HL Deb 26 January 1989 vol 503 cc834-50

3.58 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State (Baroness Hooper)

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Baroness Hooper.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.

[The LORD ABERDARE in the Chair.]

Clause 1 [Financial limit of British Nuclear Fuels plc]:

Lord Williams of Elvel moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1. line 9, leave out ("£2,000") and insert ("£1,999").

The noble Lord said: I have informed the Minister that this is no more than a probing amendment. It is not designed to change the face of the Bill. However, on Second Reading we had an exchange on the question of the capital requirements of British Nuclear Fuels and the noble Baroness was kind enough to write to me later. I thought it worth while, and I hope the Committee will think it worth while, exploring these matters a little further with the Government, particularly in the light of recent indications in the press that Sellafield may become a repository for intermediate and low level radioactive waste which is at the moment the responsibility of NIREX.

The problems with BNFL's capital requirements that will be satisfied by Clause 1 of the Bill seem to me to be twofold. First, there is the overshoot on the THORP budget. The Government have already admitted that the cost of stage two of this project is already 16 per cent. over budget. That argues an insufficiency of financial control. It also raises the question of whether the result of the cost overrun is going to be passed to the consumer or the producer or where it is going to go.

As I understand it, the chairman of BNFL told the Energy Select Committee of another place that the CEGB and the SSEB contracts with BNFL are—I believe I quote his exact words—copper bottomed in the sense that they will not be affected by electricity privatisation. I shall be grateful if the Minister can comment on that. If that is the case, it means that the THORP cost overrun cannot be passed back upstream to the successors to the CEGB and SSEB when they are privatised. Therefore it must be passed downstream by the medium of the privatised generating companies to the consumer.

The second problem with the BNFL capital programme relates to the plans to dump nuclear waste beneath Sellafield. There was a report in the Independent newspaper of 25th January. One cannot necessarily rely on press reports, but my understanding is that this is part of the government plan that will be announced for the solution of the vexed question that NIREX has had to face over several years of where to find a dump for low and intermediate level radioactive waste. We have all seen on our television screens the protests made by people living in areas where this waste was liable to be dumped. If it is to be Sellafield, it is clearly going to be a programme carried out by BNFL. It holds 42.5 per cent. of the shares in UK NIREX Limited, and Sellafield is a BNFL property. It seems to me to be only sensible that BNFL should carry out this programme and that it should be part of the capital requirements that BNFL will have over the next few years.

When the Minister comes to respond to this amendment can she comment on the financial implications of this matter for BNFL? Are we happy that the authorisation that this Bill proposes for BNFL will cover the perceived future capital requirements if the Government have taken a decision that Sellafield is the place for this radioactive waste dump and if the programme is to be handled by BNFL? I have posed to the noble Baroness a number of questions which I feel need an answer while we are in Committee. For that reason the only device I could think of was to produce an amendment of this rather curious nature. I beg to move.

Baroness Hooper

I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, for explaining the objective behind his amendment and for reiterating some of the questions that he raised in the course of the Second Reading.

As regards the question of NIREX and the use of the Sellafield site, I can confirm that at present no final decisions have been made. It has been shown from surveys that a suitable geological site is available at Sellafield for this process, but for the moment that is not involved in the thinking of the Government. As I explained at Second Reading in November, more than half of the projected increase of £500 million that is proposed by Clause 1 of the Bill in the commitment of public finance to BNFL is expenditure of which some £2.8 billion will be spent in the next four years, mainly in support of the company's waste management and reprocessing operations.

Since the noble Lord referred expressly to THORP, I reiterate that this is BNFL's largest single capital project at some £1.8 billion. The first stage of the project—namely, the receipt and storage facility—has already been commissioned and it has received its first batch of fuel. Work is on schedule for completion of the main body of the plant, the head end and the chemical separation plant, in 1992. While I appreciate that the noble Lord underlined the fact that there had been an overrun on the original budget, that has been covered. The work is well under way. I suspect that is what the chairman of BNFL was taking into account in the evidence that he submitted to the Select Committee; namely, that all the anticipated expenses are taken into account.

About 45 per cent. of the expenditure envisaged is to match the government commitment. These funds are expected to be generated from inside the company itself, with almost 30 per cent. from overseas customers and slightly over 25 per cent. from external borrowing. This borrowing will be from the market, backed by a government guarantee. Similar arrangements have been endorsed by successive governments and are the most economic way of obtaining the funds needed.

I appreciate the emphasis and the reason the noble Lord raised the subject again at this stage. It is never easy to predict exactly the amount of external funds required. BNFL has to make assumptions about inflation and interest rates and as a result it must include a sensible level of contingency in its investment proposals. Taking into account BNFL's projected profiles of capital expenditure and receipts from its customers, the company's borrowing is expected to peak in 1991–92 and then to fall away, with all loans being repaid by the year 2001.

