HC Deb 06 April 1989 vol 150 cc407-22

'(1) The Director General shall require that consumer committees, customers and members of the public have full access to any information regarding their health and safety resulting from any activities connected with the supply, generation or transmission of electricity.

(2) Nothing in this Act concerning the protection of information or persons shall prevent disclosure of any information required under (1) above.'.—[Mr. Malcolm Bruce.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 2 and 28.

8.15 pm
Mr. Bruce

The purpose of the new clause is to ensure that information on safety is made available to consumer committees and to the public. That is not specifically allowed for in the Bill as it stands. The record of the electricity supply industry in the recent past suggests that such a measure is necessary. The Minister and hon. Members who served on the Committee with me know that I feel strongly about the conduct of the industry especially in relation to nuclear power. I believe that having the requirement that such information be made available to consumer committees and to the public would be beneficial to the image and to the esteem in which the industry is held by the public. The lack of such a provision has been extremely damaging in that respect.

The problem with the Bill as drafted is that the specific restriction on the publishing of information is likely to work against the public interest and lead to the information being withheld or suppressed until long after it has any relevance or could in any way be helpful.

It might be helpful to the House if I quote three or four examples of the sort of information that I feel should be available. One problem that has been actively debated in recent years, especially since the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents, is exactly what emergency procedures there should be for a nuclear accident at a British nuclear installation. At the moment there is a lack of public awareness about exactly what would happen in the event of a significant nuclear accident. Do people actually know what to do? Do the operators of nuclear power stations know that action they should take? At what point should they alert people round about? When should they shut down and evacuate the area? What should people in the area be told to do in the event of a significant leak of radiation that would require action?

There is no doubt that if there were such a leak without people being properly informed, the instinct would be to run, to panic and to evacuate the area; yet there is evidence to suggest that that is the wrong thing to do, depending on how serious the accident is. When the plume of radiation is being discharged, that is not the time to be out in the open and, although there is a danger wherever one is, it may be safer to stay indoors than to go out into the open. People need to know when they should stay and when they should move.

There are practical considerations too. Nuclear power stations, in particular, tend to be in rather remote areas where the roads are not designed to allow a lot of people to move quickly at one time; the congestion could aggravate the seriousness of the incident. There is no agreed procedure as to whether or not and when, if and how, stable iodine tablets should be issued; people do not even know where they could get them or whether to take them.

This is in sharp contrast with the situation in the United States perhaps because, regrettably, that country has experienced a major accident. In the United States the telephone books in the area of a nuclear installation contain clear descriptions of what people should do in the event of a nuclear accident. We should, in any case, have that sort of agreement here. It should be published and available now, but it should certainly be done once the industry moves into the private sector, and the Bill should require it to be done.

The Prime Minister and other Ministers have suggested in replies to hon. Members that the whole thing is under control, that they have discussed this with all the relevant authorities and that the latter know what to do. That does not appear to be the view of the County Emergency Planning Officers Society whose members remain concerned about a number of shortfalls in the agreement. A working party has produced a number of reports yet still has outstanding concerns as to what can and should be done. So nobody is in a position either to say that the relevant authorities have a nationally agreed scheme and a standard of what should happen. Nor does anyone know how to publicise this or ensure that the public know what to do and what not to do in the event of a major disaster.

I make no apology for the fact that my examples are drawn mostly from nuclear accidents, but what I am saying applies to other kinds of generating station. The same procedures should apply. There should be a clear understanding of exactly what happens and how the public will be informed. It is quite proper that the consumer committees set up under the Bill should be an integral part of the process of ensuring dissemination of accurate information.

A problem has emerged, for example, in relation to overhead power lines. I am not competent to say whether the anxieties that have been expressed about safety risks from living close to overhead power lines are valid, but I think that consumer committees should be empowered to get the relevant information, publicise it and make recommendations about appropriate action. I have had a representation from a doctor in my constituency who says that he has had complaints from patients living in the area of overhead power lines. Although he has no statistical proof, he feels that there is some correlation, although it may be more psychological than real. That is the kind of information that needs to be examined and circulated.

Workers in the industry have suffered from overdoses of radiation. They are entitled to know exactly what the situation is. In 1986 British Nuclear Fuels said that 631 of its employees had received a dose of radiation in excess of the approved safety level. Although figures are not available for the Atomic Energy Authority and the Central Electricity Generating Board, there seems to be some suggestion that some of their employees have been affected. This is aggravated by the National Radiation Protection Board's view that the recommended safety limit be reduced to one third. If that were applied, the numbers exposed to unsafe radiation levels in the industry would rise substantially. That kind of information ought to be available and properly circulated, and people working in the industry should have the right of access to it.

