HL Deb 18 May 1976 vol 370 cc1267-93

2.58 p.m.

The LORD PRIVY SEAL (Lord Shepherd)

My Lords, this Bill arises directly from the growing threat posed by acts of terrorism and other violent crimes, both in this country and elsewhere in the world. Conscious of this threat, the Government keep questions of security under continuous review, and included in this is, of course, the security of fissile materials used in the civil nuclear programme. These materials are safe enough in the circumstances of the civil nuclear programme; indeed, the nuclear industry has a very fine safety record. But if fissile materials fell into the wrong hands, they could be used to cause grave danger to the community.

Noble Lords will not expect me to go into details, but apart from the possibility that such materials might be used to make a primitive nuclear device, the dispersal of plutonium in particular into the environment could create a major radiological and toxic hazard over a wide area, threatening perhaps many hundreds of lives. Equally, terrorists who had seized fissile materials could hold a Government to ransom by threatening to create hazards of this kind. This risk is not merely a domestic one. It has international dimensions.

Material stolen in this country might be in a readily portable form and could be used as the basis of a threat to cause damage in the United States, Europe, the Middle East or, indeed, anywhere in the world. Nuclear materials might, therefore, be subject to attack by international terrorists as well as by those operating in the United Kingdom.

In the light of this threat, the Government concluded that the security of fissile materials should be strengthened. In practice, these materials are at present held in any significant quantities only at four sites—the Atomic Energy Authority establishments at Harwell, Dounreay and Winfrith, and the British Nuclear Fuels Limited site at Windscale. Fissile materials are also moved about the country at intervals in the ordinary course of AEA and BNFL business. The physical security of sites holding fissile materials has therefore been heavily strengthened.

In the past few months some£2 million is being spent on measures including arrangements for the strengthening of the perimeter fences and of the buildings in which dangerous materials are held; the improvements of alarm and detection systems; the use of guard dogs; and the improvement of communications. Measures are also being taken to increase the security of materials in transit; these include the provision of much stronger vehicles and better communications.

But physical improvements are not enough. The Government have to take account of the fact that a terrorist attack directed at taking possession of these materials is likely to be an armed attack. After the most careful consideration, we concluded that it will be necessary to provide armed guards where such materials are stored and when they are in transit. This decision was taken with reluctance. The arming of guards in the civil field on a routine basis runs very much against British traditions.

But, my Lords, this is an exceptional risk. And further, we have to bear in mind that fissile materials such as these are kept under armed guard in other countries and, when used for military purposes, in this country as well. If civil nuclear materials in this country are not similarly protected, they may appear to be a soft option for ruthless and determined international terrorists.

My Lords, we owe it to ourselves and to our friends overseas to take every effort to safeguard these materials and to frustrate the activities of such people. One does not wish to exaggerate the risk or to create alarm, but the risk exists and I suggest that it would be prudent for us to provide for adequate protection. We have decided to provide armed protection. But let me emphasise that armed guards at particular sites, and accompanying material in transit, do not provide complete protection. It would be unrealistic to think that site guards could deal with every kind of attack that might arise. They represent, rather, the first line of defence in depth, and we see them as having two main functions. First, their presence presents a measure of deterrence. Secondly, after giving an alarm to the outside, they can delay and contain an attack so as to give more time for the arrival of outside reinforcements.

There are standing arrangements for the provision of such reinforcements, under the general arrangements for dealing with terrorists. This function of delaying and containing attackers is important, for in this kind of situation one can envisage that speed would be one of the main objectives of the attackers. We propose that site and transit guards should be provided by the arming of the Atomic Energy Authority constabulary. Since the establishment of the Authority 20 years ago, this constabulary has been responsible for the policing of its sites.

Since 1971, it has also be en responsible for policing the sites owned by British Nuclear Fuels Limited. It undertakes the escorting of fissile materials in transit between sites. Until recently, the Authority constabulary has been an unarmed force. The first purpose of this Bill is therefore to place its officers in the same position as regular police forces and the Ministry of Defence constabulary, so far as firearms are concerned, by allowing them to possess firearms in the course of their duties without the need for the specific authorities normally required by the Firearms Act 1968.

I should like to clear up here one point on which noble Lords may possibly have misgivings. I should emphasise that the Authority constabulary is not a private police force. It was established under statutory authority—the Atomic Energy Authority Act 1954. Its members are sworn in as special constables. It is organised as a disciplined force on lines similar to regular police forces. Its officers are either recruited as young men—like policemen in the regular forces—or are former policemen or Servicemen. The chief constable of the constabulary is responsible to the Atomic Energy Authority. That Authority is responsible for its constabulary, as for other matters, to the Secretary of State for Energy. He in turn is responsible to Parliament.

Thus we are speaking of a police force which is subject to proper control. If the Bill becomes law, firearms will be carried and used by the AEA constabulary only on the basis of Standing Orders agreed by the Secretary of State; and the chief constable of that force will authorise their carriage only when officers are on duties for which access to firearms is necessary. I would also emphasise that those officers of the AEA police who carry firearms will be trained in their use to normal police standards. These standards, as we know, are very high indeed.

