HL Deb 22 February 1993 vol 543 cc10-6

3.3 p.m.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord Fraser of Carmyllie) rose to move that the order laid before the House on 28th January be approved [18th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble and learned Lord said: My Lords, I beg to move the order in my name. In the Statement which the Secretary of State for Scotland made in another place on 11th January about the Shetland tanker incident, he explained that an exclusion zone had been declared under the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985, within which fishing and harvesting of farmed fish is prohibited. The exclusion zone was set up by the making of an emergency order under the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985.

The purpose of that order was to ensure that, in the light of the MV "Braer" incident, there was no danger of fish or fish products reaching the market, if they could be hazardous to human health. Obviously no sensible fisherman would have fished in the area after the incident; and fish farmers affected by the spread of oil could similarly have been relied upon, voluntarily, to keep their products from the market. Indeed the Shetland Fishermen's Association imposed a voluntary ban before the order was made.

Nevertheless, we thought it was right to use the statutory powers that were available to give legal force to a ban on taking fish from the area. This was done after full consultation with, and with the agreement of, both the Shetland fishermen and the fish farmers. The imposition of the order was part of a three-pronged strategy which also included the establishment of arrangements to sample and test fish being landed on Shetland markets, and the setting up of longer-term monitoring arrangements covering both fish and water quality.

That background to the order is important. In setting up these arrangements the vital importance to the Shetland economy of both the fishing and fish farming industries were taken into account. They faced an obvious and immediate threat to their businesses. There was also the danger of much longer-term damage if these industries should lose market and consumer confidence. Therefore the order, and the other arrangements I have mentioned, were of the greatest importance in assuring commercial buyers and consumers that the greatest care was being taken over the quality of Shetland fish products, and correspondingly that the public should have every confidence in these products when they reach the shops. This approach had the full confidence and support of the industries in Shetland, and so far as salmon is concerned, it is now reassuring that a number of representatives of large supermarket chains who have visited the islands are remarketing Shetland products.

Perhaps it would be helpful to say a little more about the arrangements which underpin the ban. These are based on a continuous programme of water and fish sampling. The first test is the state of hydrocarbons in the water. If the water is polluted, the pollution will then get into the fish. The critical test, from the point of view of food safety, is the fish itself and the accumulation of hydrocarbons in their edible tissue. A variety of fish and shellfish are being sampled continuously for analysis of hydrocarbons in edible tissue and also for taint.

Having summarised the general background, I will explain the details of events which led to the making of the order before the House today. During the debate on the emergency order on 26th January in another place, my honourable friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office, explained that he had decided to extend the western boundary of the zone by five nautical miles from 1°30' west to 1°40' west.

This decision was based on test results which had shown above background levels of hydrocarbons on the west side outwith the original zone. The new order, which revoked the previous order, came into force on 27th January. This is the order which the House is to consider today.

The order is necessary if we are to continue to reassure both consumers and industry alike that the fish and fish products reaching the market are safe to eat and are of the usual good quality associated with the Shetland Islands. I have arranged for copies of maps of the new exclusion zone area to be made available.

Sampling of fish and water both from within and outside the zone continues to be carried out on a regular basis. The latest test results, while indicating a progressive reduction in the level of contamination, still point to the need to retain the zone for the present. Nevertheless we are keenly aware of the problems which this situation creates for the fishing industry.

In an attempt to alleviate economic hardship the Government have made available to producers a bridging fund which will be operated for the Government by Shetland Islands Council. Details of the fund's operation were announced in another place on 21st January by the Secretary of State for Scotland. The first payment of £1 million to set up the fund has been made to Shetland Islands Council.

It is important also that we assess the ecological effects of the incident and for that purpose the Government have set up an ecological steering group to consider strategies both in the short and longer terms on the impact of the incident on the local environment. On 26th January the Secretary of State for Scotland announced the terms of reference and the appointment of Professor Ritchie as chairman. A further announcement about the membership of the group was made on 18th February.

The group's initial purpose is to take an oversight of the various ecological and environmental initiatives which are now under way or are likely to be established on the group's initiative.

I trust that your Lordships will recognise that the order we are debating today forms part of a pattern of effective government action and is in the best interests of the fishing industry and the consumer. We will continue to review the need for the order and will lift it as soon as the evidence warrants it. I commend the order to the House.

Moved, That the order laid before the House on 28th January be approved [18th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Lord Fraser of Carmyllie.)

