 216, c. 626.] Not one person to whom I or my hon. Friend the Member for Islington, South and Finsbury spoke believes that resources will be available from that fund. As we all know, the fund has a limit of £50 million. Jimmy Moncrieff said to me today that the compensation for the salmon farmers could run into tens of millions. That could be mirrored by the comments of the farmers themselves. Therefore, the £50 million limit is insufficient, and recognition of that fact by the Minister would reassure people in the islands that the Government will not rely solely on the £50 million.

I know that the Government will have claims on the fund. In order to reassure farmers and others, will they consider being last in the queue to claim from it? Such a commitment would be some comfort to the salmon farmers and others. The Secretary of State spoke about the special bridging fund, but no mechanism has yet been established, despite what the Minister said, for payments from that fund. I was assured today in my discussions with the salmon farmers and fishermen that, despite the Secretary of State's announcement on 11 January, not one penny has been paid to any of the farmers. I shall give an illustration of the effect of that on the salmon farmers.

Salmon farms range from those with 500,000 fish and a value of £8 million to those with running costs of, say, £40,000.1 was told today that such a small firm could take out an overdraft of £90,000 to £100,000. That firm's exposure to the banks will already be at a maximum, with personal guarantees and mortgaged houses. As of today, some of the banks are telling the smaller salmon farmers that they cannot issue any more cheques. That means that those farmers are currently experiencing a cash flow problem. Because it is an intensive cash flow industry, farmers need to harvest or they will go bust. Farmers, such as the hypothetical one with running costs of £40,000, are only days away from the bank pulling the plug on them, so the need for that money to get to the islands is urgent. It has to be addressed now. The Minister has to take away from this debate the feeling that these farmers have to be assisted almost immediately.

I agree with the Minister about the testing taking place in salmon farming areas, and salmon farmers and fishermen are content for the tests to take place.

I also realise that the test for hydrocarbons, as the Minister mentioned, is an elaborate one, taking about two days, but there is concern about the future for sand eels, which spawn at this time of the year, and it is unclear at present whether they will be affected. Some reassurance about that should be given to farmers and fishermen. I am also aware that the herring will come down for spawning in two or three months' time. Those concerns have to be kept in mind.

On the extension of the exclusion zone on the west coast, may I ask the Minister to comment further on the east of the Shetlands? It has been mentioned that very little oil has reached there and it might be possible to relax the restrictions if the scientific tests are favourable.

Lastly, I mention the comments that have been made about the public inquiry. We welcome the inquiry which Lord Donaldson will conduct.

We stand here tonight in sorrow because there was no mechanism about tanker transportation in place. There is still no mechanism, and I note from the papers today that the European Community had a meeting yesterday in which systems such as the obligatory routeing of ships were put forward, with stiff penalties for transgressors. I am dismayed that it says that the Netherlands, Denmark, Greece and Britain are among the countries that are slow to support tougher legislation, and that the Secretary of State said in the paper today that, while a tightening of safety standards would help, "we have to realise we cannot prevent everything".

Those who live on the Shetland islands know that the Braer disaster is not preventable now. It is in the past, but they are looking for reassurances for the future. They are looking for reassurances about tanker transportation in Fair Isles and The Minch. It has got to stop.

While that is not totally germane to this debate, we shall be back to debate it at another time if the Government and the Scottish Office do not make their views known to the Department of Transport. That is the message we want to get across. Do not let us come back in a few months' time because there is a disaster waiting to happen now. Let the Minister tell us exactly what the Government are going to do, so that we are not back here again, debating in sorrow. Let us have legislation in place so that we do not have anything like this catastrophe occurring again.

12.18 am
Mr. Alex Salmond (Banff and Buchan)

I intend to speak very briefly because I certainly endorse in full many of the points that have already been made. The Minister will understand that right across the House there will be substantial cross-party feeling that we want to see the concerns which the local Member, the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace), expressed tonight fully met in the ministerial reply, if that is at all possible.

I would also mention in particular the points made from the Labour Front Bench on the long-term environmental assessment because I suspect that no one knows what the knock-on effects of the disaster will be on the environment. Some assurance tonight that there is to be effective monitoring over the medium term will be very welcome.

