HL Deb 23 June 1992 vol 538 cc382-7

3.8 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Earl Howe) rose to move, That the order laid before the House on 2nd June be approved. [1st Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Earl said: My Lords, the purpose of this order made under the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985 is to prevent the entry into the public food supply of animals and animal products from a farm in Derbyshire because of dioxin contamination. The order maintains the restrictions imposed by a previous order which lapsed on 2nd June.

Dioxins are ubiquitous environmental contaminants produced as unwanted by-products in incinerators, other combustion processes and certain industrial processors. The problem in this area was first identified by the extensive programme of surveillance which my department has been carrying out as a follow-up to the publication of a government paper Dioxins in the Environment in 1989. The results of the testing programme showed that exposure to dioxins in food for the population as a whole were well below international safety limits. Those results were published in full as a food surveillance paper in January this year.

The programme focused on milk as the major potential route of dietary exposure and a useful monitor of dietary contamination. In June 1991, it revealed levels of dioxins present in the supplies of milk from two adjacent farms near Bolsover in Derbyshire which, if consumed continuously over a long time without being bulked with other supplies, could prove a risk to human health. The Milk Marketing Board took immediate action to prevent the milk from those farms (which was, of course, always bulked with other milk from that part of Derbyshire) entering the public supply. Further testing in the area identified a third farm where levels were also high. However, in that case the farmer was operating a suckler cow herd and no milk was sold for public consumption. Noble Lords will therefore appreciate that, so far as milk was concerned, it was not necessary to place a prohibition order on any of the three farms since there was no question of public health being at risk.

It was decided immediately to undertake a comprehensive research programme on milk, meat, herbage and soil from the area so as to provide the most expert and detailed possible assessment of the situation. The farmers, incidentally, agreed not to move livestock from their holdings while the research was being carried out. Payments have been made to them for their co-operation in the research programme and in recognition of the considerable disruption that their participation has involved.

The results of the research programme were published on 20th March. They revealed unusually high levels of dioxin in the samples of meat from one farm—the third farm which I have just mentioned. The Department of Health advised that meat from that farm was unsuitable for public consumption and hence an order was placed on the farm to prevent the movement of animals or animal products. The order replaced voluntary arrangements that had been in place while the evidence was being obtained and assessed. The order lapsed on 2nd June and is replaced by the (No. 2) order now before your Lordships' House.

The levels of dioxin in the meat from the other two farms did not constitute a health risk. Therefore, it was not necessary for sales of livestock to be prohibited in those cases. Results from the analysis of soil samples supported the general picture that one farm was highly contaminated whereas contamination on the other two was lower. The publication of those results was in line with the firm commitment of Her Majesty's Government to make all results public as soon as they become available, a commitment which we have met fully and which we will continue to meet.

I should like to emphasise the prompt action which my department has taken to prevent any risk to public food supplies. My right honourable friend the Minister visited the two farmers whose milk was first withdrawn from public supply last July as soon as he became aware of the problem. Officials have had frequent discussions with all three farmers who have had explained to them in detail the implications of the research programme and the effects of this order. ADAS has provided free advice to the farmers on their future farming options. The farmers concerned have faced much disruption and uncertainty. I am sure that everyone would wish to see their problem resolved as soon as possible. I would wish to record the appreciation of Her Majesty's Government for all the help and co-operation that they have given.

All the studies completed so far have indicated that the contamination is highly localised. The research undertaken by my department has been complemented by the work of Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution and the National Rivers Authority. None of those studies indicates that there is any risk to public health. But the potential problem remains. It has been necessary to place a ban on the breeding of food animals and the movement of such animals and crops and of any food from those animals and crops off the farm which is the subject of the order. The other two farms involved are still showing levels of contamination which prevent their producing milk for public consumption. But the expert scientific and medical advice we have been given does not preclude them from producing meat. We shall continue to keep the situation under the closest surveillance and will revoke the order when we are certain that there is no longer any risk to public health.

Moved, That the order laid before the House on 2nd June be approved. [1st Report from the Joint Committee].—(Earl Howe.)

Lord Gallacher

My Lords, I thank the noble Earl for the detailed statement he has given in explaining the contents in this important order. I wish also to express our sympathy to the farmers who have been affected by the contamination and acknowledge their co-operation—as, indeed, the Minister did—with all the inquiries that took place after contamination was first discovered.

It is significant that we are dealing with an order which is already in force. As the noble Earl pointed out, it supersedes a previous order which lapsed on 2nd June. Can the Minister tell the House when action became necessary along those lines; whether it is contemplated that such action will be taken on a continuing basis; and, if so, for how long is it likely to last? Can the noble Earl also tell the House whether possible sources of contamination have been discovered?

From the report that the noble Earl gave, it is obvious that a number of highly important scientific bodies at a very high level have been involved. It seems strange that while confirmation of contamination is not now in doubt—necessitating the action contained in the order—the Minister did not give the House any indication as to whether or not there was a possible source of contamination in the area around Bolsover.

Can the Minister also tell the House about compensation? He said that compensation had been paid to the farmers in consideration of their co-operation. However, we have now passed that stage. As the movement order contained in the SI is of such a stringent character, it would seem to us on this side of the House that there is an ongoing necessity for some form of recognition that the farmers in question have been virtually deprived of a living. Is that fact acknowledged by the Ministry? Further, is it proposed that compensation should continue?

