HC Deb 06 December 1995 vol 268 cc433-43

`(1) The Secretary of State shall establish a committee to give advice, either when requested to do so or otherwise on any matters relating to the control of chemical weapons in furthering the general purposes of this Act.

(2) In pursuance of subsection (1)—

  1. (a) the Secretary of State shall appoint the members of the committee and appoint one of those members to be chairman;
  2. (b) in appointing members of the committee, the Secretary of State shall ensure that all groups of persons likely to be affected by the Act are represented;
  3. (c) the committee shall, at such time in each year as the Secretary of State may direct, publish a report with respect to the performance of the committee's functions;
  4. (d) the Secretary of State may make provision by regulations with respect to the terms on which members of the committee may hold and vacate office, including the terms on which any person appointed as chairman shall hold and vacate office as chairman;
  5. (e) the Secretary of State shall provide the committee with such staff and such accommodation, services and other facilities as appear to the Secretary of State to be necessary or expedient for the proper performance of the committee's functions;
  6. (f) the Secretary of State may pay to the members of the committee such remuneration (if any) and such allowances as may be determined by the Secretary of State with the consent of the Treasury;
  7. (g) the committee shall not be taken to be the servant or agent of the Crown or to enjoy any status or immunity of the Crown;
  8. (h) regulations under this schedule shall be made by statutory instrument and no regulations shall be made unless a draft of the regulations has been laid before and approved by resolution of each House of Parliament.'.—[Mr. Ingram.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

7.45 pm
Mr. Ingram

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

There is obviously a spirit of good will on the Government Benches.

Mr. Oppenheim

indicated dissent.

Mr. Ingram

The Minister indicates that there is not too much, but perhaps the power of persuasion can be applied.

We have made considerable progress with the Bill. We now have an annual report which, from the indications given in our previous debate, will be fairly comprehensive and satisfy many people. Some of the submissions in support of the annual report were from eminent individuals and bodies who were seeking improvements to the Bill. The Royal Society of Chemistry, which has been mentioned several times during the passage of the Bill, was one of the main bodies that had an input. It should come as no surprise that the Royal Society of Chemistry is supportive of the principles of new clause 1, which would introduce an advisory committee to assist the Government, as a national authority, in the implementation of the legislation.

The best arguments are those used by the Royal Society of Chemistry. We could all make our own interpretations of the matter, but, given the weight of the arguments advanced by the Royal Society of Chemistry, it would be useful to read from its briefing to place its concerns on the record.

The Royal Society of Chemistry states:

The DTI must also be held to account in regard to less tangible but no less central aspects of UK compliance with the Convention, notably: maintaining the integrity of the General Purpose Criterion; the accuracy of the Convention-required industrial data that it submits to the OPCW on behalf of the UK; the protection of UK national programmes related to protective purposes; the accuracy of the annual reports made to the OPCW on the UK protective programmes; ensuring, insofar as the UK is competent to do so, that the treaty regime is fully reflective of the latest developments in science and technology; and the protection of UK compliance against pressures to develop breakout options, such as ones which new technical developments might come to suggest. The DTI will be in no position to assure Parliament on these matters unless the National Authority has the active co-operation of both governmental and non-governmental organisations: CBDE Porton Down, private chemical industry, the wider scientific community, and others. Such support will surely not be forthcoming to the extent necessary if the National Authority falls short of modern standards of openness and accountability (having due regard to the necessary confidentiality of some categories of relevant information). Nor may the support be satisfactorily forthcoming if interests affected by the work of the National Authority are entirely unrepresented in the Authority itself or bodies associated with it. The society makes a strong and irrefutable case for an advisory committee or body to work alongside the DTI as the national authority.