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, the House is most grateful to the Minister for dealing with this matter more fully than was the case in the Statutory Instruments Committee, which, as he Will be aware, met last week. Most people are very pleased with the Government's work and with the fact that they acted with considerable alacrity. People are particularly pleased about the approachability and the work of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Scottish Office, Sir Hector Monro. He told the committee that he would visit Shetland last weekend, so perhaps the noble and learned Lord is now in a position to answer some of the points raised in another place which the Minister there said that he would look into.

I understand that there were problems with the banks over whether they were likely to realise their threat of foreclosing on certain farmers and small fishermen. The Under-Secretary undertook to investigate this matter, particularly in reference to bridging funds, and he thought that there would be a simple way out of it.

Questions were also asked about how widespread the dissemination of the results of the monitoring would be. Some people in Shetland felt that they had not been given the results of the monitoring as early as they would have liked. I refer particularly to the local newspaper, the Shetland Times. No one in Shetland wants to cause a panic, and there has been no panic about this. The people there have been most steady; but the best way to stop panic is to make available as much information as possible. Perhaps the Minister can say whether his honourable friend was able to clear up that point.

I should like to make two other points. First, we seldom discuss Shetland without referring to the sand eels. They are so much a part of the food chain that I have been asked to find out whether the "Braer" incident had any effect on the recruitment of sand eels into Shetland, and the estimate of the local stock. My other point relates to hydrocarbons, to which the Minister referred. Is the Minister in a position to say at what level of hydrocarbons scientists and the Government feel that it would be safe to continue fishing in the area?

Leaving aside the wider question of tanker traffic and the problems of design and manning, to which I am sure that we shall return at greater length in this Parliament and perhaps soon in primary legislation, it is only fair to say that all the reports that I have received from people who have been involved in this tragedy have been supportive of the work that the Government have done. They believe that the Government have worked fast and sympathetically, and I congratulate them on that.

3.15 p.m.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, I too congratulate the Government on the speed and sympathy that have been evidenced in the actions that they have taken in relation to this situation. I dare say that is due to the very good vintage of the Minister who is in charge, Sir Hector Monro, assisted by his honourable and noble friends.

Perhaps I may ask first about the bridging funds. I believe that the Minister said that Shetland Islands Council will be responsible for the bridging payments, and it is most satisfactory that local knowledge will thus play an enormous part.

Can the Minister say whether the monitoring that has already been carried out shows a steady decline in pollution or is the decline variable? One remembers that 85,000 tonnes of oil were discharged into the sea. Do various areas differ in terms of the amount of pollution? Is the bottom of the sea around the coast —the shellfish area—particularly contaminated? Is the open sea gradually improving? It would be gratifying if the Minister can tell us that the decline in pollution is gradual or that no spots of contamination come and go. That is an important point.

The terms of reference of the monitoring group are also important, as is its funding. Will it be funded directly by the Scottish Office and not inhibited by a lack of cash? That is an important point because monitoring will be important for the longer term.

I agree entirely that the order is necessary for the good name of the products of Shetland. I hope that the Government will continue the good work that they have undoubtedly begun.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble and learned friend for explaining why the exclusion zone is now being extended. This touches on points that arose during the exchanges following my Starred Question on 9th February on the wreck of the "Braer" and its effects. As I understand it, the fish affected are seafish, shellfish and the salmon that are farmed in cages. By a strange turn of events, there has been a glut of landings of whitefish in Shetland in recent weeks, and that continues. Therefore, it is particularly the shellfish fishermen and the salmon farmers whose fish were confined in cages inside the exclusion zone who are likely to suffer financially by far the most. Sea fishermen can hunt elsewhere for their catches. The processors should not therefore be as affected as we had originally thought. I understand that slaughter arrangements are being made for salmon and that contracts have been drawn up with those who are to carry out the slaughter to ensure that is done in a way that will not cause any further pollution to the food chain.

At Question Time on 9th February we mentioned the effect of the International Oil Pollution Compensation Fund and the fact that it had already undertaken to provide a great deal of compensation for the salmon farmers, who are the ones likely to lose the most. It is estimated that that will amount to between £8 million and £10 million. I understand that the director, Mr. Jacobsson, is well organised to provide interim payments for hardship where there are cashflow problems. I hope that the Government will ensure that salmon farmers' claims, together with the facts that are needed, are sent in as quickly as possible. The address is quite easy to remember because the IOPCF, which has a very good reputation for paying up in such situations, has its office in London beside that of the International Maritime Organisation, on the South Bank by Lambeth Bridge.

