HC Deb 27 January 2000 vol 343 cc569-70
10. Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North)

If he has decided on a process and a time scale for the privatisation of British Nuclear Fuels plc. [105758]

The Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe (Mrs. Helen Liddell)

On July 13 last year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that the Government were looking to introduce a public-private partnership into BNFL before the end of the current Parliament, subject to BNFL's overall progress towards achieving a range of performance targets, as well as to further work by the Department and our advisers.

Mr. Chaytor

When the Government are in a position to clarify the way forward for BNFL, does my hon. Friend agree that, given the size and sensitivity of the operation, there needs to be a full public debate about all possible ways forward for the nuclear industry, and for BNFL in particular? Does she also agree that that debate must be underpinned by the principles of open government, transparency and full freedom of information?

Mrs. Liddell

I very much concur about the need for an open debate on the issues connected with BNFL and the public-private partnership. The Government have chosen to study the option of a public-private partnership because there are great international opportunities for BNFL, as is evident in the acquisition strategy involving Westinghouse and ABB. However, it is important that BNFL meet certain targets. The PPP will ensure that BNFL can benefit from commercial freedom, and from commercial disciplines.

It is important that we have transparency of information, and that people join with the Government, and, indeed with the trade unions and management of BNFL, in looking at the international opportunities for British Nuclear Fuels to become market leaders.

Mr. Michael Jack (Fylde)

In the light of the Minister's answer, it is evident that the Government remain the dominant shareholder in BNFL. Therefore, may I ask the Minister what discussions she has had with the board of BNFL about increasing its role in terms of nuclear power generation? As I understand it, closing one sixth of a major coal-fired power station saves the amount of carbon dioxide required by the climate change levy. More work in generating electricity by nuclear means could save us all an awful lot of trouble.

Mrs. Liddell

The right hon. Gentleman makes an interesting point, but we have to see nuclear generation within the context of a balanced energy supply. My right hon. Friend has just referred to the measures that the Government are taking to ensure that the coal industry can play its proper part in an electricity market that is not distorted. It is important to point out that BNFL, through its acquisitions strategy, can now enter into a much wider range of commercial activities. The US arm of BNFL, Westinghouse, is well able to participate internationally in the very important field of nuclear power. This is a sound decision for the Government to take. There are many commercial opportunities that would expand the opportunities for BNFL and its international subsidiaries in a way that ensures that internationally we have a sustained and mixed energy supply, to give us security and diversity of supply into the future.

Mr. Dale Campbell-Savours (Workington)

May we have an assurance that the performance targets to which my right hon. Friend refers include nuclear waste disposal targets, which affect my constituents, and that there will be no partnership and no progress until we have absolute assurances in those areas?

Mrs. Liddell

I can give my hon. Friend a guarantee on that. The issues surrounding nuclear waste and those connected with his constituency are much in our mind. We have set demanding targets for BNFL as we approach the public-private partnership. We wish to see those targets met, not just in commercial terms, but also in safety terms.

Mr. Jeffrey Donaldson (Lagan Valley)

This is an issue that is very important to people in Northern Ireland. The Minister will be aware of concerns about pollution in the Irish sea emanating from the reprocessing plant at Sellafield. Can the Minister give us an assurance that, should the Department proceed with privatisation, there will be no reduction in safety standards or in effective regulation, so that we can prevent pollution in the Irish sea in the future?

Mrs. Liddell

The hon. Gentleman makes a point that he has made on a number of occasions. First, let me point out that this is not a privatisation; it is a genuine partnership, a public-private partnership, that has been accepted and welcomed across the board. Issues of public safety and pollution are very much at the heart of the nuclear industry. My colleagues in the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions are in the lead in relation to the environmental considerations, but I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Department of Trade and Industry is most anxious to ensure that the PPP leads not only to the maintenance of safety and environmental standards, but to a continuing improvement in them.

Mr. Lindsay Hoyle (Chorley)

Will my right hon. Friend also ensure that we do not lose the highly successful training centre for apprentices at Springfield in Preston, which represents many industries—not just BNFL, but all the leading companies? There is a danger that through privatisation we may lose it. Can we ensure that that will not happen?

Mrs. Liddell

I stress again that this is not a privatisation. The aim of the public-private partnership is to develop BNFL as a centre of excellence. We believe there are substantial global opportunities for BNFL, which will require a highly trained work force. I would hope that throughout British Nuclear Fuels there would be an enhanced emphasis on training and skilling the work force to make sure that we are truly globally competitive. I pay tribute to the work that is done at Springfield in my hon. Friend's constituency.