HC Deb 18 December 1990 vol 183 cc243-51

Queen's Recommendation having been signified—

Motion made, and Question proposed.

That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Atomic Weapons Establishment Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any expenses of the Secretary of State incurred—

  1. (a) in connection with the formation of any company formed with a view to, or for any purpose of, the carrying on of activities designated under the Act or with the operation of any such company wholly owned by the Secretary of State; or
  2. (b) in assuming responsibility for any liabilities (whether of such a company or any other company which is or has been a contractor) which are liabilities arising out of the carrying on of activities so designated or liabilities to or in respect of persons employed or formerly employed in or in connection with the carrying on of such activities.—[Kenneth Carlisle.]

9.5 pm

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett (Denton and Reddish)

It is important that we do not let this motion go through on the nod. The whole history of the House of Commons is based on the demands of commoners to have the right to some control over expenditure. It is sad that, in recent years, hon. Members have tended to take less and less interest in money resolutions, and how money is spent.

Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

Not me.

Mr. Bennett

I fully acknowledge that my hon. Friend has made a habit of speaking on money resolutions, and I certainly commend him for it.

I must apologise to the House for not having been here to listen to the earlier debate. I was serving on the Standing Committee on the Criminal Justice Bill. It is possible that some of the questions on expenditure that I wish to ask were answered previously, and tomorrow I shall read with interest the debate in Hansard, but I hope that the Minister will bear with me and at least attempt to answer some of my questions.

How much are the Government including in their estimates to cover nuclear safety? In particular, what will they include to cover compensation for workers who suffer from radiation? How much extra will be spent on the national health service for treating those patients? Will the Government make available to the general public the information about what is happening to people who work in the new establishment?

Recently, I tabled questions about the levels of radiation experienced by workers at naval dockyards. I am pleased that at long last the Government have adopted a more open approach to such matters and have started to publish the levels of radiation. That helps to alleviate some fears, although when one or two workers see the levels of dosage from which they have suffered and the implications that that has, particularly now that the international standards—

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Kenneth Carlisle)

I did not quite catch where the hon. Gentleman was asking us to look at levels of radiation.

Mr. Bennett

It is for the workers who will be employed in the manufacture of the warheads. I was drawing a comparison with the problems suffered in the naval dockyards. I said that I was pleased that the Government were starting to publish that information.

After having discovered that some workers in the dockyard who were directly employed by the Government were getting the figures, I was alarmed to discover when I asked about workers employed by Rolls-Royce—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It is difficult to see how these matters relate to the money resolution.

Mr. Bennett

I started by asking how much this would cost. I was describing what happened in the naval dockyards, where the Government were prepared to give information for their workers, but refused to do so for Rolls-Royce workers.

The measure will privatise the work being done at Aldermaston. I want to be sure that when we question the Government about the possible levels of radiation suffered by people working on the warheads, we shall not be told that that information, and the costs associated with it, cannot be made available to us.

Shall we be given the full costs of the Trident programme and all the implications involved in that development? We are constantly given the figure—

Mr. Kenneth Carlisle

Has the hon. Gentleman read the Bill? If not, I have a spare copy with me that he could have. I ask because the issues that he is raising have nothing to do with the Bill. As he was not present for the Second Reading debate, when we had an informed discussion, I thought that he might not have read the measure, and I hoped that he would make his remarks relevant to it.

Mr. Bennett

I was making pertinent comments about the costs involved. I appreciate the Government's enthusiasm for covering up the sort of issues that I am raising. I should have thought that the Government would be prepared to put forward all the details about the costs involved in those issues. The Government should be open in these matters. After all, the Minister moved the resolution formally, as though he did not think there was a need to talk about costs and similar issues. Had he been prepared to make an opening speech which included all the cost details, there might have been no need for me to raise these issues. I shall listen with interest to his reply to the debate.

