HC Deb 26 November 2001 vol 375 cc722-6
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department (Beverley Hughes)

I beg to move amendment No. 30, in page 28, line 35, leave out— 'is capable of endangering life or causing' and insert— 'could be used in an act of terrorism to endanger life or cause'.

The Chairman

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 35 to 37.

Beverley Hughes

Clauses 58 to 75 and schedules 5 and 6 introduce a regime to improve security in laboratories and other places where dangerous substances that could be used as a weapon by terrorists are being held.

Clause 58 identifies the dangerous pathogens and toxins—which are listed in schedule 5—that will be brought within the controls set out in this part of the Bill immediately upon Royal Assent. The amendments limit the exercise of those powers to cases in which the chemicals or substances concerned may be used in acts of terrorism. A definition is added to provide that terrorism has the same meaning as in the Terrorism Act 2000.

Mr. Dalyell

I should like to ask my hon. Friend a question that applies to the whole of part 7. What estimate has been made of the extra costs of undertaking those types of security arrangement—which I do not doubt may well be necessary? Clause 59 for example, places a duty on the occupiers of premises to notify the Secretary of State before keeping or using any dangerous substance there. Occupiers of premises holding those substances when the Bill is enacted must notify the Secretary of State within one month. Similarly, occupiers of premises holding substances that are subsequently added to the schedule will have one month in which to notify the Secretary of State of their holdings once any such modification comes into effect.

I should have thought that that will involve a good deal of work for people. I am not saying that the work is unnecessary, but what estimate has been made of the extra cost of all that notification for those who run laboratories? Many of them are at their wits' end in trying to cope with their current financial situation.

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal)

Can the Minister say who will check that what is being done is being done properly? Will she consider that those who at the moment are looking at safety in terms of pathogens getting out into the atmosphere might also investigate this matter? There is a possibility of enormously increased expense for owners of laboratories, as well as for the Government and officials. I hope that this has been thought through carefully.

7 pm

Beverley Hughes

Members may have seen the regulatory impact assessment. I cannot remember the detail in relation to the cost of this part of the Bill, but an estimate has been made, as has been done rigorously for all parts of the Bill. In preparing the Bill, the levels of security at many laboratories were investigated thoroughly by the Home Office and the police. The overall benefit in increased security very much outweighs the cost.

As a result of our inquiries at laboratories, we are convinced—as are many laboratory owners, knowing what has happened in the United States and what could happen elsewhere—that these measures are very much needed. We have the co-operation of laboratory owners and managers and we expect the costs to be limited and reasonable. I said that our survey suggested that security at some laboratories was seriously lacking. About half those that we have seen so far require security measures to be improved. The measure will not affect every single laboratory.

If hon. Members would like me to write to them to give further details, I shall do so. However, I hope that they accept my assurance, on the basis of the work that we have done, that the measures are needed. We want to put in place a manageable, workable regime that will greatly improve the security of dangerous substances in laboratories.

Mr. Dalyell

I am not in any way trying to catch out the Minister, but some of us would like to be written to about this matter. Which laboratories have been talked to? Clause 61 would allow the police to request information about persons who have access to dangerous substances or to the premises in which they are kept or used. It would also place a duty on occupiers to ensure that other persons do not have access to the premises or substances. That is an onerous requirement in practice.

Perhaps the best thing would be for my hon. Friend the Minister to write a letter, or use the facilities of the other place, to explain to whom the Government have talked and whether those to whom they have talked are satisfied.

Mr. Gummer

I want to emphasise that many of these matters are technical. The phrase used is that a constable will ask for the information concerned. Obviously, that is not what will really happen, but I would like to know whether the technical people who already visit such establishments for safety reasons could be used successfully to avoid the extra weight of more visits when visits could be combined. They are the right people for the job, not constables.

Beverley Hughes

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for raising that valid point. I will write to him and to my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell) in as much detail as I can about how the provision will work.

Amendment agreed to.

Beverley Hughes

I beg to move amendment No. 31, in page 29, line 2, at end add—

'(5) But something otherwise falling within subsection (4) is not to be regarded as a dangerous substance if—

  1. (a) it satisfies prescribed conditions; or
  2. (b) it is kept or used in prescribed circumstances.'

The Chairman

With this it will be convenient to discuss Government amendments Nos. 43 to 45 and 34.