Our most recent experience is the Chernobyl disaster. What happened then is indicative of our country's lack of preparedness in the event of a major accident, not just in the United Kingdom but across the Channel in France or Belgium. Those countries are much closer to us than Kiev, so the intensity of radiation to which we could be exposed and the speed at which it arrived would require much more urgent and coherent reaction than the Chernobyl cloud required. Yet the reaction to Chernobyl was confused and contradictory and did anything but inspire public confidence in our procedures.

Perhaps I could refer the House to a letter in The Independent of 10 August 1988 from a senior registrar in community medicine and a lecturer in community medicine, writing from London NW3. They conducted their own survey of district medical officers to ask how they viewed the response at the time of Chernobyl. The writers had a response rate of 89 per cent., which in itself indicated a high level of concern. Fifty-two per cent. of those responding said that they had tried to get information about local radiation levels but had had little success. The general view was that what information was available was in a form that was unusable, unintelligible and contradictory. It was said that the blind were leading the blind and that the advice which arrived was too little and too late. Two years after the incident, the letter writers' view was that nothing had fundamentally changed.

We need to know how we would respond if—I hope it does not happen—we had an accident close to our shores or within the United Kingdom where it would appear that we have no mechanism for ensuring that safety information is properly conveyed to the public, information to which they can have access as of right.

Lack of information leads to a proliferation of rumour and suspicion, which, in return, may lead to an exaggeration of the problem. If, for example, there is a minor radiation leak in a nuclear power station, there is no mechanism for ensuring that the information is made available to the relevant people; yet in the locality people will hear about it and will assume that it is much worse than it is because, they will argue, why should people cover up if it is only a minor incident? I am sure that the Minister will accept that it would be much better to state clearly the nature of the incident; then the consumer committees, because they would gain a degree of understanding, could put the matter in its proper perspective.

Having been a very strong critic of the conduct of the nuclear industry, I think that there has been an improvement—although it is not perfect by any means —in recent years. The difficulty is that the industry has spent so many years misleading the public and suppressing information that there is a fundamental inability to take anything that the industry says at face value. People are extremely suspicious.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of suppression of information that the public had a right to know is that of the Windscale fire. It happened a long time ago and we are fortunate that, although it was a serious incident—the most serious in the United Kingdom—we have not had an incident on that scale since. I believe that what happened there is indicative of how serious the suppression problem is. I shall not go into the political domain about the fact that the Prime Minister of the day basically suppressed the information because it was thought to be unwise, undesirable and politically embarrassing to reveal it. My concern is that the National Radiological Protection Board estimated that the Windscale fire led to 260 cases of thyroid cancers, 13 of them fatal.

Another estimate has suggested that there could have been up to 1,000 fatal cancers linked to that fire. That is serious information. What happened was that there was a fire and a discharge of radiation, and information on the matter was suppressed. People in the area were not told and therefore were not able to take any precautions. They were exposed to excessive levels of radiation and as a result 1,000 people died of cancer during the years that followed. Clearly, if they had had the right of access to that information, some of those deaths would have been avoided because precautions could have been taken at the time.

8.30 pm

The right to know is a fundamental right, as is the right to take relevant action to protect one's own life. The new clause would ensure that the consumer committees and the public generally had a right to obtain information relating directly to their health requirements. I believe, therefore, that the new clause would be welcomed.

The Minister should accept the new clause because at the end of the day it will be beneficial to the industry. The industry's record of suppressing information and releasing bits and pieces of information late and in a form that does not increase knowledge, adds to public concern and anxiety and has probably damaged the industry's public image almost irreparably. There is no doubt that, if that action were taken, a start could be made towards ensuring that there was greater confidence between the public and the consumer committees and the industry. The public would have the right to information about what was happening in the electricity supply industry that would have implications for their safety and that of those working in the industry.

I hope that the House will accept the new clause.

Mr. Hardy

I shall not take as long as the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce), but I urge the Minister to look favourably on the new clause. I accept that it may have one defect that is perhaps regrettable, which is that it does not refer directly to those who are employed in the industry. However, one assumes that the Democrats were including those people in the reference to members of the public. I believe that the intention of the new clause is one that we should support and, if it comes to a vote, I shall be in the Lobby with the hon. Member for Gordon.

The Minister should recognise that education goes hand in hand with safety. We see far too much of the furtive commitment to secrecy from the present Administration. I shall cite an example. Probably the only open Department of State nowadays is the Department of Transport. It has recognised that it is necessary to put warning notices up on our highways. I accept that under this Administration warning notices proliferate much more than they have ever before. However, if the Department of Transport feels that it is necessary to warn people of approaching road hazards, surely the Department of Energy should insist that a similar approach is adopted for generation. I am not talking only of nuclear generation. I accept, too, that the hon. Member for Gordon was not restricting his remarks to that sector.