The Royal Society of Chemistry goes on in its briefing document to specify how an advisory board should operate. It states:

An Advisory Board should be constituted in order to receive reports from the National Authority. The frequency of the reports should be in phase with the roughly 180-day cycles that will direct the National Authority's routine reporting to the OPCW". The report refers to details relating to that and continues:

The contents of the reports to the Advisory Board would be considered and discussed at meetings between the Board and staff of the National Authority. Representation on the Board would reflect the various domestic communities affected by implementation of the Convention, as well as sources of expertise essential to the work of the Authority. So there should be representation not only of CBDE Porton Down but also of any CBDE advisory committee involved in overseeing Porton's work for the National Authority. Membership of the Board should also include any UK expert there might be on the OPCW Scientific Advisory Board. The society again makes a strong case. It is not an instance of the Opposition arguing for the sake of argument, trying to find some flaw or weakness. We have tried to take the arguments advanced by the Royal Society of Chemistry and others and put them into parliamentary language. That is manifested in new clause 1, which replicates the provisions which apply to the Food and Environment Protection Act 1985 in relation to the Advisory Committee on Pesticides. That advisory committee has existed for more than 40 years and became a statutory body in 1985. It is well respected and proved itself to be useful and helpful both before and after becoming a statutory body.

During our discussions on Second Reading, it was stated that the activities of the Advisory Committee on Pesticides had been favourably commented upon by the Select Committee on Agriculture in its fifth report to the previous Parliament. That raises the question: if such an advisory committee is deemed to be necessary for the control and regulation of pesticides, why is not a similar committee deemed necessary to regulate and control substances such as the chemicals mentioned in the Bill and covered by the convention, which are potentially more dangerous?

The Minister has shown a willingness to listen and to bend to expert opinion as the Bill has developed from its first draft to its second draft. Tonight—I think for only the second time in 25 years—an amendment presented by an Opposition Member has been accepted. That demonstrates substantial movement, particularly by the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Amber Valley (Mr. Oppenheim). He told us on Second Reading that he did not favour regulation, but I think that he has come to recognise the benefits of regulation in relation to matters as critical as chemicals and chemical weapons.

New clause 1 has much merit. As I have said, it replicates what is already laid down in statute in relation to the regulation of pesticides. Chemicals are potentially much more dangerous than pesticides, and great benefits could be obtained from an advisory committee working alongside the national authority. That is why I quoted in detail from the advice given by the Royal Society of Chemistry. I know that the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) said that he would make a detailed contribution to the debate because advice that we had received was wrong or misplaced—I cannot remember his exact words.

Mr. Key


Mr. Ingram

Flawed—that is useful. Obviously, he will participate in this debate and we shall listen with interest to hear how he intends to contradict the Royal Society of Chemistry. He told us during the Second Reading debate that he taught the Minister during his A-levels. I do not know whether the cane—or, as we would say in Scotland, the belt—was still in use at that time and whether he had to use it on the Minister. I hope that I do not have to use it on the Minister tonight should he reject our position, and that we can, instead, reach agreement.

New clause 1 contains the last major issue that we must tackle in the Bill. If we accept the principle of an advisory committee, we will send out the right message to the wider scientific community. It would be warmly welcomed and greatly appreciated and received, and it would ensure full co-operation on the convention across the full range of scientific opinion in this country. An advisory committee would also, importantly, conclude the arguments about transparency and accountability in relation to the Bill.

Mr. Key

On the face of it, the new clause is tempting. The Minister will recall that shortly before midnight last night I was discussing it with him and trying to persuade him of some of its merits.

Before I explain why I have concluded that it would not be sensible to accept the new clause, I must express my gratitude to the Royal Society of Chemistry. Were it not for that society, we would scarcely have had any briefing and we would have had an extremely short debate today. I wish to make a serious plea to the scientific community of this country to recognise their interest in legislation that passes through the House. It is extraordinary that we had to rely so heavily on the Royal Society of Chemistry. We have not received anything—at least I have not—from the Chemical Industries Association in the way of briefing.

I say that the Royal Society of Chemistry has been briefing us, but it was in fact one man—a very talented man—who has been briefing us on behalf of the society. The briefings from other organisations—the science policy research unit at Sussex university and the international security information service-have come from one and the same man. That one gentleman has been quoted extensively in the briefing of the Royal Society of Chemistry.

I have managed to identify three scientists in this country responsible for briefing Parliament on the Bill. They are excellent scientists who have done us a great service. We receive criticism from the scientific community for not taking them seriously, but they could have given Parliament a better briefing.

