HL Deb 05 February 1987 vol 484 cc412-4

8.48 p.m.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord Glenarthur) rose to move, That the order laid before the House on 18th December be approved. [7th Report of the Joint Committee.]

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move that the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (No. 10) Order be agreed to.

On 30th October last year, your Lordships debated and approved the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (No. 8) Order 1986. A mark and release scheme has since been introduced which enables sheep to be tested for levels of radioactivity. Those which pass the test are able to enter the food chain and their slaughter is permitted. The order before us is the current one to provide the necessary authority for the slaughter of these sheep. It also consolidates and corrects some minor drafting errors which were made in the No. 8 order when changes to it were made by subsequent amendment orders. These errors had no practical effect on the control over the movement and slaughter of sheep which ensures that no sheep with unacceptably high levels of radioactivity reaches the food chain. It is, however, right that they should be corrected.

My noble friend Lord Belstead explained in October the background to these orders and the reasons for making them. I do not propose to restate these today but rather to give a short summary of events as they affected Scotland.

The accident at Chernobyl, which occurred on 26th April last year, was the worst of its kind in history. It required a very speedy response. The radioactive cloud reached Britain over the weekend 2nd to 4th May and testing on milk products, grass, vegetables and water was increased between 3rd and 7th May. Radioiodine gave the earliest cause for concern and since this is concentrated in milk, the latter was the subject of much attention. Fortunately this radionuclide has a relatively short life and there were no untoward results revealed in this testing. Other products were soon being examined. Sheep meat in the slaughterhouses was first monitored on 28th May and gave no cause for concern. Tests on grazing lambs, however, revealed unacceptably high levels of radioactivity which in turn led to restrictions being placed on the movement and slaughter of sheep in certain areas in England and Wales on 20th June and in Scotland on 24th June.

The restrictions in Scotland applied originally to Dumfries and Galloway, Arran and parts of Ross and Cromarty. They were extended to include North Uist on 30th July and South Uist on 13th August. Parts of the high ground in Strathclyde which bordered the high ground in Dumfries and Galloway were also made subject to restrictions on 30th July, and this additional area of designation was able to be kept reasonably small.

In addition to the evidence we had from our own sampling, we were able to take into account weather data, the grass and herbage sampling undertaken by the Institute of Terrestrial Ecology and others, and the results of the intensive milk sampling during May in determining the areas on which we should concentrate our efforts and resources. A programme of slaughterhouse monitoring was put in place simultaneously as a long-stop against contaminated foodstuffs reaching the food chain. There was only one situation that gave cause for concern in the slaughterhouse monitoring and this led to the imposition of the restrictions in North Uist, where it occurred.

Areas have been progressively released from restrictions since mid-July as a result of the intensive sampling programme that we instigated and these areas can be seen in Schedule 2 to this order. Schedule 1 shows the areas still designated and these are the ones from which blue marked sheep have been removed under the mark and release scheme announced on 13th August. The scheme was introduced to help the farmers move their sheep because feed was running short and it gave the authority for the sheep to be moved to uncontaminated ground before the areas from which the sheep came were cleared.

These blue marked sheep are being prevented from being slaughtered in the interests of public health until their levels of radioactivity have declined to a sufficiently low level. A programme of individual testing of the sheep was introduced on 18th December and to date out of over 6,400 tested in Scotland not one has failed. However, until we are satisfied that all blue marked sheep in Britain are clear, sheep which have not passed the test cannot be slaughtered and the areas from which they come must remain designated—hence the need to continue the current order.

It is right that I should pay tribute to individual farmers and the National Farmers' Union in Scotland for their forbearance, understanding and patience throughout the monitoring exercise. The restrictions came at the time just before the lambs were due to be moved off their summer pasture and this could have been disastrous for many farmers. The Government were well aware of this and knew that there was likely to be a need for some financial compensation. We introduced a three-tier compensation scheme which has been generally welcomed by the industry and I think that they represent a fair outcome for both farmer and taxpayer.

So far as this year's lambs are concerned and whether it will be safe to move them and sheep into the food chain this year, the position is being monitored carefully. The levels of caesium 134 and 137 which together give greatest concern in meat have remained stubbornly persistent on the high ground. Studies are under way to help us understand the movement and behaviour of radio caesium in upland pastures and in sheep. But it is hoped that the new grass, following winter snow and rain which will wash the caesium away and dilute it, will show very low levels of contamination and that no further controls will be necessary, Furthermore, the new lambs will not go to market immediately they are born and there will be a period of some months during which appropriate steps, if necessary, can be taken to protect the public. We shall not shirk from taking any steps thought necessary, guided of course by the facts the situation presents, and the objective scientific assessments at our disposal.

Chernobyl has been one of the most far reaching peacetime emergencies we have experienced in recent years. We are learning the many lessons from it. We had to take prompt action, and we did, when we heard about the disaster and all along our paramount consideration has been to protect the public.

The current restrictions embodied in the order before your Lordships will not I hope be necessary for much longer but we have to continue until we are sure that all blue marked sheep are suitable for human consumption. The continuation of this order is necessary to ensure that and to continue our protection of the public. I commend it to your Lordships.

Moved, That the order laid before the House on 18th December be approved.— (Lord Glenarthur.)

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, I should like to thank the Minister for explaining a somewhat complicated order and also to apologise for the fact that my noble friend Lord John-Mackie is unfortunately unable to be here tonight. However, he gave me a number of points to raise, some of which have already been dealt with by the noble Lord—for instance, the consultation with the National Farmers' Union of Scotland and the fact that compensation is being continued to be paid. We have all learned some lessons from Chernobyl. The second point that my noble friend Lord John-Mackie wished to raise concerns the number of sheep which are still affected. I heard the Minister giving the figures which I shall read with interest. I am very pleased to agree to the order going through.

On Question, Motion agreed to.