The Government must recognise that people demand more information. About two days after the Chernobyl incident I recall a member of the present Cabinet saying to me, "Is it not disgraceful that the Russians are not saying anything about this event that is reported to have happened in the Soviet Union?" I said, "I don't know anything about it, but, if they don't say anything about it, it would, indeed, be disgraceful and disreputable." After the first few days the Russians were quite severely criticised for an excessive reticence, which may have been due to an excessive bureaucracy. However, the fact remains that after that period of discretion, reticence, or whatever one likes to call it, they were a great deal more open and informative in telling the world about the details of that dreadful accident that some Western countries have been in regard to incidents or accidents in their plants, which, fortunately, have not been on the same scale as Chernobyl. However, that perhaps is a matter of fortune rather than of skilled administration.

We have been too furtive. In the past decade we have seen example after example of the use of public resources for unnecessary secrecy. I learned the other day that there are techniques and staff in the public service in various Government Departments devoted to detecting photocopies of pieces of paper. That causes one to wonder sometimes about the Minister's hesitation in incurring expenditure on matters which are perhaps far more in the public good.

I believe that the new clause is a good one. I hope that the Minister will respond positively to it, because with new clause 11 have been selected Government amendments Nos. 2 and 28. The Minister will recall that, in Committee, he appeared to be slightly persuaded when I moved amendments on safety. I hope that in the weeks since those debates, he has recognised that he appeared to be moving towards a sympathy with safety. If he has, perhaps when the House approves Government amendments Nos. 2 and 28, he will allow new clause 11 to go through as well.

Mr. Morgan

A key factor in Government amendments Nos. 2 and 28—I quote amendment No. 28 as an example—is protecting the public from dangers arising from the generation, transmission or supply of electricity". We understand that that is to cover also the dangers that arise from the disposal of the waste products on the nuclear side of the industry and those arising from generation.

Mr. Hardy

My hon. Friend is right to make that assumption. Perhaps the Minister will make that point clear when he replies.

I can see nothing wrong with the new clause except, as I have said, that it would have been useful if it had included specific reference to the people employed in the industry rather than simply assuming that they would be covered by the reference to members of the public.

I am not too worried about the reference to those who will serve on the committees, largely because I am suspicious of the sort of people who nowadays are appointed to quangos. They are more likely to embarrass or injure themselves than us. I am, however, concerned about the public good.

I had no intention of referring to those who live underneath transmission lines but, when I saw a scare story reported in a newspaper some time ago, I recall that I asked our local medical officer of health if it would be possible to carry out a survey. The statistical base would need to be a great deal larger than would have been possible in my local locality and therefore, as far as I know, no study has been undertaken.

Now that the matter has been mentioned in the House, the Minister had better be prepared to respond fully. If he cannot do so tonight, I have no doubt that the matter will be raised in another place. There is a possibility that more scare stories may develop and, if reassurance is justified, it would be as well for that reassurance to be offered. If it is not justified, perhaps a little more information should be given.

I recall the considerable strain and anger that existed, and may still exist, in Belgium, Luxembourg and the Saarland as a result of the anxieties of the people living quite close the French border, about French secrecy. We do not have any national or territorial boundaries with other countries, so we must contain our anxieties and strain within our island. I believe that the arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Gordon are justified and those who live in the proximity of a power station —it need not be nuclear—are anxious.

There is no reason why the Government should be furtive or secretive or seek to deny information. Information should be available if only because of the 1957 episode. Never again should people be denied information that is of direct relevance to their health and their other interests. For that reason I am happy to support the new clause. I only wish that it covered the employees of the nuclear industry.

Mr. Alexander Eadie (Midlothian)

I had not intended to contribute to the debate, but the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) made a fair point when he moved the new clause.

We have already been told that the Government are unlikely to respond to any attempts to amend the Bill, but the hon. Member for Gordon raised the important issue of safety. We must all be safety-conscious, as that is the only way in which to deal with problems. Any laxity in safety means that we are put in peril. The Government must reflect on the experience of previous legislation. It is not good enough for something permissive to be written into legislation. If the argument advanced is right and proper, any obligations should be mandatory. In that way there is no argument. I hope that the Minister will not fall back on the excuse of previous Governments and decide that what is written into the Bill should be permissive.

The only weakness in the new clause—this is not meant as a criticism—is that the employees of the industry are not included. They are not just employees, but members of the public. Their knowledge would help to achieve the aims set out in the new clause.

The new clause is important because of the defensive history of the thermal nuclear power industry. It has spent a lot of time and effort to promote the idea that everything is all right and that there is no danger. It has claimed that, technologically, everything is perfect. The possibilities of an accident have been worked out statistically, but, as the hon. Member for Gordon has said, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl have put paid to those efforts. Human weakness can always occur.

We are still suffering the effects of Chernobyl in Scotland. During last night's debate a Conservative Member made an absurd intervention during my speech and spoke about radiation from coal. I have never heard of any coal mine being responsible for radiation for year after year. I was in Norway at the time of the Chernobyl incident and when I was told that its reindeer herd had had to be slaughtered I was extremely sad.

