HL Deb 30 October 1986 vol 481 cc886-94

8.7 p.m.

Lord Belstead rose to move, That the order laid before the House on 30th September (S.I., 1986 No. 1689) be approved. [32nd Report from the Joint Committee]

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move this order and, with your Lordships' permission, would speak to all three statutory instruments which are on the Order Paper. In moving these orders, may I just very briefly recount the sequence of events following the accident at the Soviet nuclear power station at Chernobyl on Saturday, 26th April.

The first indication of an accident was only received in the West on Monday, 28th April, following the detection of increased levels of radioactivity by the Swedish authorities. On Tuesday, 29th April, the Ministry of Agriculture in London initiated daily testing of milk and obtained meteorological forecasts of wind movements. On Friday, an increase in radioactivity was detected by the Ministry's Lowestoft laboratory. Arrangements for more extensive monitoring were immediately put in hand, with particular attention being paid to those foodstuffs most immediately affected—namely, milk and leafy vegetables. On Sunday, 4th May, at two o'clock, the Ministry opened its operations room to co-ordinate assessments of monitoring results and to handle the large numbers of inquiries which were coming in from the general public.

My right honourable friend made a number of television and radio appearances over that bank holiday weekend to reassure the public that radiation levels in food did not present a hazard to health, and that there was no need for anyone to change the normal consumption patterns for milk or for other fresh foodstuffs. Nevertheless, activating our existing contingency plans, we set in train one of the most extensive monitoring operations of foodstuffs ever undertaken. The results, together with those for water, air and the environment generally, were co-ordinated by the Department of the Environment who made them available for inspection in London.

Our monitoring showed that after the first week levels of radioactivity in milk and vegetables had declined. It was, however, recognised that radio caesium, being a longer term problem, would need continued monitoring as it builds up in the muscle of animals grazing contaminated pasture. From about the middle of May levels of radio caesium in young unfinished lambs not then ready for slaughter in those areas of high rainfall over the bank holiday weekend indicated such levels building up. We immediately intensified our monitoring to identify the exact locations where radio caesium levels in sheepmeat might cause concern. We also commissioned the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology to undertake more detailed surveys of deposition patterns across the country to identify the precise areas likely to be affected.

Since most early lamb comes from lowland areas it was here that action had to be considered most urgently and it became clear by mid-June that we should not be able to guarantee that radio caesium in all sheep was going to fall to acceptable levels before some of the animals from these areas went for slaughter. My right honourable friends therefore decided to use, for the first time, the powers available under Part I of the Food and Environment Protection Act and made an order on 20th June which applied restrictions on the movement and slaughter of sheep for 21 days in certain areas in Cumbria and North Wales. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland introduced similar controls in parts of Scotland on 24th June. These three orders are for Cumbria, Wales and Scotland.

The purpose of these controls introduced on 24th June was primarily to ensure that no animals with levels of radio caesium above the internationally recommended action level of 1,000 becquerels per kilogram would reach the consumer and also to enable us to monitor closely the levels of radioactivity in these areas. However, levels above 1,000 Bq/kg were found particularly in upland areas, where the greatest deposition occurred, and made it necessary to continue restrictions after the expiry of the original 21 days. Further orders therefore had to be made on 3rd July and 8th July continuing the restricted areas for a further period of 21 days. However, restrictions were lifted progressively as monitoring indicated that it was safe to do so. But in the upland areas we encountered a number of special factors arising from the terrain and the grazing habits of upland sheep. This meant that we could not lift restrictions at the time farmers would normally need to move their sheep for fattening in lowland areas.

To meet this problem we introduced a scheme which would allow sheep marked on the head and neck with a long lasting paint to be moved out of the designated areas. Restrictions on the slaughter of such sheep remained in operation. From our monitoring we knew that levels were falling in certain areas and these would be ready for release earlier than others, so we divided the designated areas into higher and lower deposition areas, and marked sheep coming from the higher deposition areas with blue paint and those from the lower deposition areas with green, paint. Restrictions on slaughter would be removed only when all restrictions in similar areas in the United Kingdom had been lifted. I am glad to say that it was possible to release the green marked sheep from all restrictions from 30th September. We also allowed from mid-September the sale and movement of breeding animals inside and outside the designated area provided they were marked on the head and neck with red paint.

