HC Deb 01 July 1959 vol 608 cc516-24

5.52 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Power (Sir Ian Horobin)

I beg to move, in page 5, line 12, at the end to insert: the relevant date, that is to say, the date of". I wonder whether it would be convenient, Sir Charles, to consider this Amendment, which is a paving Amendment, with the following substantive Amendment, in page 5, line 14. If that Amendment is passed, all the following Government Amendments become consequential and could be moved formally.

Sir Frank Soskice (Newport)

I hope, Sir Charles, that you will feel able to call the Amendment to the proposed Amendment standing in the names of my hon. Friends and myself. I take it that in due course you may feel able to allow discussion on that.

The Chairman

All the Amendments will be called, except the one that has not been recommitted.

Sir I. Horobin

That being agreed, Sir Charles, I do not think that these two Amendments will take very long because they deal with a matter upon which both sides of the Standing Committee felt very strongly and we are just engaged in making sure that we do what we all wanted to do.

The point, shortly, is that we do not want to find that anyone's claim is barred by limitation of time as the result of any narrow judicial interpretation of the word "occurrence". We want to be sure that it is not confined to a momentary definable catastrophic event because an occurrence might become a continuing or repeating one. In Committee I moved an Amendment to Clause 4 (1) which went a substantial way to deal with that, but I said that we would look at it again. We have re-examined the matter and the point of these Amendments is to make doubly sure.

One of the points on which we were not quite certain was the legal position concerning Clarkson v. Modern Foundries Ltd., 1958, which has a certain effect in England but might be held not to apply to Scotland. It would obviously be undesirable if different circumstances arose in the two countries. The result of that further consideration is in the words of the second Amendment which we are now discussing, and which I shall move in a moment. I think that it will make absolutely certain that what both sides of the Committee wanted to be done will be done.

Sir F. Soskice

I rise to thank the Minister for the obvious trouble which the Government have expended upon considering the points that we put in Standing Committee. The Amendment which we are now discussing and which we on this side of the Committee are very glad indeed to accept goes a long way to removing the apprehensions which troubled us when we were looking at this part of the Bill during Committee stage.

We still have, however, some apprehensions which it would perhaps be out of order for me to mention now as the Chair has indicated that it proposes to call the Amendment to this Amendment. The Amendment certainly goes a long way to bring in all those cases in which it is difficult to point to any particular occurrence where there is a number of occurrences forming a chain of events in circumstances in which it is difficult to pick out and isolate one particular instance as being the cause of the misfortune.

I am very grateful to the Government for what they have done and for the language they have chosen, and, speaking for myself, I am very glad to welcome the Amendment.

Amendment agreed to.

Amendment proposed: In page 5, line 14, at end insert: or, where that occurrence was a continuing one, or was one of a succession of occurrences all attributable to a particular happening on that site or to the carrying out from time to time on that site of a particular operation, the date of the last event in the course of that occurrence or succession of occurrences to which the claim relates".—[Sir I. Horobin.]

Sir F. Soskice

I beg to move, as an Amendment to the proposed Amendment, at the end to add: and for the purpose of this subsection the appearance of symptoms indicating the presence of any illness, incapacity or injury shall be deemed to be an occurrence". I intimated a moment ago that the Government Amendment still left one area about which we felt uncertain. It is this. The Government Amendment has certainly covered the case where we have a confused series of incidents, one or more of which could be said to be the author of the mishap. What we feel may not have been adequately covered is the situation in which a person after a long period of time, having been exposed to radiation through working in or near a plant, developed symptoms of an illness which would seem to be traceable to that exposure.

In that circumstance it might be impossible to link the symptoms with any known incident at all. They might occur years later. Doctors may be able to say that the symptoms must have been caused by exposure and to the proximity of the patient to some happening in which a radiating effluence was emitted. That situation, we feel, would not be covered, and we have tried to devise a form of words to bring it in. We have sought to provide that the first appearance of symptoms indicating the presence of some illness or incapacity and being symptoms which are the sort which one would link with exposure to radiation should themselves be regarded as an occurrence.