I want to restrict the burden of my remarks to two features which perhaps require some amplification. First, what will be the Government's approach to the medium and long-term economic damage that the accident may cause? Perhaps the Minister will be able to give me an interim answer. Billions of pounds have been spent internationally on media exposure that has given negative publicity to the Shetland islands. The islands have been associated internationally with a major environmental disaster. As the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland rightly said, we are talking about a community that prides itself on the quality of its produce—sea fish—and the products of its fish farming. The economic damage over the medium term is potentially seriously damaging.

The Government may be able to reintroduce confidence —restrictions are to be extended—that produce from the Shetlands is 100 per cent. all right in environmental terms and that quality is being secured. The vigour of the environmental assessment is important. We hope that Government action will contribute to mitigating the economic consequences. There is bound to be an economic impact on the Shetlands—at what level we cannot say—because of international exposure that associates Shetland with a major environmental disaster. Images are still fresh in our minds of the disaster, but less publicity will be given to the measures that are being taken to ensure that Shetland produce meets the highest health regime standards.

Will an assessment be undertaken and a judgment made? The problem could be tacked by a reinforcement of the Shetland marketing effort internationally. Would that come within the context of the assistance that the Government might be prepared to make available to the islands in future? I accept that it would be difficult to make such an assessment. It would be difficult also for the Minister to give us a guarantee this evening. I hope to hear, however, that an assessment will be considered. If it were found that an intensive marketing effort from the Shetland islands was necessary to secure the position in the markets that their produce held, I hope that the Government would be forthcoming with assistance. I hope that the Minister will comment on how often these measures will be implemented or called into question.

Early-day motion 1177 was tabled by the hon. Member for Southwark and Bermondsey (Mr. Hughes). It reflects the great concern of Greenpeace and other organisations that at least one major international oil company appears through its internal documents to be extremely reluctant, to say the least, to discuss the safety of tanker transportation. I would like the Minister to indicate that he shares the concern that is felt widely throughout the parties, which is reflected in support for the early-day motion. As I have said, the internal documents of a reputable company suggest that it wants to avoid a public debate on tanker-route safety. I hope that the Minister will respond.

The motion states that there is a great deal of support for routeing and for some interim action—

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Geoffrey Lofthouse)

Order. Tanker routeing is pretty wide of food and fisheries.

Mr. Salmond

I appreciate that, Mr. Deputy Speaker. I am bringing my remarks to a close.

We are all concerned that we might regularly be faced with measures such as the order in the absence of an assurance from the Minister that interim action will be taken while we await the results of the inquiry.

12.25 am
Mr. Elliot Morley (Glanford and Scunthorpe)

I wish at the outset to add my praise for the attitude of the Shetland Fishermen's Association and the Shetland Salmon Farmers' Association and to congratulate them on the professional and thorough way in which they acted in dealing with the disaster.

It should be remembered that the Shetland Islands council has for a long time had a contingency plan to deal with disasters of this kind. It is clear that that plan was put into operation effectively, professionally and quickly. That is a tribute to the council and, in particular, to its environmental health department, which is closely involved in the monitoring exercise.

It is right that we should have the order, not only to protect the health of consumers but to guarantee the quality of produce from the Shetland isles. That aspect has been emphasised in the debate. Some major retailers, such as Marks and Spencer, have begun to buy again from the areas which have not been affected by the disaster. It is clear that there are parts of Shetland from which quality produce can still be marketed, even though the order applies to the affected area.

I draw the attention of the Minister to the state of the fishing industry and the fact that although it has backed the closure order—and has brought forward its own voluntary ban—the industry faces a series of problems. The ban is yet another problem that it must bear, in addition to the restrictions imposed by the Sea Fish (Conservation) Act 1992, fish quotas, and so on. Knowing that the Minister is aware of those problems, I hope that he will take them into account when considering the strains on the industry and that he will listen carefully to the industry's representations. They will include an appeal for support in the coming months.

There is the question of salmon stocks now in the cages. Will the Minister consider consulting the industry about whether those stocks, having been contaminated, may be difficult to sell? Bearing in mind the points that have been made today about the quality of Shetland produce, it may be necessary to consider whether those contaminated stocks might compromise that quality. Accordingly, they may have to be destroyed and the farmers compensated.

The Minister should also consider the effect of the disaster on shore-based industries which rely on the salmon breeding industry. They have been greatly affected by the lack of trade and supplies. Although some industries are not directly involved in salmon farming, the knock-on effect on them has resulted in financial hardship. Are they eligible to submit claims for compensation?

