HL Deb 13 November 1969 vol 305 cc782-98

4.12 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time. The object of this straightforward Bill is to transfer to a statutory Board the present functions of three existing bodies: the Radioactive Substances Advisory Committee, appointed under the Radioactive Substances Act 1948; the Radiological Protection Service, run by the Medical Research Council; and that part of the Central Health and Safety Branch of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority which deals with radiological protection.

In the last twenty years we have seen the gradual establishment of atomic energy as a means of providing power and the increasingly widespread use of radioactive substances and of radiation in medicine, industry and commerce. The properties of these substances and of radiation produced by machines are of great benefit to mankind, as we know so well, but, as with other scientific and technical development, there are unfortunately accompanying hazards. It has been necessary to build substantially on the knowledge acquired in earlier years for protecting people from dangers associated with the use of X-rays and from substances like radium, until now there is virtually, I think one can say, a new branch of knowledge and activity generally described by the term radiological protection.

In 1948, at the beginning of the British effort in atomic energy, and the spread of the utilisation of the properties of radiation outside medicine, Parliament passed the Radioactive Substances Act. This was a general enabling Act, as noble Lords may remember, to allow certain Ministers to make regulations for the protection of people against hazards from radioactive substances and ionising radiations. Under the provisions of that Act, the Ministers were required, after appropriate consultation, to appoint an advisory committee whose duty was to advise Ministers on the regulations they were proposing to make under the Act. This Advisory Committee, the Radioactive Substances Advisory Committee has a present membership of 16 under the distinguished chairmanship of Sir Brian Windeyer, now Vice Chancellor of London University, having recently retired from the Professorship of Therapeutic Radiology of that University and from being Director of the Meyerstein Institute of Radiotherapy at The Middlesex Hospital, roles which those of your Lordships who know him professionally will agree with me he has filled with such success. The Secretary of State for Education and Science is the Minister responsible for appointing the Committee, and the Director of the Radiological Protection Service acts as its technical secretary.

In the field of radiological protection there are several Government Departments who have powers to make regulations and these Departments have their own technical staff to cover their special interests. The purpose of this Bill, however, is to achieve in the proposed new statutory Board and its staff a single national point of authoritative reference and a body which can provide the necessary technical services, both to Government Departments and to others. The Bill provides for a Committee to advise the Board. The Committee would comprise a much wider membership than the Board itself and would enable scientific, medical, employer and trade union representatives, together with representatives from Government Departments with responsibilities for radiological protection, to be associated with the work of the Board. The Committee's function would be to advise the Board and the Board would be expected to consult it on certain matters which I shall explain in a moment.

This arrangements will, we believe, enable the Board to be kept small enough for effective management and yet enable its opinions to be informed by a wide spread of all the interests concerned. Consultation between Board and Committee will be particularly important where the Board is advising Government Departments on technical matters, for example, on regulations applied to those whose work or whose products involve radiation hazards.

I now should like to say a word about the two existing groups of experts we propose to combine in order to form the Board's staff. The first is the Radiological Protection Service which was set up in 1953 under the management of the Medical Research Council on behalf of three sponsors—itself, the Department of Health and Social Security (as it is now) and the Scottish Home and Health Department. The cost of its operations is shared between these three bodies according to the requirements of research, that is, the Council, and services, that is, the two Departments. The headquarters of the Service are at Sutton in Surrey in the grounds of the Royal Marsden Hospital. Research is also undertaken there and a radiological protection service provided from that point for the whole of the South-East. There are also regional centres, as many noble Lords are only too well aware, in Birmingham, Manchester, Leeds and Glasgow. Your Lordships will wish to know that the number of posts in the Radiological Protection Service at present is 225.