I am anxious to know when the House will be given the full costings of the Trident programme. We are still being given round figures, but I gather that there are major problems with that programme. The Government leave out crucial bits of information from the figures that they give. In the entire nuclear area, we have not been given proper costings. When we raise issues in due course, we discover that whole areas of expenditure have not been taken into account. If the Minister assures me that all the costs, including the implied costs, of the measure have been taken into account, I shall not pursue the matter further.

It is interesting, as an example, to consider what happened with the development of Polaris submarines. We were given the costs of the development, but were not told how much it would cost to decommission the nuclear reactors, mainly because the Government did not know how the work would be done. I want an assurance that, in passing tonight's measure, we are not committing ourselves to hidden costs about dismantling, decommissioning and so on at the end of the lifetime of the facilities—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I find it difficult to understand how the hon. Member is relating his remarks to the motion or the substance of the Bill.

Mr. Bennett

I was using Polaris as an example of the way in which the Government give the supposed costs, and later we find substantial items of cost left out. It seems reasonable for me to ask, following what happened with Polaris—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. It would have helped had the hon. Member been present for the Second Reading debate.

Mr. Bennett

As I explained, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I was in Committee. It would have been impossible for me to be up there and down here at the same time, especially as I was responsible for moving amendments in Committee. I suggest that it is reasonable, therefore, for me to put questions to the Minister now.

I was saying in passing that the Government had not provided the costs of decommissioning Polaris submarines. I want to make sure that we know the full costs, including what will be involved in decommissioning, of the facilities which are the subject of the Bill. Will the Government bear the costs, or will they be borne by those running the facility? These are important questions because considerable problems arise when decommissioning facilities of this type. It is not something one can do easily, but will have a cost well into the future. Therefore, all that I am asking the Minister—

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Order. I was in the Chair for most of the debate on Second Reading when the Minister described the Bill's purpose and other hon. Members commented on it. The Bill does not seem to contain anything related to decommissioning of any kind.

Mr. Bennett

Mr. Deputy Speaker, you are making the point that I am trying to establish. A full account of the costs of those measures must be given to the House. The Government say that they are transferring something from a public to a private provision, which will create a problem in the future when we have to clear up the mess. As long as it was a public provision, we should have been told what those costs were in the money resolution, but now the position is changing and the matter ceases to be a Government provision and becomes a half-private one. I suspect that the private undertaking will make profits out of the proposal and the taxpayer will be left with the cost of clearing up the mess.

If you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, believe that anyone involved in any sort of nuclear activity will not face future costs, I would concede that I was making a false point. But I suggest that it is a worry because there will be future costs. I want an assurance from the Minister that he will tell the House the cost to the taxpayer of clearing up those facilities. The sooner we can get rid of such facilities and stop needing to use them the better, but they will then have to be cleared up, which will involve expenditure. The private contractor will no longer make profits out of the facility, so will be reluctant to pay for the clearing-up costs. I am simply asking what the cost will be of decommissioning the facility. If the Minister will tell me, I shall happily give way; if not, I shall wait until the end of the debate to see whether he will give us those answers.

During the past 20 years there has been a major nuclear programme in this country in both civil and military facilities, and the House of Commons has not been given the real cost of that programme—that is the problem. Every time one asks for answers to those questions, Ministers want to keep quiet. They do not want to talk about things that are either military secrets or something that they want to hide away. I simply want the Minister to give a clear undertaking now on what the full costs of the measure are likely to be, what the costs will be of making the district safe and the medical costs for people who work there, particularly as that plant has not had the best of records in terms of its design and the way in which it is being run. It has left people with considerable worries. I shall now listen with considerable interest to what the Minister has to say.

9.18 pm
Mr. Bob Cryer (Bradford, South)

I heard only the two winding-up speeches because I was also in Committee from 4.15 pm. I was in the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments, which I chair, and the Select Committee on Members' Interests, of which I am a member. That shows the number of activities that we have to undertake in the House if we are to carry out our job. It also shows that the notion that we can all break off at 5 pm and go home for tea is ludicrous. Today has demonstrated the absurdity of that notion, because we have much to deal with.