The long-term monitoring aspects of the disaster must be borne in mind. It was a unique disaster in that it was a very light crude; never before had there been a spill on that scale in the weather conditions which prevailed and the crude mixed in with the water and penetrated the water column.

Perhaps the Minister will also comment on the effects of the dispersants. After all, the fact that dispersants were used is one reason for the closure order. May we be assured that the dispersants currently being held in this country for use in such disasters are modern and not old stocks which have been stored for years waiting for disasters to occur? Are they internationally approved chemicals, including those approved by the Ministry for licensing purposes?

Long-term monitoring may be necessary for perhaps 10 years. Who will pay for it? The cost should not become a burden on Shetland Islands council or the local communities. The oil industry should make a contribution on the principle that the polluter pays.

The Minister will be aware of the three-year project, now reaching its conclusion, being carried out by Glasgow university and the Natural Environment Research Council. He will be aware that I have asked him some written questions about whether the project could be extended to study the relationship between the biology of sea birds and sand eels. If he cannot reply tonight, will he give the matter serious consideration, given the commercial effects of the spill and the fact that the Shetland islands are of international importance in terms of the ecology they support?

Can the Minister confirm that the Shetland consortium of conservation groups has now been disbanded and, if it has, whether it is being replaced by the ecological steering group? What time scale does he envisage for monitoring?

The Minister will be aware that there has been a ban on the industrial catching of sand eels in Shetland waters. When will he be able to give us a statement on whether the ban will continue in relation to the disaster and its effect on the long-term ecology of sand eels in terms of the fish which prey on them and the local wildlife?

The oil spill is a tragedy which could have been avoided. It is right that we should implement the order to guarantee consumer confidence and safety. I know that it has the full support of the fish producers in the Shetlands who have acted in a responsible and professional way. However, the disaster raises issues which go beyond the scope of the order, such as the tragic decline of our merchant fleet, flagging out, tanker routes and coastal policy. I hope that those issues will be thoroughly addressed in the forthcoming inquiry.

I hope that the Shetland Islands council and its community get the help and support that they have every right to expect to overcome this disaster. Above all, I hope that the lessons learnt in this tragedy will be applied so that we do not have another one in British waters.

12.31 am
Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East)

Although I have no knowledge of or expertise in the salmon fishing industry, as a former member of the Salmon Fisheries Board I know a little about wild salmon.

I am pleased that we are supporting the order as it is obviously necessary. My hon. Friend the Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) touched on one of the concerns I wish to express. The contamination from the oil will take a long time to disappear, but the contamination caused by the chemicals was a cause of concern when they were being used. It will be much longer before we know whether it will have affected the salmon stocks and the other fisheries.

It is a great tragedy and I pay tribute to the stalwart way in which the people of the Shetlands and their representatives have shown determination to win back markets and not to have their lifestyles and the quality of their lives destroyed. It is a pity that the order provides only for public health and food issues as it is quite clear that the matters of tanker routes that are not for discussion tonight will hang as a cloud over the Government who will be criticised for not laying an order to deal with those matters.

I also wish to ask a naive question that other mainlanders and people in the industrial sector who have watched the tragedy with amazement will be asking. Where is the rest of the oil going now? The monitoring that we have discussed seems to be taking place in a small area close to the Shetlands, but 80,000 tonnes of oil do not disperse without landing somewhere and causing more pollution. The Minister mentioned monitoring far and wide and I hope that he will say something about how it will be carried out.

The amendment of the designated area for the order five miles further west makes it clear that there was some miscalculation or lax monitoring when the original order was placed. It must be a matter of concern that the original order was insufficient to cover the area that now seems to be affected.

I was one of those who asked about compensation. The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) thought it better to leave the figure unstated, in the hope that it will increase in line with needs. Those in the Shetlands who are probably reaching the bottom line in their calculations are beginning to worry whether it will be sufficient.

The ecological steering group, which will deal with the local area, will be welcomed. However, the people on the mainland are wondering whether the monitoring will be sufficiently rigorous and whether the ecological damage that may occur further afield will be properly monitored and made public. People still have in mind the long-term effects of a much larger disaster, Chernobyl, where the emissions continued to leak out. Indeed, I believe that leakage has not yet stopped. People are worried that the Government might not want to talk about ecological damage because they would, first, have to admit to it and, secondly, have to deal with it.