The Atomic Energy Authority, as the House will know, was established in 1954 by the Atomic Energy Authority Act of that year. The Authority is organised into a number of Groups which have various establishments and works. Each of these establishments and works is in the charge of a management which has its health and safety departments covering both radiation and other potential hazards. In 1959, the Atomic Energy Authority decided (after the Fleck Committee Report following the Windscale incident) to create a central Health and safety Branch, whose function is to advise the Board of the Authority in respect of its health and safety policy, to disseminate that policy and to assist in its application, to co-ordinate certain research work, and to co-ordinate the Authority's views in respect of international discussions relating to health and safety matters. The Branch also co-ordinates views on radiation protection matters expressed on behalf of the United Kingdom when requested to do so by the Ministry of Technology who have responsibility for our relationship in technical matters with organisations like the International Atomic Energy Agency and the European Nuclear Energy Agency. Here again, in view of the changes which will involve the staff I thought the House would like to know that the total number of posts involved in the transfer in this case is about 40.

The Medical Research Council and the Atomic Energy Authority, as a consequence of the provisions of this Bill, will therefore be transferring what amounts to a substantial proportion of their radiological protection staff to the proposed Board. Indeed, senior members of both groups of staff to be transferred are, I think, widely recognised as being among the leaders of world opinion in their particular fields of specialty. Both the Council and the Atomic Energy Authority will contribute to the cost of the Board and will expect to be able to make demands on it for advice and services. The Board, of course, will be expected to meet these demands. The Health Ministers have agreed, subject to Parliament passing this Bill, to appoint nominees of both bodies to the Board.

I am sure your Lordships will agree that the members of the present Radioactive Substances Advisory Committee and its panels have done well, and I should like to take this opportunity, which I am sure other noble Lords will welcome, of thanking all those concerned for the valuable services they have given; but we believe that the arrangements which the present Bill will bring about will represent a considerable improvement. The Committee's functions will be transferred to the new statutory Board, supported by its own expert staff drawn from the Radiological Protection Service and the Atomic Energy Authority, and informed through its own Advisory Committee by the same range of independent expert and representational opinion as exists on the present statutory committee.

My Lords, as I indicated at the outset, the intention of this Bill is straightforward and I hope completely non-controversial, and I do not think the House would wish me to explain the detailed drafting of its seven clauses and two schedules at this stage of our consideration of its contents. An Advisory Group of administrators and experts has already been set up to study the arrangements which will need to be made for the future, and its work will, I am sure, be of great value to the new Board. The scientists and administrators concerned are, I believe, looking forward to this amalgamation of the sources of advice and to the formation of the Board. I should like to assure your Lordships at this stage that the conditions of service of the staff involved in these changes will not be in any way adversely affected by the proposals. I should also perhaps make it clear that the Board will be expected to set up appropriate machinery for consulting with its staff on matters of concern to them. This is a normal feature of public bodies to-day, and the new Board will have, and I am sure will wish to have, its own consultative machinery. We believe that this Bill will improve the co-ordination of our arrangements for radiological protection, give better support to Government Departments, both directly and by means of research, and enable our views to be authoritatively heard in international gatherings. That is the object of the Bill, and I hope, therefore, that your Lordships will give unanimous approval. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a. —(Baroness Serota.)

4.24 p.m.


My Lords, as usual we are most grateful to the noble Baroness for explaining this Bill to us so clearly. She always does this very well, and it is appreciated on both sides of the House. I think it makes a good deal of sense to bring together the services of the Medical Research Council and the Atomic Energy Authority in dealing with radiation hazards and the health and safety problems involved. The Bill is certainly not controversial in a Party political sense, it fortunately does not appear to cost any money, and I believe there is going to be no overall increase in manpower. In fact, I hope that economies may result. I think, therefore, that we on this side of the House should support the Bill.

There are, however, just a few points I should like to make and questions I should ask. One is that it seems to me that to a certain extent this Bill involves an erosion into the Haldane principle under which research of this kind, research conducted by the Research Councils such as the M.R.C., and even the Atomic Energy Authority, have operated in the past. I think that on both sides of the House we still pay more than lip service to the principle that the Research Councils should be free to follow up those lines of investigation which they consider would be useful or rewarding, without interference from executive Departments. It is because of our respect for the Haldane principle that the Research Councils are administered by the Department of Education and Science and not by the executive Departments which might be considered to have the most direct interest in their work; that is to say, the Ministry of Health and Social Services, in so far as the Medical Research Council is concerned, and the Ministry of Agriculture in respect of the Agricultural Research Council. I realise that the Haldane principle cannot be accepted completely uncritically, and we could have an interesting debate on the whole subject of academic freedom. It can be very costly to let certain lines of research drag on too long without results. I accept, therefore, that there must be exceptions to the general rule of executive Departments not interfering with certain research work—that is to say, especially fundamental as opposed to applied, or, as the Americans call it, mission-oriented research.

