HL Deb 05 May 1970 vol 310 cc116-21

2.49 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time. Perhaps in moving this Third Reading I might take the opportunity of making a reference to two points which were raised at the Committee stage about the proposed title of British Nuclear Fuels Limited. My noble friend Lord Wynne-Jones suggested that the word "fuel" was being used in this context in a rather extraordinary way, because fuel is something combustible whereas what we describe as "nuclear fuel" undergoes the different process of fission. Literally, of course, if one refers to the Oxford English Dictionary or to other standard dictionaries, my noble friend is correct, but in this connection the term has already acquired a wide and perhaps one might say an accepted usage, as also in this context has the term "burn up" as a measurement of the extent to which the fissionable material in a fuel element has undergone fission. In any case, the term "fuel" has two distinct merits: first, it aptly connotes that nuclear "fuel" elements are produced for the same purpose as coal and oil—the fossil fuels—to provide heat and power, and secondly it makes clear that we are referring to a peaceful application of nuclear power, and possibly the use of a wider term, such as "resource" as my noble friend suggested, would cast some obscurity over this. I think for these reasons it would be desirable for us to retain the term "fuel".

The noble Lord, Lord Wade, referred to a somewhat different point. He drew attention to the coincidence between the initials of the proposed fuel company and those of the British Nuclear Forum. The latter is of course an organisation with which my Department is in close working touch, and it is an organisation which we expect will continue to play a useful role in the restructured nuclear industry. Therefore it is clear that the coincidence of initials, to which the noble Lord referred, could be a continuing situation. However, before we decided upon the term "British Nuclear Fuels Limited" a number of alternatives were examined. Some of those which were most suitable were found already to be in use and appearing on the Companies Register. Finally, the name of British Nuclear Fuels Limited, seemed to be the most apt and attractive of those available, despite the coincidence of the initials. But it would be best, if at all possible, to avoid this source of confusion, and I promised the noble Lord that we would look at this point in the light of the observations that he made at the Committee stage. We are indeed still examining it. We are looking at the possibilities in consultation with the Atomic Energy Authority. Perhaps I may add that if the title, "British Nuclear Fuels Limited" is in the event to be retained, the company would certainly endeavour to use some abbreviation other than B.N.F. and so minimise any possible confusion.

Before I conclude, there is one correction which I ought to make to the Explanatory and Financial Memorandum, to which the attention of your Lordships ought to be drawn. In the final paragraph of the Memorandum the first sentence states that the Bill will not result in any increase in the staff of any Government Department. One of the effects of the Bill is to subject the two companies to the licensing requirements and inspection provisions of the Nuclear Installations Act. The Nuclear Installations Inspectorate of the Ministry of Technology will therefore acquire responsibility for inspecting the companies, and will require a small increase in staff for this purpose. As a result of that there will be some increase in the administrative expenses of the Ministry of Technology in carrying out its function—a function which it already has and discharges under the Nuclear Installations Act. It is not yet possible to make any reliable estimate of the amount of the increase or of the number of staff, but it is expected that in both cases the figure will be a small one. I beg to move.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.—(Lord Delacourt-Smith.)

2.57 p.m.


My Lords, I thank the noble Lord, Lord Delacourt-Smith, for giving the House these additional explanations. I do not want to enter into a semantics debate. It may be that the word "fuel" is not correct in this case but it has come to be used in this sense. I think the noble Lord made a good point when he suggested chat this company would be known as B.N.F.L. so that it would not be confused with the other B.N.F. mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord Wade.

I should like to take this opportunity of saying that we on this side of the House welcome this Bill generally. I do not want the noble Lord, Lord Dehicourt-Smith, to think that I have been unreasonable over Clause 11, regarding shareholding in the two companies, but, like the noble Lord, Lord Sherfield, I simply did not see any reason why the old subsection (3) should remain in the Bill. As I said both on Second Reading and in Committee, it may be that the Government and the A.E.A. should, at the outset, be the majority shareholders in the companies, but in particular we do not see why this should necessarily be written into the Bill as being desirable "at all times", which were the words used in the subsection. It is not that we on this side of the House are being dogmatic or doctrinaire; we merely want to do the right thing in this particular case.

I recognise that the fuel company will manufacture materials which form the constituent of nuclear explosives, but none the less the noble Lord admitted that there were companies in other countries undertaking various stages of the fuel cycle, especially the manufacturing of nuclear fuel elements, even if none was exactly in the position of our own proposed fuel company.

