HL Deb 14 January 1986 vol 469 cc956-9

2.42 p.m.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what action they are taking to eliminate any avoidable delay in the completion and submission of the report of the inquiry into the proposed pressurised water reactor nuclear power station at Sizewell.

The Minister of State, Scottish Office (Lord Gray of Contin)

My Lords, the timing of the completion of the report of the inquiry and its submission to the Secretary of State for Energy is a matter for the inspector. However, I can assure my noble friend that my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Energy will waste no time once he has received the report.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for that reply. While the contents of the report must of course be a matter entirely for the inspector, does my noble friend agree that delays such as those caused by shortages of staff or facilities would be damaging to an important British industry and particularly anomalous during a year designated Industry Year? Whatever the final decision may be, there are sections of British firms now having to mark time most expensively.

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, I fully appreciate the points that my noble friend has made. I recognise that in his previous incarnation as a Secretary of State himself, he was not without experience in dealing with reporters. I can give him the assurance that the Secretary of State for Energy has made absolutely certain that any assistance requested by the reporter has been made available to him.

Lord Broxbourne

My Lords, I fully appreciate the very proper concern felt by my noble friend the Minister in respect of this very important matter, but I should like to ask him whether he does not agree that the best guarantee against avoidable delay is the ability, industry, experience and good judgment of Sir Frank Layfield, who fortunately for all accepted the arduous task of presiding over this important and difficult inquiry. Does my noble friend the Minister not further agree that the report of an inquiry that, with its 340 days of hearing-80 days longer than the Stansted Inquiry—is unique in length, in technical complexity, and in the range and variety of scientific analysis and evidence, requires the highest common factor of accuracy, authority and expedition? Cannot Sir Frank be confidently relied upon to produce the desired result?

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, my noble friend has set out the virtues of Sir Frank and the desirability of having persons of his calibre looking after inquiries much more effectively than I could hope to do. I am sure he recognises that my noble friend Lord Campbell of Croy in no way was offering criticism of Sir Frank but was merely asking whether I could ensure that there will be no unnecessary delays. Happily, I am able to do so. Also, I am grateful to my noble friend Lord Broxbourne for saying what he did about Sir Frank Layfield.

Lord Paget of Northampton

My Lords, I do not know how many reports on this and kindred subjects have been received by the Government, but the Government assure the House that on this occasion no time will be wasted. How do the Government define "no time"? Is it one year, two years or 10 years?

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, where an inquiry of the complexity of that which we are now discussing takes place, it is very difficult to put a terminal point on the delivery of the report. However, on this occasion the reporter indicated that he hoped to deliver the report by the end of last year. He said subsequently that it would probably be the spring of 1986 before he was able to do so. We must accept that this is a massive operation, and therefore we cannot be too dictatorial as to when we shall finally receive the report.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, is the Minister in a position to give any assurance that, whatever may be the outcome of the inquiry, the Government will give serious consideration to the future of the AGR, which after a very painful process of development is now showing signs of success?

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, the inquiry included evidence that outlined the qualities and the potential of the AGR. We shall have to wait to see what comments Sir Frank Layfield has to make about that evidence. Even assuming that Sizewell were to go ahead, it does not by any manner of means rule out AGR orders for the future.

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, I should like to be associated with everything that was said by my noble friend Lord Broxbourne, but because the inquiry is such a massive operation my concern is that the Government should give the inspector every possible technical assistance in carrying out his task.

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, I fully appreciate what my noble friend has said. I hope that I was able to indicate that the Secretary of State for Energy is ensuring that such assistance is available.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, has the Minister received any indication that there will be any further slippage from the date of early spring, which he gave me on 13th December? Secondly, if there is a delay will there be any further expenditure on the PWR over and above the £172 million that has already been committed by the CEGB to this project in advance of the report?

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, I cannot give the noble Lord answers to the questions he has asked, for the simple reason that I am not aware of any anticipated delay. We are all realistic enough to appreciate that a task of the magnitude of that which has been placed before Sir Frank Layfield must be very carefully considered by him. I have no indication that there is likely to be any further delay beyond the spring of this year. I cannot give the noble Lord the answer to his second question, but perhaps I may make the necessary inquiries and write to him.

The Duke of Portland

My Lords, can the Minister give the cost to the project of each additional month's delay in the delivery of the report?

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, I am most grateful to my noble friend the Duke of Portland for advising me earlier today that he was going to ask that question. However, I am afraid there are some questions that, even with advance notice, departments require a little more time to consider. Therefore, perhaps my noble friend will forgive me if I do as I suggested to the noble Lord, Lord Stoddart of Swindon, and contact my noble friend when the department has had time to carefully consider his request.

Viscount Hanworth

My Lords, does the noble Lord not agree, on a rather broader issue, that although it is important to hold these inquiries, if they go on as some inquiries have done—and as this one has done—it will be impossible to carry on with this procedure? Will the Government consider what steps ought to be taken to prevent abuse of these inquiries so that decisions, which often are required quickly or fairly quickly, can be made and we can continue with what is in essence an important procedure?

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, I have great sympathy with the noble Viscount in his frustration. This is something which various departments share with him from time to time. However, I should point out to him that from the outset it was the intention of the Government that the Sizewell inquiry should be a wide-ranging one, and therefore it is not surprising that consideration has taken time, and is taking time. On the general point made by the noble Viscount about the future of the system of public inquiries, I have no doubt that those who are responsible for considering these matters will carefully take note of what he said.

Lord Mackie of Benshie

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that there is, in this instance, a conflict between European and American technology? Can he tell us whether the Cabinet is unanimous in this case?

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, I have taken note of what the noble Lord said and not being a member of the Cabinet I will not comment on it. However, I have no doubt whatever that the decision reached by my right honourable friends is a unanimous one on this occasion.

Lord Leatherland

My Lords, does not the noble Lord think that he is establishing a new tradition when he says that he will not comment on what goes on in the Cabinet?

Lord Gray of Contin

My Lords, I think that at the present moment it might be better if I were to say that I am prepared to stand by the general acceptance of collective responsibility.