My noble and learned friend mentioned the fund that is being set up by Shetland Islands Council and the fact that the Government are providing money for it. That is to be welcomed, but is there to be co-ordination with the larger funds which are due to come from Mr. Jacobsson? Is there any allocation? Is it the case that Mr. Jacobsson and the IOPCF are dealing with the salmon farmers and that Shetland Islands Council and the Government are dealing with the others? I should be grateful for some information about co-ordination.

Lord Grimond

My Lords, I am sure that the people of Shetland will re-echo what has been said in this Chamber and the thanks to the Government for their quick and effective action so far. I also thank the Minister for his explanation, and ask two questions.

First, is it intended that the Donaldson Committee will make an interim report or will we have to wait for the final outcome? Secondly, am I correct in understanding that all applications for and questions about the bridging fund should be addressed to the local council and not to the Government or any government agency?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I shall respond to a number of the queries raised. The most important point to be addressed is that of compensation. I am grateful for the welcome given to the action the Government have taken. I can confirm to the noble Lord, Lord Mackie, that the bridging fund is being handled by the SIC on behalf of the Government. The IOPC Fund wrote to the Shetland Salmon Farmers Association on 17th February outlining the terms of an agreement to compensate for the loss of the 1990–91 intake within the exclusion zone. As soon as that is approved, letters will be sent to the farmers seeking a declaration from them that they agree to the destruction of the fish. That is important. As soon as the signed declaration is received, the fund will be able to authorise advances of 50 per cent. of the assessed value of the fish, based upon an agreed price per tonne. A proportion of such advances will be met from the Secretary of State's bridging fund, to which I have already referred.

Upon destruction, the full cost of which will be met by the insurers, the farmer will receive a further advance of some 25 per cent., and when the fish are weighed a 10 per cent. premium will be added to cover the weight loss during the period when no feeding of the farmed fish took place. At that stage there will be a final reckoning.

As the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, said, anxiety has been expressed about one bank not extending its overdraft facilities to an individual in respect of marketing prospects of the immature fish upon which longer term decisions have yet to be taken. That is not the fish that will be harvested this year but harvested next year. I understand that the IOPC Fund has written to the bank assuring it that in the event of the fish being unmarketable, or marketable only at a reduced price, the farmer will receive compensation for any loss that he may suffer. I hope that with that clear indication from the fund the bank will be assured.

Further questions I was asked related to the extent of the monitoring. I repeat, extensive monitoring is going on, not just within the exclusion zone but also outwith it. I was asked a question about sand eels. Sand eel spawning in the area of the spill will have taken place before the incident. Some herring spawning will take place later in the year. Any effect of the oil spill on sand eels will depend upon the extent to which the oil finds its way onto the sea-bed sediment where the spawn is or will be located.

Fisheries research vessels, as part of their work in the area, are taking samples of sediment, eggs and larvae for further detailed analysis. That work will obviously have to be considered carefully. The monitoring exercise is extensive. The department has deployed a team of scientists and a fishery research vessel to the Shetlands to assist the monitoring. The team is using facilities at the North Atlantic Fisheries College in Scalloway. The Torry Research Station has devoted a considerable part of its resources to the analysis of fish samples.

I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Carmichael, that since the end of January the department's marine laboratory has issued regular bulletins on its monitoring activities. They are circulated to interested parties in Shetland. So anyone who has an interest in the matter should have no difficulty in discovering what is going on. There is no intention of keeping things secret. In addition, monitoring is being carried out by local environmental health officers and the Shetland seafood quality control department.

I cannot predict when the zone will be removed. Clearly it will be important to take the best possible marine scientific advice. I can assure the House that there will be no removal of the exclusion zone until all questions about the quality of fish that might be sold are satisfied. We want to maintain the high reputation of the Shetland Islands for quality products. It is only when we are satisfied that that reputation can be wholly maintained that the order will be removed. I commend the order to the House.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, can the Minister give me any information about the graph of pollution? Is it in steady decline or are there variations?

Lord Fraser of Carmyllie

My Lords, I apologise for not mentioning that point. While the emulsifying effect of the violent weather caused the oil to disperse and break up in a remarkable way, my understanding is that there are some areas where there are concentrations of oil spill. Some of them have moved from the immediate vicinity of the wreck. The general indication is that, once all the oil had left the vessel, it dispersed quickly. I should not like to say that it has dispersed completely. Clearly there will be some which will be affecting the sea-bed.

On Question, Motion agreed to.