Pending the passage of this Bill, selected members of the Authority police have been carrying firearms for certain guard duties on the basis of firearms certificates issued to them as individuals by local chief officers of police under the Firearms Act. To obtain those certificates they have been required to complete successfully normal police training courses in firearms. Training to this standard will continue. There will also be regular retraining and an officer who does not maintain the required standard will cease to carry weapons until he has attained it again. The Bill does two things. It deems Authority constables to be Crown servants for the purposes of the Firearms Act. This will allow them access to firearms without any certificate or other authority under that Act.

Secondly, it widens the geographical limits within which these constables can exercise their police powers, and extends the class of property in respect of which those powers can be exercised in order that they shall be able to act as constables in all the circumstances where they are likely to be protecting fissile material. The way the Bill does this is explained in the Explanatory Memorandum, but briefly: Clause 1 deems AEA constables to be Crown servants. It also deems purchase of firearms for their use to be purchase for the public service, which will allow firearms to be bought for their use without a certificate.

Clause 2 extends their powers in relation to property so that while they are outside—for instance, on convoy duty—they may be exercised in relation to the property of BNFL and to property which is in the possession or control of AEA or BNFL, or which has been unlawfully removed from it. This covers BNFL-owned fissile material, and also material which they or the Authority are handling for customers.

Clause 3: constables' powers are currently limited to sites and 15 miles around them. This clause allows those powers to be exercised wherever constables go to safeguard nuclear matter, or to pursue anyone who has stolen nuclear material which they are safeguarding. Clause 4 contains definitions; it also makes a technical legal clarification of existing powers.


My Lords, will the Minister allow me to intervene for a moment. The noble Lord has said that the Bill allows the constables to pursue anyone who may have stolen nuclear materials, but the Bill does not extend to Northern Ireland. What would happen if it was suspected that someone who had diverted nuclear materials had taken them to Northern Ireland to use there? Would the Atomic Energy Authority special constables be able to follow them?


My Lords, the powers we are taking in this Bill are for the safeguarding and protection of material. An AEA policeman would be in pursuit only in close proximity either to the site or to the vehicle when it is in transit. It would certainly be a requirement of the local police to come to the assistance of the Atomic Energy Authority police. If there was a case where there was fissile material taken to Northern Ireland—because at present there are no nuclear establishments in Northern Ireland—then this would not be the responsibility of the AEA police either to pursue or to inquire, but would be the responsibility of the Northern Ireland police, or some higher authority in the United Kingdom. The power we are seeking here is to give the police the ability to carry arms in safeguarding from a potential attack the material that is then under their control.

My Lords, in conclusion, I would repeat that this is a Bill which the Government have introduced with reluctance. But in the circumstances of the time, we have no doubt that these provisions are necessary. Fissile material is a source of danger, were it to fall into ill-intentioned hands, and that must not be allowed to happen. We should be failing in our duty to maintain public security and safety if we did not make provisions for armed protection. I beg to move that this Bill be read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2a.—(Lord Shepherd.)

3.12 p.m.


My Lords, I do not suppose any Member of your Lordships' House will welcome this Bill, and I say that for two reasons: First, until comparatively recently, the carrying of arms by the civilian police was, in the United Kingdom, a matter of comparative rarity. Arms were used only in what might be termed desperate situations, and as a last resort. Now we know that the situation in the last few years has radically altered and, indeed, has very much deteriorated. The police now do bear arms as a matter of frequency in cases of terrorism, in cases of violent crime, and in certain circumstances in cases of the protection of individuals. So that, unfortunately, our society is now one which has had to come to terms with the carrying of arms.

Secondly, we have to admit that the arming of these special constables as they are described, employed, as they are, by the Atomic Energy Authority, raises really what might be termed a whole new dimension, in that a body other than the police or the Army, albeit the employees of a statutory body (as I understand it the Atomic Energy Authority) is being authorised to carry arms and, indeed, to use them for the protection of these admittedly important and 'dangerous nuclear materials on sites, or in transit; and do not let us be in any doubt as to the arms contemplated. As this Bill passed through the other place, it emerged that the arms would include everything from pistols to machine guns, as I understand it. So this is not a mere precaution of very little effect; this is a precaution which can have a great effect on people in this country as they go about their ordinary business, if they happen to get in the way of some unpleasant situation which developed. In a sense, the introduction of this Bill is an admission of defeat, that we have allowed the forces of violence in our society to become such a menace that we have to recognise that fact and to provide, in effect, that a body such as this, a body of ordinary citizens and civilians, created for the special purpose, is to be given the authority to be armed in the performance of their day-to-day duties.

But it goes further than that, if one reads the provisions of the Bill. It is not only that the constables are not to be contained geographically, as they used to be, to a radius of 15 miles of the establishment in question. Both in the escort of fissile materials in transit, and, perhaps more worrying still, where persons have stolen—and here I take mild issue with the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal—or who the constable reasonably believes have unlawfully removed or attempted to remove from the possession or control of the Crown, the Authority, any nuclear matter, then, in such circumstances, carrying his weapons, and entitled to use them as he can, the special constable can set off in hot pursuit—and I use that term advisedly. Again, I do not want to maximise the anxiety everyone will feel but it raises a new dimension, and I do not suppose that any noble Lord will quarrel with that contention.