The hon. Member for Gordon is right to say that the nuclear power industry has always been extremely defensive. I know of people who earn their livelihoods from statistics. If a construction is undertaken, people can calculate with amazing accuracy how many people are likely to be killed at the building site if the construction continues for a couple of years. As a consequence of our North sea oil explorations, people are now able to calculate, statistically, how many people are likely to be killed as a result of that exploration. As legislators we do not appreciate that when we approve some legislation it means that, inevitably, people will be killed as a consequence.

I am all in favour of technology and I am not against nuclear power in the sense that it represents new technology. It is against my background to be against new technology because I have always said, "If new technology can do the job, why should men's backs be broken?" The silliest thing that I ever heard in my life was the claim that hard work never killed anyone. I live in a small mining village and in the cemetery I could point out those individuals who died as a consequence of hard work. When people say that hard work never killed anyone, it generally means that they have never done any hard work in their lives.

8.45 pm

Forty years ago I was employed in the rail industry for a short time. About a month ago I had the great privilege of driving a diesel train—I had only driven steam trains. The first thing I asked was where the dead man's brake was, but, although we have such brakes, accidents still happen. Human error still occurs. Such error can arise in the nuclear power industry and it is not valid to argue that everything is perfect and every effort has been made to make things safe—experience tells us otherwise. Many people in many industries spend a great deal of time trying to make those industries as technologically safe as possible, but the human factor must always be taken into account.

I am anything but impressed by thermal nuclear power, as I believe that it carries built-in hazards. However, the new clause could help the nuclear power industry. We should reveal all and we should tell people what has happened. We should make them even more safety-conscious and, above all, those who work in the industry should be taken into the confidence of those who run it. Those employees will not brook any people who are anti their industry. They want to make it work and they believe in it.

I hope that the Minister will not use the old argument about making such things permissive. If we really agree with the hon. Member for Gordon, the legislation should be mandatory and not permissive.

Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover)

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) about permissiveness as opposed to something that is mandatory. I was reminded of what was said today by the Leader of the House. He used a time-honoured phrase about the Prime Minister making herself available to Gorbachev. Is that what my hon. Friend means by permissiveness? I have a picture in my mind, but I had better not take that matter any further.

I am absolutely certain that the provisions of the Bill must be mandatory if it is to mean anything in terms of giving power and rights to consumers. Our experience of permissive local government legislation in particular has made us aware of the pitfalls. My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head.

I am pleased that my hon. Friend mentioned the effects of Chernobyl and the way in which they are still being felt in Scotland, let alone in Wales and other parts of Great Britain. I remember that incident clearly. Two or three days after it we heard that the radioactive cloud was making its way up the Thames estuary—there was a report on the "Today" programme about it. That morning there was a large demonstration outside the Department of Energy. The leading wet, now the so-called Secretary of State for Wales, was in charge of energy at that time. The Friends of the Earth were drawing attention to the fact that he had said that nuclear power was the safest form of energy known to man. People were scared. It is the only time that I can recall men and women, young and old, coming towards us, snatching the leaflets out of our hands so that they would know what effects Chernobyl might have.

Once that radioactive cloud went up into the sky it belonged not to Russia or to America but to mother nature, and it went the way that the wind blew. People were scared stiff about the consequences. I remember one woman standing about five yards away, who had her hand out waiting to grab a leaflet. I said to her, "It is all right; the cloud is moving away; it is behind you. If you keep moving the other way you can race it if you get as far as Reading." Off she went, scared stiff. That is what nuclear power means to people when there is a disaster like Chernobyl.

Considering the matter from that point of view, I wonder what powers the director general will have. If there were explosions, could he do anything to protect consumers and their rights? Let us suppose that the director general had to deal with something less important. Let us suppose that he was confronted by four Tory Members of Parliament who told him that they had heard on the grapevine that the new organisation running nuclear power—the new "opoly", or whatever it is called —had decided to dump low-level nuclear waste in their constituencies. Let us suppose that those four Members included a Cabinet Minister, perhaps the Leader of the House, and a junior Minister at the Home Office because they were to have low-level nuclear waste dumped in their areas.

Accountability is to be taken from the public sector and handed over to the private sector with a bit of a director general in charge who is to protect the rights of consumers. What would happen if the Leader of the House was complaining about the dumping of low-level waste in his constituency because he had had 5,000 letters from people taking a NIMBY attitude, people whom we might loosely call clones of the Secretary of State for the Environment. Under market force operations, what powers would the director general have in those circumstances? As we all know, similar proposals were made some time ago. Because we were coming up to a general election, and because there was an umbilical cord between the Secretary of State and the Leader of the House and other Tory Members, they managed to get rid of those dumping grounds.

