HL Deb 28 June 1988 vol 498 cc1372-5

7.46 p.m.

The Earl of Dundee rose to move, That the order laid before the House on 1st June be approved [28th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Earl said: My Lords, your Lordships will know that on 13th August, 1986 the Government announced the introduction of a scheme of mark and release for sheep irradiated from the Chernobyl fallout. This allowed sheep which failed a monitoring test for radioactivity to be moved from a restricted area but not slaughtered. Their heads were painted with a distinctive paint mark to show that they came from a restricted area and to sigify that they could not he slaughtered until they had passed a further monitoring test, when they would be ear-tagged to show that they had passed.

The colours of green, blue and apricot are used in rotation for this marking. There 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 at first unacceptably highly contaminated, but now with decreased and acceptable levels of radioactivity. These measures—which enjoy the co-operation of the farmers in the restricted areas and the National Farmers' Union 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.

Comprehensive monitoring of sheep marked with blue paint has now shown that the radioactivity in sheep marked with that colour has decreased to a level at which their consumption would not threaten health and the order lifts, from 1st June 1988, the slaughter controls on blue marked sheep which were originally marked in the post-Chernobyl restricted areas.

The colour to denote sheep from a restricted area which may have unacceptably high levels of radioactivity in their bodies is now apricot. At present, no sheep marked with apricot dye on or after 11th January 1988 may be slaughtered unless they successfully pass a re-monitoring test for radioactivty and are identified as having passed such a test with a special ear-tag.

I commend the order to the House. I beg to move.

Moved, That the order laid before the House on 1st June be approved [28th Report from the Joint Committee].—(The Earl of Dundee.)

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, I thank the Minister for explaining the order. He may remember that on the last occasion I spoke in praise of bureaucracy, saying that everyone criticises bureaucracy. I still believe that the bureaucrat did a good job in devising the scheme.

I am slightly disturbed to note that the Minister said that the sheep painted with the blue dye are now deemed to be safe. Reports I have received indicate that the blue dye tended to disappear or wash off and that it was not reliable. That would reduce the safety aspect that was meant to be given to the public if it happened to any great extent.

Can the Minister say whether he knows of any lambs which entered the food chain between the time of the Chernobyl disaster and six weeks afterwards when the marking began? There is belief that during that period there were considerable sales of sheep from the North, Southern Scotland, and the Lake District down to central England.

The issue that worries many people who have become involved is the fact that there appears to have been no contingency planning. I do not blame the bureaucrats and the people who ultimately devised the scheme. There should have been a political will because, although it is a horrible thought, the chances of another Chernobyl disaster are bound to exist. I believe that there are 15 nuclear stations just across the Channel. Nuclear fall-out from the Chernobyl accident travelled 1,200 miles. The statistical chances of another accident must exist, although it is a horrifying thought that somewhere in the world there could be another accident. I hope that as a result of that accident we have learnt that we must be better prepared.

From all the sources I have been able to contact, it appears that during the period after the Chernobyl accident information was very difficult to obtain. There was no authoritative and readily-available information for the farming organisations, local authorities, the media and the police. No one appeared to know what to do or from where to obtain instructions. No one wants to pick political nits over a disaster such as Chernobyl but it is important that we learn lessons from it. I hope that there has been contingency planning not only as regards the occurrence of such an accident but in order to keep informed the public and those involved with the farming organisations, the media and the police. I hope that the Minister and the Government will take the accident to heart and will ensure that if it happens again—and God forbid that it does!— we are better prepared in every way.

The Earl of Dundee

My Lords, 1 thank the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove, for his comments. He began by referring to the three dye marks which have been made in the rotation system. He asked for a reassurance that the marks last and do not wash off, thus contradicting the efficacy of the system. I may be able to reassure the noble Lord, that, in spite of those allegations, we have experienced no difficulties on that account and have no evidence that marked sheep have improperly entered the food chain because of inadequate marking.

The noble Lord also asked for a reassurance that nothing above the 1,000 Bq/Kg limit has entered the food chain from the first moment. It is not possible to give a 100 per cent. categorical assurance but our monitoring was based on sampling to a high confidence limit and it was designed to minimise the chances of anything getting through. Moreover, it must be borne in mind that 1,000 Bq/Kg was a conservative limit. Also, experience has shown that sheep, once moved off contaminated pasture, lose radioactivity very quickly. Scottish hill sheep are normally sold store, which means of course they go to low ground before fattening before slaughter. Our programme of slaughterhouse monitoring continues and it has been in place since the Chernobyl accident. It has shown only one example of an animal over 1,000 Bq/Kg. That led to the immediate imposition of restrictions on the Uists in 1986.

The noble Lord also referred to our level of preparedness to deal with the Chernobyl accident. The Government are satisfied that they responded to the incident quickly. The monitoring of radioactivity levels in milk and other products was started as soon as it became clear that the Chernobyl cloud would appear over the United Kingdom. Meetings between the various interests in the Scottish Office took place immediately and liaison with the Whitehall departments was maintained. As it became clear that the main risk to the public was through the food chain, the co-ordinating responsibility for monitoring devolved on the Department of Agriculture for Scotland. It still chairs a monitoring committee which keeps the situation under review.

Monitoring results are published regularly and regular contact is maintained with the NFU for Scotland and with The Scottish Landowners' Federation. These organisations are informed in advance of measures which will affect farmers. Arrangements exist for the direct supply of information to farmers in restricted areas. Publicity is given to changes in order to inform areas where there are no restrictions of what is going on.

Quite rightly, the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, also referred to the awareness that we may now have, and to corresponding measures which we may propose to introduce, in responding to another national emergency as and when it may occur—although it is hoped that it never will. The framework for a new national response plan specifically designed to enable government to respond to any future accidents outwith the country is now in place. It was announced by my right honourable friend the Prime Minister on 30th June, 1987. Departments and organisations which will be concerned with implementing it are currently developing their own complementary contingency plans. The various aspects which will be included are monitoring and data assessment, central government arrangements, public information and public protection.

I thank the noble Lord for his interest, his comments and his welcome for the measure. Once again I commend its substance to your Lordships.

On Question, Motion agreed to.