There are two paragraphs to the money resolution. In paragraph (a) we are about to authorise the expenditure by the Secretary of State for the formation of a company to carry out the designated activities in the Bill. That seems fair enough, covering as it does the cost of share issues, registration at Companies House, and so on. I suspect that it would involve a relatively small sum of money—but no doubt the Minister will illuminate that aspect when he replies. However, the resolution also authorises the Secretary of State to pay for the operation of any such company, which is rather different. The authority to finance the operation of a company carrying out designated activities could involve a large sum of money.

Clause 1(2) of the Bill refers to designated activities as follows: The activities that may be designated under subsection (1) above are any activities connected with the development, production or maintenance of nuclear devices or with research into such devices or their effects; and the premises that may be so designated are those which, when this Act comes into force, form part of the undertaking carried on by the Secretary of State and known as the Atomic Weapons Establishment. In other words, the operation of that establishment will be authorised by the money resolution. We should like to know what sort of annual sum the Secretary of State has in mind.

If the activities are undertaken by a private company, as presumably will be the case, will that company's returns be included as part of the annual defence estimates? Clearly its work will be connected with the Ministry of Defence, and the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement is part of that establishment. It will be interesting to know whether right hon. and hon. Members will have to look up a private company's annual return to obtain figures of defence expenditure.

Will the company be one stage removed from Parliament, or will right hon. and hon. Members, by tabling parliamentary questions, be able to obtain information about it? Or will the Minister say, "That matter is for the company"? That ruse is often used by the Government. Under the resolution, the Secretary of State will be able to form a company, draw moneys to do that, and then finance its whole operation. It is therefore important that we receive from the Minister an assurance that financial or other questions about the company asked in Parliament will be answerable by the Minister, and that he will not shield himself behind the company's separateness.

The second paragraph of the resolution gives the Secretary of State responsibility for any liabilities (whether of such a company"— that is, a company formed by the Secretary of State— or any other company which is or has been a contractor) which are liabilities arising out of the carrying on of activities so designated". Under clause 1(2), the Secretary of State is given an open cheque in assuming responsibilities for the company in operation, and for any liabilities arising, and for any other company that is or has been a contractor. That is a wide range of potential liabilities.

The trade union brief on the Bill includes details of Government-owned, contractor-operated arrangements in the United States. It states: Thus, at the Rocky Flats site near Denver, one of the three main US nuclear weapons facilities, 62 lbs of plutonium have been discovered in the air ducts of the plant, which has had to be shut down. We have provided a detailed dossier of evidence to the Defence Committee on the situation in the United States. At the very least, the Government should conduct a full and open study of the US experience before proceeding further. I do not accept that Government control over a private contractor is as great as Government control over a directly operated Government Department. Therefore, safety risks could increase. Does the resolution mean that the Secretary of State can assume liability when a company is at fault in what everybody accepts is a potentially extremely hazardous process? That seems to be the implication of the money resolution.

Suppose, in this wonderful world of enterprise culture from which the Minister is attempting to persuade the House that we shall benefit a company—I suspect that this is what the resolution is about—tenders for some work at a reduced cost which it cannot then carry out because it has made a miscalculation, which happens all the time, and it goes into liquidation. Is the Secretary of State guaranteeing to those companies which tender for work that he can bail them out of any designated activity? That is important because it warps the whole tendering procedure. A company will know that it has a guarantee, provided by the Government through the resolution. Safety is an important aspect.

Another point made in the excellent brief provided by a combination of trade unions is that safety is prejudiced where it is divided between contractors and the Ministry of Defence. That is obviously the case because countermanding instructions, different standards and similar sets of circumstances can create the potential for greater hazard. At the end of the day, it looks as though the taxpayer, through the Secretary of State, will be picking up the bill.

As it is clear that the designated activities which the money resolution specifically covers are important, it is pretty poor—I doubt whether this was mentioned in the previous debate—that the wide power of designation accorded to the Secretary of State under clause 1 is given by a negative procedure order. We are talking about an inherently hazardous procedure which produces weapons that can exterminate millions of people and the financing of those designated activities should be by means of an affirmative instrument rather than a negative procedure instrument.