The same process will be repeated over and over again, especially as power stations are to be decommissioned. The companies will have to find somewhere to put the muck. The director general will be a Tory; there is no doubt about that. The Prime Minister will ask, is he or she one of us? Whatever the Secretary of State says, the director general will go along with it because he will be in the Prime Minister's pocket. So the director general—good Tory that he will be—will say, "I will tell you what we will do; we will make sure that the waste is dumped in Labour areas." Perhaps it will be dumped in Liberal areas, or it could go into the areas represented by the new-fangled party, the party that dare not speak its name, the one that changes its name every five months.

So the director general will say that the waste may be dumped in old mines, perhaps in Derbyshire, Yorkshire or south Wales. He will suggest that the rubbish should be put in those areas. That is what I can see happening. That is why it is essential that there are mandatory powers.

Mr. Hardy

Has not my hon. Friend noticied over the last two or three years that there has been remarkable uniformity and solidarity on the Government Benches? Does not he suspect that the Government Chief Whip has been using that as a threat to maintain discipline in Government ranks?

Mr. Skinner

The Government have used some new-fangled ideas and some old-fangled bullying since the Prime Minister came to power. They have shop stewards on the door when we are voting. They may call them Whips, but they are really shop stewards. They hustle the Government Back Benchers in. Every so often they say, "If you behave yourself, we will give you a bisque." That is French for being absent without leave. It is a night off to do research or whatever they have to do in the course of those odd hours.

Mr. Gerald Howarth (Cannock and Burntwood)

Clearly the hon. Gentleman is not a croquet player; otherwise, he would know that a bisque is a free go for an inferior player.

Mr. Skinner

Well, I never. Here am I, in this mirror image of the Eton debating society, and I have got the bisque wrong. Oh, what a disaster. Do I feel so small, so belittled that I do not know the croquet term "bisque"? I will tell hon. Members what I do know. I know that the Tories will trot through the Lobby behind him when the Minister decides to force a vote on the issue. They will be hustled in by the Tory shop stewards on the door. They will go through the hoop, or the French equivalent of the hoop—I have no doubt that there is a croquet term for that as well.

One of the most alarming things about all this is that the consumer has seen what can happen when parts of the public sector are privatised or when there is loose control by the Tory Government of the public sector. It means that less money is spent on safety and security. We have seen it at the airports; we have seen what it has meant for human life. There will be less public control. The entrepreneurs and those who operate the market forces will be in charge of nuclear power. The state will not be able to exert its influence. Even though we are talking about a small point we need a mandatory provision that gives proper rights to consumers.

Those are my few observations on the matter. I believe that the Bill will be looked upon in future as a disaster. People will reflect upon it and say. "What were the Government playing at? Why was a public utility responsible for nuclear power left to the whims of those who are in it to make money hand over fist and to line the pockets of the friends of the Tory party?" It would be a small price to pay if the Government were to accept the amendments and make sure that the Bill includes a mandatory provision.

Mr. Michael Spicer

Like other hon. Members, the Government attach great importance to maintaining the industry's high safety standards. That is why we undertook in Committee to examine safety questions carefully and to come forward, if necessary, with further safeguards. That is what lies behind Government amendments Nos. 2 and 28 to which only brief reference has been made by Opposition Members, including the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy). Opposition Members were rather churlish. We spent much time in Committee considering safety matters. As a result of those deliberations the Government have proposed amendments. They are the product of good work in Committee. I would have thought that Opposition Members would at least have made a passing reference to them.

I shall first refer to the two questions raised by the hon. Members for Gordon (Mr. Bruce), for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) and for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan). The hon. Member for Bolsworthy, or rather for Bolsover—Bolsworthy may be the right expression since we have been talking about croquet—mentioned mother nature and rightly said that nuclear incidents are international. The Government have signed an international convention on the notification of nuclear incidents under the aegis of the International Atomic Energy Agency and will ask Parliament to ratify that in the Atomic Energy Bill that the Leader of the House announced that we would debate next Thursday. On the basis of what Opposition Members have said tonight, I hope that they will vote in favour of the Atomic Energy Bill, of which a major part is the ratification of that convention. I hope that that partly explains what the Government have done, in answer to the important point raised by the hon. Member for Bolsover.

The hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) looks worried. Perhaps he has not yet geared up to dealing with the Bill. Perhaps I have just given him his first warning of it.

9 pm

Mr. Barron

I am geared up. What surprises me about the Atomic Energy Bill is that the Minister assumes that we shall not vote against it.

Mr. Spicer

I said that I assumed on the basis of the arguments and very good points which have been made by Opposition Members tonight, that because the Bill will meet those reasonable worries, the hon. Member for Rother Valley would vote in favour of it.

In answer to the hon. Member for Cardiff, West, the responsibility for the safety of nuclear waste and nuclear power stations generally is a matter for the operators of the stations, acting under the regulations, guidelines and monitoring of the nuclear installations inspectorate and Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution. That is how safety regulations apply in this country.