The restrictions caused real losses to farmers, and from the outset the Government pledged that they would compensate them. Throughout we were determined that our schemes would meet real needs rather than producing more speedy solutions which would have turned out to be inappropriate. The farming unions faced the same problem, in that the situation was changing rapidly and it was not always easy to foresee what their members would need. Our first compensation scheme was designed to help producers of those finished lambs which, through being held back by the restrictions, were subsequently rejected for variable premium on the grounds of overfatness when their areas were released from the restrictions. Later, we introduced a second scheme to compensate producers for their market price losses on marked sheep which were released from the designated areas and presented at store markets and sales, as well as liveweight certification centres. Finally, our third scheme, announced last month, provides assistance towards the direct costs incurred by producers of finished lambs and cast ewes.

Looking to the immediate future, farmers want to know how long the remaining controls will continue. The restrictions introduced on 20th June imposed controls on more than 4 million animals in Great Britain. Today, fewer than 300,000 will remain under restriction and many of these would not normally leave the upland areas before next spring. Our research has been greatly assisted by the recent development of new instruments by British instrument manufacturers which enable us to live-monitor sheep under field conditions.

Two factors appear to be contributing to the persistence of radio caesium in the upland areas: first, the dietary and grazing habits of the animals; and secondly, the peaty soil conditions in many parts of the upland areas where there are pockets of poorly drained land, in some cases devoid of the kinds of clay and mineral binding agent which immobilise caesium in the soil. Two natural processes may help to improve the situation during the coming months of winter. First, winter frosts will break up the soil and allow enhanced drainage of surface water; and secondly, new plant growth will be coming through in the spring, diluting the radioactivity in the animals' diet. We are looking at various possibilities to speed things up. Tests have already been carried out on the use of claylike materials to absorb radio caesium, both within soils and within the animals themselves. Preliminary results are encouraging and we shall continue the work in the hope that some simple treatment may be available to ensure the earliest possible return of these hill areas to their full productive potential.

Finally, in moving these statutory instruments, I should like to pay tribute to the farmers in Cumbria, Scotland and Wales who have co-operated with the Government on the introduction and implementation of the controls which were brought into effect through no fault of their own. It has also been a difficult time for many people in the farming and food industries who have had to deal with a new and complicated situation. We are over the worst and I hope it will not be too long before all restrictions can be lifted. I beg to move the first of the statutory instruments standing on the Order Paper.

Moved, That the order laid before the House on 30th September (S.I., 1986 No. 1689) be approved. [32nd Report from the Joint Committee] (Lord Belstead.)

Lord Gallacher

My Lords, we must first of all thank the Minister for explaining in such detail the sequence of events arising from the accident at Chernobyl and the consequential damage which it caused throughout Europe and, in particular, in the specified areas of the United Kingdom. We little thought when we were taking the Food and Environment Protection Act through this House last year that the first use of its provisions would apply to an external hazard. I am sure that at that time most of us imagined that the powers were not likely to be used at all and that if they were they would more likely be used internally than externally.

One must express appreciation to the farmers affected by these movement orders for the manner in which they responded; especially ahead of the settlement of compensation terms. It says much for them and for their unions that they were able to cooperate as fully as they have done with the Ministry throughout this long and difficult period for them. In addition I think it would be appropriate also to say that the staff of the Ministry of Agriculture acquitted themselves, as they always do on occasions such as this, quite remarkably well in dealing with a situation which was unprecedented and that they did so expeditiously and effectively.

It is not possible to congratulate the USSR, not because they had an accident but because they took so long to inform the world of the seriousness of that accident. Indeed it was the monitoring in Sweden, as the Minister has said, which first alerted the West to the serious nature of the difficulty which had arisen and of the consequential problems for the rest of Western Europe. The fact that the question of compensation by thelJSSR for the damage caused has not yet been settled is another point which attracts added criticism to the conduct of the USSR in this whole unhappy business.

I do not think that the event has in any way reassured the public about the risks and hazards in connection with nuclear power stations in general. I do not think that the public are necessarily reassured by statements made in Britain about the superiority of United Kingdom design, or even such things as the close understanding between the United Kingdom and France to inform each other at once in the event of any mishaps at nuclear power stations. The public are especially worried about the importation of nuclear fuels, and so on, for reprocessing in this country. Such importations may work wonders for the balance of payments, but I do not think they do a great deal for public confidence.

The Minister said that 4 million sheep were originally involved in the movement orders and that the number has now been reduced to 300,000. I take it that that is still the current figure. Is the Minister in a position to say whether there is any likelihood of the 300,000 being released in the not too distance future, or whether the problems which he described still appertain, and therefore it is impossible to predict when further release movements might be possible?

The problem appears to be greatest in the upland areas. The Minister has offered the explanation that poorly drained land is probably responsible for that. Can he say whether he thinks there is any connection in the uplands with the fact that the land in question may be close to afforested areas where trees may be acting as umbrellas, bearing in mind the meteorological conditions of wind and rain which gave rise to the problem in the first place? I raise this issue because one of your Lordships' Select Committees is currently looking at the question of forestry and among the many ideas canvassed on the expansion of forestry is that we should bring it downhill. If forestry uphill has this vulnerability to meteorological conditions it might be that instead of bringing forestry downhill, we should leave forestry where it is.

