HL Deb 12 July 1993 vol 548 cc70-2

7.4 p.m.

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne rose to move, That the order laid before the House on 21st June be approved [35th Report front the Joint Committee].

The noble Earl said: My Lords, your Lordships will recall that on 24th June the House considered five emergency orders made on behalf of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State. Their purpose was to ban fishing for certain types of shellfish in the waters around Orkney and a small area of sea off Wick. Today's debate concerns a further two such orders.

The orders before the House today seek your Lordships' approval for emergency orders to ban fishing for, variously, mussels, queens, scallops and razor clams in specific areas. This is due to a build-up of the naturally occurring toxin, paralytic shellfish poison, or PSP, as it is known. The decision to make the orders was based on test results from our PSP monitoring programme which were over the internationally agreed action level of 400 units. Our aim in making the ban is to ensure effective protection of the public from PSP toxin with the minimum disruption to the shellfish market.

I have arranged for copies of maps showing the areas in question to be available in the Library. One order concerns an area in Orkney and the other an area of open sea off the north east of Scotland. The bivalve molluscs to be prohibited in each of the closure areas are determined generally by test results for the individual species in a given locality. In the Orkney case, Order No. 6 adds razor clams to the species already prohibited by Order No. 2: these were mussels, queen scallops and scallops. This resulted from a level of over 2,000 units in samples of razor clams taken from the Sanday area.

The second order with which we are concerned today is the one concerned with a rather larger area of open sea to the north east of the Scottish mainland. In the latter part of June high levels of PSP (between 1,500 and 2,700 units) were detected in scallops at a variety of locations between Fair Isle and the Moray Firth. It would have made no real sense to close only small areas around the highly affected locations that we had detected and ignoring the intervening waters because algal blooms are not static. Accordingly, the area prohibited by Order No. 4 was extended over a considerable stretch of water from the Moray Firth northwards to the Fair Isle. The species affected by Order No. 7 were mussels, scallops and queens.

Following the making of Order No. 7 a number of vessels moved south to the grounds east of Montrose amid some uncertainty as to whether the closure area would be extended southwards to this area, also within a short timescale. Some vessels did then pull out for fear of losing the value of any catches that they took. I understand that by late June there were few vessels remaining in this area. I am pleased to be able to report, however, that despite one or two isolated higher results, the levels found in most samples in this area have been relatively low and extension of the closure area into the area of Montrose has not been necessary.

The closed areas and the prohibited species are being monitored regularly so that the orders will only remain in force for as long as each one is necessary and no longer. I must emphasise that our aim in taking this action is—as it was with the earlier five orders—to ensure effective protection of the public from PSP toxin with the minimum disruption to the shellfish market. The orders will be monitored individually and in each case will be revoked as soon as the results of continued sampling and medical and scientific advice indicate that it is safe to do so. Meantime, there has been no significant downturn in toxin levels since the orders were made. Regrettably, therefore, these two orders, and the five which preceded them, are still essential to the protection of public health. I beg to move.

Moved, That the order laid before the House on 21st June be approved [35th Report from the Joint Committee].—(The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne.)

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, we must all be grateful for the long and detailed statement which the Minister has made. We can have no complaint at all that these precautions and orders are put in place. I also thank the Minister for having provided earlier some maps of the area which show how widespread the problem is. Perhaps the Minister can answer a question. There is a feeling that the disease has spread more than on previous occasions. It has nothing to do with the Government and all their problems. This is a natural problem. I may be wrong and it is perhaps only a case of thinking that yesterday was better than today and that last year was better than this year. However, perhaps the Minister could let us know if there is a particular reason why we have seven of these orders this year, some of which encompass fairly wide areas. Is the problem more serious this year? Is something fundamental causing the growth?

This is a highly specialised matter and I do not expect the Minister to understand the details, but I hope that he will be able to shed some light on the problems that I have raised. After taking advice, I hope that he will be able to give me a more accurate and scientific evaluation of whether the incidence is greater than normal and, if so, whether anything can be done about it. Other than that, I am grateful to the Minister for what he has said.

The Earl of Strathmore and Kinghorne

My Lords, records of this phenomenon go back as far as 1814. It is very much a seasonal matter. In fact, two years ago we had 14 such orders. The noble Lord has asked me a scientific question. I shall do my best to find out the answer and shall write to him about it. I commend the order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.