HC Deb 11 March 2004 vol 418 cc1642-3
6. Mr. Tom Watson (West Bromwich, East) (Lab)

If she will make a statement on the future of Nirex. [160282]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett)

The Government have stated their intent to make Nirex independent of industry and under greater Government control to allow effective contribution to the work of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management. We are working to ensure that Nirex continues to discharge its functions for the benefit of the public as well as its shareholders. When we are ready and able to do so, we shall make an announcement.

Mr. Watson

I thank my right hon. Friend for that answer. We all appreciate the hard work that she and her Department are doing on this issue. Does she agree that the reasons for Nirex's independence—transparency, public acceptability and a focus on the long term—are as valid today as they were when the announcement on this issue was made last year? Does she also agree that there are workable models for that independence on the table, which do not involve the inclusion of Nirex in the nuclear decommissioning agency, and that, with persistence from her Department, we might be able to achieve independence for Nirex sooner rather than later?

Margaret Beckett

Certainly, I agree with my hon. Friend that the concerns that led us to suggest independence for Nirex remain valid. I share his view that they can continue to play a valuable role. We are examining all the options—which is why the process is taking a little longer than we might otherwise have wished—and I can assure him that we shall continue to seek the best option for the public good.

Norman Baker (Lewes) (LD)

Given that the Secretary of State announced on 16 July last year that Nirex was to become independent, and notwithstanding the comments that she has just made, will she explain why so little has happened since then? Can she, in particular, confirm the story in The Observer of 29 February, which suggested that the reason for that was that the Department of Trade and Industry had, as usual, been lobbied by the nuclear industry and was resisting her sensible proposals? Will she give a guarantee that Nirex will indeed be made properly and fully independent? Will she give a time scale for that, and undertake that DEFRA will, for once, see off the DTI?

Margaret Beckett

First, I thank the hon. Gentleman for referring to our proposals as sensible—he is right—but I cannot give him a time scale at the moment. We are setting up a new nuclear decommissioning authority and a new committee on radioactive waste management. These are genuinely difficult and complex issues, but we continue to hold the view that it is important to handle them well and to get the right pattern for the long term. As for my colleagues in the Department of Trade and Industry, we have an extremely productive and cooperative relationship.