HC Deb 20 March 2000 vol 346 cc709-11
8. Mr. David Rendel (Newbury)

What plans he has to extend the existing contractual arrangements at AWE until the DTI report on BNFL has been published. [113695]

The Minister for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Spellar)

As I informed the House on 1 March, existing contract arrangements could be extended or direct MOD management imposed if, for whatever reason, we judge that AWE ML is unable to take over responsibility for the management and operation of the atomic weapons establishment as scheduled on 1 April.

Mr. Rendel

Does not the Minister recognise that employees at Aldermaston and residents in the surrounding area are deeply upset at the delays in coming to a final conclusion? Would not it be far better at least to announce today that the new contract has been postponed until the review of BNFL is published in mid April, to put those residents and employees out of their misery? Would not it be better still to announce that the new contract has been cancelled, given the grossly irresponsible attitude to safety of both BNFL and Lockheed Martin, the two main parties to that contract?

Mr. Spellar

I am sorry that the hon. Gentleman takes the attitude of sentence first and trial afterwards. As he is fully aware—he alluded to it in his question—an inquiry is taking place. My right hon. Friend the Minister for Energy and Competitiveness in Europe has tasked the chairman of BNFL to undertake a thorough review of the company's affairs leading up to its recent difficulties. It would be quite inappropriate to pre-empt the inquiry by making a firm and final decision. That is why, as I said in the House on 1 March, we are keeping our options open—but, unfortunately, we are unable at this stage to announce to the House the outcome of the discussions and inquiries. We must wait until the full evidence is available.

Mr. Martin Salter (Reading, West)

Is my hon. Friend aware that only this morning the company currently managing AWE Aldermaston, Hunting-BRAE Ltd., launched what it believed would be its final annual report on its seven years in charge of the atomic weapons establishment? Does he accept that the continuing uncertainty regarding the future of the establishment and its management regime is damaging confidence in the establishment as a whole? Does he further accept that, in view of the fact that the Department of Trade and Industry report into the disgraceful behaviour of BNFL is not due out until 15 April and the new management arrangements at AWE Aldermaston are due to kick in on 1 April, it is time that the Government made their intentions crystal clear?

Mr. Spellar

First, I fully understand the concerns of those who work in Aldermaston or live in the surrounding area, represented by the hon. Member for Newbury (Mr. Rendel) and by my hon. Friend. I fear, though, that my hon. Friend is falling into the same trap as the hon. Gentleman in wishing to predict the outcome of the inquiry into BNFL. We are considering the options. Unfortunately, we have not been able to come to a conclusion before Defence questions today, but by definition there is a requirement to make a decision in the very near future because of the 1 April starting date of the new contract. We are fully aware of that, as well as of the skills and qualities of the work force who will be overwhelmingly the same work force, irrespective of who is managing the contract. As I said, we have a range of options, but we have not yet been able to decide which will be appropriate.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury)

To what extent are the future contractual arrangements for AWE and its sister scientific organisation, the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, being influenced by pressure from the Treasury? Given that both organisations are critical to our procurement process and command enormous respect in their co-operative work with the Americans, should not their futures be determined on their merits alone, and not by factors such as a promised £250 million refund to the Treasury?

Mr. Spellar

The hon. Gentleman is tying up two different, although tenuously related, issues. We have to make a decision on the effective management of AWE, and—as he rightly identified—we have considerable links with the United States of America on that. We have also asked for a report from the US on the accident at Oak Ridge and its assessment and evaluation of that. That issue is separate from the public-private partnership with DERA. As the hon. Gentleman will be aware, we have taken strongly into account the effective and mutually beneficial links between DERA and the various Government scientific laboratories in the US. They are very important and a significant part of the special defence relationship between ourselves and the US.

Other issues need to be explored in connection with the public-private partnership, especially the need to sustain a defence research base in the light of the considerable developments that are taking place in science outside defence establishments. In many cases, defence needs to capture scientific advances from outside defence, whereas previously it was the other way around. We also need to maintain the science base within the defence budget. Those issues are being actively pursued by my noble Friend the Minister for Defence Procurement, Baroness Symons, and we are working closely with the Americans to ensure the best deal for DERA and to maintain the proper scientific relationship.

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