Previous SectionIndexHome Page

5.22 pm

Mr. Martin Caton (Gower) (Lab): Like the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnorshire (Mr. Williams), I shall concentrate on a constituency issue. Coincidentally, it focuses on a failure to test a food product.

Two years ago in our Welsh day debate in the House, I focused my remarks on the problems created in the Burry inlet cockle fishery by the apparent presence of diarrhetic shellfish poisoning. Things have moved on since then, and the Food Standards Agency, which is responsible for the regular testing of shellfish in our waters, has come under scrutiny and, to say the least, has been found wanting—most recently by the House of Commons Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee. I congratulate that Committee, and the Sub-Committee that considered this issue, on the valuable work that it undertook and the quality of its succinct report.

It is impossible to raise issues of the British cockle industry without thinking about the terrible tragedy in Morecambe bay on 4 February, when 20 cockle pickers were killed. We are all still shocked by those deaths, and I am sure that we all feel for those poor people and their families. At least that is how I assumed we all felt until I listened to the "Today" programme this morning.

We have open shellfisheries like Morecambe around the Welsh coast, and pickers can come from anywhere and gather cockles. However, the Burry inlet is not one of them. It is a regulated fishery, administered by the South Wales Sea Fisheries Committee, where only a limited number of licensed gatherers can collect cockles and the amount each of them can take is controlled, as is the size of the cockles taken. That cockle fishery has always been an example of good, environmentally sustainable practice, with the cockles being gathered using hand rakes and very hard work. While other shellfisheries throughout the UK and Europe have turned to the use of heavy equipment from boats or large tractor rakes, pickers in the Burry inlet have stuck with traditional methods. That means that it is the only cockle fishery in the UK that remains open for 12 months of the year—at least, it did before the summer of 2001.

The Burry inlet until then was not only environmentally, but economically sustainable, providing a decent livelihood for more than 40 families in north Gower and leading to the establishment of a sizeable co-operative cockle and laver bread factory, as well as other family processing units in the Penclawdd and Crofty area. In addition, of course, there are cockle

26 Feb 2004 : Column 498

gatherers and processing facilities based on the other side of the estuary. On average, some 3,500 tonnes of cockles have been taken from the estuary each year.

In early July 2001 a regular test recorded a positive result for something called diarrhetic shellfish poisoning, a condition whose name speaks for itself. That was on the north side of the estuary. It was followed the next day by a similar result for the south side.

For the next 14 months the entire fishery remained closed, barring a few weeks when there were some negative results and the gatherers were allowed back. During that period the cockle gatherers were, of course, in a desperate situation, and they were asking some serious questions.

The first question was: "Why does the whole fishery have to close when there is a negative result in just one part of the estuary? Why can't the inlet be zoned as some other shellfisheries are?" The Food Standards Agency eventually, after more than a year, gave way on that matter. Zoning was allowed, and gathering started again, because usually one zone or other got a negative result.

The second question the gatherers asked was: "If these cockles are poisonous when they are taken for testing, how come no one has ever got ill?" It must be remembered that after the cockles are taken for testing, provided the previous test was negative, it takes several days for the results to come back. If the tests are positive, a closure order is imposed. That means that for some days supposedly contaminated cockles are put on the market, but there have been no reports of illness in customers buying them.Even more significant for the gatherers was the experience of their own families, who continued to eat considerable quantities of cockles that were said to be poisonous without any evidence of illness ensuing.

The gatherers also pointed out that the incidents of so-called diarrhetic shellfish poisoning were not occurring in circumstances that were usual for the problem—extended periods of sunshine and an accompanying increase in algal bloom. Eventually the Food Standards Agency acknowledged that it was not a normal DSP outbreak, so it changed the classification to "atypical".

The industry started asking questions about the testing regime that produced the results and two factors started alarm bells ringing. First, the positive atypical diarrhetic shellfish poisoning results started coming in immediately after responsibility for algal testing and monitoring for England and Wales transferred from the Marine Laboratory, Aberdeen, to the Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science in Weymouth. Secondly, the positive results started coming in for shellfisheries around the English and Welsh coast, from us in the west round to the Thames fishery in the east all at the same time as the transfer. Yet at the same time, Scottish cockles, which were still being tested in Aberdeen, were consistently getting negative results in their DSP test, and cockles collected by the Dutch gatherers off the Netherlands coast, just 60 miles away from the Thames fishery, were still all clear and indeed were being imported into this country.

While many shellfisheries were affected, none was as badly hit as the Burry inlet, which even after it was zoned had each of its three zones closed for many weeks

26 Feb 2004 : Column 499

at a time, inevitably affecting the number of cockles gathered and the quality of the cockle beds, which need regular picking to be maintained.

If we look at what the testing, under the EC shellfish hygiene directive, actually involved before and during the period in question, what we find is illuminating. The test method used was and is the mouse bioassay, whereby shellfish extract is injected into mice. As I have said, after the work for England and Wales was transferred to Weymouth the explosion in positive results occurred. However, something was different from the usual DSP: the mice were dying much quicker and positive results were sustained over a much longer period than normal.