The result of that would be, if the Amendment were accepted, as follows. Supposing a person who has worked in one of these plants for ten, fifteen, twenty or thirty years later develops some incapacity—loses the sight of an eye, which was an example given in Standing Committee—or suffers some malformation, perhaps suddenly or over a period of time; and supposing that when the symptoms first appear it is utterly impossible, looking backwards in history, to say that the symptoms were due to the fact that on such a day twenty years ago there was an explosion, or that "I stood too near one of these plants without proper protective clothing" or something of that sort, it will be possible for the claimant or, in the event of his death, his dependants to say that the actual emergence of the symptoms is the thing we point to as the occurrence.

6.0 p.m.

Our Amendment provides that the appearance of a symptom indicating an illness shall be regarded as the occurrence. The Government may say that although they recognise the force of our argument they cannot accept the Amendment because they have already extended the period to thirty years. My reply would be that we are dealing with a new type of illness and with a situation which has been very little explored. Doctors know very little about it. It may well be that, as the result of exposure which itself may have lasted for a very long period of time, one of these dreadful catastrophes will take place years later; we cannot say how long. A man's eyesight may go, or something of that sort. I bring that in as a rather macabre example.

We should make sure that that sort of case is brought into the scope of these rather complicated provisions. It should be possible for a person who is the victim of exposure which took place years before, or for his dependants, to say that years ago he had worked in circumstances in which he might have exposed himself to radiation, and to point to the emergence of the illness as being the occurrence under this Measure. I think the language that we have chosen in our Amendment would bring that about. If the Amendment is in line with the Government's own thinking, I hope that they will accept it and will redraft it with the assistance of their advisers.

I therefore commend the Amendment to the Committee. One is uncertain how these symptoms may develop and what form they may take. We are laying down the framework of a code of security, and trying to provide for unknown situations which may present themselves in the future. We ought not to take the risk of leaving out of the Bill that kind of contingency. The Government have gone a long way to bring in everything that should be brought in, but they have not gone quite to the length that we would like them to go. We believe that the Committee generally will readily accept that the sort of situation I have described should be brought within the scope of the Bill, if it is practicable and possible so to do.

Mr. Frederick Peart (Workington)

I would reinforce the plea which has just been made by my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice). In Committee, we tried to argue that we should err on the side of caution. That was always our approach, not only in dealing with actual safety of nuclear reactors and installations but of the personnel who are employed in them. I hope that the Minister will accept the plea of my right hon. and learned Friend that we shall err on the side of caution and not think in terms of a 30-year limit.

What really matters is how the individual is affected. There is great uncertainty in this field, in which medical knowledge is extremely limited. For that very important reason we ask the Government to err on the side of caution in this legislation and, therefore, to accept our Amendment to the proposed Amendment. I do not want to put it higher than that—we are dealing with unknown hazards in the radioactive field. I hope that the Government will accept our Amendment.

Mr. Roy Mason (Barnsley)

I do not want unduly to prolong the discussion on this part of the Bill, but, as my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) has said, we stressed in Committee the need for safety. We can congratulate the Government, and successive Governments, on starting off the atomic energy policy and nuclear energy in all its aspects in a way that has made it one of the safest industries of the country and compares well with nuclear industries elsewhere.

Nevertheless, there is bound to be spillage or leakage of nuclear energy from these nuclear reactors, and such things should be taken into consideration. There may be a slight increase of radioactivity on the site itself and that will exist as long as the site is occupied in this way. There is always the danger, as we have witnessed not long ago, that the operating boxes in our research establishments are used under the wrong impression that they are safe, and symptoms develop later on in the people concerned. Many people who are not scientists have to handle radioactive materials over a long period of time, such as radioactive waste in various forms when it is deposited in bulk from nuclear energy plants or dumped into the sea. There is no telling to what extent people may be affected over a period of time.

I doubt very much whether there will be another Windscale accident, because we learned very many lessons from the previous one and we may never have another one like that, yet people who are not employed in the reactors but work in the immediate vicinity of them may be slightly affected. To suggest that the appearance of symptoms indicating the presence of an illness should be regarded as the "occurrence" is reasonable.

I hope that the Parliamentary Secretary will say at least that he is willing to consider all these points, which will bring the Bill up to the standard of safety that we desire and will err on the side of caution.

Mr. Harold Davies (Leek)

There is no need for me to detain the Committee long over this matter, particularly since we had a long discussion on it when the Bill was in Committee. I would ask the Minister to say, when he replies, whether, when the Clause was drafted, the safety executive committee of the Atomic Energy Authority, which was formed in 1957, was consulted.