The Minister was once a Whip and he has sat for many hours listening to and taking part in debates about the amount of time allocated to business in the House. That is why I started by talking about those people who think that the House of Commons can shut up and go home for tea at 5 o'clock because it is more comfortable and cosy that way. We do not have enough time to debate all the things that we should in the House. Affirmative resolutions should be the preferred system so that there is a requirement for a resolution of the House before authority is given to the Secretary of State, particularly on an important matter such as this.

Clause 3(2) states: The Secretary of State may by order repeal or amend any provision of the Schedule to this Act; but this power shall not be exercised so as to extend the application of any privilege or immunity which is for the time being provided for by that Schedule. I welcome that important reservation. Paragraph 9(2) of the schedule states: The power of the Secretary of State under section 48(4) of that Act (Crown exemptions) shall include power, exercisable in the interests of the safety of the State, to provide for exemption, in relation to designated premises or activities carried on by a contractor at such premises, from all or any of the relevant statutory provisions within the meaning of Part I of that Act. That refers to the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act 1974.

We are discussing a money resolution that gives the Secretary of State power to meet all the costs of any contracting companies operating under the designation procedure. If the Secretary of State—we should like to know his reasons—removes the relevant section of the Health and Safety at Work, etc. Act and problems such as explosions or injuries arise, will the increased costs be guaranteed to the companies if they arise out of action under the schedule and come under the category of the interests of the safety of the State", whatever that means?

This is an all-embracing resolution. I shall not quibble with the end of paragraph (b), which deals with liabilities to or in respect of persons employed or formerly employed in or in connection with the carrying on of such activities. That is welcome. There is no reason why people should suffer because of the Government's ideological commitment. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Clackmannan (Mr. O'Neill) asked about the pensions which the Government will provide. I take it that this part of the financial resolution will cover pensions, but the Minister was evasive about whether new employees would have the same rights. He said that they had the right to enter a pension scheme, but I should like a little more detail.

If we carry out, as I hope we will, the terms of the United Nations nuclear non-proliferation treaty, clause 6 of which obliges us to get rid of nuclear weapons—the change in circumstances in eastern Europe means that the Government can no longer point to the red menace in the east as the reason for purchasing Trident and for the deployment of Polaris, which is not deployed anyway because it is defective—does the last part of the resolution provide for a change from the designated operations and activities listed in the resolution to allow the Secretary of State to start on the momentous expenditure involved in changing from weapons of mass extermination and war to peaceful purposes? If the answer is yes, this will be one of the best financial resolutions that we have ever passed. If not, and if it is only about more warheads and more potential death and destruction, we should have to look at it very critically indeed.

9.33 pm
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement (Mr. Kenneth Carlisle)

For many years I wondered when I would be on the receiving end of a speech by the hon. Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) on a money resolution. I have listened to him for many hours late at night wishing that his speeches would come to an end. So tonight is a special occasion and I am delighted to see him in his place.

I felt that the debate on the money resolution went rather wide. We had a wide-ranging debate on Second Reading on the principle of the Bill and on its details. It is important that, in my reply, I am relevant to the money resolution, which refers to the narrow aims of the Bill to transfer the work force at the atomic weapons establishment from the civil service into a separate company, which will be taken over by the contractor, and will then be the employer.

The money resolution authorises the payment, out of money provided by Parliament, of certain expenses which might be incurred by the Secretary of State, in connection with the introduction of contractor operation at the atomic weapons establishment. Those expenses include the costs involved in forming the company to which I referred, which will act as the employer of all AWE staff, and in operating the company until it is transferred to the ownership of the contractor who will operate the establishment.

I cannot give a precise forecast of the costs at this stage, but I can say with complete confidence that they will be small. The company will have no assets other than its staff and will be similar to the employing companies set up in 1987 at the royal dockyards at Devonport and Rosyth. In that case, the cost of setting up the employing companies was just over £50,000 each. However, almost all of that was subsequently recovered.