On the basis of BNFL's current investment plans it should not therefore be necessary to seek further increases in the commitment of public finance to the company. I am satisfied that the limit of £2,000 million proposed in Clause 1 has been set at a realistic level. I trust that on the basis of these assurances the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

The noble Baroness has just said that what my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel referred to as regards Sellafield was not within the Government's thinking at present. Can the noble Baroness tell the Committee what is within the Government's thinking? This is a matter of great public concern. I know this personally. I have had long connections with the North Yorkshire coast. It will no doubt please the noble Baroness to know that in the small fishing village of Robin Hood's Bay a Labour Party branch was formed last year for the first time specifically because of the concern that nuclear waste could be dumped anywhere in the Cleveland area, from Middlesbrough down to Scarborough. Whitby has set up its own organisation to combat the dumping of nuclear waste in that area.

If the Sellafield question is not within the Government's thinking, is it not time that they stated what is in their thinking? There is great concern in many parts of the country, particularly in those parts marked on the NIREX map as geologically suitable. The public has a right to know. Concern has been growing. The noble Baroness may remember that two years ago some of us made strong protests about the use of places such as Fulbeck, and the Government withdrew. Where do the Government stand now in the decision that has to be taken through the agency of NIREX as to where and how this nuclear waste is to be dumped?

The Earl of Halsbury

Before the noble Baroness answers, I rise to deplore the use of the word "dumping". It is a pejorative term. The whole of our forward thinking is based on storage bunkers which will have access for inspection purposes. The essence of dumping is that it is rubbish which one chucks on one side into the least observable place hoping that nobody will look at it. It is quite wrong to use that term. In so far as the public is disturbed by the proposal to create storage bunkers, it is largely due to the fact that people like the noble Lord, Lord Hatch of Lusby, use the word "dumping".

Baroness Hooper

I am grateful to the noble Earl for adding a note of wisdom to the debate and for making clear a matter which often offends me also. I assure the noble Lord, Lord Hatch, that the safe disposal of nuclear waste is very much in the Government's thinking. However, it does not relate to the point of Clause 1 and this borrowing limit. At the moment NIREX has made a thorough survey of all the possibilities for a site. We await its recommendations and will give them full consideration. There can be no doubt that the public will be kept fully informed through the planning procedures involved. The position is perfectly well covered.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

How long do the Government expect to wait?

Baroness Hooper

For as long as will be necessary.

Lord Williams of Elvel

Perhaps I may probe a little further. I accept what the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, said about the use of the word "dumping". I was perhaps guilty in using that expression, as are most newspapers in the land. It is a current expression. One can use the word "storage" if that pleases the noble Earl better than the word "dumping".

The noble Baroness said that the whole question of NIREX's investment did not fall within Clause 1. The point I was trying to make is that if the decision is to go for Sellafield there will be consequential capital investment from BNFL, which is not at present covered by the provisions of Clause 1 as I understand them. I should be grateful if the noble Baroness could clarify that point. Will she also in passing reiterate that the Independent report was mistaken and that no decision has yet been taken by NIREX on Sellafield or anywhere else. The geology is better elsewhere than Sellafield, but Sellafield may be the most appropriate site environmentally.

Perhaps I may also probe the Government a little further on cost overruns of BNFL. The noble Baroness was frank about this and I understand that these things happen. It is difficult to calculate forward the full cost of major projects such as THORP. In moving the amendment I asked whether the Government were satisfied that there was satisfactory financial control of the THORP project. After all, a 16 per cent. overrun is quite substantial. We need to know that costs are being kept under control. If they are not being kept under control, I am afraid that the noble Baroness's statement that what is in Clause 1 will cover the future capital requirements of BNFL will in the event be proved not to be the case. It will come back again for more money because it has its sums wrong again.

The noble Baroness said that BNFL's borrowing would peak in 1991–92 and would then decline. Will she clarify how it will decline? Is it because BNFL will in some way be making more money out of its customers? Is its cash flow position out of balance at the moment, which requires a high foreign borrowing peak in 1991–92? I am not entirely clear on how this can happen. Normally under these circumstances the borrowing is almost semi-permanent and has been in BNFL, CEGB and others over the years. I should be grateful if the noble Baroness could clarify those points.

The Earl of Halsbury

Does the 16 per cent. overrun cover inflation over the period of construction? If that is the case, it is quite small.

4.15 p.m.

Baroness Hooper

I should perhaps respond to the noble Lord and dispose of the question of the Independent report. It was purely speculative. We are still awaiting the final proposals from NIREX before a government decision can be taken. On that same basis the costs of the NIREX project will be considered on a commercial basis and will therefore be built into the earning capacity of BNFL in a way which should not necessitate further borrowing under this borrowing limit.

I was asked about THORP and the reasons for the cost overrun. It is my understanding that the inflation rate and needs were part of that unexpected or unanticipated increase.

