HC Deb 06 December 1995 vol 268 cc427-32
Mr. Oppenheim

I beg to move amendment No. 11, page 21, line 35, at end insert—

'(2A) The reference to this Act in subsection (2)(c) does not include a reference to section (Annual reports by Secretary of State).'.

The Chairman

With this, it will be convenient to discuss also Government new clause 3—Annual reports by Secretary of State—and new clause 2—Annual Report

`(1) The Secretary of State shall prepare an annual report to be presented to both Houses of Parliament on his activities in relation to this Act.

(2) The annual report shall contain the following information for the year in question in pursuance of the provisions of this Act—

  1. (a) the number of companies and other organisations that have provided information to the Secretary of State;
  2. (b) the identities of chemicals that have been declared to the Secretary of State, and their aggregate quantities;
  3. (c) the number of licences granted under this Act and their duration;
  4. (d) the number of appeals against decisions made under the provisions of this Act;
  5. (e) the extent of compliance of companies and other organisations with the provisions of this Act;
  6. (f) the number of prosecutions for offences under this Act;
  7. (g) the number of routine inspections of premises and the number of challenge inspections;
  8. (h) an audit of the outcome of inspection of premises;
  9. (i) the text of the report prepared in accordance with Article X.4 of the Convention, excluding matters of a confidential nature;
  10. (j) the identities of any chemicals not listed in the Schedules that pose a risk to the purpose of the Convention;
  11. (k) changes in export control regulations necessitated by section 2 of this Act and by Articles VI.2, VI.11 and XI.2(c) of the Convention:

  1. (I) the names of the individuals appointed to serve on the Advisory Committee;
  2. (m) any changes in the international administration of the Convention; and
  3. (n) such other information as may serve to demonstrate UK compliance with the Convention.'.

Mr. Oppenheim

I listened extremely carefully to the points made by hon. Members on both sides of the House on Second Reading, during a debate which I thought was extremely useful. I understand the concerns that the work of the national authority should be subject to proper scrutiny, and I told the House at Second Reading that the national authority would issue an annual report. Clearly my assurance on that occasion was not enough for hon. Members, although I do not take any offence at that. [Interruption.] Perhaps I should.

We have consulted on the issue, and we came to the conclusion—rightly, I think—that to put this into statute was the right thing to do. I have no doubt that the annual report will enhance the process of parliamentary scrutiny of the work of the national authority. Therefore, we have no objection to the annual report being included in the Bill. I think that that reflects the wishes of the House.

I should add that the amendment means that those who compile the annual report will properly be subject to the requirement to safeguard confidential information, which I think is reasonable. I should also make it clear that our intention is for the report to be as informative as it can be within the clear requirements to protect commercial confidentiality and national security which are included in the convention.

It is fair to say that the report might include information on a number of companies providing information for the purposes of a United Kingdom declaration, the number of licences issued, the number of appeals, the number of prosecutions and the number of inspections. We also expect the report to contain a clear explanation of the national authority's work. But of course the report will be laid before both Houses, and hon. Members will have a duty to tell us if not enough information is being provided. If that is the case and the request is reasonable, we will make all reasonable efforts to ensure that the extra information is included.

Finally, we should not impose rigid requirements on the contents of the report. We should be flexible, as ultimately we are accountable to the House for the matter. The Secretary of State must decide ultimately what information will demonstrate to the satisfaction of both Houses that he has undertaken his duties under the Act effectively and efficiently. He obviously has a requirement under the convention and under the Bill, and he must balance that with the need to protect commercial confidentiality and national security. I hope that by putting the matter into statute, we will make the Bill more transparent and the national authority more accountable.

Mr. Ingram

I welcome the Government's conversion to agreeing that there is a need for the annual report to be written on to the face of the Bill. I do not know why they have had this last-minute change of mind, but clearly it is to be welcomed. I know that three ex-presidents of the Royal Society of Chemistry—Lords Dainton, Lewis of Newnham and Porter of Luddenham—had submitted a letter to The Times to be published this morning calling for the report to be included in the Bill. Those three are very weighty people in this field, and they were pleased to learn yesterday that the Government had tabled this amendment and new clause. Clearly they did not proceed with the publication of the letter. I do not know whether the Minister was aware of the level of support that was coming forward for the annual report to be put on the face of the Bill. If he was, it must have encouraged him to come to the conclusion that he did.

New clause 2—tabled in my name and those of my right hon. and hon. Friends—was tabled in advance of the Government's tabling of amendment No. 11 and new clause 3. We sought to go further in new clause 2 than the measures announced by the Minister this evening. I take the point completely about the question of commercial confidentiality and those matters which affect national security. The items are covered within the convention, and the Opposition clearly understand the need to be circumspect if matters relating to such sensitive issues were to appear in any annual report.

I suggest that there is still a difference between the Government and the Opposition as to what is required in terms of the annual report.

I did not quite catch all the points that the Minister was saying he would like to see in an annual report, but I think that he mentioned the number of companies and other organisations providing information to the Secretary of State, the number of licences granted and the number of appeals against refusal.

However, new clause 2 is much more comprehensive than that. There is much merit in taking on board the points that it lists, because it is right that the House and the country should be told about the number of prosecutions under the Act, the number of routine inspections of premises and the audit of the outcome of those inspections. The text of the report prepared in accordance with article X.4 of the convention, which is to be sent to the central body in The Hague, does not exclude matters of a confidential nature, and that, too, could be included in the annual report. The information is to be sent off somewhere else in the name of the United Kingdom, so why should it not be included in the report produced for the consumption of hon. Members and others interested in the subject?

