HC Deb 27 April 1998 vol 311 cc21-5 3.30 pm
Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell)

(by private notice): To ask the President of the Board of Trade whether she will make a statement regarding the resignation of Anthony Pointer as chief constable of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, and the reported threat to security at United Kingdom atomic energy installations due to staff shortages.

The Minister for Science, Energy and Industry (Mr. John Battle)

I should inform the House that the chief constable of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority constabulary, Mr. Anthony Pointer, resigned in late January, though the resignation takes effect from the end of this week. It occurred while discussion was under way in the UKAEA on the need for six extra police to be added to existing UKAEA numbers at Dounreay to increase the effectiveness of armed response capabilities at the site. At no stage has the chief constable expressed concern about the effectiveness of security at any other nuclear site.

Mr. Pointer tendered his resignation some months ago. The UKAEA and the adviser to the police authority, Sir John Woodcock, a former chief inspector of constabulary, attempted to dissuade him from resigning; but he resigned while the question of the constabulary complement was still under discussion in the UKAEA. Agreement to the six extra police that he had requested was concluded shortly thereafter. The agreement was reported to the police authority meeting in early February, where the chief constable, Mr. Pointer, declared himself satisfied with the extra staff numbers. The additional six police agreed are already in place at Dounreay and have been since March.

Mr. Taylor

Does the Minister agree that the information should have been brought to the attention of the House at an earlier stage—especially about the security concerns that the chief constable had about British nuclear installations? Can he confirm that that comes on the back of previous expressions of concern, not least in the previous year's annual report of the chief constable, about a one-third decline in numbers in the constabulary? Can he say whether the chief constable's concerns on staffing, which were expressed not only in January but on previous occasions, have been met?

Given the expression of concern by the British intelligence and police services and by the American Government about security at British nuclear installations, not least Dounreay, was it not incumbent on Ministers to give such information to hon. Members when a statement was made last week on the import of weapons-grade material to Dounreay?

Is not it time for a full inquiry—perhaps through a Select Committee or through Privy Council members, because of the sensitive nature of the issue—which should report to the House so that we can be satisfied that British nuclear installations are safe and secure as one of the world's largest depositories of plutonium?

Mr. Battle

We cannot call for a full inquiry when there is no problem. The chief constable agrees with that. These are operational matters for the UKAEA, but it was in the public domain some time ago that the chief constable had tendered his resignation.

Of course UKAEA constabulary numbers are lower than they were some years ago. The constabulary is at its full complement—the agreed strength of 470. That is the figure required for security to be in full command of the situation. The numbers are lower because there are now fewer nuclear establishment sites, so they do not need the numbers that there were in 1987.

Security is maintained in full conformity with international recommendations and requirements and with national standards. Those standards are kept under constant review by the Directorate of Civil Nuclear Security. The Director of Civil Nuclear Security who is responsible for the setting of standards of physical security on all sites and for auditing security overall has confirmed that he is content with the standard of security now in place at Dounreay and at all the other nuclear sites. I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but there is no problem.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry)

The House will accept that the detailed consideration of security matters is not best rehearsed in this place. However, does the Minister accept that we have a duty to ask, and he to give assurances in general terms, about the security of nuclear installations, the more so as the Government have this week taken on themselves the rescue of the material from Georgia and its transfer to Scotland on a non-returnable basis, in the interests of the security of that material and of the global community?

Can the Minister give the House these explicit assurances? First, is he satisfied that nuclear security at Dounreay and other establishments is and will remain adequate for any anticipated threat? Secondly, is the staffing of the Atomic Energy Authority police at the various establishments at all times maintained at an adequate level to deal with any perceived threat?

Thirdly, what considerations—again, in general terms—led to a recent increase in staffing levels, including the appointment of six extra officers at Dounreay? Did that proposal have the support of the UKAEA board, and will the board or the Department carry the cost of the extra staff? Did the proposal have anything to do with any paper or real exercises conducted on the security at Dounreay or other establishments?

Fourthly, did Mr. Pointer resign because of the staffing sproblems? If he thinks that they were being rectified, why did he not stay? It seems strange that a chief constable is being lost after only 18 months in the post.

Fifthly, is there not a case, which I hope the Minister will consider, for some further measure of independence and a higher profile than hitherto for the independent Directorate of Civil Nuclear Security? The director could then, in principle, draw attention to any failures whose disclosure he considered to be in the public interest, at least on the restricted basis with which we are becoming familiar in the case of security matters—for example, on a Privy Councillor level.

Finally, as the Government are fond of simplifying issues, will the Minister tell us explicitly which he is prepared to put first—nuclear security or the cost of securing that installation?

Mr. Battle

Security and safety at those establishments are paramount, as I made plain. The hon. Gentleman asked whether we are satisfied with security arrangements. The answer to his three questions is yes, yes and yes. We attach the utmost importance to security at Dounreay and all other sites.

The Directorate of Civil Nuclear Security is the standard setter and auditor of security in the civil nuclear industry. It works closely with the Department of Trade and Industry on a regular, almost day-to-day if not hourly basis from time to time, as the ultimate regulator of security in the industry. That is why I believe that matters are well under control.

I referred earlier to the full complement of 470 constables. That is regarded as satisfactory by the Directorate of Civil Nuclear Security. Of course, standards are kept under constant review.