My Lords, both in the escort of fissile materials in transit and in their protection, this body of men are being given power privileges, if you like, which have been resolutely denied other civilian organisations, such as Securicor. I understand full well that, at least in the view of the Government, no comparison is to be made between the special constables and Securicor, but the fact remains that they are civilians and, as I shall come to in a moment, not as directly accountable to Parliament as is the civilian police force, or, indeed, the Army. Therefore that is another reason for saying that this is a breach, a new departure in our constitutional thought on the carrying of arms. May I say that certainly we on these Benches do not disagree with the Government in what they seek to do, and we support them in their efforts to make provision in advance to deal with what could be a highly disagreeable and dangerous situation for all the citizens in this country. We associate ourselves with the Government's anxieties. It is not difficult to do so in this appalling situation in which we as a country find ourselves, especially confronted with terrorists who come from not within our ranks, but from without certainly the United Kingdom—a situation which might be difficult to contain.

My Lords, as I have said, there are two contingencies provided for: First, the theft of the bomb-mazing materials on site or in transit, and secondly, sabotage at establishments where these materials are stored. Again, like the noble Lord, Lord Privy Seal, I have no wish and no reason to dramatise the situation, but in the Scottish edition of the Daily Express yesterday, which may or may not be reliable, which I read in the aeroplane coming South, they say: The Government is making preparation to manufacture neutron bombs, miniature battlefield H-bombs which kill by death rays instead of by blast and fire. Et is decided to start large-scale manufacture of tritium, an essential ingredient in neutron bombs. The mow would have been kept secret but the Government had to seek local planning permission to build the tritium plant at Chapel Cross in Dumfriesshire. It will take about three years to complete. I am not twitting the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, I hope, but a perusal of Hansard of another place revealed that my honourable friend the Member for Dumfries had certain difficulty in obtaining from the Ministry what it was up to at Chapel Cross, because he was concerned that it should be added to the four establishments, Harwell, Winfrith, Windscale and Dounray, which were to be the establishments the subject of protection. I am sure that those who live in the area of Chapel Cross would like to know that the Government, if they are really considering the manufacture of tritium, will take seriously the protection of the plant.

I have a word of criticism of the Government in one particular direction. When dealing with the Bill and the principles behind it, we have to consider whether the Government in fact are setting about the task which we all agree that they have, and the duty to take appropriate steps, in the correct way. I fear it is evident that, at any rate up till now, the Government have taken no steps, or certainly no adequate steps, to consult the Police Federation before introducing the Bill in the other place. May I declare a non-interest in this matter. I am nothing to do with the Police Federation, but I have, from my previous professional career, I hasten to say, very close links with the police. I have taken steps to find out their thoughts and feelings on this subject, bearing in mind that the Bill is now in the Second House of Parliament. These are not matters of detail for Committee stage, but really go to the principles behind the Bill, which I think the Government might care to answer.

There are three objections: first of all, the objection, if I may so call it, that if there is a need for armed security on a permanent basis—and I think we are all agreed that there is such a need—should it not be provided by the Armed Forces and not by the police, or in this case what I might term a third force? Facetiously, it is considered proper for the Brigade of Guards to guard the Queen's person. Should it not be the order of the day that these dangerous fissile materials should be guarded by the Armed Forces, who are responsible for our general armed safety and welfare? These special constables—and I bear in mind what the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal said—are not accountable in the same way as the police and the Armed Forces are to the Minister and to Parliament. As the noble Lord himself said, these special constables are accountable to their chief constable, he is accountable to the Atomic Energy Authority, the Atomic Energy Authority is accountable to the Secretary of State for Energy, not the Home Office, and he will not, as I appreciate, in the ordinary course of day-to-day Parliamentary discussion be concerned to answer questions on the deployment, the use and the behaviour of these special constables. That is an argument, and I think it is one which deserves some consideration.

Secondly, it is said, these special constables are really armed guards carrying out specialised functions, and I do not think anybody would quarrel with that contention. They act really in the fullness of the term, the specialised term of "special constables", only when they deal with theft or attempted theft. It is perhaps wrong that they should be termed "special constables" in this situation, because, as I say, constables they are not; they do not have the responsibility or indeed the powers of the average constable or special constable. I do not place very much weight on that argument, but I think it is worthy of being rehearsed.

The third argument is again one which I think deserves some consideration. The operations, especially when fissile materials are being moved from one part of the country to another, will be in areas which are in the responsibility of the civic constabularies, and as I understand it, if there is trouble, to use the phrase, the special constables will not be acting under the authority of the local chief constable in whose area the trouble happens. The possibilities of muddle and danger to the public, are I think, profound, and I say that because I think it is at least arguable that the Government when presenting this Bill should be able to say to the public at large: "We are taking such steps to minimise any muddle or confusion which there may be".

These are the three areas of anxiety, and, as I have said, they go to the principles behind the presentation of this Bill. I have two further points—and it may be that I am beginning to stray, although I do not think I have so far, into the area of what perhpas could better be discussed in Committee; but if the noble Lord the Lord Privy Seal were to answer them now it might be, certainly so far as noble Lords on these Benches are concerned, that there either will not be the need for a Committee stage at all or possibly only a very short one. They are these. One has gathered, if that is right, that there are to be laid down regulations or some sort of code of practice for the special constables, so that if there is trouble, if there is a theft or an attempted theft of fissile material so that the case becomes one that I have described as "hot pursuit", they, the special constables, will be under no illusion as to what should be their power, duty and responsibility. I think noble Lords would be relieved if they knew that the Government were determined that before this Bill comes into effect there should be the fullest consultation with the police.

