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Chernobyl Accident: Movement Of Sheep, Scotland

Volume 477: debated on Tuesday 24 June 1986

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4.35 p.m.

My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in another place by my right honourable and learned friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. The Statement is as follows:

"With permission, Mr. Speaker, I should like to make a Statement on the control on the movement and slaughter of sheep in Scotland.

The results of tests on sheep in slaughterhouses in Scotland, the latest findings from which were published yesterday, give no cause for concern. We now have results of tests on young lambs in Scotland. These results are being published today.

"Generally they are satisfactory. No readings have been obtained comparable to the highest in North Wales and Cumbria, but there are five readings over 1,000 Bq/kg for caesium 134 and caesium 137 together, which is the limit at which by international recommendation action should be considered. One of these readings, the lowest of the five, comes from Easter Ross and, at 1,017 Bq/kg, is within the margin of sampling error. Three of the other readings were found in Dumfries and Galloway, including the highest at 1,272 Bq/kg, and the remaining reading is from Arran.

"The animals tested were only two to three months old and will not be ready for market for some weeks yet, by which time the level of radioactivity may be expected to have declined well below the 1,000 Bq/kg level. I can say categorically therefore that there is no danger to public health and no reason for consumers to refrain from purchasing and eating lamb.

"It is Government policy to insist on the highest levels of safety, and, in order to keep under supervision lambs in those areas of Scotland where relatively high levels of radioactivity have been identified, I have made an order which will be laid before Parliament to come into effect today to prohibit for the next 21 days the movement and slaughter of sheep within Dumfries and Galloway, Arran and Easter Ross.

"Monitoring in these and other areas will continue and the restrictions will be reduced or removed as soon as testing confirms the expected fall in levels.

"I recognise that these measures may cause some interference with the marketing plans of some farmers in the areas concerned. I am sure they will understand why this action is being taken and in this connection I must pay tribute to the responsible and co-operative attitude shown by the National Farmers' Union of Scotland. If it should prove necessary, the Government will be prepared to discuss cases of compensation for severe loss in particular circumstances to specific farmers."

My Lords, that concludes the Statement.

My Lords, there is not much that one can say which was not said on Friday when the Statement on Wales and Cumbria was made. However, I think that the importance of letting the public know what is happening should be re-emphasised, and the noble Viscount has done so, because there were some considerable scare stories in the press last Saturday morning. However, this is a difficult task to carry out, and I understand that there has already been a drop in the price of lamb. My own wife's reaction is that she will not buy lamb unless it is New Zealand lamb. This has a rolling effect which is seen in the fact that lamb prices have come down, in spite of the fact that many of these lambs are not yet of marketable size, although in 21 days they can come a long way.

I should like to ask the Minister why, only three days after the Statement on Friday, we have this Statement. I hope that the Government have not been sitting on these reports because it is rather important that farmers should know all along the line what is going on. I hope that that is not the case here.

The matter of compensation will be very important because all the areas which have been mentioned, apart from Easter Ross, almost entirely rely on at least the next two months for the sale of store and fat lambs for their total income for the year. Therefore, it is very important indeed that this matter should be looked into very carefully and that we be ready to give help when it is required.

On several previous occasions when compensation has been paid, the matter has dragged on for a long time and farmers have had to wait for their money. I re-emphasise that these are areas where the farmers' income comes solely from sheep and if we have another Statement from the Government, it will be very serious for them. I hope that the Minister can assure us that there will not be another Statement in the near future because that would give rise to a very serious situation as it would begin to cover all the lamb-producing areas in the country.

My Lords, it is obvious that in circumstances of this kind the Government, in the public interest, must err on the side of caution, and this the Government have done. Would the noble Viscount confirm that there is strict monitoring going on, and that in fact the lambs in this and the surrounding areas will be tested again to reassure the public, and that the results will be published as soon as it is done?

With regard to the question of compensation, these are innocent farmers, very often with one cash crop in the year, and that is lamb. The words used in this Statement in respect of compensation might cause considerable alarm. It is clear that this interference with the normal marketing process will cause loss to farmers. For example, if lambs are kept back for three weeks they put on excessive fat and will not grade properly.

The words used in the Statement are:
"If it should prove necessary the Government will be prepared to discuss cases of compensation for severe loss".
Should not the Government compensate for any loss? Why should it be confined to particular circumstances with specific farmers? If fanners as a result of these actions are going to suffer loss, surely the Government should compensate, and look to the Soviet Union for compensation nationally? Would the noble Viscount not agree with that?

My Lords, I am grateful to both the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, and the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, for their reception of this Statement. In general, I would agree with the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, that this problem was discussed at length on Friday when my noble friend Lord Belstead repeated a Statement made in another place by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

I do not think that I can add much to what my noble friend then said. But on certain specific points, the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, asked why was the order not laid last Friday. We said then that we would act on the basis of monitoring data, and that is what we have done. Following on the monitoring topic, I would assure the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, that we are keeping monitoring on a continuous basis and will publish the results.

The noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, raised the subject of consumption. If it is any help, perhaps I may just give him a scientific answer from my brief and not from my brain. At 1,000 Becquerels per kilogram of total caesium, which is caesium 137 plus caesium 134, the total does in a year to the average consumer, assuming he eats meat at the average consumption rate throughout the year of five kilograms, would be 0·15 millisieverts. This compares with an annual does from natural sources of 2 millisieverts, to which we are all subjected. Therefore, there is no danger whatsoever.

On the question of compensation, which both the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie, and the noble Lord, Lord Hooson, raised, I take note of what they said. This is always a difficult problem in these matters. Our intention is that any distruption will be minimal disruption, and the position on compensation was spelt out by my right honourable friend the Minister of Agricuture. If it should prove necessary, the Government will be prepared to discuss cases of compensation for severe loss in particular circumstances to specific farmers, and more than that I cannot say at the moment.

My Lords, could my noble friend say why sheep only? Are we monitoring the position as regards fat cattle? Certainly in Easter Ross some fat cattle will be coming forward for slaughter in the near future. Can my noble friend say a word on the position of monitoring of cattle?

My Lords, the monitoring results so far—and there has been monitoring for cattle as well—show that there is no cause for concern withother food products at the moment. The point is that he young lambs have been feeding on the contaminated pastures and have been ingesting a great amount of food, and that is why they have been particularly susceptible to risk.

My Lords, am I right in thinking that the Government took action as soon as they received the information in respect of the recent analysis? But it is rather obscure to say that there is no cause for concern. There may be no cause for concern to the consumer; but there is considerable cause for concern to the farmer, especially when the noble Viscount suggests that there may be some disruption of the market.

You cannot have a policy of restricting movement and no slaughter without seriously restricting the market for those hill sheep farmers affected. What percentage of the stock of sheep in Scotland is held in Arran? It is not very high, I would fancy. But when you think of Dumfries and Galloway particularly, and Easter Ross, it must be getting well on to 15 per cent. of the whole stock. That is a considerable disruption.

Can the noble Viscount tell me one other thing? When he talked about a restriction on movement and slaughter, is this absolute? Is there to be no movement at all even within an area? Can he give us any indication of what is going to be the basis of compensation when that is dealt with? Compensation will be needed, and needed speedily when we are dealing with what is an acceptable—and readily acceptable—cash crop for farmers who are going to be denied it, having had a fairly rough winter already.

My Lords, in reply to the noble Lord, Lord Ross of Marnock, I do not have the figures of the number of sheep affected. On the effect of the order, in Dumfries and Galloway it forbids for a period of 21 days, beginning on 24th June, the movement of sheep off farms and the slaughter of sheep except with the consent of the department. Slaughter will be permitted for welfare reasons, and this is already provided for in the order, on condition that the meat does not …. There is no end to that sentence. I apologise for the fact that my noble friend the Minister of State is in Inverness today. I am afraid I forget the noble Lord's other question. Perhaps he would remind me.

My Lords, I asked about the stock, and whether there was an absolute bar on the movement and slaughter of stock, and I gather that there is not provided something or other that we do not know about, and that the Minister has not been adequately briefed about. I asked about the effect of compensation. There has already been a loss and a drop in price. It may not affect just these areas. It may be general through all the lamb and store lamb markets at the present time. The other question was about the basis of compensation, and whether it will be paid quickly.

My Lords, I understand. What I meant to say earlier when I was talking about no cause for concern was that I was talking about the consumer. There is of course considerable cause for concern for the farmers affected here. I am certain that my right honourable friend will bear that in mind and do his best to assess and pay the compensation to those who have really suffered from this tragedy.

My Lords, if the Government find it necessary to pay compensation in respect of Scotland, Cumbria, or of Wales, will they seek reimbursement of the cost of that from the Government of the USSR in view of the fact that the whole problem has been created by a failure in the industrial system of that country?

My Lords, I think all I can say to my noble friend is that I shall pass on his question to my right honourable friend.

My Lords, may I ask the noble Viscount to tell me whether the monitoring of cattle, to which he referred, includes the monitoring of milk, and if so, with what results?

My Lords, while I agree with what my noble friend Lord Ross of Marnock has said about the producer, may I ask whether the noble Viscount is aware that it will ease public concern considerably if he makes it clear that within the 21 days referred to in the Statement the amount of caesium in the lambs will have reduced sufficiently to make it safe to slaughter and to eat the lamb? That is the point in the public mind that has not been made clear. If he can say that today, it will be of considerable benefit.

My Lords, I can state categori-cally that that is what we are expecting to happen; that the amount of caesium will be reduced over the next 21 days.

My Lords, may I ask the noble Viscount about another point which might worry farmers? If the price comes down I hope the Government will not rely on the variable premium to make it up. There is a limit to the variable premium and it would not make up a loss of 25 per cent., which is the figure stated. I do not know how accurate that figure is, but it has been quoted in some of the reliable press. That is something that must be carefully watched: the Government, who are pretty good at this kind of thing, relying on the variable premium, which I do not think they can do in this case.

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord John-Mackie. I shall certainly draw his remarks to the attention of my right honourable friend.