In the case of these radiological protection services I should not like to think that the Health Ministers concerned who are referred to in Clause 1(4) of the Bill would be solely (and I repeat the word "solely") responsible for directing the work of the services concerned. I am therefore glad to see, both in connection with Clause 1(6) and (7), and indeed in Clause 2, that the Secretary of State for Social Services can confirm a new function of the Board only in consultation with the Atomic Energy Authority and the Medical Research Council, and that Ministers in executive Departments will not give any direction to the Board except after consultation with these bodies. This is probably quite a good sort of middle road to take. However, I should like to ask the Minister where the Department of Education and Science and the Ministry of Technology now come into all this. They are not, in fact, mentioned in the Bill. After all, as I say, the Research Councils are looked after by the D.E.S., and the Atomic Energy Authority comes within the purview of the Ministry of Technology. Will the D.E.S. and MINTEC—or "MAXTEC" as we now call it (it is certainly by no means a "MINTEC")—no longer be concerned with these services? Will they be solely the responsibility of the Health Ministers? I should be grateful if the noble Baroness would elucidate this point.

When many Departments are involved there can be serious delays in decision making. Could the Minister also assure us that in a general way the Government still agree that the Haldane principle regarding the independence of the Councils should continue to be honoured? I gather that the M.R.C. are reasonably happy about all this, and that in so far as fundamental research is concerned they will continue to be the body responsible for conducting it. I understand also that they will be strongly represented on the new Radiation Protection Board which is, I gather, only taking over operational research directly connected with these particularly technical services. I hope I am right about this.

My Lords, I think we should all welcome the new Chairman. This is a most distinguished appointment. We welcome him, and we shall also welcome the other members of the Board and of the Advisory Committee. It sounded to me, from what the noble Baroness said, that this was an admirable composition, but I shall be interested to know when she will be able to announce the full list of names. I understand that, apart from Windscale—and perhaps even Windscale was not so very serious an accident—there have so far not been any serious accidents involving radiation; but I appreciate that great precautions must be taken and that there must always be a fire brigade available to deal with possible mishaps. The obvious advantage of pooling the resources of the M.R.C. and the A.E.A. in this way is that they can share their different types of expertise. For example, the Atomic Energy Authority obviously has a greater knowledge of the hazards of working nuclear piles, whereas the Radiological Protection Service of the M.R.C. is very familiar with hazards in the use of the isotopes now employed so widely in industry.

There is one other question which I might ask the Minister, as it may be in some of our minds. Can she say whether any of the different techniques or types of monitoring which we use in this country are being used to protect the astronauts, who we hope may still be taking off for the moon to-morrow? I gather that a study of the problems of radiation may be one of the principal objects of this second manned lunar landing and that there are risks involved here. Believe it or not, my Lords, the Americans are actually transporting a plutonium reactor to the moon as a power plant. It is always interesting for your Lordships to know when British techniques or inventions are used by our American friends. We know that a development of the British Bacon fuel cell powers the Apollo spacecraft, and also that the water-cooled undergarments of the astronauts were originally designed by the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough, so I wondered whether, in the case of protection against radiation, we could perhaps also claim to have helped the Americans in these truly astonishing and exciting exploits. I know that from our own United Kingdom scientific satellites we are obtaining information concerned with radiation from sun flares, the timing of which seems unpredictable but which present very serious hazards.

Then, too, one has only to read reports of the likely subjects for discussion at the United States/Soviet talks in Helsinki next week to become increasingly alarmed by the prospects of nuclear war in the event of multi-independent re-entry vehicles being used, which with their H-bombs would not only obliterate the United States and the Soviet Union but would also cover the whole of the rest of the world with dangerous doses of radioactive fall-out. The mind boggles as to how our present radiological protection services would cope with that situation, and I wonder whether the Government have any views on the subject. Will these protection services to which the Bill refers be used in these well-nigh unthinkable circumstances, or are there other contingency plans involving other services?