It is not difficult to conceive a situation where a civic disturbance which has nothing to do with the attempted theft of fissile material might well be, as it were, combined by a body of unlawful men with their own terrorist purposes. In the deployment of wirelesses, in the deployment of men, in the steps to be taken before, if it should prove necessary, the Army are eventually called in, it is right that there should be laid down the fullest and most comprehensive strategy and tactics to be deployed in a particular situation. I think in a way both these points arise because in its passage in the other place this Bill was treated perhaps a little unusually. The noble Lord's honourable friend did a lot of letter writing apparently to private Members. The contents of those letters were not revealed—and why should they have been? But the result is that a number of points which I have no doubt are perfectly clear in the Government's mind remain slightly obscure in the minds of the general public and possibly of noble Lords.

My Lords, the other matter—and it is my final point—concerns the question of complaints. It is by no means impossible for a body of constables, as these special constables are, not really used to dealing with the public, to find themselves in a position where events happen much more quickly than they would like or anticipate, and they may find themselves coming up against members of the public who may subsequently complain. I merely say this, that the complaint procedures in England and Scotland are radically different. If the Police Bill reaches your Lordships' House, which I anticipate it will before very long, the situation so far as England is concerned will at least be regularised, if it is not made entirely satisfactory. The position in Scotland at the moment, I think, is unsatisfactory, and depends on the procurators fiscal, who are not really the people to deal with these complaints, at least in the first instance. Therefore, I seek an assurance, if nothing else, from the noble Lord that the matter is in hand and will be dealt with before long.

My Lords, I have spoken longer than I intended to. This is a Bill which at first blush seems unimportant and unexciting. In fact it is most important in the effects which it may have, and it is important, too, for all our protection. Subject to what I have said by way of mild criticism, we welcome this Bill.

3.29 p.m.


My Lords, this Bill is designed, in the words of the Secretary of State for Energy, which were paraphrased by the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, to cope with a problem that has to be taken on board by any modern society; namely, the threat of terrorism and the possibility that terrorists will turn their minds to dangerous nuclear materials. Rather than dealing with the many Committee points which arose in another place and which may well be the subject of consideration by your Lordships' House, I wish to pursue the idea that it is only the first step in a number that will inevitably have to be taken by Parliament if nuclear technology is pursued to the limits which some people advocate. The statement by the noble Lord, Lord Shepherd, that the arming of guards is against British tradition leads one to ask the question as to how many further infringements of British tradition and civil liberties will become inevitable unless we reconsider the dependence on nuclear energy which is likely to be justified on the basis solely of economic arguments.

The security arrangements which are envisaged under the Bill are those which are designed to prevent criminals, or terrorists, from stealing plutonium from the four sites where it is used or processed; that is to say, Harwell, Dounreay, Winfrith and Windscale, and when it is in transit between any of these sites. The Government said that while the Bill was under consideration it was a matter to be thought about whether the Bill should be extensible by regulation or whether, as they finally decided, it would be right to come back and seek by legislation any additional powers that might be needed later on. Therefore, the first point I want to make is that even now, when the only step which is proposed by the Government is to arm 400 special constables employed by the Atomic Energy Authority, it is already in the minds of the Government that this is not the end of the process and that further measures will have to be taken as the use of nuclear power in this country expands.

If the only risk we had to entertain was that of theft of plutonium, which is, I agree with the noble Lord, the most important one we have to take into consideration, we should be able to limit our attention for the time being to the four sites I mentioned, but one of the main objectives of the Atomic Energy Authority's research and development programme is the deployment of very large numbers of fast reactors using plutonium as fuel, like the prototype at Dounreay but five times as large. Anybody who questions the need for such a programme is dismissed as an ignoramus by the nuclear establishment, as one quotation from a lecture which was given by Sir John Hill to the British Nuclear Energy Society last November will illustrate. He said: Everybody who has seriously studied the world oil situation, the projections for the nuclear industry and the uranium reserves is of the view that the fast reactor is essential and should be developed as fast as is reasonably possible. We really should not have any hesitation at this stage. If that does happen, and if these stations are developed, then they will all have to be guarded by armed men, and the first thing to note is that the force would have to be many times as large as the 400 now employed by the AEA constabulary.

But it is in my view a misreading of the psychology of terrorists to assume that only the theft of plutonium presents them with an attractive target to go for in the nuclear cycle. It might well be that for practical purposes they would need to steal plutonium to manufacture a nuclear weapon, but the theft of other nuclear materials would be a serious enough matter to receive enormous publicity, as would the sabotage of any nuclear installation, whether or not there was any plutonium there. As Mr. B. M. Jenkins of the Rand Corporation has said: To create an atmosphere of alarm, terrorists using any sort of nuclear blackmail would have much of their mission accomplished in advance. A plausible nuclear threat would instantly provide them with a tremendous amount of publicity and considerable political leverage. The Secretary of State himself gave as one of the arguments for this Bill that in many other countries fissile materials and not solely plutonium were already under armed guard, and he said it would be awful if we were considered to be a soft target, because that might invite some form of attack. By the same token, we should have armed guards at all nuclear installations, because we are putting terrorists on notice in passing this Bill, if we do, that it will be made much more difficult for them to attack the four establishments mentioned, or materials in transit between any of them, and thus we shall be indirectly encouraging the terrorists to look at other establishments, such as the civil nuclear power stations or Capenhurst, the enrichment plant, which, for some reason which is not altogether clear to me, is not mentioned in the Bill. In fact, the record shows that sabotage of nuclear stations has been carried out successfully on a number of occasions, while the theft of fissile material is, so far as I am aware, fortunately only a hypothetical device of the terrorists as yet.

