HC Deb 30 October 1990 vol 178 cc895-8

Lords amendment: No. 212, in page 102, line 43, leave out ("sections") and insert ("section").

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Paul Dean)

With this it will be convenient to consider Lords amendments Nos. 212, 216, 218, 345 to 347 and 429.

5.9 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland (Lord James Douglas-Hamilton)

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendments. The amendments deal with technical points.

Question put and agreed to.

Subsequent Lords amendments agreed to.

Lords amendment: No. 213, in page 103, line 5, leave out ("for varying") and insert ("in respect of the variation or)

The Minister for the Environment and Countryside (Mr. David Trippier)

I beg to move, That this House doth agree with the Lords in the said amendment.

Mr. Deputy Speaker

With this, it will be convenient to take Lords amendments Nos. 213 to 215, 217, and 304; Lords amendment No. 340 and the amendment thereto; 341 to 344.

Mr. Trippier

Her Majesty's Opposition may wish to speak to their amendment to Lords amendment No. 340 before I say anything.

Ms. Joan Walley (Stoke-on-Trent, North)

The Opposition do wish to speak to their amendment, which is being discussed at this late stage in the proceedings because the Government have not fulfilled promises made during the earlier stages of the Bill.

The problem dealt with by the amendment arises out of the persistence shown by Dudley metropolitan council in its long-standing attempts to close loopholes in legislation. The council, quite simply, wanted a say in the procedures by which a licence was granted by Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution, under the Radioactive Substances Act 1960, to Waste Incineration Services Ltd. This authorised the Pear Tree lane site to be used for the purposes of disposing of solid and liquid organic radioactive waste. I have visited the site, with Councillor Sparks, and have met local residents who have long campaigned about their concerns over waste disposal at the Pear Tree lane and other sites. I have met campaigners from all over the west midlands who are concerned about the way in which radioactive and other toxic wastes are disposed of.

In this case, Dudley metropolitan council was right to have expected to have at least been consulted about the granting of the licence for disposal of radioactive waste under section 6. That is in line with our views on the importance of freedom of information. The behaviour of the HMIP was also in contradiction of the Government's professed aim, set out in their White Paper, which refers to the need for the public to receive environmental information.

The first that Dudley's residents knew about the licence authorising the disposal of radioactive waste was when the council received a copy of the licence, which had already been issued. Where was the consultation? When the council rightly took this matter through the courts, it was rewarded by the courts finding in its favour. The Secretary of State was required to consider whether to involve local authorities and to give them a right to a hearing. No wonder that the legal officer considered that the Secretary of State's previous actions had been high-handed, cavalier and unreasonable. Ever since, we have pressed the Government to recognise that local authorities have a legitimate right to have their say whenever a licence application of this kind is being considered. In a letter to me, the Under-Secretary said: It is a matter for local authorities only when the proposed disposal has a significant effect on the locality. However, he makes no suggestion as to what is significant, and at this eleventh hour in our deliberations on the Bill, the issue has not been resolved. Therefore, we have tabled the amendment: it is plain that the Government do not want a statutory procedure for involving local authorities in these major environmental issues such as disposal of radioactive waste.

Amendment (a) to Lords amendment No. 340 makes no suggestion even to any rights to hearings. We are not going that far down the road at this stage. Nor does it advance the position of local authorities, except to complete the limited role that they have already been given by the Government's proposal to notify them of applications in advance. These would then have to be published.

Radioactive licences awarded under the Radioactive Substances Act 1960 can be for disposal, accumulation, use or use in connection with radioactive apparatus. Amendment (a), which is concerned with radioactive apparatus, is an example of how the procedure should operate. The Government have provided no clear answer to what is supposed to happen when an authority such as Dudley receives a copy of a licence application. As the Bill stands, despite the assurances given by the Under-Secretary, there is no provision to guide the authority as to the period within which comments should be made, or any sign of what the HMIP might do with any comments it receives.

The amendment is designed to regularise the process, to the benefit both of authorities and of the HMIP. The scheme proposed is that there should be a six-week period within the normal four-month period during which the HMIP considers applications, in which the authority may submit comments to the HMIP, which the inspectorate would then be required to consider. This is a light requirement on the HMIP, but it would at least ensure that the comments made by authorities were not simply ignored, as happened in the case of Dudley council. The purpose is to prevent uncertainty about applications from dragging on for any long period, and equally to protect the HMIP from comments received from authorities late in the process, which may cut across the process of determination, which by then would be further advanced.