Beverley Hughes

Amendment No. 31 will allow the list of dangerous substances in schedule 5 to be modified by secondary legislation, so that any example of a given substance would not be controlled if it met prescribed conditions. By that, I mean, first, that there are some substances which, of themselves, would be dangerous, but in certain places—pharmacies, for instance—would be in such tiny amounts that they could not be used by terrorists, and secondly, circumstances where the actual substance or toxin was part of another product from which it could not be extracted. Clearly, in those circumstances, we would not want to apply the measures to laboratories or pharmacies, so substances in the prescribed conditions can be excluded by order.

Amendment No. 34 is consequential upon amendment No. 31, and ensures that regulations made under the new power are subject to negative resolution procedure. Amendments Nos. 43 to 45 are technical and concern the list of dangerous substances in schedule 5.

Mr. David Heath (Somerton and Frome)

With regard to amendment No. 43, I presume that there has been a change of taxonomy about which people are unaware in terms of parrot fever, which always has been chlamydia psittaci. Every single microbiologist to whom I have spoken over the last few weeks has always referred to it as that and intends to continue to refer to it as a chlamydia species. Presumably its name has changed.

Beverley Hughes

indicated assent.

Mr. Heath

The Minister agrees. Is it therefore sensible to have these organisms, pathogens and toxins described in such specific terms in schedule 5, given that they will then have to be amended by order whenever there is either a change of taxonomy or, more likely—this is a real problem with having a prescriptive list of this kind—when there are pathogens that are not within the list but which represent precisely the same dangers? Does the Minister believe that the definition of "pathogen" or "toxin" under clause 58—one that is capable of endangering life or causing serious harm to human health"— is not a sufficiency unto itself?

If there were to be a subsequent schedule to describe those viruses and bacteria that are contained, could those be described more properly in class terms, rather than as specific organisms? For instance, a number of viruses described in the list are associated with various haemorrhagic diseases. However, new haemorrhagic diseases are being identified all the time, especially in Africa. It would be folly to have one organism specifically listed in the schedule, while another that is not listed could not be added to the list without the bothersome bureaucracy of an Order in Council and secondary legislation. Is it possible to construct a schedule in more general terms, which nevertheless covers the pathogens and toxins that the Minister wishes to identify within the Bill?

Mr. Dalyell

Everything depends on the good sense of those who make the decisions. What is the situation with the establishment of the pathogens access appeals commission? Is it being set up or has it been set up, and what is the likely composition? I am not asking the Minister to give me names off the top of her head, but it is an important matter. How big a body will it be, as it could be a significant operation?

Mr. Gummer

As a non-lawyer, I have a concern about what happens if material not listed here is found in the hands of a terrorist or a putative terrorist. Could he claim that because it was not listed in the schedule, it was therefore less objectionable? Would he be in a better position because of the detailed listing? I am sure that that has been considered, and I would like to know what the position is.

Beverley Hughes

As several right hon. and hon. Members in the Chamber have considerable expertise in this area, I shall have to be careful on the scientific aspects. In response to the questions of the hon. Member for Somerton and Frome (Mr. Heath), we have been informed that the name of the substance to which he referred has been accepted as being changed. The amendment simply puts in the schedule what the scientific community regards as the correct nomenclature.

The hon. Gentleman also mentioned specificity. We took the view that because there is a duty in the provisions to report substances—indeed, it is an offence not to do so within a certain time scale—it was right to be clear and specific in those circumstances. We believe that as there is also the power to amend the schedule, being specific is the right course of action and only fair to the laboratories, given the duties that we are placing on them and the fact that people can be in breach of the law by not reporting specific substances.

In response to my hon. Friend the Member for Linlithgow (Mr. Dalyell), the appeals commission has not yet been established. We have not yet made decisions on some of the questions that he has raised, such as the size of membership. We think that it should be small, and members will need to be vetted. We are in the process of deciding on those details.

On the point raised by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), the schedule applies only for the purposes of duties in part 7 and will not be prejudicial to other legislation. I am not sure whether that fully answers the right hon. Gentleman's point, but it is as far as I can go this evening.

7.15 pm
Mr. Dalyell

My hon. Friends may remember the attack by the Americans on the E1 Shifa factory outside Khartoum. I do not want to go into details, but it was all based on false premises. The substance—o ethyl methyl phosphonoic acid—was not being made at the factory at all. In this field, all sorts of false information, taken out of context, can easily lead to actions that tend to be unjustified. I am not saying that the commission will make mistakes—its members may be very wise and distinguished—but this is a difficult area. It might be a good idea to put a copy of a letter in the Library, explaining the background, because these are important issues.

Amendment agreed to.

Clause 58, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.

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