It is true that some years ago an American plant did lose some 67 kilogrammes of fuel, but it was assumed that this was diverted not to terrorists but either to Israel or China. On the other hand, conventional bombs have been used against civil reactors in the United Kingdom, in France, and Argentina, so far as I know without causing any release of radioactivity. I give one or two examples. In 1971 a fire was set by arsonists at a plant operated by Consolidated Edison at Indian Point, New York, causing 10 million dollars worth of damage. It was claimed that "Indian Point guerrillas" were responsible for the incident.

In 1973, 15 members of the People's Revolutionary Army, a Trotskyist organisation in Argentina, occupied an atomic power plant under construction at Atucha near Buenos Aires. They overpowered the guards, they hoisted flags, painted slogans on the wall and stole weapons, but they did not in fact attempt to enter the reactor area itself. In 1975, two bombs were exploded at a nuclear power station under construction at Fessenheim in France. In August 1975, two explosions caused minor damage at a nulcear power plant at Mt. D'Arree in Brittany, France. I believe that the police in that case suspected the Breton nationalists as having caused these explosions. I must therefore conclude that sooner or later there will be a need to extend the armed protection provided under this Bill to the nuclear stations operated by the CEGB and the SSEB, and to the enrichment plants at Capenhurst.

But, as I said, I agree with the Government that if plutonium did ever come into the possession of criminals or terrorists, the possible consequences would be far worse than that of any other form of nuclear malevolence. Only a few kilogrammes of plutonium would be sufficient to make a crude nuclear weapon with a yield of the order of a few tons of TNT equivalent, and the explosion of such a device, apart from the damage which the explosion would cause, would result in the release of a large quantity of highly radioactive materials. In a high density urban area even a very small bomb might cause thousands of human casualties and immense property damage.

We ought surely to take the opportunity which is afforded to us by the Bill to consider what response society would have to make to such a threat if we became heavily dependent on plutonium to meet the energy needs of our society, as we shall inevitably do if the objectives of society are not radically changed. In a highly condensed form, the argument that we hear goes something like this: energy consumption has been a linear function of GDP for some years past and that is likely to continue, so if GDP grows exponentially, so will energy consumption. We can foresee that if this occurs, in 30 to 50 years' time fossil fuels will not be able to meet more than a tiny fraction of the energy needs of the industrialised nations, let alone those of the developing countries. Therefore, an enormous expansion of nuclear power is inevitable, and since supplies of uranium are also limited, that means that we must have fast reactors which can use the whole of the energy that the uranium contains. That is the argument, which I do not agree with.

But if it is allowed to happen, then the Dad's Army created by the Bill is not going to be seen as an adequate protection for society against the diversion of nuclear materials. The force itself, as I have explained, would have to be many times larger and would have to be equipped with a range of weapons far more extensive than pistols, rifles and sub-machine guns because, after all, terrorists have already been known to use light aircraft, helicopters and rocket launchers and the sophistication of their methods of attack is likely to increase with time. However, I think that the main threat to civil liberties from the plutonium economy does not arise from the creation of a new paramilitary force responsible only indirectly to Parliament, as the noble Marquess, Lord Lansdowne, explained; it arises from the fact, as the Minister put it, that the "armed guards are only the first line of defence".

At a conference of the American Civil Liberties Union in October 1975 some other alarming possibilities were envisaged. The surveillance of so-called" dissidents "would become necessary, the unlimited powers of search without warrant in cases where it was suspected that nuclear materials had been diverted would certainly be a matter for consideration—if Parliament can justify searching people's homes and questioning their near relatives for a suspected infringement of the income tax Acts, how much stronger is the case for doing that, and much more, in cases where it is suspected that persons in that household may have stolen nuclear materials!—and, of course, exceptional methods of interrogation would have to be used.

If there was a threat of the use of plutonium with perhaps a deadline put on it by nuclear blackmailers, it would be essential to detect them within the time-scale and it is hardly likely that under those circumstances the Judges' Rules would be used in any process of interrogation. The potential loss of life and enormous damage that might be caused by terrorists who managed to obtain fissile material would be such that we might have to accept the loss of virtually the whole of our civil liberties in order to prevent it.

Why raise these matters now when all that we are being asked to do is to consent to the use of small arms by a few hundred men under strict controls? The answer is that we have the power to act only so long as the technology is still in its infancy. Once the decision has been taken to press the button for the go-ahead of commercial fast reactors, the technology will control us. This Bill is a perfect example of what has been called "incremental decision-making "; that is, the process of advancing step by step, each individual step appearing sensible, logical and indeed unavoidable, without ever considering where the sequence of decisions will lead us in the end. As the Secretary of State for Energy said to the National Executive of the TGWU at its meeting on 3rd March: It is no longer acceptable to have major national policies developed in private based upon studies conducted by Ministers and officials and then published as final and unalterable decisions. I say that it is equally unacceptable for such technological policy decisions to be taken without exhaustive consideration of the safeguarding of our fundamental liberties. We see in this Bill the direction in which the plutonium technology will inexorably propel us, and in giving it a Second Reading we should resolve to act while there is still time.