Mr. Dalyell

A number of people in the scientific community say that the man in question, Dr. Julian Perry Robinson, who has spent 30 years of his life studying the problems, knows more about them than anyone else. If members of the scientific community think that one of their colleagues knows more about the subject, it is in their nature to say, "Get your advice from those who know most." There is nothing dishonourable or lazy about that.

Mr. Key

I have not suggested that, nor would I suggest that Nicholas Sims or Mr. Benn is any less distinguished. That is not the point. I would have expected more briefing on such a delicate subject—I shall leave the matter there.

When we discuss the new clause, I suspect that we are really talking about transparency and public confidence, which must be the two key issues. I think that the hon. Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram) is seeking to establish that. If we had not had an annual statutory report, we would have needed some sort of advisory committee. Now that the Government have given us that statutory report, which is to be laid before both Houses and is to report to Parliament on the operation of the Act, we do not need the new clause. The new clause demands not a report on the workings of the Act or the convention but on the performance of the advisory committee's function. That would be bureaucratic, expensive and unnecessary.

I thought that we might have a small advisory committee because in July the Government announced, through the Ministry of Defence, that they would set up an animal welfare advisory committee to look into much of the work that is done at Porton Down and elsewhere within the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. I thought that it might be a good model—it has only three independent members and is an important, tight, little advisory committee. But then I realised that the fourth term of reference of that committee stated that the committee's function was not to monitor the Act—the Animals (Scientific Procedures) Act 1986—but to monitor other committees, to monitor ethics, to monitor evidence on the reduction of the use of animals, to monitor statistics, to review training and education of DERA personnel, to review initiatives and to maintain high standards of animal welfare. Therefore, the committee's function was quite different and could not easily be read across to the Bill.

New clause 1 would clearly require a large committee. The hon. Member for East Kilbride should realise that establishing the sort of committee that he wants would require a large bureaucracy and be expensive. It would be a large committee, representative of all the interests. The compliance cost assessment of the DTI quotes the Chemical Industries Association as saying that there would be up to 2,000 plants to be declared twice a year. If the committee were to look at each of those plants twice a year, it would have to be a large committee, working full time. If I have correctly understood what the hon. Gentleman is suggesting, I cannot see it working.

Mr. Dalyell

I did ask the Minister about generic testing.

Mr. Key

I will allow the Minister to give his own answer, if I may.

One of the main reasons why I regard the new clause as unworkable is confidentiality. We know that industrial espionage is rife on an international scale and is a significant problem. Confidentiality is crucial, and it is an international issue in the convention. It is not only a matter for this Parliament.

The excellent Royal Society of Chemistry, in its excellent briefing, which I shall now quote, if I may, to the Committee, spoke of the chemical industries negotiating with the Department of Trade and Industry. It said:

The key to their accepting it was express recognition by the negotiators that the industry's intellectual property, which was often the product of great investment in research and development, would need to be safeguarded against abuse of site inspections and other controls … The bias towards secrecy which this device imposes on many of the operators of the treaty stands in contrast to the transparency mechanisms which the treaty in its domestic implementation also require. This, however, was the price which had to be paid for creating conditions within which the chemical industry would be willing to co-operate. So huge is the chemical industry and so multipurpose its facilities and feedstocks that there was never any real alternative to cooperation. If there were one, it would have had to be a control regime for chemical industry in which whole areas of chemical technology were subjected to prohibition and repressive surveillance. That is terribly significant, and that is one reason why we cannot accept new clause 1.

8 pm

I wish to make one more argument—the argument to which I referred when I said that some of the advice that we had been given was flawed. It has been suggested in some of our briefing that the Bill—and the end of chemical weapons, which we hope will occur—is compromised by the constitutional, legal and commercial position of the Chemical and Biological Defence Establishment, Porton Down. I believe that that is simply not the case. ISIS briefing paper No. 48 has, I believe, mistaken that position.

I wish that people would not speak about "Porton". There is a large civilian community in the village of Porton. There are two distinct scientific establishments there—the CBDE and the Centre for Applied Microbiology and Research, sponsored by the Department of Health. On behalf of my constituents, who work at both, I draw attention to the fact that they are different. I ask people please not to confuse them.