My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) made a point that is worthy of consideration. It is true that neither medical science nor nuclear physics is quite certain of the consequences of radiation. In fact, the nuclear physicist knows less about it than do the geneticist and biologist. That fact was brought out at the present Geneva Conference. Since the world is going in for atomic energy, which assumes that we can live peacefully side by side, it would be good if Britain, which was one of the foremost with industrial Factory Acts, were to take a lead in passing a safety clause for the first nuclear installations, erring on the side of caution rather than in any other direction. This would be an example and a practice for the rest of the world to follow.

It would bore the Committee to stress the point further. The point is well taken, but I think it was correct for some of us to follow my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Newport to let it be known that we believed this was not a frivolous Amendment, but one which needed deep consideration by the Government. In Committee upstairs the right hon. Gentleman did consider deeply the points we put in debate.

Sir I. Horobin

I hope that the Opposition will not press this Amendment to the Amendment. I am glad that hon. Members opposite agree that we have tried on this and on other matters to consider the points made from both sides of the Committee upstairs. There is no party question involved here, but there are difficulties. The primary one, on which I base my submission to the Committee that we should not accept this Amendment to the proposed Amendment, is that it would destroy the whole basis of limitation.

We could have a position, which I think the right hon. and learned Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) himself suggested, of something occurring twenty or thirty years afterwards and then there is another thirty years in which claims could be made. Whether or not it would be likely to extend over that long period, the fact remains that such a provision would drive a coach and four through the principle of limitation.

As the right hon. and learned Member knows better than I do, there are very grave objections to destroying the principle of limitation, although we have extended the period very much in this Bill for reasons that everyone knows about. The difficulty of proving certainly the cause of events which took place a very long time ago is one which must be faced. It cannot be got over by extending the period. In fact, the longer the period the more difficult it becomes to settle exactly what happened.

I want to make two other points simply, because this is a late stage in the Bill and we are all anxious to get the Bill for obvious reasons. At such a late stage wording is important and, while I do not base my objections to the Opposition Amendment on that, I should say it is by no means certain that these words would be reasonable even in themselves because they do not say, "symptoms in any way related to radiation" and, strictly speaking, any symptoms would become the occurrence. It way be argued that this would have to be read in the context of other parts of the Clause, but that is by no means certain. There is also the difficulty that it would be by no means workable, because after ten years the licensee could not insure and there might be a period in which he would not be reimbursed by Parliament.

I do not base my objections on those points, although I believe that they are relevant. It is accepted that we have made a genuine effort to go a long way, but to accept this Amendment to the Amendment now, would, in fact, mean destroying the whole principle, which is well embedded in our law for perfectly good reasons which we all understand, that there must be some limit to claims. We have extended that a great deal in the Bill. I hope the Opposition will not press us to go further to such an extent as practically to destroy the whole principle.

6.15 p.m.

Mr. Alfred Robens (Blyth)

The case that the Parliamentary Secretary has made is very reasonable. We are all alive to the necessity for some limitation in making claims in a general sort of way. That is well laid down in the law, but we are in the difficulty of being on the verge of the unknown in this matter and no scientist is prepared to be very specific about what would happen.

While this matter relates to the individual who was working, it is quite clear that genetic damage could be done to him and that damage could be passed on to some infant. I do not know how that would stand under the law in relation to compensation in respect of a terrible happening which the scientists tell us could occur. We all find ourselves in considerable difficulty in trying to do justice to all those who are likely to be exposed to these new hazards and, at the same time, to retain the whole affair within commonsense limits and the general principles we accept of limita- tion of claims. The Parliamentary Secretary has put the case well for the Government and I cannot quarrel with him about what he has said.

We can only say once again—I think that the hon. Gentleman would concur in this—that we are not certain at this stage and the purpose of our Amendment was to try to be as certain as we can be in all these circumstances However, in view of what he has said and of the fact that on this matter there is no difference between us—we all want to see justice done to people who may be damaged as a result of this work—I suggest to my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Newport (Sir F. Soskice) that we are very satisfied with the explanation and the comments which have passed between us and could perhaps now pass to other parts of the Bill.

Sir F. Soskice

I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment to the proposed Amendment.

Amendment to the proposed Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Proposed words there inserted.

Further Amendments made: In page 5, line 18, leave out "occurrence" and insert "relevant date".

In line 22, leave out "occurrence" and insert "relevant date".—[Sir I. Horobin.]

Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.