3.44 p.m.


My Lords, I am sorry that I did not put down my name on the list of speakers in this debate, but having listened carefully to what has been said I am bound to say that I agree very much with the need to protect our civil liberties. The situation that exists at present demands the action which the Bill is intended to take. I wish it were not so. There are two very important factors involved here. At a time when the development of nuclear energy is so essential to overcome the blackmail that is going on from some oil countries, every precaution should be taken to enable nuclear energy to be developed to the fullest extent. I believe that, if that is done, we shall overcome many of the difficulties from the terrorists with which the world is confronted today.

There is another aspect of this. When we are discussing a matter of this nature I should like the Government to consider why, in some respects, this has become necessary. Some time ago I asked a Question in the House about meetings which are to be held very shortly in Dublin and Belfast where terrorists will be coming together to discuss the best way of carrying out their vicious schemes. I pointed to the fact that there had been invited to those meetings members of the PLO and that they were being allowed, unless it was found that one or other of them had committed a particular crime himself, to attend conferences of that nature. For what purpose will they be attending? It cannot be for any purpose other than to develop an understanding between the terrorists of the world as to how they are to carry on their nefarious plans. I asked the Government about it and I ask my noble friend to consider it when he realises the necessity in this age for the kind of legislation that we are discussing today. Is it not high time that we took serious steps to prevent terrorists from coming to this country and establishing themselves, directly or indirectly, as entities? I am talking about the PLO and similar organisations. Is it not time that we considered how we are being put to the necessity of having this kind of legislation today? The PLO and their accomplices throughout the rest of the world are using methods which terrorise people and which could very well utilise in the course of their activities the nuclear materials that we are now considering protecting.

Noble Lords will, I am sure, feel that something should be done to call together the civilised peoples of the world to see how these terrorists and their activities can be curbed, so that nations like ours should not have to be put to expense, or to suffer terrible disasters which are caused by their actions, in order to prevent their criminal activities from being carried into effect in future. I know your Lordships will realise, for the reasons I have given, that I am not in any way objecting to the precautions which have to be taken, but I hope that, in addition, we shall be sensible enough to stop these terrorists and their groups from coming to this country or establishing themselves here. The people of Britain should be protected against the actions of such people, actions which must inevitably result in the type of legislation we are considering today.

3.50 p.m.


My Lords, I hope that my noble friend will not object if I offer a few observations on this proposed legislation. I am bound to say that it did not occur to me when I saw from the Order Paper that this Bill was coming before us that it would present any problems. It appeared a very innocuous and innocent piece of legislation which was not likely to develop in the course of the debate into one of supreme importance. There can be no doubt that in this country and in all civilised countries—and I exclude the uncivilised countries, which shall be nameless, at least in the course of this debate and so far as I am concerned, although I am very often tempted to express myself in pungent terms about them and their activities—terrorism is on the increase. I do not go all the way with my noble friend Lord Janner in his proposition that an international conference should be held. In the course of my extensive experience, I have discovered that international conferences solve no problems; they usually create them. So I exclude that possibility, but it appears to me that we in the United Kingdom are faced with a problem.

There are many places of importance which affect the wellbeing of this country and its future and which have to be protected. Among these are atomic energy factories and sites associated with atomic energy, whether intended for peaceful use, as a deterrent or, indeed, offensively, as could happen. It occurred to me when my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal was addressing the House to wonder whether the military authorities had been consulted as to the appropriate measures to be adopted to deal with the situation. No doubt my noble friend will be able to tell us when he replies whether that was done, for it seems to me that what is required, whether we like it or not and whatever the cost, is a military operation.

I take the example of Securicor. I believe it was the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, who dismissed the idea that Securicor was comparable to the proposed civilian police force that was to be created. They are not quite the same. What has happened in Securicor's case? They are armed men. We know that. They are trained men. So we are informed. Many have served in Her Majesty's Forces.


My Lords, my point is that the police have always set their face against Securicor being armed even with truncheons, let alone with any kind of firearm or gas pistol.


My Lords, the noble Earl is better informed on this subject than I am. However, let us take the case of the Securicor people who are expected to protect banks against aggressors and to protect the civilian population against any form of aggression or terrorism. On many occasions, they have failed. Why? Because the forces against them are far too powerful to deal with. Along may come a number of masked bandits or terrorists—call them what you like—armed with machine guns or clubs and cudgels. They will merely order the people in the bank to sit down and of course those people will do so for they do not want to be shot down. What is being proposed here is something in the nature of a Securicor force, but armed. That is the only difference. In my opinion, this is an example of adopting half measures to deal with—and I do not exaggerate—a situation of the gravest importance for the future of this country. I believe that it is a mistake to do this. If we are to protect ourselves against aggressors we must use the right material.

Some time ago, it was decided by the Government to reduce the defence expenditure. I shall not argue the merits or demerits of that decision, but it seems odd to me that, having decided to reduce defence expenditure, we are now to spend money on what amounts to a paramilitary force to protect atomic sites and nuclear material, in order to protect ourselves against potential aggressors. Why not use members of the armed forces for this purpose? It appears to me—and whatever arguments are used against it, I shall remain convinced of this—that an armed force is a deterrent and one which is much more effective against aggression than a para-military force or body of special constables would be, even if it were armed.

