HL Deb 20 June 1986 vol 476 cc1175-80

11.46 a.m.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture Fisheries and Food (Lord Belstead)

My Lords, with the leave of the House I shall now repeat the Statement being made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The Statement is as follows:

"My Ministry and the other agricultural departments have been carrying out an extensive programme of monitoring of all foodstuffs likely to be affected as a result of the Chernobyl accident. The latest batch of results is being published today.

"These present a satisfactory picture overall and there is no reason for anyone to be concerned about the safety of food in the shops. However, the monitoring of young unfinished lambs not yet ready for market in certain areas of Cumbria and North Wales indicates higher levels of radio-caesium than in the rest of the country. These are the areas of high rainfall during the weekend of 2nd-3rd May. While these levels will diminish before the animals are marketed my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Wales an I have decided to use the powers in the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985 to make absolutely certain that when these lambs are marketed they will be below the internationally recommended action levels for radio-caesium of 1,000 Bq/kg.

"We have therefore made an order which we are laying before Parliament to come into effect today which will prohibit for the next 21 days the movement and slaughter of sheep within the two areas designated in South West Cumbria and parts of North Wales. This will enable us to monitor closely the sheep flock in these areas.

"The areas subject to restriction will be reduced as soon as monitoring results, based on a rigorous sampling programme, confirm the expected fall in levels. Testing is also being undertaken in Scotland and Northern Ireland, where similar restrictions will be imposed if necessary.

"The main season for marketing young lamb from the designated areas will not start until July. The Government recognise that these measures may cause some interference with the marketing plans of farmers in the areas concerned. But I am sure they will appreciate that the measures taken for the protection of the consumer are in the general interest of the British sheep industry. If however it should prove to be necessary, the Government will be prepared to discuss cases of compensation for severe loss in particular circumstances to specific farmers."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, we are obliged to the Minister for repeating the Statement from another place. We would all agree that these restrictions are a very necessary precaution in the circumstances. The noble Lord may have noticed that this issue was raised on a Question in the House on Wednesday, so it is not altogether new.

The one matter we should make sure of—and I am sure the Minister and his department will do so—is to give the maximum information to the public. They do not all read Hansard and scare stories can appear in the press, which is not the best medium for giving accurate information. I feel sure that it is necessary that the public understand the situation.

I wonder if the Minister knows how many lambs are affected. Is it a very large number in these areas? That is rather important. And are there any older sheep involved? Were they not affected? It seems curious that only the young lambs are affected and not the older sheep. The noble Lord mentioned that this could affect breeders in these areas. There is quite a big export trade in these lambs and it would be rather disappointing—and one always goes back to the French—if the French take advantage of this and try to make use of it to keep our exports out of their country.

The Minister mentioned compensation. That would be one of the things that might happen that would affect the returns to farmers very considerably. I am sure that this must be looked into. Three weeks is quite a long time and, if the period is extended, a young lamb could become very much over-fat in that time and that will affect its price in the market. The other point that I should like to make is this. Can one presume that there is close collaboration—and I hope that the Minister can answer this—between the Ministry and the Department of Health and Social Security as they have a very real interest?

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, while it is an extremely disturbing Statement, what we have found out is that the Chernobyl accident has caused more radioactive trouble than did all the 30 years of air testing which we experienced before the cessation of the majority of air tests. It is satisfactory that the Ministry are doing their best and that they are going to compensate individual farmers; but have they got enough people to monitor quickly this sort of thing? It appears to me to have been a long time after the rain had fallen before they were able to come up with this Statement.

I think that the Minister ought to be able to assure us that further steps are being taken to monitor the whole country, because the fact that some places in Cumbria and in Wales are mentioned means that very small spots can be contaminated by a quick shower at the wrong time. This is obviously going to entail a great deal of work for the bodies who are monitoring the effects.

My main question is this. Are the Government going to expand the measures to trace and to find out about these very dangerous and disturbing spots for both the consumer and the trade? Can the Minister tell us when the tests will be finished in the West Highlands, which receives as much rain as elsewhere, and when we shall be able to get the results from there? I repeat that my main question is whether the Ministry are going to extend the service to be able to monitor much more quickly.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am grateful to both noble Lords for their reception of this Statement. The noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, said that it was necessary for the public to be assured that they are going to get information properly. Ever since the Chernobyl disaster, using the incident room which was set up by the Department of the Environment, we have sought to publish on a regular basis the findings of monitorings which have been done by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The one thing that I would say in answer to the very wise remark of the noble Lord is that all food in the shops at the moment is safe. The restriction described in this Statement is in order to ensure that that should continue.

The noble Lord asked how many cases of this kind had been found. The answer is, two in Cumbria, and three in Wales. Incidentally, I have placed in the Library of your Lordships' House a map which will show the designated areas in south-west Cumbria and North Wales. The noble Lord asked why it was that lambs were affected and not older sheep. Our belief is that this has happened in relation to their body weight. Young lambs have been consuming much higher levels of forage than other livestock. It is the forage which was contaminated in the heavy rain of the weekend of 2nd and 3rd May in those particular areas.

The noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, expressed the hope that our export trade would not be affected. As the noble Lord may know, there is an agreement within the European Community that the Community countries can place whatever requirements they think are right on their imports. In fact, no Community country has done this since the Chernobyl disaster, intra-Community trade has been proceeding on a normal basis and I believe will continue to proceed on a normal basis and we shall ensure that the importing countries' needs are met. Finally, the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, said that he trusted that there would be close collaboration with the DHSS. I give that undertaking to the noble Lord.