I hope that the Government will take account of the fact that five million people in Scotland are concerned about the long-term damage that may be caused outwith the Shetlands. I ask the Minister to do me the courtesy of explaining the technical detail of the monitoring operation. We need to ensure that a lack of proper monitoring does not lead to long-term and long-distance effects on other fishing stocks which, perhaps, have just been fed into the food cycle of the people of Scotland and elsewhere. I should be grateful for reassurance on that point.

The hon. Gentleman must realise that there are many people on the mainland who do not have the special knowledge of the Shetlanders and of my hon. Friends on the Front Bench. Those people are looking for answers, but they are not getting them from the Government. We need to know where all that oil has gone and which other fishing areas we need to be concerned about. Although the order covers only the Shetlands, the concern stretches much further afield. No one believes that 80,000 tonnes of oil can be dispersed without damage to some other parts of Scotland's ecology, not just that of the Shetlands.

12.36 am
Sir Hector Monro

With the leave of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I am glad to reply to the debate, which in general has been welcomed by all hon. Members who have spoken. However, I was a bit disappointed with the hon. Member for Falkirk, East (Mr. Connarty).

Everything that I said tonight demonstrated that our maximum effort was on monitoring, in particular on what we have been doing in difficult circumstances during recent weeks and what we will continue to do. It has been difficult to get boats out to sea west of the Shetlands, but we managed to do it and they caught fish. We are grateful to the Shetland fishermen for catching fish for us to monitor. It is because we have been monitoring effectively that we have to extend the exclusion zone. That shows that we are taking the correct action, which will continue for as long as is necessary.

The hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr. Wallace) gave a warm welcome to the order. I want to express my appreciation for all that he has done regarding his constituency since the wreck. The hon. Members for Dumbarton (Mr. McFall) and for Glanford and Scunthorpe (Mr. Morley) referred to the economic problems of the salmon farmers. I, too, recognise the problems, which is why we have introduced the facility of a bridging loan, to be paid this week. The Shetland Islands council, which is responsible for the administration of the claims, today paid out a large sum to the first salmon farmer who put in a claim. I hope that that will encourage others to apply if their cash flow requires that. I am sure that a significant number of farmers are affected.

It is good news that the vast majority of the salmon farms are not in the exclusion zone. We are dealing with a small number of farmers, but the scheme is important for their cash flows. We hope that, in the end, the situation will be brighter—that the damage will not be quite so long term as some hon. Members have implied. In the meantime, monitoring will continue. There is virtually continuous contact between the Scottish Office and the salmon farmers. We welcome that contact, and we shall continue to provide all possible assistance until the whole situation has been sorted out. I do not know whether that will take weeks or months, or even years, but general monitoring will continue, as will monitoring of the long-term ecological implications.

There is no firm knowledge about how long the oil will linger in the area. We do not know what will happen. However, the Government give a categorical assurance that there will be monitoring in all directions, where it is thought to be necessary, to allay the fears of anyone in the United Kingdom. There may have been much more evaporation than some people believe. In any case, there will not be any complacency. We shall be working full time and as hard and fast as possible to make certain that the situation is fully dealt with.

Several hon. Members, including the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland, talked about the longer-term economic problems. Most hon. Members will agree that that matter is a little wide of the subject of this debate. However, I assure the hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland that we are considering it. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Member for Edinburgh, West (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton), the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, hopes to go to the islands at an appropriate time in the not-too-distant future—a time when it is felt that the islands council would like to meet him and have a discussion involving Highlands and Islands Enterprise and everyone else concerned.

Mr. Salmond

May I take it from the Minister's reply that he is not ruling out the possibility of longer-term economic aid in such areas as reinforcement of the Shetlands marketing effort internationally if that should be judged to be necessary?

Sir Hector Monro

The hon. Gentleman is a great man for trying to widen issues and get Ministers on the hop. We shall do all we can to help the economy of the Shetlands.

It has been amazingly robust and effective over the years, and we want that to continue. Help will be provided. My hon. Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State will be able to talk to the Shetland Islands council about the economic aspects.

But all hon. Members must realise that we are in a somewhat grey area. Nobody knows quite what the future holds. The situation may resolve itself in the medium term, but no one can be certain about the long term. However, I hope that we can be optimistic about the economy of the Shetlands—whether fishing, agriculture or other pursuits. I do not want in any way to run down the opportunities of the Shetlands. They have rightly emphasised the importance of regaining the quality reputation of their products, and I am optimistic about their ability to do just that.