I sometimes have occasion to pass St. James's Palace and there I notice day by day and night by night a couple of soldiers marching up and down and guarding I do not know what. I am not aware that any attempt has been made to enter the palace or that it possesses fissile materials or even that there is treasure stored there. What are they doing? These are the sort of men who ought to be asked to undertake the task of protecting atomic energy sites. I do not go so far as the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, in saying that we should not use men who, even if they are not armed, appear to be so and who belong to military forces to protect Her Majesty. I do not go so far as that. I feel that that is the sort of thing we can endure. However, many of the men associated with our forces in the three Services could be utilised for the purpose intended in this very important piece of legislation. I have not the slightest doubt about its importance. It did not occur to me before but, following this debate, I am certain that it is a matter of supreme importance.

However, I feel that the proposed measures are not strong enough and I believe that at the Committee stage my noble friend the Lord Privy Seal will have to face some Amendments. If we are to have protection at all and if we are to have deterrents, they must be effective and they must be quick. I can imagine the situation in which a special constable is standing at the gate of a factory or an atomic site when along comes an innocent group of people who have a little parcel which they lay down quietly and which is later discovered to be a bomb which explodes and blows up half the place. What is that poor fellow the special constable expected to do? On the other hand, I believe that if potential aggressors come along and see armed men dressed in military uniform, they are much more likely to disappear than if they see a special constable. I mean no disrespect to special constables. They are a very useful part of our community.

However, as we are all concerned with the protection of what may be our final resources—and I use the term advisedly—I should prefer military personnel to be used rather than what is proposed. I suggest to my noble friend that the matter might receive further consideration. We regard this as a step in the right direction but, if we are to start at all, let us start effectively and usefully, with purpose and determination, in order to provide a deterrent against aggression.

4 p.m.


My Lords, in the course of my opening speech I said—and I should like to repeat it—that one should not seek to exaggerate the risks that are involved. Now, in the light of what my noble friend Lord Shinwell said, I should add that it is not wished in any way to create in the minds of the public an impression that in protecting this material, in both a public and confidential way, we are not doing all that is required to ensure the safety of highly dangerous material, should it fall into wrong hands. I hope that in my winding-up speech I shall be able to satisfy my noble friend and the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, so that we can perhaps avoid a Committee stage on the Bill.

I listened with great interest to the noble Lord, Lord Avebury. The case he made in regard to the future risks, the consequences, of a developing nuclear programme is one that I have listened to before, although I am still taking a great interest in it. I am assured that much of the fear which has been expressed, while not exaggerated, does not bear entirely to the facts. I have personally looked into the matter regarding our existing and immediately projected nuclear commercial power stations, and I am satisfied that there is no need, certainly not in the present situation, for armed guards. The reason for this is that there is no fissile material in an accessible form at these nuclear power stations; in particular there is no plutonium. Unirradiated fuel elements for power station reactors are made of natural uranium, presenting no fissile hazard in the Magnox stations. In advanced gas cooled reactors—AGRs—the fuel elements contain enriched uranium, but this is a low enrichment, and I understand presents no hazard. Naturally, this is an area which we shall need to take into consideration. But my main concern has been with plutonium, particularly with its transit and its storage at the four establishments where there is not only storage but also processing.

In reply to the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, I should say that I suppose in one way or another the Bill represents a defeat—not a defeat of this country in isolation, but a defeat of the whole world—in dealing with terrorism and increasing violence. I was glad that the noble Earl agreed with me on the importance of seeing the Bill through, because unless the safety and guarding provisions are at least similar to those of other countries one creates for oneself a soft option, and so one is more likely to be open to attack. I have listened previously to what my noble friend Lord Janner has said on this subject, and I would not today add to what my noble friend Lord Harris of Greenwich has said in reply on other occasions.

I turn to the three questions which the noble Earl, Lord Mansfield, put to me. First, there was the point regarding the provision of Armed Forces—the Army—on which my noble friend Lord Shinwell also dwelt. This matter was looked into with the greatest of care. I point out at the outset that there are highly satisfactory back-up provisions provided by the Armed Forces to the civil authority in the event of' any attack on these stations. This force—and I should not like to hear them called "Dad's Army" because they are a very efficient force indeed—are there to hold the position against an armed attack, in order that either the civil police authorities, or the Armed Forces, can go along and render them assistance. The noble Earl is quite right: not only pistols, but also automatic weapons will be available to this force. But we expect that normally only pistols would be carried by the force, and this would be only by those who have been approved by the police authority as being adequate in weapon training. Bearing in mind the type of terrorist who might have to be dealt with, and the isolation of some of these establishments, we felt it right that there ought to be a central reserve of automatic weapons on which the trained police could fall back and use if required, solely in the protection and safeguarding of the material.

Of course, the Armed Forces have their role. But one must look upon this force, guarding these facilities, as a force that will be undertaking quite a number of other duties: the inspection of the premises at night, if the particular area is not being worked; the checking of individuals, whether they be employees or tradesmen, entering establishments. I suspect that this is not work for which soldiers are adequately trained or, for that matter, provided. This force will be a well-equipped and a highly trained force, and will be commanded by officers who will be well aware of their responsibilities in guarding the material and in their accountability to both the Secretary of State and the general public. My Lords, the second question raised by the noble Earl—


My Lords, I should like to raise a point with the noble Lord before he leaves that matter. Will he confirm that the nearest military establishment to Dounreay is at Inverness, which is about an hour's travelling time from Dounreay by helicopter? Does the noble Lord really consider that in those circumstances there could be a prompt response if an emergency occurred which was beyond the capabilities of the special constables at the Dounreay site?