ISIS asks, where is the assurance that Porton, part of the next steps agency, will in future provide the Department of Trade and Industry with the assistance that it requires for the convention? ISIS alleges that assistance would be "of course" a public service, but then it declares that that would have to be

paid for out of someone's budget". To make that happen, ISIS suggests that further legislation might be necessary, even in the Bill. Let me try to explain why that argument is flawed and try to allay those fears.

The assurance that ISIS seeks may be found in the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency framework document. Every member of the staff at CBDE Porton Down is a civil servant attached to the Ministry of Defence and, through their Ministers, is accountable to the House. The activities of the agency are determined in that framework document, which is published.

CBDE operates with a trading fund. That does not mean that it tries to rob Peter to pay Paul, nor does it equate to private sector accounting. A trading fund is a discipline and a mechanism to introduce to the public sector the rigours of private sector budgeting, accounting and management. I believe that, together, the framework document and the trading fund encourage just the type of transparency that we all seek.

Mr. Ingram

I have listened carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has said. Can he confirm that the CBDE has advisory committees, and that those advisory committees work successfully alongside CBDE? We seek in new clause 1 something analogous and similar to that, using the expertise from CBDE to assist the DTI as a national authority.

Mr. Key

I have sought the advice of CBDE about advisory committees, and it is beset with advisory committees. Not only does it have advisory committees for the DERA establishments, but it told me that the international bureaucracy from The Hague will be very substantial. CBDE will spend its time coping with the international bureaucracy in The Hague and inspecting other nations, because we happen to be the best in the world at doing that. If we, on top of that, impose more committees to oversee the work of the committee that must look after them, it becomes absurd. I believe that CBDE will not be able to do its job properly as a result.

As for public confidence, which is so important, my constituents would wish to assist the Department of Trade and Industry under the legislation. Ever since CBDE was established, in the early part of the century, its mission has remained the same. It exists to provide the best scientific advice to protect the citizens of the United Kingdom from chemical and biological weapons and it will continue to do that, with or without another committee and whether it is regulatory or advisory.

Mr. Dalyell

The hon. Gentleman railed against extra committees, but I would not have bothered to interrupt him had he not been a member of the Medical Research Council—a lucky Member to be so, because it is a very important organisation. It has endless committees, because, if one is to have peer group monitoring, one must have all sorts of sub-specialist committees. If I may say so, it is a little glib to rail against committees which, as the hon. Gentleman should know from his Medical Research Council experience, provide proper peer group control.

Mr. Key

It was a huge honour to be a member of the Medical Research Council and I did not enjoy the day when I had to leave it because I was invited to form—to join—the Government of Margaret Thatcher. [Interruption.] Would that I had been invited to form the Government.

However, the hon. Gentleman is mistaken in that we are talking not about sub-specialist committees but about independent outsiders coming in to oversee the work. They are not comparable with the Medical Research Council's committees. Incidentally, it is possible to find scientists working in the Medical Research Council in their various projects who would have said how strongly they believed that all those committees were thoroughly overdone. Nevertheless, let us not argue, because I am trying to come to a conclusion.

The CBDE advises the Government. Ministers are responsible to the House for that advice, and for the work of the national authority, under the legislation. I hope that the House will reject the new clause.

Mr. Dalyell

First, I am overcome by the nerve gas of curiosity to know what was the other occasion in 25 years. Perhaps someone from the Box would come up with the answer to that.

I shall advance one serious argument. Julian Perry Robinson—we should all acknowledge our intellectual debt to a man who has worked for 30 years on that subject—argued time and again that what was important was that the institution should be able to cope with the new chemicals that were being developed every year. I return to the example—heaven help us—of the VX that, I am told by Professor Paul Rogers of Bradford, has been developed in Iraq, and which is worse than Sarin, as a concrete example of how one has to cope with new chemicals as that field becomes increasingly more dangerous. Coping with innovation may be what the institution should be about.