New clause 2 suggests other topics that could be included in the annual report, such as the identities of any chemicals not listed in the schedules which pose a risk under the terms of the convention. On Second Reading we talked about the annual report produced by Porton Down. That is comprehensive and highlighted certain activities connected with chemical weapons which caused concern, and rightly alerted the wider public to what is happening in the former Soviet Union. That is the type of information that would he of benefit to all interested parties. It would secure proper scrutiny of what was taking place, and make the report as comprehensive and detailed as possible.

7.30 pm

It would help if the Minister went further than simply listing three or four possible items for the report and saying that the Secretary of State would be keen to ensure that it was as comprehensive as possible. He has not taken on board some of the other suggestions in new clause 2. I have not listed all those, because they are on the amendment paper for all to see, but I have highlighted some of the more important areas of concern.

We are pleased that there is to be an annual report, but it must be as comprehensive as possible, while allowing for matters of a confidential nature and matters of national security. Has the Minister considered the points raised by new clause 2 and thought which of them he feels could be included in the report? It would be useful if he could notify us of the items that he believes could not be included, so that we could have a debate on the merits of all the points in the new clause.

The Government have made an important concession. First, they did not want to produce an annual report, then we had to rely on the Minister's word that they would produce one, and now we are on the point of having a statutory annual report. We are grateful for that, but let us take things a little step further and define properly what would be in the report. It would speed up the deliberations when the Bill is discussed in another place if the House of Commons were given a proper explanation of what the Minister and the Secretary of State have in mind. I should therefore welcome any comments the Minister can make about the points in new clause 2.

Mr. Nick Harvey (North Devon)

I too welcome the fact that the Government have decided to introduce a new clause and put the report on a statutory footing. It is entirely right that the requirement should be written on the face of the Bill. The Minister should not take offence that anyone might cast doubt on the assurances that he gave last time, because they simply do not have the same standing as words in an Act.

Tomorrow morning I shall give written evidence to a current judicial review which proves that assurances given by Ministers two years ago have been broken—in that case by a quango. The Government's change of mind reassures us that the same thing will not happen in relation to the Bill.

Although I welcome that fact, I echo the hon. Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram) in saying that it would be helpful to see more specific details of what will appear in the report. I hope that there will be further opportunities to debate the matter during the passage of the Bill.

Mr. Dalyell

As I made a so-called parliamentary song and dance a fortnight ago about the need for statutory implementation, it would be churlish of me not to acknowledge what has happened now. None the less, I echo what the hon. Member for North Devon (Mr. Harvey) said about Ministers' assurances. Assurances are frequently given in good faith but broken long after the ministerial incumbent has either been promoted or has left the House altogether, so the Minister need not be offended.

Mr. Oppenheim

Having been a Member of Parliament for 13 years, I find it difficult to take offence. I must tell the hon. Member for East Kilbride that we took the decision some time ago that there should be an annual report, and that we also decided to write that on the face of the Bill some time before we heard about the letter from their Lordships—although obviously we listen carefully to their views, because they are all distinguished chemists.

I see no difficulty in including some of the information suggested in the new clause, and certainly would expect much of it to appear in the report. However, the hon. Gentleman asked me which items I would specifically exclude, so I must mention subsection 2(b), which asks that aggregate quantities of individual declared chemicals should be incorporated into the report. That could compromise commercially sensitive information where only a few companies, or sometimes only one company, produces a chemical. Certainly it would be in breach of the convention.

The whole spirit of the convention relies on our obtaining the co-operation of chemical and pharmaceutical producers, as well as of researchers and academics. I genuinely believe that if producers felt that we were going outside the convention and were likely to breach commercial confidentiality, it could compromise the proper working of the convention.

Another area that causes concern is subsection 2(j), which would require unscheduled chemicals with the potential to be used in chemical weapons to be identified in the report. There is a danger that that could help proliferators by alerting them to the fact that there was something to look for. It could also lead to confusion. The point of the convention is that there is a schedule of chemicals, which can be added to. If we unilaterally added a whole lot more chemicals without their going through the convention procedure, it could lead to confusion and difficulties. Any information about chemicals with the potential for chemical weapons applications, especially information on novel compounds, should be carefully controlled.

I would be concerned about the idea that those be included in an annual report. I accept the intention behind the new clause, and we intend to make the report as informative as is consistent with protecting commercial confidentiality and national security.

As for the push behind our concession, or new clause, and the Government's present desire to make the requirement for an annual report statutory, the point of debates such as Second Reading, of the consultations and of the representations made by hon. Members on both sides of the House, is that we are all aiming at the same end; we are all trying to make the convention work. It is most important, not only for us in Britain but for the future of the globe, that we succeed. We were prepared to listen to what hon. Members said, and we have responded in a spirit of co-operation, to ensure that the convention will work as well as possible. I hope that if our positions were reversed, the hon. Member for East Kilbride would do the same.

Mr. Ingram

"If" is a big word; we prefer to use the word "when". I entirely take the Minister's point, and I appreciate his explanation of the list of items in new clause 2 that could be included in the annual report. I listened to what he said, and the details can be considered elsewhere, when the Bill goes to another place. The Government will then be able to take on board the points that we have made—hence our reason for raising the question in the first place.

There are 12 items listed in new clause 2 and the Minister ruled out only two of them, so we are making considerable progress. I hope that the other 10 items will be included either in the form in which they are laid down in new clause 2 or in some variation of it. That would prove helpful in producing the annual reports. It would assist all those who want to ensure that the convention is being properly monitored and implemented by Britain. I recognise the spirit in which the Minister has responded.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause 32, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

Clauses 33 and 34 ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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