In the course of wide reading, I noted in the report for last year of the Domestic Coal Consumers' Council a statement to the effect that, while in 1991 the council was generally satisfied with the level of solid fuel prices, it took exception to what it regarded as excessive increases by a company named Coalite. I wonder whether the Minister saw the report and, if so, whether he has any comments to make upon it. We support the order because we recognise its importance and its necessity.

Earl Howe

My Lords, the noble Lord has raised a number of important points. I welcome the opportunity to respond to them. The problem has been a long and difficult one, even if confined to a very small area. It is regrettable that restrictions have had to be placed on one particular farm, especially as they may prove to be long term. In answer to the noble Lord's question, we do not know how long term that is likely to be. Dioxins are notoriously persistent and they are present in the soil. We shall have to see how events progress. However, it is reassuring that we have had no evidence that there has been any threat to public health. In answer to another of the noble Lord's questions, we took action immediately a threat to public health was discovered; and that, as I mentioned earlier, was in June 1991.

The noble Lord asked about the sources of the contamination. I am given to understand that the owners of the major industrial plant in the area are apparently in discussion with the farmers involved. However, the outcome is a matter for those directly concerned. I do not think that it would be appropriate for me to comment on the question of any liability. As my honourable friend Mr. Baldry said in his statement in another place in November of last year: Concentrations measured in the current emissions would probably account for only a part of the dioxins which have been found in the milk on the affected farms. The company is not in breach of the law in the manner in which it has operated the incinerator".—[Official Report, Commons, 61/11/91; col. 443.] The noble Lord mentioned payment of compensation. There is no provision in the Food and Environment Protection Act for compensation to be paid. This was considered in 1984 and 1985 when the Bill was debated and again in 1990 when my noble friend Lord Stanley of Alderley sought to introduce a provision for compensation in certain limited circumstances where, as is not the case here, a mistake had been made and no risk to health existed.

Let me stress again that, as was emphasised on those earlier occasions, that the purpose of the Food and Environment Protection Act is to protect consumers from contaminated food. The guiding principle in cases of this kind is that it is the polluter who pays. There is no case for the Government to accept financial responsibility for contamination for which they were in no way responsible. The Government have however made certain payments to the farmers concerned for their participation in the research programme that has been carried out on those farms and in recognition of the disruption that this has caused. The farmers have also benefited from the free advice from ADAS on their future farming options.

Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Pollution is testing for dioxins in soil samples taken at various distances around the Coalite plants to complement the work already undertaken by MAFF. This should establish the extent, distribution and magnitude of dioxin contamination in surface soils in the vicinity of the plants concerned. The results will be published in the summer.

I am convinced that the Government have done everything possible as soon as it was required and that we have demonstrated our commitment to the highest standards of food safety. We extend every sympathy to the farmers concerned and are doing our best to assist them in making plans for the future. As I said earlier, the restrictions will be lifted as soon as it is safe to do so. I commend the order to your Lordships.

Lord Rea

My Lords, it seems to me coming to this completely from the outside that certain questions have still not been answered. The Minister mentioned that the polluter pays principle operates but earlier he said that the Government have given compensation to the farmers affected. If it is found that the local chemical plants concerned have been causing the pollution, will the Government ask to be recompensed for the money that they have given to the farmers?

Earl Howe

My Lords, no. The money paid to the farmers was, as I said, in recognition of the co-operation that they have given in connection with the inquiry and in lieu of the disruption caused to them by virtue of that inquiry. It was not compensation for the damage caused to them by the pollution.

Lord Rea

Nevertheless, my Lords, the disruption was originally caused by the fact that the contamination occurred. Therefore it would seem that the taxpayer is bailing the company out.

Earl Howe

My Lords, the noble Lord is making an assumption about the liability of the company concerned. We shall keep the matter under regular review and I take note of his comments.

Baroness O'Cathain

My Lords, I should like to make two observations based on experience and ask two questions. First, I take it that the milk from the first two farms which went to the suckler cow herd was not actually consumed on the farm and therefore there is no damage to the health of the farmer's family and the people who work on the farm, because sometimes that does happen. Secondly, I should like to say that I am very impressed with the amount of work that has been done by the ministry in this connection. It is an horrendous experience.

But I should like to ask two questions. First, the order ceased on 2nd June and today is 23rd June. Can we have the Minister's assurance that meat has not gone into the food chain in the intervening 21 days? It is probably not necessary to answer that but I am slightly worried about it. Secondly, do we have an assurance that dioxin is not on the increase in the other two farms and that the meat from those two farms, in turn, will not be found to be contaminated to such a level that it cannot go into the meat chain? I do not know much about dioxins and how they increase or whether they do increase in the soil, but it is a possibility. I would like the assurance of the Minister on that point.

Earl Howe

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her complimentary comments. As far as concerns the health of the family who live on the farm which is the subject of this order, the levels of dioxin found in their bloodstreams have not proved to be dangerously high. Although the levels are somewhat elevated, the advice from the Department of Health is that the family is highly unlikely to suffer adverse health effects as a result of this.

It is quite true that the date of this order is 2nd June. There are 28 debating days in which to ratify it. There was no disruption in continuity from one order to the next in terms of food moving off any of the farms. No food has moved off a farm which is the subject of this order. As I said earlier, the farmers concerned adhered to the ban to the letter.

I take note of the noble Baroness's question on continually monitoring the levels of dioxin in the other two farms. I can assure her that this is continuing. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.