The noble Lord, Lord Mackie of Benshie, asked whether there would be enough people to see that the proper precautions, restrictions and monitoring are carried out. As the noble Lord knows very well, this is the same sort of procedure as when restrictions are put on for animal disease except that in this particular case an animal within the restricted area cannot be sent for slaughter.

If I may say so, I think that we are going to be devoting a good deal of resources to this. We will ensure that all the necessary resources to ensure effective application of the restrictions are made available. The noble Lord said that his main question was whether he could be assured that both in Scotland and in the rest of the United Kingdom, the monitoring and the precautions would be stepped up if necessary. My answer is that we shall be continuing with monitoring and we shall be seeing that monitoring undertaken in Scotland and in Northern Ireland continues, although, so far, no problems have arisen with animals ready for market in either Scotland or Northern Ireland.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, I feel bound to ask this question although perhaps it is a little wide of the Statement. The Government have made their Statement this morning and from that Statement it is quite clear that we are still suffering the effects of a nuclear accident that took place months ago, 2,000 miles away.

The Department of the Environment and the Department of Agriculture are undoubtedly doing their job of monitoring. That, I accept and applaud. At the same time, I read in the newspapers yesterday that the Secretary of State for Energy was going to undertake an advertising and promotion programme for the extension of the building of nuclear power stations in this country. I believe—and I hope that the noble Lord will take this on board—that it is really necessary for his department and for all the departments of state to examine the question of further nuclear power stations in this country very seriously and that this should not be examined on a departmental basis but on a totally governmental basis, because the health of the nation is at stake, and, indeed, it may very well be more than that.

I hope that the noble Lord will not mind my widening it to that extent. I hope that I can have his assurance that his department and the other departments of state are going to have an input into nuclear energy policy in future.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, if I may say so, although this is a serious point that the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart, makes, it is getting wide of the Statement. Of course, I speak on behalf of the Government in this House and on this particular Statement. On behalf of the Government, I say that I believe that our nuclear record in this country is safe. The Government will take every step possible to see that that continues to be the case.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, may I first thank the noble Lord for repeating this important Statement and for the fact that the Statement did not create alarm and despondency, which is the one important thing that we must all seek to avoid in the present circumstances? Is he aware however, that this could strike at the very heart of one of the most important sectors of Welsh agriculture—namely, the production of Welsh lamb? In the area in which I live, I know that farmers are generally concerned to do what is best in all the circumstances.

I am grateful to the noble Lord and to the Government for their reference to the possibilities of compensation. There is now a bar on movement but is there a bar on slaughter and on consumption? I think that is important for people who, like myself, live in the locality. How long does the noble Lord see this lasting and when will the Government consider the question of compensation? Is the noble Lord able to clarify the machinery by which it may be made? Finally, again, would the noble Lord confirm that the degree of caesium in these animals is nowhere near high enough to cause concern?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I entirely understand why the noble Lord asks this question. The Welsh people have every right to be proud of the lamb meat which they produce, and no one knows that better than the noble Lord. I would say simply that we ought to remember that we are concerned here with a 21-day order, and, although it has been imposed by means of the special procedure under the Food and Environment Protection Act, my understanding is that debate would be needed for it to be extended. I believe I am correct in saying that but, if not, I will write to the noble Lord. Of course, I very much hope that the 21 days is going to be the maximum.

The noble Lord asked an important question about slaughter. As I sought to say to the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, the restrictions in the order are very much the same as those, familiar to noble Lords opposite, which have to be imposed in cases of animal disease. They are similar; but the difference is that if it is desirable for an animal to go for slaughter that is not allowed because the precise reason for the order is to prevent the meat entering the food chain. However, there is one very important exception and that is that if a slaughterhouse is within the designated area—and I can think of one particular example in North Wales—and the meat is coming from outside the designated area, then under the order it will be perfectly all right for this meat to come from outside the designated area to the slaughterhouse within it.

I do not think I ought to add anything on the question of compensation over and above what is actually in the Statement. I do acknowledge, in answer to the noble Lord, that the levels of caesium which have been discovered are in excess certainly of 1,000 Becquerels per kilogramme, which is the internationally recommended level for radio-caesium so far as lambs are concerned. That is what has caused this Statement today.

However, let us remember that there is a very big safety factor written into that particular level. I hope that at the end of this order's period it is going to be possible to come back and say that the figure is now below that level for lambs as well as for all other meat. Let us also remember that all food at the moment in the shops is safe.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, if I could come back on my question, I think the Minister may have misunderstood me. The accident occurred in late April and the rain brought the pollution over here on 2nd and 3rd May. We are now having an order put down. Obviously the Government were caught completely by surprise. What I intended to ask was this: how quickly in the future will the responsible authorities know that a high and dangerous level of radioactive rain has fallen on an area? I think that is the important point. You can then put an order on at once and monitor the sheep and lambs concerned.

Lord Belstead

May I just say in answer to that that we are continuing to monitor but in fact the monitoring we are doing has been stepped up. The monitoring data at the moment is being built up from a wide range of results, including over 60 sheepmeat samples in England and Wales. It is that level of monitoring which we are now stepping up. That should make it the more likely that we could react with speed if it were necessary to do so. But, as I think we know, the levels of radio-caesium are now beginning to decline. The problem we are dealing with derives from 2nd and 3rd May.