The hon. Member for Dumbarton implicitly criticised us on the ground that we were unprepared for a major shipwreck. The hon. Gentleman must give credit for the fact that the marine pollution control unit was present on the day of the accident and that on the following day aircraft were spraying dispersant. Because of Sullom Voe, the Shetland Islands council had outstanding preparations. The operations room was put in place extremely quickly. It was a highly commendable effort by all concerned.

Mr. McFall

Just to correct a point that the Minister made, I paid fulsome tribute to the fact that the wildlife rescue co-ordinating committee was in place because of Sullom Voe and because it already existed in the Shetland Islands council. What I am saying is that perhaps on another occasion—which God forbid—the Government will not be so well prepared. It was quite fortuitous that we had that organisation there on the ground and up and running immediately. That is my point.

Sir Hector Monro

The hon. Gentleman went on to talk about compensation. I give him the assurance that the Government are last in line for the payment by the polluter.

The hon. Gentleman then raised the issue of the ban that was put in place voluntarily by the fishermen. The only reason why we were not ready at exactly the same time is that it takes a certain amount of time to lay an official order, but discussions were going on at the same time and we were in entire agreement—and I am glad about that.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the waters to the east of the islands and about monitoring. We are monitoring that area as well as the west and the south. It is encouraging, but it is too soon at this stage to reduce the exclusion zone to the east of the island. I should think that it will, however, come earlier than in the west.

I cannot go into too much detail about the Donaldson inquiry because that is where the future of oil transport and routeing of tankers will be discussed. Recommendations from that in line, I hope, with what took place in Brussels yesterday will produce legislation which may well have to be international to make certain that tankers do not sail in vulnerable waters such as those in the Shetlands. We are also most concerned about the Minch.

The hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (Mr. Salmond) talked about the economic damage. Again, we are watching the situation as closely as we can, but it is more a medium and long-term problem rather than getting over the immediate problems that we are dealing with at present. Scottish National Heritage is co-ordinating what may be required in the longer term for ecological monitoring, and the steering group is in place and will give wise and helpful advice on how we should proceed, so there is no question but that the Government have acted very quickly in setting up these organisations to look after the future of the ecology of the whole area. It is absolutely vital, and we will not let up on it.

I welcome what the hon. Member for Glanford and Scunthorpe said about the Shetland Islands council and everyone involved. I said that we are having continuous consultations with the salmon farmers. The hon. Member asked about the dispersant. It was approved for use at sea. Through an unfortunate accident, a certain amount was sprayed on the rocks—not an approved use, but on this sort of occasion one must accept that accidents happen. I do not think that it will have caused lasting damage to any person, and again it is being monitored by the health officers on the island.

All in all, I am very pleased at the tremendous efforts that have been put in by the Shetland Islands council, by the fishermen and by everyone concerned. We hope that the order will not have to be in place for too long, but it must be there while there is any doubt about the quality of the fish landed in the area concerned.

Mr. Morley

Before the Minister reaches his conclusion, I wonder if he would deal with the point about the fish that have been contaminated in the cages. He quite rightly said that it is difficult to know how long the order will apply because of unknown factors, and people accept that; but he must also accept that if the fully grown fish are held in cages, the whole cycle of salmon farming as regards replacement of the smolts is disrupted, and the disruption will go right down the line of production. Will the Minister consider talking to the industry about the present situation of the fully grown fish?

Sir Hector Monro

I cannot say tonight whether any of the salmon in the cages have been contaminated. There was talk about a light sheen over one or two of the cages. Some are in the exclusion zone, so the fish cannot be sold. I am well aware that the fish farming cycle is crucial, and that must now be discussed with the Shetland Islands council and the insurers.

The insurers' initial payment shows that they are willing to accept their responsibility and I hope that no salmon farmer will be out of pocket as a result of this serious incident, which to them will be catastrophic if they cannot sell their fish. I hope that they will be able to do so in the future and that the order will be lifted as soon as the water is clear and the fish are uncontaminated. I commend the order to the House.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (Oil and Chemical Pollution of Fish) Order 1993 (S.I., 1993, No. 17), dated 8th January 1993, a copy of which was laid before this House on 11th January, be approved.