Finally, my Lords, to end on an equally sombre note, I gather that certain degrees of radiation can cause sterility and, certainly, genetic damage affecting future generations. How long, I wonder, will it be before all your Lordships become sterile or have their heredity genes seriously affected. Clearly, this may relieve the Government of the necessity of reforming the House. As I said, all in all, I think we should welcome this practical Bill, and I hope it will result in the radiation protection services being even more effective and efficient than I believe they have been in the past. I should like to join with the noble Baroness in thanking all those who are concerned with them for the admirable job which they have done.

4.34 p.m.


My Lords, I intervene at this point with the agreement of the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, and I shall be very brief. I have only one point to raise, as a result of the statement made by the noble Baroness at the end of her remarks. I want to deal in particular with the position of the staff who are likely to be transferred as a result of the passage of this Bill. As I understood the noble Baroness, she said that the position of the staffs would not be worsened as a result of the passage of the Bill. That ought to be sufficient assurance, but the difficulty is that worsening can be a matter of judgment and of consideration, and I am not sure that the assurance is quite satisfactory to the staff concerned. The noble Baroness will be aware that the staff side of the Atomic Energy Authority were given a precise reassurance on this point at a meeting of the committee on March 7, and the assurance was that the Authority's conditions of service should apply to the whole of the Board's staff. That is not quite the same as the statement now made by the noble Baroness.

I wonder whether it is possible for her to outline the difference between what she has said to-day and the statement which I have just repeated, because it seems to me that paragraph 13(2)(a) of Schedule 1 to the Bill is not very helpful in this connection. As I understand it, it gives complete authority to the Board, to pay to their officers and other persons employed by them such remuneration and allowances as the Board may determine with the approval of the Secretary of State". That is not really a built-in assurance so far as the staff are concerned, and it certainly does not appear to me, nor, I should think, to your Lordships, to be the same as the positive assurance that the Authority's conditions of service should apply to the whole of the Board's staff. I should therefore be very grateful to the noble Baroness if she could say whether there is any difference. I hope there is no difference, and that she can say that her assurance today is in strict conformity with the assurance given to the staff side on March 7.

4.37 p.m.


My Lords, I want to say only one very brief word in welcoming this Bill, in which I have a personal interest. I certainly do not want to follow what the noble Earl has said about the dangers of radiation, because I entirely agree with him, and anything that I could say would be merely repeating what he has already said a great deal better than I could.

I am pleased to see this service grow, because in the year 1948 I was one of the members—if I was not an executive member I was certainly an advisory member—of the original committee which was set up under the Radioactive Substances Act. I am very pleased indeed to see that the service which we began is now growing and spreading in such a big way, and I wish this new body every luck and success in the future. I welcome the Bill.

4.38 p.m.


My Lords, with your Lordships' permission, I want to intervene merely to reassure the noble Earl, Lord Bessborough, that radiation is a great leveller. It does not apply only to hereditary Peers and any sterilisation will be very widespread. I am speaking not as a former Vice-Chairman of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. to which all the implications of the noble Earl's grim remarks would apply, but as someone who has been pretty closely connected with this subject over the last twenty years at various levels. I want to pay a very great tribute to the people who have been active in the research and in the safety precautions which have been laid down. I was also responsible for a long series of inquiries—or, as they say in America, I was the moderator of them—which were carried out at the University of Chicago into the question of radiation hazard in peaceful industry.

One of the things which impressed us over the years was the manifest truth that, largely as a result of the apocalyptic cataclysmic explosion of the bomb in Hiroshima, Nagasaki and so on, the atomic energy industry to-day is beyond all question second to none, the safest industry in the world. This is because all the precautions were built in in advance, which was largely due to the foresight, and so on, of the bodies which are now going to be integrated, I think to great advantage. It is the safest industry in the world because the precautions are built in. I only wish this were true of a great many other industries. If we were starting the other industries all over again, I think we would be less at hazard from pollution, and so forth, and indeed from dangers to industrial workers, than we are to-day. Therefore, it is very important for Britain; and I endorse the hope of the noble Earl, Lord Bessborough, that what has been true for the last twenty years will continue to be true.