The resolution also authorises payment of expenses that might arise if the Secretary of State takes back responsibility for the employing company after it has been transferred to a contractor. There are two situations in which that might arise. First, should the operating contract at AWE change hands at some time in the future, the staff and therefore the employing company would have to be transferred to the new contractor. In that event, it is possible that the company would be taken back by the Secretary of State for a brief period, before being acquired by the new contractor. However, it is unlikely that that would involve significant costs to the Secretary of State.

Also, it is conceivable that the Secretary of State might wish to take back control of AWE, and thus of the employing company, in an emergency. The Secretary of State would then be responsible for the liabilities of the company—for example, the salaries of the AWE work force. I must stress that we do not consider it likely that such an eventuality would occur, but it is prudent to make provision just in case.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

What will be the position of the company if, as my hon. Friend the Member for Bradford, South (Mr. Cryer) suggested, the demand for warheads for Trident suddenly ceased? Is there any requirement in the money resolution for compensation to the contractor, or does the contractor stand at risk?

Mr. Carlisle

I was coming to that at the end of my remarks. The hon. Member for Bradford, South mentioned one or two technical matters about the company. I should like to consider what he said and write to him, as I think that that would be the best way to give him the correct answer, and I should like to do so.

The hon. Members for Bradford, South and for Denton and Reddish (Mr. Bennett) asked what we would do if we decided not to have a nuclear deterrent. The Government feel that the best security for our country is to retain a nuclear deterrent. Trident is an important part of that, and the AWE is an essential ingredient of Trident.

I had been led to believe—I was surprised by it—by the speech of the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman that the Opposition also, for some reason, latterly believe in a nuclear deterrent. I know that the hon. Members for Bradford, South and for Denton and Reddish are loyal members of the Labour party. In Committee it would be interesting to know of their views on this matter, because it is one of the aspects that we shall concentrate on. Clearly, if the Opposition have any doubt about the nuclear deterrent, they ought to tell the several thousand employees at AWE that their jobs are truly at risk. In that case, there would be a considerable cost to the nation.

Mr. Cryer

This is why I raised the possibility of using people's skills for peaceful purposes. I believe that the Minister really has a soft spot for the 139 non-nuclear nations that signed the United Nations nuclear non-proliferation treaty. Surely the Government cannot deny the possibility that, at some stage in the not-too-distant future, there may be a need to keep the jobs concerned, because the world rejects the deployment of nuclear weapons.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

Order. I am sure that the Minister has a soft spot for the rules of order governing a money resolution.

Mr. Carlisle

I certainly have—and I also have an extremely strong spot for the continued use of nuclear deterrence in an uncertain world.

Mr. Andrew F. Bennett

Does the Minister accept that normal commercial prudence should take into account the possibility that we shall not need those deterrents? I should have thought that the Minister would welcome such a state of affairs, however it is achieved. He should therefore be able to tell us what would be the cost of changing the contract in regard to the establishment if we no longer needed to make the nuclear warheads. Although the Minister would still want a nuclear deterrent, I suggest that there are other ways of providing it than Trident, which may well prove too costly even for the present Government.

Mr. Carlisle

That, too, is rather outside the scope of the Bill. I can only say that we believe in the nuclear deterrent: we feel that, in an uncertain world, it is a wise defence. It is interesting to note the divergence in defence policy in the Labour party; we shall have to watch that.

We predict that the sum required to support the Bill will not be large. I therefore urge the House to support the resolution.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That, for the purposes of any Act resulting from the Atomic Weapons Establishment Bill, it is expedient to authorise the payment out of money provided by Parliament of any expenses of the Secretary of State incurred—

  1. (a) in connection with the formation of any company formed with a view to, or for any purpose of, the carrying on of activities designated under the Act or with the operation of any such company wholly owned by the Secretary of State; or
  2. (b) in assuming responsibility for any liabilities (whether of such a company or any other company which is or has been a contractor) which are liabilities arising out of the carrying on of activities so designated or liabilities to or in respect of persons employed or formerly employed in or in connection with the carrying on of such activities.