Mr. Oppenheim

I shall not speak at length because there is little that I can add to what my hon. Friend and former teacher, the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) said. He covered the area fully. First, there is nothing in the convention that requires an advisory committee. Secondly, the hon. Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram) mentioned the advisory body for pesticides. Simply because there is an advisory body in one of the myriad areas of Government does not necessarily mean that we must have advisory bodies in every area of Government. It is also fair to say that the advisory body for pesticides relates to a different area in that it relates especially to the public, whereas the chemical weapons advisory body, as I understand it, would not especially relate to the public; it would very specifically relate to a very small, or relatively small, number of experts. As my hon. Friend says, the various advisory bodies relating to the CBDE are non-statutory bodies.

The problem is that implementing the convention rightly involves a lot of regulation and bureaucracy. But we do not want to over-egg it. That would lead to bureaucracy, a lack of flexibility, and it would undoubtedly be expensive. I make it clear that we would expect the regulatory body to take advice as widely and as flexibly as possible. We would not want it just to take advice from a statutory advisory body. We would expect it to seek advice as widely as possibly and would rely particularly on the expertise of organisations such as the CBDE.

I am sorry that I cannot extend further the spirit of good will and bridge-building which, as the hon. Member for East Kilbride knows, comes difficult to me at the best of times. I have stretched my good will as far as possible by accepting the amendment in the name of the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) and I am sorry that I cannot accept the new clause.

Mr. Ingram

I am sorry that the Minister has reverted to type at the tail end of the debate, but he may change his mind at some stage in the future. The hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) and the Minister do not appear to have read the new clause. It says:

The Secretary of State shall establish a committee to give advice, either when requested to do so or otherwise on any matters relating to the control of chemical weapons in furthering the general purposes of this Act. Therefore, the committee is under the control and direction of the Secretary of State. The new clause continues:

the Secretary of State shall appoint the members of the committee", and it goes on to detail from where the members of the committee should be drawn.

Therefore, the new clause leaves everything in the hands of the Secretary of State. It could be a small committee. I do not know why the hon. Member for Salisbury came to the conclusion that it would be a large committee. If the Minister had his way, it would probably be a committee of one and he would be the chairman of it as well. The committee is carefully limited by new clause 1. We are not opening up a whole range of new bureaucracy. The new clause is an attempt to ensure that a committee is available with which the wider scientific community can interface and from which the Government could take appropriate advice. That seems sensible.

We are dealing with an important area here. I regret the point made by the hon. Member for Salisbury in trying to diminish the expert opinion, advice and help that we have received from the Royal Society of Chemistry. Because a document is written by one man does not mean that it is wrong or flawed.

Mr. Key

The hon. Gentleman really is misrepresenting me. He knows that I did not say that. That document contained expert and excellent advice. What I was saying was that we should not talk about being briefed by the Royal Society of Chemistry when we know that we have been briefed by one expert, however expert he may be, and that it was a pity that there were not more people who were sufficiently interested in the Bill.

Mr. Ingram

It may be that the hon. Gentleman has read only one briefing document and spoken to only one person, if he has spoken to him at all, but I have spoken to many others, not just the person responsible for the one briefing document from the Royal Society of Chemistry. The fact remains that it was produced in the name of the Royal Society of Chemistry and that is what is important. That will obviously be taken account of in the other place where there are senior ex-presidents of the society and widely respected scientists who will consider our deliberations on this aspect.

I suspect that the matter will be debated at length in the other place because it stems from a wide body of opinion; it is not just one man reporting for one organisation. It is a matter of regret that the Minister is not prepared to move further forward on the matter tonight. But having heard what the Minister has said, there is no point in further advancing the argument, so I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion and clause, by leave, withdrawn.

Schedule agreed to.

Bill reported, with amendments; as amended, considered.

Order for Third Reading read.

8.14 pm
Mr. Oppenheim

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

I use this opportunity to respond briefly to an important point made by the hon. Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) relating to generic licensing. I think that he is aware that we expect that the burden of licensing can be reduced for a number of users—perhaps almost all users—using the chemicals for certain purposes, by issuing an open licence up to a certain level. That level is likely to be small, such as 5 g. It would be difficult to issue open licences for larger levels such a 100 g because that would take us outside the convention's requirements to limit schedule 1 chemicals to 1 tonne. However, we are looking at ways in which to issue open licences, particularly in order to ease the burden on the academic community. If the hon. Gentleman wanted to talk about that at any point in the future, I would be happy to do so.