The influence of British experts in this field has had a tremendous effect on international determinations in regard to all these safeguards—and not just at the academic level, I may say. The practical applications, through the International Atomic Energy Agency, through the International Labour Organisation, through the Food and Agriculture Organisation and through the World Health Organisation, have been very substantial; and this is something which needs very careful safeguards. The last discussion I had in the United States, at the University of Chicago just a few months ago, on the question of radiation hazards in the peaceful uses of atomic energy was in a way rather disquieting. That is what I want to emphasise to your Lordships. Because of the enormous precautions which have been taken, and the fact that we have had only the incident at Windscale—which, I agree with the noble Earl, fortunately did not get out of hand, though it might have done—there has been over the last twenty years a growing suggestion that the safeguards which exist in industry and in the uses of atomic energy are excessive. I have no doubt at all, my Lords, that they are excessive; and I hope that we keep them that way. Because the feeling I had, when I protested about this idea that we could reduce the standards, was that I seemed to be regarded as the man with the red flag in front of the motor car.

It is true that there is an inclination, partly because of the reassurances which we have had and partly because of our vigilance, our safeguards, that we can now begin to loosen up—and in point of fact you can make more profits that way. But there is one thing on which I can assure your Lordships you cannot afford to make profits, and that is the hazards of atomic energy. It is not merely the industrial workers who are at risk; not merely the people who are in immediate contact with these things. The ultimate truth is that if this breaks away at all then the whole of the environment is affected, and the population itself is at risk. It is important in this regard to realise just what are the standards that we are trying to establish. They are not merely standards which apply to the individual, in terms of what might be his misfortune; as the noble Earl has suggested, this is in fact a question of the genetic effects and of hazards to future generations.

This means, my Lords, that in all our attitudes to this question we must preserve a continuing vigilance. I have had my own misgivings over the years, I may say. Fortunately, in my relationship with this subject the danger has not shown itself effective; but there was always a risk in the diversity of interests involved, in the departments involved and in many cases the conflicts of interests involved. I remember that during the great debates and arguments—ferocious arguments—which we had about risks of "fall-out", and so on, officially we were consistently told that there was no real risk, that the "fall-out" was minimal. The proof of the fact that it was not minimal was the test ban which stopped it all. But in these discussions the suggestion made by many of our official spokesmen was that our arguments were being used as political arguments. They were not political arguments; and one of the most comforting things to come out of this long debate over the last twenty years was when, finally, we had the test ban and it was recognised that the atmospheric hazards amounted to just what we had always argued they amounted to.

We had a conference in Geneva in which we as the experts (Britain took the lead) said, when we came to discuss maximum permissible dosage—what industrial workers could tolerate, what people in industry might tolerate—that so far as the general public was concerned there was no maximum permissible dosage. Therefore, you could not stop and say, if something broke away, if there were another incident like the Windscale incident, that you would wait and see whether it reached such-and-such a dosage. You have to take an absolute stand and say, "Beyond the background radiation, there is no tolerable increase, and everything you do—and I hope everything the new organisation will do—must be directed to getting that back to zero as quickly as possible."

4.46 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to say just a very few words in this discussion. This is obviously a very good Bill. I do not want to say anything about the merits of the Bill itself, but, as I think I heard my noble friend Lord Geddes of Epsom pointing out as I came in—unfortunately, owing to an earlier engagement I could not be here to hear the noble Baroness open this discussion—it involves some rather complicated points in connection with the transfer of the men who have been working in the Atomic Energy Authority, and for other organisations, to the new organisation. Owing to the speed with which this matter has been pushed on at the last moment, these matters have not been properly tied up. They are complicated, and I do not want to attempt to take up your Lordships' time by explaining them in detail. I have sent the particulars, which were furnished to me by the Institute of Professional Civil Servants, who look after the interests of the men in question, to the noble Baroness.

