HL Deb 26 January 1988 vol 492 cc576-9

8.30 p.m.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord Sanderson of Bowden) rose to move, That the order laid before the House on 11th January be approved [12th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Lord said: My Lords, this order revokes and re-enacts with amendments the provisions of the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (No. 3) Order 1987 and the Food Protection (Emergency Prohibitions) (No. 4) Order 1987. The emergency prohibitions imposed by those orders remain in force. They restrict various activities and prevent consumption of food rendered unsuitable for that purpose as a result of the Chernobyl radioactivity leak in 1986.

The areas in Scotland affected by the escape, from which the movement of sheep and in which the slaughter of sheep are prohibited, are designated again and are described in the order. As your Lordships are aware, the restrictions on the slaughter of sheep from the designated areas and the supply of meat derived from such sheep extend throughout the United Kingdom.

The Government, as your Lordships are aware, announced on 13th August 1986 the introduction of a mark and release scheme to allow sheep which failed a monitoring test for radioactivity to be moved from an area where the movement and slaughter of sheep had been restricted by order but not slaughtered. Their heads were painted with a distinctive paint mark to indicate that they came from a restricted area and to signify that they could not be slaughtered until they had passed a further monitoring test when they would be ear-tagged to show that they had passed. The only other way these sheep could legitimately be sent for slaughter would be after comprehensive monitoring had shown that the levels of radioactivity in sheep marked that colour had decreased to a level at which their consumption would not threaten health.

The colours green, blue and apricot are used in rotation for this marking. From Monday 11th January, the order lifts slaughter controls on green-marked sheep which were originally marked in the post-Chernobyl restricted areas. This follows a substantial fall in radioactivity levels in such sheep which were all marked on or before 27th September 1987.

The colour mark used to identify sheep which have not been marked up until now and which are to leave a restricted area having failed a live-monitoring test for radioactivity is changed from blue to apricot by the order—again from Monday 11th January. This change has been made so that newly marked animals can be distinguished from sheep which have moved earlier out of a restricted area on to clean pasture. In this way the eventual release from controls of the blue-marked sheep, once the readings for radioactivity permit this, will be able to be made.

Sheep marked blue on or after 28th September 1987 and sheep marked apricot on or after 11th January 1988 may not be slaughtered until they are successfully monitored and ear-tagged. These periodic changes in colour enable central control over the slaughter and movement of sheep from the restricted areas to be continued. They also provide a mechanism for releasing for slaughter sheep once unacceptably highly contaminated but now with decreased and acceptable levels of radioactivity.

The measures I have outlined, and which are supplemented by our slaughterhouse monitoring programme have been designed to protect the food chain and to disrupt normal business as little as possible in achieving that aim. I commend the order to your Lordships. I beg to move.

Moved, That the order laid before the House on 11th January be approved [12th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Sanderson of Bowden.)

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation which makes it easier to understand what is inevitably a complicated order. We all laugh or make fun of bureaucracy but this is an example of exactly the sort of situation in which the value of bureaucracy is apparent. When the noble Lord described the details of the colour changes and all the rest of it, it showed how important it is to have a system which we laughingly call bureaucracy.

I am glad that there has been some reduction in radioactivity, if that is the correct phrase for it. There are only two questions that I should like to ask the Minister, one of which struck me while he was speaking: why only sheep? Are cattle in a different category? In the debate in another place all sorts extraneous foods such as fish, trout and rabbits—chickens as well, I believe—were mentioned. It seems to me that beef cattle are much more likely to be associated with sheep. I may be wrong. Perhaps sheep tend to go higher in the hills than cattle, and the higher they are in the hills the more likely they are to be contaminated.

The other point—it is a technical one and may be too expensive to consider in an order such as this—concerns the format. Reading through the order becomes slightly tedious after a while. Going into the detail that it does, I thought how incredibly helpful it would be if even a small and quite rough map could be included. I know that in terms of law there must be included an accurate description of the area. But it would be a great help to see even a fairly small-scale map. It would make matters more intelligible.

We would all agree that the Government have acted quickly on this problem. There is no point in asking the Minister when the provision will cease to be necessary. The answer was given by the Minister in another place when he said that he did not have second vision. We can thank the Minister for bringing the order before us today.

Lord Borthwick

My Lords, before the Minister rises, perhaps I may mention that the other day I was listening to a conversation between a couple of farmers who were arguing about the measures that were being taken. One farmer was quite keen; the other rather doubted them. I doubt them myself. One claimed that the energy being measured in the hill country, in the Highlands, had been there for a long time. I doubt that from what I have heard. I believe that the later tests carried out for acid rain show quite definitely that that was the time when the measures rose to a dangerous level.

Has any record been made of the actual levels of radiation earlier, before the catastrophe occurred? Are there any records which show that at all? I am led to believe that in the granite areas a greater level of radiation is given off than in lowland areas where there is no granite. Is that correct?

Lord Sanderson of Bowden

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, very much for the welcome that he has given the order placed before your Lordships' House this evening. So far as concerns animals affected by the Chernobyl disaster, we are dealing with sheep in the main. Cattle do not enter into the question, partly for the reason that he mentioned concerning their grazing habits. It is important to realise that sheep have been the most affected animal as regards this particular disaster—and it is a disaster—through their cropping of the grass.

Perhaps I may help the noble Lord with regard to the map. The most affected area which worried us in the first year—and we did tests across the whole of Scotland—was in the south-west of Scotland. That was the area that concerned us most. There were other areas such as Benbecula, and some areas as we worked north into the central region of Scotland. This year we were able to do far more monitoring than was possible in the first year. Noble Lords will know that 69 farms were designated this year—a total of 124,000 sheep out of a total sheep population of 8.8 million. That puts the matter into perspective.

The first designations that my department had to make were in Dumfriesshire. Latterly, in the second lot of designations, it was still prevalent in farms in the central region in a line from south Ayrshire through to west Stirlingshire.

In answer to my noble friend Lord Borthwick, we are dealing with the Chernobyl disaster. It is quite clear from the evidence we have that the tests and the problems relate entirely to that disaster. We are dealing with this order in relation to Chernobyl; and I wish to make that quite clear.

The noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, referred to the length of time that this may continue. As he says, I cannot help him. Obviously we shall have to continue with restrictions as long as the monitoring proves that it is essential. It is not possible to predict when levels of radioactivity will have dropped sufficiently to enable restrictions to be lifted completely. But—and this is important—the government scientists are conducting laboratory experiments on the uptake of caesium from different types of soil. At this stage it is premature to anticipate the results of those experiments. With those few remarks, I commend this order to the House.

Lord Borthwick

My Lords, I thank the noble Lord for what he has told us. If it is decreasing and the danger will soon pass, I am very glad to hear that. I was not acquainted with the position, not being in the area. What I have heard was very comforting.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

The Earl of Dundee

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now adjourn during pleasure until ten minutes to nine.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 8.43 to 8.50 p.m.]