Are the farmers satisfied with the basis of compensation, having regard to the three stages which the Minister described to us? More especially, can the Minister say how soon all payments of compensation now due will be made? Farmers are inevitably borrowers and with an inflation rate of only 3 per cent. and a borrowing rate on overdrafts of 14 per cent. or more, it is obvious that farmers, like myself, must have liquidity problems at the present time.

Can the Minister tell the House how long compensation will continue? It is suggested that there may be long-term effects as a result of what has happened affecting genetics, fertility and the like. Is it possible that compensation will have to be paid at some future date? There is no reference to what is of interest to all of us—namely, the impact of all this on home sales of lamb, particularly compared with the sales of New Zealand lamb. Has the consumer played safe or is she prepared to purchase the home-produced article? Have the events had any effect on United Kingdom exports? In particular, has France any justification as a result of the Chernobyl infestation for being noncommunautaire over our current exports to that country? If France does not have a justification of that kind, we face a situation in which something rather stronger than the correspondence currently taking place between Ministers in this country, the French agricultural Minister and the Community agricultural Commissioner is called for. This repetitious conduct of blocking imports from the United Kingdom by French farmers is becoming somewhat tedious, having regard to the subtantial benefits accruing to them from the common agricultural policy.

Finally, I should like to ask the Minister whether Community action against nuclear disasters of this type is under active discussion and whether in these discussions we can take account of, as well as the circulation of information, the question of compensation. It seems to me that if in this case the polluter did not pay we should perhaps be thinking in terms of a Community scheme of compensation which would to some extent lighten the load on the United Kingdom.

Those are some of the salient features which arise from the Minister's statement. In general we welcome what has been done. We believe that the Minister has acted thoughtfully, quickly and urgently, and is deserving of our congratulations upon its initiative.

Viscount Thurso

My Lords, I should like to associate those of us on these Benches with the congratulations given to the Ministry on the speed and thought with which it dealt with the problem that arose from the Chernobyl disaster. It would also be right to associate ourselves most sincerely with the co-operative attitude of the farming industry, and the way in which it helped to make the various measures work, and work satisfactorily. We have to be very grateful to our farmers for the responsible attitude taken all round.

I do not share the suspicion of the noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, of the peaceful uses of atomic energy in general. I do not believe that the danger lies in that direction. However, there is very real danger from the testing of atomic weapons in the atmosphere and if more and more countries throughout the world reach the stage of becoming atomic powers, conducting weapons tests, we should be under some considerable danger of receiving fall-out from such tests.

That is not just idle supposition. It is known for a fact that we were contaminated by atomic weapons testing when such tests were being conducted in the open by ourselves, the United States, and other countries. Indeed, so great was the contamination that I know of a case at Dounreay where a whole body monitor was being used to monitor the levels of radiation in people. As a control a member of the administrative staff was put through the whole body scanner and found to be more radio active than anyone else on site.

On investigation they discovered that he had a small estate on which there were deer. He was very fond of his venison and ate a considerable quantity. The deer he was eating had accumulated the atomic fall-out from bomb tests through their habit of grazing—this is exactly similar to hill sheep—and had become sufficiently radioactive to pass on this radioactivity to the member of staff concerned. He had concentrated that radioactivity within his body, therefore becoming more radioactive than the average person working on the site at Dounreay. It did not do him any harm because he is still hale and hearty, although retired, and well into his seventies. However, the radioactivity was measureable and noticeable. I give that example because if anyone restarted testing atomic weapons in the atmosphere there could be a danger to us; so it is not scaremongering to think in terms of continuing vigilance in such directions.

At this stage I draw attention to the excellent work done by the Rowett Research Institute in identifying the use of clays as a means of, as it were, absorbing the radioactive caesium within the stomach of the sheep and getting it passed out harmlessly. I hope that those experiments will continue, not because they are needed so much in this particular instance now, nor necessarily so much that we fear similar accidents from other peaceful uses of atomic energy, but simply for the reasons I have given to your Lordships—that there is no security from atomic fall-out while it is possible for countries to test atomic devices in the atmosphere. Until there is a total atomic test ban throughout the world we are always liable to some atomic fall-out which, in the upland areas, could cause problems.