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The amendment makes the further proposal that notifications to local authorities under the Bill should include a reminder of the calling in power given to the Secretary of State under paragraph 12 of schedule 5, which inserts a new section 12B into the Radioactive Substances Act 1960. Under this power, the Secretary of State may instruct the chief inspector to refer to him any particular application which will then be determinable by him. It is understood that it would be open to local authorities to request the Secretary of State to exercise his power. In practice, this would probably be heeded only in a case where a decision reached by the inspector appeared to have ignored a significant matter drawn to his attention by the local authority. Again, I refer the Under-Secretary to the use of the word "significant" in his letter to me.

Nothing in the amendment would constrain the decision of the Secretary of State as to whether to call an application in, but it would serve as a limited form of appeal against decisions to grant applications in certain narrow instances. It would be helpful to have on the record an assurance that it will be open to authorities in specific instances to petition the Secretary of State in this way. If that assurance can be given, and if we can have some guidance as to the way in which officials will deal with this scheme, the residents of Dudley and their councillors will have the satisfaction of knowing that they closed a loophole in legislation, and that they have done all that they properly can to bring the attention of the Government to the wider implications of the way in which waste disposal licences involving radioactive substances are dealt with.

Mr. Trippier

Perhaps I may assist the hon. Lady by making clear what the situation will be when the Bill as it stands—that is, without the amendment—becomes an Act of Parliament. I am concerned about what she said about Dudley metropolitan council. I would not profess to be as much of an expert as she is, but I will look at this one again. Considerable influence has been directed at the Government to ensure that this kind of thing cannot happen again. Even if I were to take verbatim what has been said by the hon. Lady, the amendment is in any case defective—although I hope that she will forgive me for saying so—because it refers to the procedures that should be applied to applications to use mobile apparatus, but that need not concern us. The principle that the hon. Lady is making is accepted in general terms.

Local authorities will be sent copies of all applications for registration and authorisation once they have been received by the chief inspector. They will then have an opportunity to comment at an early stage in every case. At present, local authorities see applications only if they are involved in a formal confrontation process. Local authorities will be sent a greater amount of information. In addition to copies of applications, they are to be sent copies of all certificates. At present, certificates of registration for mobile radioactive apparatus are not required to be sent. They will be sent copies of certificates for enforcement, copies of prohibition notices, records of convictions and any other documents that the Secretary of State may direct the chief inspector to send.

Local authorities will have a role to play in making this information available, as the public will be able to inspect those documents at their offices. That, as the hon. Lady knows full well, is consistent with our approach, which she has supported. I welcome the increased public access to environmental information. Authorities are to be entitled to charge a reasonable fee for the provision of photocopies of documents that will be open to public inspection.

There may be a minor difference of opinion between us on the great majority of cases in which radioactive materials need to be registered to be kept and used. Certainly, in the case of mobile apparatus, local authorities will have no executive or regulatory function. I entirely accept that the hon. Lady may not necessarily be asking for that, but it is a statement of fact.

As a result, authorities will also lack the highly specialist expertise that will be necessary to enable them to comment on these matters in an informed and detailed way. For that reason, the control of radioactive substances has always, under successive Governments, been under central Government control—at present through Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution in England and Wales and Her Majesty's industrial pollution inspectorate in Scotland.

As I have said, the amendment is inappropriate, and I ask the House to reject it.

Ms. Walley

Given what the Minister has just said, may I ask him whether he is prepared to discuss further with his officials and with officers of the metropolitan council of Dudley ways of dealing with some of the issues that have been raised—including the timetable under which HMIP would give information to the local authority concerned? We do not have a final way of dealing with this, but we accept that, if there are further consultations of that sort, that will at least benefit HMIP and enable the problems that have been highlighted by the Dudley case to be of wider benefit in tightening up legislation on radioactive waste and its disposal.

Mr. Trippier

I am happy to give the hon. Lady the assurance that she seeks.

Question put and agreed to.

Subsequent Lords amendments agreed to.

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