Mr. Hardy

The Minister mentioned that I had referred to Government amendments Nos. 2 and 28. He will also recall that I expressed slight criticism of new clause 11 because it did not refer to employees of the industry. The same point could be made about Government amendments Nos. 2 and 28 because they refer to the public. The Minister will recall that when I took part in this debate in Committee, I made reference to employees in the industry. Will he assure the House that the new clauses will refer to employees of the industry as well as to members of the general public?

Mr. Spicer

I am checking the precise answer to that question but I am pretty certain that I can give that assurance to the hon. Gentleman. I want to be absolutely clear and I am just awaiting confirmation of that.

In our view, new clause 11 is not the sensible way to approach this extremely important—we are all agreed on this—issue of safety. By implication, it gives the primary responsibility for the safety of the general public to the director. In the Bill, it is implicit that the responsibility for safety is covered by the electricity supply regulations, the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and other Acts and secondary legislation which deal with specific aspects of safety. Those include the Factories Act 1961 and the Control of Industrial Major Accident Hazards Regulations 1985. Within the broad panoply of these health and safety regulations it is right that the director and the Secretary of State should take safety into account as a major factor when the economic regime and regulation is set. That is the key issue and that is why amendment No. 2 specifically requires that the duties and functions of both the Secretary of State and the director should be exercised in the manner best calculated to protect the public from dangers arising from the generation, transmission and supply of electricity. The need to comply with that duty will clearly be a factor in the director's use of information powers under clause 44. That partly answers the question of the hon. Member for Wentworth.

Mr. Eadie

I talked about permissive and mandatory legislation. Am I to assume that the Minister is telling us that the director of information will have discretionary powers. The thrust of our argument is that the public, and employees of the industry, are entitled to know where they stand. Is not the Minister contradicting that if he says that the director is to have certain discretionary powers?

Mr. Spicer

All I have said is that the health and safety regime is laid down by a mass of parliamentary legislation and that we must ensure that our amendments achieve what they are intended to achieve; that nothing that the director—who is concerned primarily with economic and not safety regulations—does when applying his economic regulation duties, conflicts with the safety and health regime which exists by statute. In the Bill we must make it absolutely clear that, when assessing the duties of the director, they do not conflict with existing legislation which is outside the Bill.

Mr. Morgan


Mr. Spicer

Before I give way I must not forget to tell the hon. Member for Wentworth that clause 3 (3) and the health and safety at work regulations cover employees.

Mr. Morgan

I wonder whether the Minister has seriously considered the practicalities of what he is saying—that the director will be mostly concerned with the economic and not safety regulations, and that the two interests should not conflict. What about when they do? Last night the Secretary of State mentioned the possibility of renegotiating the BNFL contract on reprocessing with National Power. One way to do that would be so that BNFL did not reprocess some of the fuel from the AGRs but, instead, left it for storage. National Power would say that it would save money by doing that. Would the director have the right to say that he did not consider that safe?

Mr. Spicer

The Government amendments emphasise that the director will have to bear in mind public safety at all times when making his decisions. These amendments will have additional effects. When clause 3 was first discussed in Committee, it was suggested that the duties of the director and the Secretary of State were deficient because they did not refer specifically to safety. However, that concern is met by amendment No. 2 which underlines the duties of the Secretary of State and the director to consider safety at all times.

At present, the general framework for safety in the electricity industry is set by the electricity supply regulations. The Government were responsible for instituting the first full-scale revision of those regulations for 50 years, culminating in the issue of new, regulations last year. Those regulations established a general framework of standards. The key point in answer to the hon. Member for Gordon is that only those with expert knowledge of a particular site or installation and with responsibility for its operation can determine the precise safety measures required under the general regulation. That is established practice in Britain for dealing with safety. That is why the first responsibility must and does rest with the industry.

Those responsibilities are laid down in an array of primary and secondary legislation and that is further supported by the common law on matters such as the duty of care under the law of negligence. None of that will change with the passage of the Bill. That is the answer to the point made by the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie). Licence holders and those operating under exemptions will have to act in accordance with the same regime that has resulted in the current high standards of safety in the industry.

The Bill provides for the continuation of the existing electricity supply regulations and clause 27 enables the regulations to be added to or revised as necessary.

In Committee there seemed to be some doubt about the precise purpose of clause 27. Amendment No. 28 is designed to put its purpose beyond doubt. It makes it explicit that regulations made under the clause can include those concerned directly with safety aspects of the industry's operations and, in particular, the protection of the public.