My Lords, if the travelling time is an hour, then I should regard that as minimally acceptable. But I hope that the noble Lord will not wish me to disclose the security background regarding any of these sites. This is a matter which one must always continue to examine in the light of the circumstances at the time. But I am satisfied that the back-up meets the present requirements.

The noble Earl also raised the point concerning the accountability of this force to the Home Secretary. This is another matter which we have considered very carefully. The security arrangements for this material are intended to protect it not only against terrorists but also against theft within the establishment or weaknesses of one form or another when some material might be mislaid. Here, clearly, the responsibility must be that of the Atomic Energy Authority and the Secretary of State. We therefore felt that we ought to take security as a whole and have one organisation, and perhaps one individual, solely responsible for it. For that reason, we have laid the responsibility entirely upon the Secretary of State for Energy; but, of course, he will have to take note, as will the chief constable of the constabulary, of the rules governing the ordinary civil police force. The noble Earl was, I think, perhaps misleading, though not intentionally. This is not a private force: it is a force of special constables sworn in under the appropriate Act and governed by the disciplines of the force.


My Lords, will the noble Lord give way for just a moment? Of course it is not private in the sense that the army of my noble kinsman the Duke of Atholl is private; nobody would pretend that. But, equally, it is not public in the sense of our civilian police force, subject, as it is, to all the various Acts, beginning with the Police Act.


That is so, my Lords. On the other hand, it is really no different, in my view, from the Ministry of Defence police force. In fact, if, in 1954, when we divided the civil and the military aspects of nuclear production, we had had any foreknowledge of the present problems, we should never have divided the force. I think we should have kept it as one force, in which case this Bill would not have been required, because then the AEA police would have remained armed, as do the Ministry of Defence force remain armed today. The noble Earl also spoke about the possibility of muddle. There is close co-operation between the chief constable of the constabulary and the chief constables of the areas surrounding the site. I accept that there is a risk of misunderstanding when you are moving material from one site to another and are going through a number of different police areas. I believe that much of that risk has been reduced in recent months, and once the Bill is through I believe that some of our problems will be overcome and that we shall be able to get a closer co-ordination than perhaps we have had in the past. But the chief constables are fully appreciative of the material that goes through their areas, and of the need to ensure that it has a safe transit.

My Lords, the noble Earl asked me about instructions to constables. My understanding is that the constables will possess these weapons while on duty and that, if called upon to use them, they would be in very much the same circumstances as are the armed police and the military, perhaps, in Northern Ireland, where there are rules and regulations about when a weapon can be used and when it cannot be used. The noble Earl also asked about complaints, and he referred to the Police Bill. My understanding is that, although the Police Bill does not relate to Scotland, the authorities concerned—that is, the AEA police—see no reason at all why they should not be covered by the complaints procedure in the Police Bill, and this could also cover their operations in Scotland. But the noble Earl will appreciate that there may be a difficulty here by way of legislation in terms of drafting. I was saying what the Authority accepts and is willing to agree, but whether it is possible within the Bill we need to see.


My Lords, surely the Long Title of the Police Bill refers to England and Wales, and therefore it would not be possible, even if the Government were willing to do so, to insert a clause which made the Atomic Energy special constables, when they were in Scotland, subject to the same procedures.


My Lords, that is exactly what I have been saying to the noble Earl. What I said earlier was that the AEA constabulary were quite willing to be bound by the complaints procedure in the Police Bill. Whether it can be put into the Police Bill—I think it is Clause 6—we shall need to see in terms of drafting; and, as the noble Lord, Lord Avebury, himself has mentioned, there may be problems as a consequence of the Long Title of the Bill. What I am trying to indicate to the noble Earl is that, so far as the AEA constabulary is concerned, the spirit is willing.

My Lords, I think that deals with all the points that have been raised except the last one, and that was about consultation. It is true that there was no consultation with the Police Federation, but there were extensive consultations with the chief constables; and, as I indicated earlier, we are now getting co-operation and support from them. I am sorry that this Bill is necessary, but I hope that the House will agree that it is prudent to take these powers to arm the police at these particular stations and in the transit of this dangerous material.


My Lords, before the noble Lord sits down, may I put this point to him? I was very disturbed by the speech of my noble friend Lord Shinwell, who speaks with great knowledge of matters of this kind, but the noble Lord has very largely reassured me. May I take it that he is saying that there is no reason at all why the Armed Forces should riot be used on proper occasions, and that the Government in fact have the intention to use them when their assistance is required? If that is perfectly clear, then I am content.


My Lords, the responsibility of the AEA constabulary will be to safeguard and protect the material on site and in transit. In the event of an attack, they would seek to hold the position. In the meantime, the military forces or the police would automatically be alerted and brought in. Clearly, if a situation arose when it was necessary for the Army or armed police to maintain a full watch on some of this material, then I have no doubt at all that the Government of the day would, without any hesitation, provide it. But at the present moment, my Lords, we do not believe that to be necessary.

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