Again I would emphasise that it seems pointless if the ultimate result of the creation of these two companies is merely to transfer work from one form of public authority to another form of public authority—to use the noble Lord's own words. I think the subsection was unnecessary in the case of both companies and especially, I would judge, in the case of the isotope company. I should have thought that no security consideration was involved there. I cannot of course say what will happen in another place, but I would not myself think it necessary to put that subsection back into the Bill. We shall have to wait to see whether the Government have second thoughts on this matter or whether by judicious drafting they can meet our point.

I might also add, in regard to Clause 19, that I was very glad indeed to hear the noble Lord say that the conditions proposed under the new pensions schemes, taken as a whole, would not be less favourable than those obtaining in the A.E.A. It was good of the noble Lord to give this assurance, which should go some way to meet the views of those employees of the A.E.A. who have complained about being automatically transferred to the new companies.

Again, my Lords, I should like to say that we welcome this Bill. Let us form the two companies as soon as possible so that the fuel company can play its full part in the proposed European consortium. I should also like to thank the noble Lord for having written to me on the point about delay, which I stressed on Second Reading; that we had been responsible for the delay in forming the European consortium because we had not formed our own company. The noble Lord admits that the negotiations were held up in the late summer and autumn of last year while certain outstanding difficulties were considered by each country, but he assures me that it was not the United Kingdom which was wholly responsible for this. I will not go into any other details, but no doubt this point will be discussed further in another place.

3 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Delacourt-Smith, has dealt with his usual courtesy and efficiency with the point raised by the noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones, who is so well scientifically qualified himself, about the expression "fuel" in this context. I intervene solely because the noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones, is unfortunately not in his place at the moment. Lord Wynne-Jones did me the honour of asking me some time ago what I thought of his point. I thought it was well worth raising, but I ventured to ask him whether he realised what a big task he had set out on if he wished to stop scientists and technicians from talking nonsense, and I gave him an example, which I venture to repeat to the House, in the hope that the noble Lord in charge of the Bill will give his attention to it, should it come within his sphere, and perhaps do something about it.

Scarcely a day passes without a reference in the Press, or even, I think, in Ministerial statements, to "ballistic missiles", Can anybody think of a missile which is not ballistic? The word "ballistic" means pertaining to throwing of missiles, and a "missile" means something thrown. A "ballistic missile" seems to me to mean precisely nothing more than "missile". It is pure surplusage. It suggests that there is some sort of missile which is not ballistic. I have so much sympathy for the noble Lord, Lord Delacourt-Smith, who answers for a Department with many functions of the old Board of Trade for which many years ago I had the pleasure of answering, that I hope he will use his good offices to prevent a phrase of this sort from coming into any legislation for which he is responsible. I give him notice that, should that not be the case, he would certainly be called upon to explain it.


My Lords, I think I have only two comments on the remarks which noble Lords have been kind enough to make on this Third Reading. The noble Earl made a reference to the correspondence which had arisen from his criticism of delays in the settlement of matters as part of the tripartite agreement. The situation is that prior to the announcement of the agreement there was, it is true, some delay in settlement of some aspects of it, but, as I pointed out, this delay did not arise by any means solely through Her Majesty's Government. It was a question of legitimate differences of opinion which took some time to resolve. It is often the case that when such differences of opinion arise they may give rise to delays which appear to be unreasonable to one party or other which finds it hard to accept that the other party cannot agree to its point of view. I must make it clear that Her Majesty's Government cannot accept that at any stage in these complex negotiations, either before or after announcement of the agreement, there has been any unreasonable delay for which Her Majesty's Government could be criticised.

I am a little at a loss to know how to reply to the noble Lord, Lord Conesford, because I am sure he would be the first to agree that the observations which he has made could lead to a long and interesting debate. Indeed, he might one day think it an appropriate subject for a Motion for Papers. May I make two observations? On the original point which the noble Lord raised, I am sure he would agree that it is a feature of the English language that it is in a perpetual state of development and that words come, in the course of time, by legitimate usage, to extend and sometimes transform their meaning. I think equally he would agree that it is not unknown for phrases to arise which in themselves have an element of redundancy. I am not sure that I would altogether accept that he has fairly singled out "ballistic missile" as one. But there have been many people far greater than I who have devoted themselves effectively to trying to prune down the sometimes excessive use which we make of adjectives, even when they are not necessary, and I have no doubt that that admirable work will be done and that the noble Lord will always be foremost in it.

On Question, Bill read 3a.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill do now pass.*

Moved, That the Bill do now pass.—(Lord Delacourt-Smith.)

On Question, Bill passed.