I hope that, having explained the philosophy of not only the electricity industry but other industries with which I have been concerned—for example, the aviation industry, where the primary duty is placed upon the operator within the standards laid down—we have made it clear that nothing done under the Bill, in particular under the terms laid down for the duties of the regulator, conflict with the standards, regulations and legislation laid down to protect safety, which all agree is paramount. I hope that, on the basis of that explanation, the hon. Member for Gordon will feel able to withdraw his new clause.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce

The Minister has dealt with the Government amendments rather than with my new clause. I accept that amendments Nos. 2 and 28 improve the Bill and that they are a response to our debates in Committee. But they do not relate to the points that I and other hon. Members have raised tonight. The Minister has essentially debated the quality of safety inspection and enforcement under the licences proposed by the Bill, whereas we are talking about the public's right to have information about safety and the directors' responsibility to ensure access to that information when it is needed.

I intended my new clause to include employees within the industry because they have a particular right to information. The new clause can include them, but it might have been better if it had specifically done so.

The hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) referred to reindeer in Scandinavia suffering from the fallout from Chernobyl. That is the sort of information that is important. Reindeer's metabolism enables them to operate efficiently in the Arctic tundra, but it also makes them especially vulnerable to radiation. They convert food quickly so that the build-up of radiation in their natural food, the tundra moss, affects them much more intensely than other animals. That is the kind of information to which the public are entitled and it was the kind of information that was not available in any clear or consistent form at the time of the Chernobyl disaster.

Many hon. Members will recall the confusing information that came from the Government at that time. The Scottish Office said that milk was not safe to drink, then that it was safe and then that it was not safe. That did not inspire public confidence and did not provide the important and relevant information.

However, the essential point is that the Minister is saying that the director should not impinge on safety; that the new regime will ensure that there is a specific responsibility to have due regard to safety. We say that the public and those working in the industry should have the director's support to get access to information that they need to enable them to make decisions. The Minister is effectively arguing that the public have to trust the experts who are entrusted with safety and have no right to know what the experts are talking about. In other words, they have no right to explanations in the kind of language that people can understand which show exactly what is expected of them, the action open to them and to whom they can turn to obtain the relevant explanation of expert information.

9.15 pm

Helpful as they are, the Government's amendments are not relevant to my new clause, without which the Bill will be substantially weakened because consumer committees and the public do not have the right of access to essential information. All the anxieties and reservations that many of us have had about the industry during the past 20 years are passing unanswered into the private sector. If we could not get the information that we needed when the industry was in the public sector, accountable through Ministers to the House, what chance have we of getting it through a private commercial organisation from which the director has no power to demand such information on behalf of the consumer committees or the public? The answer is that we have no chance of doing so. I intend to force my new clause to a Division and I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will support it.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time:—

The House divided: Ayes 77, Noes 197.

