HC Deb 26 November 2001 vol 375 cc726-8
Norman Baker (Lewes)

I beg to move amendment No. 139, in page 29, line 17, leave out "one month" and insert "fourteen days".

I shall be extremely brief. Throughout the Bill, the Government seek to tighten controls on dangerous materials, and who could argue with that as an objective? Therefore, it struck us as a little surprising that the compliance period was a month when a shorter time scale should be achievable. That is the reason for the amendment, and I would be grateful for the Minister's comments.

Beverley Hughes

I have sympathy with the objectives of Liberal Democrat Members. The amendment would reduce from one month to 14 days the period in which occupiers of premises must notify the Secretary of State that they hold or use dangerous substances. I understand and relate to the hon. Gentleman's desire that such information should be made available to the authorities at the earliest opportunity. I remind him of the earlier comments of my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) and the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) about what that requirement will mean for occupiers of laboratories. Furthermore, if the Bill receives Royal Assent, we will be making it an offence for the occupier to fail to provide the required notification within the specified period.

For both those reasons, it seemed that the time scale should be feasible. It should not be so short that an occupier who was willing to comply with the requirement was in danger of committing an offence simply because there was not enough time in which to do so. That is why we have taken the view that one month is a more reasonable time scale for that purpose.

I ask the hon. Gentleman not to press his amendment. We agree with its spirit but believe that one month is a better time scale in the circumstances.

Mr. Gummer

Will the Minister return to the problem that I raised before in a slightly different context? In most cases, as I understand it, the proprietors or managers of such establishments have to make returns of various kinds if they have such material in their possession. That is not to protect the nation against terrorists—as is now the case—but to ensure that these often extremely dangerous pathogens will not escape into the outside atmosphere or beyond the confines of the laboratory.

I am concerned that there should not be yet another, separate burden, and that the provisions should be integrated into the system that is already used to regulate those matters. If we could out that right, we should get closer to dealing with the concerns raised by the hon. Member for Lewes (Norman Baker). This part of the Bill worries me. I realise that there is a question of time and I am not suggesting that everything can be covered in this way, but if we are talking about joined-up government we should acknowledge that one of the things that makes life extremely difficult for people is having to report the same thing to different people at different times and within different time scales.

I hope that the Minister will assure the Committee that she will look into practical ways in which the process can be made easier. That is not because I have a particular interest either in supporting or agreeing with the laboratories, but to point out that if things are easy to do, they are more likely to be done on time and properly. If the process is complex, complicated and if there are overlaps, we shall have problems. I hope that the Departments involved will consider whether a more integrated system can be evolved.

Beverley Hughes

The right hon. Gentleman makes a valid point. Clearly, the occupiers will have to know about their own substances—they will have to collect and record that information. I am certainly happy to assure him that, in considering the detail of the operation of the scheme under these provisions, we shall—as far as we can—enable proprietors, as the right hon. Gentleman says, to join up the systems. If we can achieve some economies of scale as regards their efforts, we shall try to do so.

Mr. Dalyell

There is the problem of the availability of people who are competent to deal with many of these complex matters. For example, if we consider the list of substances in the schedule, how many people are there who could make a judgment about Marburg virus or Variola virus and other complicated matters? Such people are few and far between. I have a terrible suspicion that it is one of those things that is easier said than done.

Norman Baker

I am grateful to the Minister for her explanation, and I beg to ask leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 59 ordered to stand part of the Bill

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