The transfer to Weymouth meant that in the UK three different laboratories were now carrying out tests: Aberdeen for Scotland; Weymouth for England and Wales; and the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development in Northern Ireland. It eventually became clear that different testing techniques in conducting the mouse bioassay were being used at each of those laboratories. That followed an audit by Professor Hugh Makin, who also showed some poor scientific practice and a lack of quality assurance. Most amazingly, there were even different approaches to determining whether a particular test result was negative or positive.

Dr. Godfrey Howard, who had been responsible for shellfish hygiene testing for England and Wales when it was conducted in Aberdeen, gave significant evidence to the Select Committee on Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, reporting that his laboratory had come across the atypical test response on occasions since before 1995. It believed it to be the result of solvent carry-over in the test procedure, which was termed as "false positives" in Aberdeen. Since November last year, a common method has been established in the three laboratories. Coincidentally—or perhaps not—since that time no positive atypical DSP results have been reported.

I should like to conclude by drawing the House's attention to a couple of quotes from the Select Committee report, to which I have already referred. I recommend that my hon. Friend the Minister read them over the weekend. The report states:

I particularly welcome the following recommendation:

It is clear that this Government agency has badly let down cockle gatherers throughout England and Wales. These recommendations set out the way forward for rebuilding this small but important industry. We need to implement them with urgency and commitment for the whole shellfish industry, but no one needs that to happen more than the cockle pickers of the Burry estuary.

26 Feb 2004 : Column 500

5.31 pm

Mr. Nigel Evans (Ribble Valley) (Con): I have agreed to speak for only five minutes to allow somebody else to get in, but your disappointment will hopefully be relieved, Mr. Deputy Speaker, by the fact that it will all be quality stuff. [Interruption.] Yes, I shall depart from my normal level of speaking. I want to talk about only two things: the Richard commission and the North Wales police chief.

I do not know why the Richard commission was set up in the first place. As we know, the Welsh Assembly was created by only a narrow majority on a lacklustre turnout, so spending £1 million on such a review is money wasted. The Assembly has to do a lot more to gain the confidence of the Welsh people. It did not get off to a very good start; indeed, every time I open the newspapers to read about the Assembly there are only bad news stories, many of which are self-inflicted. There was its incompetent running of the national health service—the out-patient waiting list has risen dramatically—but there were also some petty things. It had huge debates on foreign affairs, over which it has no domain, and on where Members should sit in the Assembly. And of course, there was the fiasco of the Welsh Assembly building. The hole in the ground cost £8 million, and its only defence was, "At least we're better than the Scottish Parliament, which cost £400 million."

All the political parties have been debating what we should do about the Welsh Assembly and whether it should be given extra powers. The question of whether it should be scrapped was raised, and the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Lembit Öpik) said that there are some within my own party who are very "devosceptic". He was referring to David Davies, the Assembly Member for Monmouth, who is indeed a devosceptic. Only two people are more devosceptic than him—his parents Peter and Kath. They are the only parents I know who tried to campaign their son out of a job, and they did so with vigour and heart-felt clamour. However, David Davies secured a huge majority at the last Assembly election, which was a first-past-the-post election, so he speaks on behalf of the vast majority of his constituents, at least.

We know that some people have strong feelings about the Assembly one way or the other, but it could do better. If the Richard commission suggests that it should have extra powers—goodness forbid that it recommends taxation-varying powers—there will have to be another referendum. If there is another referendum, there will be a clamour for including on the ballot paper the question of whether the Welsh Assembly should exist at all. So people should be put on warning that if we have another referendum, it will be about not just extra powers, but the whole gamut of the Assembly.

Secondly, I want to talk about the North Wales police chief. He is a colourful character who regularly dominates the pages of the Daily Mail. When he is not reading that, he is doubtless writing to the Secretary of State for Wales and to my hon. Friend the Member for Leominster (Mr. Wiggin). He is obsessed with two things: the legalisation of heroin and, so far as I can make out, all sorts of drugs; and the speed cameras of he which seems to be in charge. He seems to be in favour of

26 Feb 2004 : Column 501

speed on the one hand, and against speed on the other. He should make up his mind. The policy on speed cameras is completely insane; he is obsessed with them.

I have asked for an independent audit of the cameras to ensure that they are put in blackspot areas, as the last thing we want is for those speed cameras in effective areas to lose public support. I have received letters from people who have been booked for doing 33 mph in a 30 mph zone, and from people who feel that they are always looking at the speedometer instead of the road and are afraid that they will have an accident.

In Lancashire, the number of fatalities went up last year when the number of speed cameras increased by 100. We need balance to ensure that we retain public support, which the police need to help them solve other crimes. Also, as much vigour needs to be shown in terms of cameras that protect against car crime as in dealing with speeding. We know that speed kills and that in the wrong weather conditions a 40 mph zone is probably too high. Drivers also need to show some discipline.

There are a number of other matters on which the House knows I would have spoken had we more time, but I decided to concentrate on two; the need to be careful with regard to the Richard commission and the need for some sanity in the question of speed cameras in Wales.

Next Section

IndexHome Page