Divison No. 143] [9.15 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray)
Banks, Tony (Newham NW) Fearn, Ronald
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE) Foster, Derek
Barron, Kevin Foulkes, George
Beith, A. J. Galbraith, Sam
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish) Garrett, John (Norwich South)
Bermingham, Gerald Golding, Mrs Llin
Blair, Tony Hardy, Peter
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon) Haynes, Frank
Buckley, George J. Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE) Home Robertson, John
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g) Hood, Jimmy
Cohen, Harry Howells, Geraint
Cox, Tom Hoyle, Doug
Cryer, Bob Hughes, John (Coventry NE)
Dalyell, Tam Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l) Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Dewar, Donald Illsley, Eric
Dixon, Don Johnston, Sir Russell
Doran, Frank Kennedy, Charles
Dunnachie, Jimmy Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Eadie, Alexander McAllion, John
Eastham, Ken McAvoy, Thomas
Evans, John (St Helens N) Macdonald, Calum A.
McKay, Allen (Barnsley West) Skinner, Dennis
McLeish, Henry Smith, Rt Hon J. (Monk'ds E)
Mahon, Mrs Alice Spearing, Nigel
Maxton, John Stott, Roger
Meale, Alan Strang, Gavin
Michle, Mrs Ray (Arg'l & Bute) Taylor, Mrs Ann (Dewsbury)
Molyneaux, Rt Hon James Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Moonie, Dr Lewis Wall, Pat
Morgan, Rhodri Wareing, Robert N.
Morley, Elliott Welsh, Andrew (Angus E)
Morris, Rt Hon A. (W'shawe) Williams, Alan W. (Carm'then)
Patchett, Terry Winnick, David
Pike, Peter L.
Powell, Ray (Ogmore) Tellers for the Ayes:
Radice, Giles Mr. James Wallace and Mr. Richard Livsey.
Robertson, George
Robinson, Geoffrey
Adley, Robert Freeman, Roger
Aitken, Jonathan Fry, Peter
Amess, David Gale, Roger
Amos, Alan Gardiner, George
Arnold, Jacques (Gravesham) Garel-Jones, Tristan
Ashby, David Gill, Christopher
Atkinson, David Goodhart, Sir Philip
Baker, Nicholas (Dorset N) Goodlad, Alastair
Baldry, Tony Goodson-Wickes, Dr Charles
Banks, Robert (Harrogate) Gow, Ian
Batiste, Spencer Greenway, Harry (Ealing N)
Benyon, W. Greenway, John (Ryedale)
Bevan, David Gilroy Gregory, Conal
Biffen, Rt Hon John Griffiths, Peter (Portsmouth N)
Blackburn, Dr John G. Grist, Ian
Blaker, Rt Hon Sir Peter Gummer, Rt Hon John Selwyn
Body, Sir Richard Hague, William
Boscawen, Hon Robert Hamilton, Hon Archie (Epsom)
Boswell, Tim Hamilton, Neil (Tatton)
Bottomley, Peter Hampson, Dr Keith
Bottomley, Mrs Virginia Hanley, Jeremy
Bowden, Gerald (Dulwich) Harris, David
Braine, Rt Hon Sir Bernard Howarth, Alan (Strat'd-on-A)
Brazier, Julian Howarth, G. (Cannock & B'wd)
Bright, Graham Hughes, Robert G. (Harrow W)
Brooke, Rt Hon Peter Hunt, David (Wirral W)
Brown, Michael (Brigg & Cl't's) Hunter, Andrew
Browne, John (Winchester) Irvine, Michael
Buck, Sir Antony Jack, Michael
Burns, Simon King, Roger (B'ham N'thfield)
Burt, Alistair Kirkhope, Timothy
Butterfill, John Knapman, Roger
Carlisle, John, (Luton N) Knight, Greg (Derby North)
Carlisle, Kenneth (Lincoln) Knowles, Michael
Carrington, Matthew Lamont, Rt Hon Norman
Carttiss, Michael Lang, Ian
Cash, William Latham, Michael
Conway, Derek Lawrence, Ivan
Coombs, Anthony (Wyre F'rest) Lee, John (Pendle)
Coombs, Simon (Swindon) Lightbown, David
Cope, Rt Hon John Lilley, Peter
Cormack, Patrick Lloyd, Sir Ian (Havant)
Cran, James Lloyd, Peter (Fareham)
Davies, Q. (Stamf'd & Spald'g) Lord, Michael
Davis, David (Boothferry) Lyell, Sir Nicholas
Day, Stephen Macfarlane, Sir Neil
Dorrell, Stephen MacKay, Andrew (E Berkshire)
Douglas-Hamilton, Lord James Maclean, David
Dover, Den McNair-Wilson, P. (New Forest)
Durant, Tony Malins, Humfrey
Dykes, Hugh Mans, Keith
Evennett, David Maples, John
Fallon, Michael Marshall, Michael (Arundel)
Favell, Tony Martin, David (Portsmouth S)
Fenner, Dame Peggy Maude, Hon Francis
Fishburn, John Dudley Maxwell-Hyslop, Robin
Fookes, Dame Janet Meyer, Sir Anthony
Forman, Nigel Miller, Sir Hal
Forsyth, Michael (Stirling) Mills, Iain
Fox, Sir Marcus Mitchell, Andrew (Gedling)
Franks, Cecil Mitchell, Sir David
Morrison, Sir Charles Soames, Hon Nicholas
Morrison, Rt Hon P (Chester) Speller, Tony
Moss, Malcolm Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W)
Mudd, David Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Neale, Gerrard Squire, Robin
Needham, Richard Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Nelson, Anthony Stern, Michael
Neubert, Michael Stevens, Lewis
Nicholls, Patrick Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Nicholson, David (Taunton) Stradling Thomas, Sir John
Norris, Steve Sumberg, David
Onslow, Rt Hon Cranley Summerson, Hugo
Oppenheim, Phillip Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Page, Richard Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Paice, James Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Patnick, Irvine Temple-Morris, Peter
Patten, Chris (Bath) Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)
Pattie, Rt Hon Sir Geoffrey Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Peacock, Mrs Elizabeth Thurnham, Peter
Porter, David (Waveney) Tracey, Richard
Powell, William (Corby) Tredinnick, David
Rathbone, Tim Trippier, David
Redwood, John Trotter, Neville
Riddick, Graham Twinn, Dr Ian
Ridsdale, Sir Julian Waddington, Rt Hon David
Rifkind, Rt Hon Malcolm Waller, Gary
Roe, Mrs Marion Ward, John
Rost, Peter Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Rumbold, Mrs Angela Warren, Kenneth
Ryder, Richard Watts, John
Sackville, Hon Tom Wheeler, John
Sainsbury, Hon Tim Widdecombe, Ann
Shaw, David (Dover) Wilkinson, John
Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey) Wilshire, David
Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb') Wood, Timothy
Shelton, Sir William
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford) Tellers for the Noes:
Shersby, Michael Mr. Sydney Chapman and Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory.
Sims, Roger
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)

Question accordingly negatived.

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