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House of Lords

Tuesday, 2nd March 1999.

The House met at half-past two of the clock: The LORD CHANCELLOR on the Woolsack.

Prayers--Read by the Lord Bishop of Bristol.

Infectious Salmon Anaemia

Lord Mackie of Benshie asked Her Majesty's Government:

    What steps they are taking to deal with the problems in the Scottish salmon farming industry caused by the spread of Infectious Salmon Anaemia.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Scottish Office (Lord Sewel): My Lords, action is being taken on a number of fronts. The Government's basic aim is to eradicate this outbreak of ISA by effective controls to contain the virus, because that is in the best long-term interest of the industry and of the wild stocks. To limit the impact on jobs, attempts are being made to accelerate the availability of alternative sites consistent with proper consideration of environmental concerns. Finally, recognising the contribution that fish farming makes to remote rural areas, my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Scotland announced on 8th February that the Government were prepared to provide up to £9 million over three years, on a matching pound for pound basis, towards any fund that the industry might establish collectively to aid individual farmers affected by ISA. Discussions with the industry about such a scheme continue.

Lord Mackie of Benshie: My Lords, as is customary, I thank the Minister for that reply; but I cannot think that it tackles the problem properly. It is extraordinary that the Government order people to destroy their stocks but refuse compensation. In the case of foot and mouth disease, where there is compulsory slaughter, full compensation is paid. Do the Government remember that, in the case of BSE, the Tory Government offered only half compensation for BSE cattle, with the undoubted result that many slipped through the net? Does the Minister agree that it is important that the whole of the industry, which is very important for the West, goes along with the government measures? Does he further agree that a scheme that asks the industry to provide pound for pound is not a sufficient response? Where do the Government think the outbreak came from?

Lord Sewel: My Lords, to deal with the noble Lord's last question, we are under an obligation and are working to ascertain the source of the outbreak. As yet, we are not in a position to announce definitive findings. I am aware that a number of interests wish to know the source when the information becomes available.

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There is no legal liability for the Government to pay compensation. There has been no previous case of any financial aid in cases of fish disease. We are making an exception in this case in recognition of the significant contribution that fish farming makes to the economies of remote areas in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland.

Lord Mason of Barnsley: My Lords, it is about a year since this outbreak took place. I gather that 10 fish farms are already infected and 15 are suspect. Is the Minister aware that it will be necessary at some point for him to reveal the origin of the disease and how it was transmitted? There is no doubt that Norway comes under the microscope. When the Minister addressed the House on 27th October, he said that,

    "we are moving to a period in the year when we will soon know whether the virus and the disease have been contained".--[Official Report, 27/10/98; col. 1906.]
Is it now under control? Also, are wild salmon in danger from this virus?

Lord Sewel: My Lords, I shall be happy to reveal the origins of the virus when there is sufficient scientific evidence to support any finding. I can confirm that there are 10 confirmed sites and 15 suspected sites. Scotland has some 300 fish farms. It is important to recognise that the last confirmed outbreak of the disease occurred in September last year. It is encouraging that no new outbreaks have been confirmed. Nevertheless, there are no grounds for complacency.

Lord Moran: My Lords, I welcome the measures taken by the Scottish Office to control this serious disease. Will the Minister confirm that he will resist calls for ISA to be downgraded from the status of a list 1 disease requiring compulsory slaughter as this might have the disastrous consequence of allowing it to become endemic, as it is now in Norway?

Lord Sewel: My Lords, the noble Lord makes a good point. Norway adopts a completely different approach to the treatment of this disease, recognising that it is endemic in their waters. Our policy is based on eradication. We believe that that is in the long-term interests of both the fish farming industry and wild fish interests. We shall maintain that policy until our scientists advise us that it is no longer credible. I hope that that situation will not arise.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour: My Lords, are the tanks within which Norwegian ships move the salmon from farm to farm suspect? If they are, are the Government doing anything about regulating the washing out of those tanks?

Lord Sewel: My Lords, I should clarify a point which I am sure the noble Baroness would not wish to go unclarified. There is no importation of live salmon from Norway. There are movements between sites. We have set up an industry working party to improve the husbandry and overall healthcare and sanitation

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procedures which are adopted for the well-boats. I am pleased to say that the industry is co-operating thoroughly in that regard.

Lord Taylor of Gryfe: My Lords, will the Minister confirm that this virus is of no danger with respect to human consumption and that it will not enter the food chain? Can he also confirm that in Canada and Norway, where there is experience of this virus, it has been brought under control? Is it the intention of Her Majesty's Government to apply similar controls so far as the Scottish farmed salmon industry is concerned?

Lord Sewel: My Lords, the answer to the latter point is no. The controls exercised in Norway, in particular, are predicated on the basis that the virus is endemic. We wish to remove the virus entirely, and that requires an eradication policy, not a containment policy. With regard to the noble Lord's first point, I can confirm that the virus cannot live at temperature levels found in the human body.

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish: My Lords, will the Minister expedite the identification of temporary sites where those farmers who have been affected by this problem can grow on the next crop of smolts? When he is looking at those emergency sites, will he also consider moving those fish farms currently unaffected which we now know have been wrongly sited in, for example, sea lochs with very little water movement, to better sites where many of the problems affecting the industry and wild stocks will not occur?

Lord Sewel: My Lords, the planning responsibility for salmon farms is in the process of being transferred from the Crown Commissioners to local authorities. The point which the noble Lord makes is an interesting one. I am not sure how it would be implemented. With regard to the noble Lord's first point, I can assure him that we are working closely with the industry, local authorities and SEPA to ensure that temporary sites are made available where that is compatible with the proper environmental precautions.

Overseas Territories: White Paper

2.46 p.m.

Baroness Young asked Her Majesty's Government:

    When they expect to issue the White Paper on United Kingdom Overseas Territories announced by the Foreign Secretary in a speech on 4th February 1998.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean): My Lords, Her Majesty's Government intend to publish the White Paper on the Overseas Territories during the week commencing 15th March. The White Paper will provide a comprehensive review of Britain's relations with the Overseas Territories, including the

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relationship with the Government, their financial regulation and the protection of their rich environmental heritage. The preparation of the White Paper has involved wide-ranging consultation on a broad group of subjects. We believe that our proposals will be welcomed.

Baroness Young: My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply and I welcome the fact that the White Paper is to be published in two weeks' time. Is the Minister aware of the great uncertainty which has been created in these countries, particularly over issues such as citizenship and the relationship of the Overseas Territories with the European Union and the question of tax harmonisation, which would have an immense effect on places like the Cayman Islands and the British Virgin Islands, to name but two?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean: My Lords, I am aware of these issues and have discussed them in a number of the Overseas Territories during recent visits. The White Paper will cover a wide range of issues. It was important to consult with the Overseas Territories and with other government departments in Whitehall. I hope that the period of uncertainty to which the noble Baroness refers will soon be over.

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