As to the hon. Gentleman's question about the resignation of the chief constable, he was pressed to withdraw his resignation. Why he did not do so is obviously a matter for him. His request for extra police officers at Dounreay—which was under review by the UKAEA at the time—was agreed by the UKAEA management within days of the chief constable's resignation. At a police authority meeting this February the chief constable, Mr. Pointer, said that he was satisfied with the outcome of that review. Therefore, his failure to withdraw his resignation is obviously a matter for him.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow)

Does my hon. Friend know whether the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) who asked this mischievous question—and whose constituency is located some 700 miles from Dounreay—has taken the trouble to visit that facility and talk to Roy Nelson or the trade unions involved? Does he understand that trade unionists and others who work in those plants are extremely proud—and rightly so—of what they have achieved for Britain and what they can achieve for all people on the face of the planet? Is it not right that their case should be put properly and their pride in their industry registered by the House?

Mr. Battle

I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for that contribution—not least because he used the word "mischievous". I believe that it is irresponsible to be mischievous in this area. I have visited the site at Dounreay—I do not know whether Opposition Members have—and, on my recent visit, I saw the new inner security fence that has cost more than £1 million and the new state-of-the-art alarm systems that were installed last year. Judging from some comments in recent days and hours, one would think that there is no security. However, I am confident that the security systems are in place.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham)

Will the Minister tell the House why we were not told in last Wednesday's statement about the chief constable's anxieties? Will the Minister tell the House whether the Prime Minister was aware of those anxieties when he entered into the secret agreement with President Clinton? Does the Minister understand that many of us find it difficult to reconcile his statement that all is well at Dounreay with the chief constable's determination to resign?

Mr. Battle

During negotiations about the number of constables at Dounreay, the chief constable proposed an extra six officers. It was agreed that those six officers would be put in place, and in February the chief constable declared that he was happy with that arrangement. Therefore, I cannot for the life of me understand why he persisted in resigning. That is why it is a matter for him and not for me.

It was well known at the time—it was in the public domain—that the chief constable had tendered his resignation. That was seen as an operational matter within the UKAEA as to how it organised its staffing complement in consultation with the Directorate of Civil Nuclear Security. The directorate has underpinned the decisions that were taken before this information came to light and before we accepted the Georgian high-enriched uranium. That uranium is being guarded properly at Dounreay—there should be no doubt about that—because the arrangements were put in place before it arrived.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

For the second time in two weeks, there has been a reassuring statement to Parliament about these matters. The tabloid press reported at the weekend that an assault was carried out against a nuclear installation somewhere. Can the Minister confirm whether that report is true? If it is not, the record should clearly be put right.

Mr. Battle

There were many bits of information in the press and commentaries in the media during the weekend that were not true. Of course, security is tested and reviewed regularly. Fiction is occasionally reported—for example, that the Special Boat Services' report was ignored. That was absolutely fallacious. The service never participated in any security scenarios.

Mr. John Swinney (North Tayside)

Does the Minister understand the public concern that will exist when, at a time when Ministers were conducting negotiations with the American Government about the transfer of enriched uranium to this country for storage and reprocessing at Dounreay, there was concern within the UKAEA at the level of security at Dounreay? Does the Minister not understand the public's difficulty in reconciling these two factors? Does he not believe that having made this statement, there should be some further independent scrutiny of the evidence that he has brought to the House, to guarantee that public concern can be fully allayed by an independent inquiry?

Mr. Battle

What was received from Georgia was a fragment of what was already stored, as I think was spelt out in previous answers. I would not be standing here if I felt that what was already stored was not securely and safely guarded. It is so guarded. There have been no security questions about Dounreay in recent months and weeks. The only issue was the complement of the constabulary, which was raised by the chief constable. The chief constable's advice to increase that complement by six was taken into account and implemented. I therefore do not believe that there is a need for a public inquiry into this matter.

To be as fair as I can to the hon. Gentleman, of course we must do our best to allay public fears and to ensure that nuclear establishments are properly secure. That is why security is regularly reviewed and tested in consultation with the civil nuclear security people.

Mr. Andrew Mackinlay (Thurrock)

Is my hon. Friend aware that both in the previous Parliament and this one I raised the question of non-Home Office police forces and the fact that there is concern that, albeit perhaps unconsciously, commercial or quasi-commercial considerations can come into operational decisions relating to these forces? Is there not a case for a review of them and their stewardship?

Secondly, if, as my hon. Friend protests from the Government Dispatch Box, the chief constable resigned voluntarily after being persuaded to stay, can we be assured that no public money will be put up front in so-called compensation? If I take the Chiltern Hundreds or if someone resigns from the Daily Mirror or The Daily Telegraph, we go without compensation. If the chief constable has gone, presumably he is not going with a penny extra. He has resigned. He has quit his job, which he is entitled to do. There should be no additional emoluments. Can my hon. Friend confirm that that is so?

Mr. Battle

The chief constable's contract is with the UKAEA, not with the Department of Trade and Industry. It is a matter for the UKAEA contractually to sort out the arrangements when people resign. I simply leave it at that.

I share my hon. Friend's view in that I do not think—the point has been raised by Opposition Members, to be fair to them—that we should be engaged in a cost-cutting exercise. Rather, the opposite should apply. Security is paramount. I have checked the facts and figures and I am reliably informed that the overall funding for the constabulary has continued to rise year on year, even though numbers have fallen because there are fewer establishments.

Mr. Tim Collins (Westmorland and Lonsdale)

I welcome the reassurances that the Minister has been able to give the House. Will he confirm for the record that he is entirely satisfied with the level and adequacy of security at Sellafield, near my constituency in Cumbria?

Mr. Battle

The answer is yes. To the best of my knowledge, no one has even raised that question. I give the hon. Gentleman the assurance for which he asks.

Forward to