I join with the noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, in praising the work that has been done. Finally, I join with him in hoping that compensation will continue, if necessary, for those farmers particularly in the upland areas—the most fragile part of the whole farming industry—who may still be at risk for a much longer period than farmers in other parts of the country. I hope that if any hardship is suffered by hill farmers they can look to the Government for full and fair compensation for their losses.

Baroness Elliot of Harwood

My Lords, I should like to thank the Minister for his very admirable description of the situation. Perhaps I may ask him a question. If the immobility of 300,000 sheep is to continue until the summer time, are the grants for the farmers who are unable to sell their sheep, or to move them about, still to continue? It will be very hard luck on them if they cannot make use of their own sheep, yet will not be given any compensation.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, and my noble friend Lady Elliot for their response to this introduction to the first of the statutory instruments on the Order Paper and to my remarks on all three of them. I am grateful to both noble Lords opposite for the tribute that they paid to the farmers who have dealt with a difficult situation in a very reasonable and steadfast way. My noble friend Lady Elliot is herself a farmer, so she has to face this difficulty along with other farmers. I am also extremely grateful on behalf of the Ministry of Agriculture for what has been said by your Lordships so far as concerns the performance of the ministries throughout Great Britain.

The noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, made the point that I had said that the numbers released had brought down the number to 300,000 now, subject still to designation. He asked whether it was possible that that number would continue to reduce. I very much hope so. Successive orders have been introduced in order to keep on releasing areas, and if our monitoring shows that that is possible, I am sure that is what we shall do. I very much hope, as I remarked at the end of my introductory speech, that the use of clay-like materials to absorb radio-caesium, both by treatment to the soil and to the animals themselves, may be successful. I was very interested that the noble Viscount, Lord Thurso, made the point that work at the Rowett Institute on the use of clays had been directed to this particular problem. As I understand it, there is a form of powdered clay mineral called bentonite which has the effect of binding radio-caesium into the soil and preventing it from entering into the biological systems of plants or indeed into the intestines of animals. I said in my speech we are working away to see whether some simple treatment of this clay-type material which has been worked on at the Rowett Institute could be effective in cleaning up soils, particularly in the high hills, and also from the point of view of the systems of the animals themselves.

The noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, asked me whether there was any connection in the uplands where trees were acting as a kind of umbrella. My advice is that deposition on the ground underneath the trees will be lower than in open fields but that there is no reason to suppose that forestry is responsible for greater persistence in forested areas. I hope that that brief reply will be of interest to the noble Lord in the consideration being given to these matters in the committee of which he is chairman.

The noble Lord asked me whether the farmers were satisfied with compensation and how quickly payments were being made. The compensation that we have given to producers was provided as soon as we were able to establish the real needs of the situation, and we believe that we have gone as far as we can to meet those needs. Our compensation has taken account of marketing and sales patterns which are already disrupted by the late spring and poor finishing conditions, and detailed discussions with all the farmers' unions involved have of course been necessary. This has been hard work for all concerned arid I should like to pay tribute to the farmers unions for their joint efforts in bringing three different compensation schemes forward. We believe that the totality of the compensation arrangements that we now have agreed upon—and we are giving priority to getting the sums paid out as quickly as possible—represents a fair and balanced response to the needs of producers. In fact, payments began to be made early in September and I believe they are now proceeding well.

The noble Lord, Lord Gallacher, also asked me whether events have had an effect on exports, particularly to France. My answer can be commendably brief. France has not stopped importation of any British lamb for reasons of radiation level. The noble Lord asked me further about international agreements on compensation. The Paris Convention of 1960 and the supplementary Brussels Convention of 1964, to which the United Kingdom and most of the countries of western Europe are partners, already established the principle that the polluter is responsible for damage caused in other states party to these agreements, but the trouble is that the Soviet Union and eastern European states are not party to those conventions. Discussions which include encouraging the possible widening of membership of the existing conventions are taking place at an international level to consider compensation issues raised by the accident at Chernobyl. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Energy recently stated that the British Government were anxious to see a wider system of compensation in respect of nuclear accidents and would support a binding international agreement to provide that compensation. So far as concerns future compensation, about which I think all your Lordships asked, we shall maintain our existing arrangements to cover market losses as long as restrictions have to be maintained.

Finally, there was a question which was put to me by my noble friend Lady Elliot of Harwood. I think my noble friend is referring to the ewe premium. Of course there is no reason why ewes should not be tupped and should not, as I understand it, qualify for the ewe premium. However, think the real answer that I want to give to the question of my noble friend is to come back to first principles; namely, how long do we think that these restrictions will last? As I said at the very end of my speech, although we have introduced arrangements through marking to allow the movement of sheep into and out of designated areas, we very much hope that all restrictions will be lifted in the comparatively reasonable future.

On Question, Motion agreed to.