It seems to me obvious, as an impartial student of this business, that, either in the shape of very clear assurances from the Government or in the form of something being written into the Bill itself, the interests of these men must be protected. As I say, I have sent full particulars to the noble Baroness. There are three points involved here, and I hope the noble Baroness will be able to give the House clear assurances on them, because otherwise, when we come to the Committee stage, we shall have to try to get these matters written into the Bill. That is all I wanted to say.

4.48 p.m.


My Lords, may I thank those noble Lords who have spoken for the general welcome they have given to this Bill? The only sombre note struck, perhaps, was by the noble Earl, Lord Bessborough. I must say, speaking as one who has always been in favour of the reform of your Lordships' House and of the abolition of the hereditary principle, that I nevertheless find his suggestion a somewhat drastic way of achieving this reform. May I, on a slightly more serious note, answer the first point he made to us—one which I think must be seen as a major point of principle; namely, whether we should not in this Bill be departing too far from the Haldane principle. Our concern, my Lords, was merely to concentrate and strengthen the present arrangements for providing advice and services, but at the same time we are equally anxious, of course, that such advice should be, and moreover be seen to be, completely independent and unbiased by administrative considerations. Health Ministers have a considerable interest in the effects of ionizing radiations in terms of their effect on the health of the population, but they have no specific regulatory functions as other Ministers have in this field. We therefore think it is reasonable that the new organisation, a major part of whose functions will after all be to provide technical services, should be under the ægis of Health Ministers.

They will have general powers of direction in regard to the new Board. These, of course, will not be—in fact, are not to be—exercised without due consultation, and it is certainly not the intention (I hope this will reassure the noble Earl) that such directions, if given, should prejudice the scientific judgment or advice of the Board. He also raised the question of the relationships of the Department of Education and Science and the Ministry of Technology to the future organisation which the Bill will establish. In terms of consultative machinery this matter we regard as covered by the normal processes of consultation as between Ministers. We believe that the arrangements will work well, with the Health Minister standing in a somewhat detached and independent position consulting with the Ministers responsible for the other Departments. I am grateful to the noble Earl for assuring us that the M.R.C., who as the noble Lord, Lord Amulree, knows have a close concern with this field, are content with the arrangements that are suggested here.


My Lords, may I interrupt at this point? May we take it that the Vote, in so far as the financial support of the Board is concerned, will come entirely through the Secretary of State for Social Services and not either through MINTEC or D.E.S.


My Lords, I will write to the noble Earl on this point, for it is a tricky one. But I think I am right in saying that D.E.S. still makes a Parliamentary grant; and so, I believe, does MINTEC. But I should like to be precise. A number of Departments are involved, as ever, in these matters and financial arrangements are extremely complex. But I will write to the noble Earl, and to any other noble Lord who would like a specific statement on this point.

The noble Earl also asked when we should be announcing the names of the Board. The answer is: as soon as the Bill has passed through its stages. I think the timing will be just right. The noble Earl spoke about the development of British expertise over this great and important field, and asked whether British equipment and expertise was being used to protect the American astronauts. I do not know the answer to that question —perhaps some other noble Lords do. However, I will certainly find out, and I will let the noble Earl know.

The noble Lord, Lord Geddes of Epsom, and, more recently, the noble Lord, Lord Chorley, asked me about conditions in terms of service for the transferred staff. In my opening statement on the Second Reading of the Bill I gave an assurance that no staff would be adversely affected by transfer. I must confess that as I listened to Lord Geddes of Epsom I realise that, from his point of view and from that of the staff, that was rather an over-careful Ministerial approach. I should like to assure all noble Lords, and through them the staff, that it is intended that the Atomic Energy Authority's terms and conditions of service will be applied to the Board's staff. I hope that that assurance will satisfy those noble Lords who concern themselves with this matter.

We all listened with great interest, as ever, to my noble friend Lord Ritchie-Calder, one of the world's greatest experts on this subject. I think that, with all our various views about the development of this whole area of scientific endeavour we shall share with him the hope that the British rôle, and the knowledge of all our experts in this field, will continue to be used to develop even further the safeguards against the dangers of radiation hazards. May I conclude by thanking again all noble Lords who have taken part in this debate. I look forward to the Commitee stage of the Bill where we can, if necessary, explore the clauses in further detail.

On Question, Bill read 2a, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.