Mr. Dalyell

I thank the Minister for that because thereby lies the way to avoiding a nightmare.

Mr. Oppenheim

I accept what the hon. Gentleman says.

I do not want to detain the House because I think that we are all moving in the same direction on this. Once again, we have had a good and interesting debate, as we did on Second Reading. I am particularly grateful to the Opposition for their co-operation. I am sorry that I could not accept all their amendments, but I am grateful for the spirit in which they were moved, and I am particularly grateful to the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) for his contributions.

This is an important Bill. It is important not just for Britain's future but for the future of the globe. Without more ado, I commend it to the House.

8.16 pm
Mr. Cohen

I shall not delay the House long, but I want to make an important point. First, I thank the Minister for accepting my amendment and for the assurances that he gave during the Bill's passage in response to my various amendments. I congratulate him on the effective way in which he has steered the Bill through the House. He has shown a clear and thoughtful mind on the issues. But having given that bit of praise, I hope that he will not close his mind to some of the changes that might be proposed in the other place in order to make the convention and the Act work properly in due course.

I want to use this opportunity to make a brief point which I also mentioned on Second Reading, and that concerns how we might contribute to a voluntary assistance fund. I hope that the Minister will give some consideration to that, perhaps announcing a figure. The Minister said on Second Reading that that did not need legislation, and that is right, but it is important that that money is up front. It does not need to be a large sum, but it is important that financial considerations should not stop British inspectors going to a site where it is believed that chemical weapons have been used. I hope that the Minister will consider that.

I agree that this is a treaty of enormous significance, outlawing chemical weapons. I am sure that the House wants to see such weapons eliminated from the face of the world. The next step is for other countries to ratify the convention. I hope that the Government will put pressure on the United States and the Russian federation to ratify it as swiftly as possible and then get many other countries to do so and to comply with its provisions. It institutes a proper programme of inspection and transparency that is very much needed. As I said, I hope that we shall see the elimination of these despicable weapons from the face of the earth.

8.18 pm
Mr. Ingram

We have had a useful two days of debate on the Bill, one on Second Reading and one today. On behalf of the Opposition, I reaffirm our support for the Bill which we welcomed on Second Reading.

We recognise that it is an essential and important measure and we have had some informative debates on its key aspects. I pay tribute again to the Royal Society of Chemistry, Julian Perry Robinson, Alistair Hay of Leeds university and other experts who have provided assistance in the understanding of a complex matter.

It is important that the United Kingdom should be one of the first 65 signatories to the convention. Our chemical industry is a world leader so it is only proper that we should be one of the leading signatories.

The Government have moved substantially from their early draft of the Bill and that is to be commended. I regret that the Minister is not prepared to accept the establishment of an advisory committee. Clearly, that will be considered in another place and there may well be a subsequent change. Given the way in which the matter has been handled and addressed in the House, although it is not yet scheduled for debate in another place, it would be useful if the Minister could let us know when the Bill is due to be considered as we are operating within a time scale.

I conclude by thanking all the hon. Members who have taken part in the debates this evening and on Second Reading. We fully analysed the Bill and that analysis will stand proper examination elsewhere. It is an important aspect of our work in the House. We now wish the Bill speedy progress through the House of Lords.

8.21 pm
Mr. Oppenheim

With the leave of the House, I shall answer as briefly as possible one or two of the questions that have been raised. The voluntary assistance fund mentioned by the hon. Member for Leyton (Mr. Cohen) is still being argued in The Hague. When a decision has been reached, we shall decide how far we can support it, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that we shall be as generous as possible.

I was asked when was the other occasion in the past 25 years when an Opposition amendment was accepted unamended, but I require more notice of that question.

I join the Opposition spokesman in thanking the many experts, who I shall not attempt to name, who advised us on the Bill. Their expertise and help has been greatly appreciated. Finally, and possibly most importantly, we hope that progress on the Bill in another place will take place early in the new year. We are as keen as the Opposition to ensure that we ratify the convention, in full, as soon as possible.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time, and passed.