Lord Williams of Elvel

I am sorry to intervene. The original cost estimate must have included an allowance for an increase in the retail price index or whatever was the appropriate price index for the materials being bought. That is built in. If the noble Earl is asking whether BNFL failed to take account of the inflation rate above that which was in the original cost estimate, that is a fair question. But it is not a fair question to ask whether the 16 per cent. covers what we all know to be the existing inflation rate.

Baroness Hooper

I am afraid that I am not in a position to say what anticipated inflation rate was taken into account in making the original estimates. If there was an overrun of the anticipated inflation rate, that would have been reflected in the additional cost.

The Earl of Halsbury

Unless we have a breakdown of the figures we are wasting time talking about them. The simplest form of overrun in projects of this kind—I speak from experience as one of the contracting parties in the nuclear power group—is alteration to the original specifications for safety reasons or reasons of stability. Without a full breakdown of the figures we are wasting time.

Lord Williams of Elvel

I must say to the noble Earl that that is quite a different proposition to the one which he raised previously. Contracts of that nature are normally expressed in constant prices.

Baroness Hooper

I am afraid that I do not have a full breakdown of the figures in relation to the original estimates and the actual detail of the overrun. However, I think that I can go so far as to say that the overrun has now been reflected in the work which has been completed. It is certainly not anticipated that there will be any further overrun in the way I appreciate that the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, fears might be a possibility. I must reiterate that to the best of our possible ability to make calculations at this point, it is true to say that the "£2,000 million" limit may be more than will be needed in the next five-year period.

As regards the question of financial control of BNFL which the noble Lord raised, its operations and capital investment programme is of course subject to regular scrutiny and review by the Government through the annual review of the corporate plan and regular discussions about their capital investment programme. I believe that during the debate on Second Reading the noble Lord also raised this point in relation to the evidence given to the Select Committee. Therefore I hope that I have covered all the points to which he wished me to respond.

Lord Williams of Elvel

I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for her patience in dealing with these questions. I hope that she understands that they are matters of the greatest importance and that we on this side of the Committee are worried that BNFL has not quite got to grips with the problems of financial control of a major project such as THORP. Indeed, we may well find ourselves debating a similar Bill in a year or two, regardless of the NIREX problem. But in the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 [Recovery of expenses by Health and Safety Executive]:

Lord Williams of Elvel moved Amendment No. 2: Page 1, line 24, at end insert ("which shall have power to make such a direction on its sole discretion").

The noble Lord said: We touched on this point during Second Reading but I wish to introduce an amendment to make sure that we are absolutely clear that where health and safety matters are concerned the Health and Safety Commission can direct the Health and Safety Executive without any interference from or prior consultation with the Secretary of State. In other words, there will be an independent health and safety entity, if I may put it that way, which can inquire into the matters concerned in nuclear safety.

There is a subsidiary point which I should like to cover now, although it is not the proper subject of this amendment. Indeed, I would have raised the matter on clause stand part. It relates to the meaning of the new section in the Nuclear Installations Act 1965. Clause 2(1) of the Bill introduces this new Section 24A. At paragraph (a) of subsection (1) it says: The carrying into effect of such of the provisions of this Act as are mentioned in Schedule 1 to the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974".

That Act has, as Schedule 1, a list of Acts which are relevant provisions for the purpose of the Health and Safety Commission and Executive. Do I understand—this is a stand part question but I shall raise it now during the debate on this amendment—that the Health and Safety Executive is entitled in the case of nuclear installations, as a result of the Bill when it is enacted, to make investigations into all those items which are listed in Schedule 1 of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974—for instance, the Explosives Act 1875, the Boiler Explosions Act 1882 and the Boiler Explosions Act 1890? Indeed, a whole list of Acts is set out in that schedule. Are those the relevant provisions to which this clause makes reference?

I turn now to the major point behind the amendment. I am trying to allow a little time here just in case a response is required from elsewhere. On this side of the Committee we believe that the Health and Safety Commission should be in a position to make directions to the executive to go in to look at nuclear safety—or, indeed, safety at any other point which is covered by the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974—on its own and sole discretion and that it should not have to be called in by the Secretary of State or have to consult the Secretary of State before it makes any directions. That is the main point of the amendment. I beg to move.

The Viscount of Falkland

I rise at this stage to speak on behalf of my noble friend Lord Ezra who would have put this point had he been able to be here today. We welcome the transfer to this body and we fully support the noble Lord's amendment. We think it is absolutely essential that it should have the capability of following its own inquiries and own investigations rather than being called upon by others to do so. Therefore, we support the amendment.

Baroness Hooper

The amendment relates to the second category of expenses recoverable under this clause; that is to say, those incurred in connection with the carrying out of research into nuclear safety at the direction of the commission. The first category concerns expenses incurred in connection with the executive's licensing functions. Under the provisions of Clause 2 of the Bill it is intended that from 1st April 1990 the commission is to assume responsibility for the management of certain categories of nuclear safety research which are currently financed by the Department of Energy and carried out by the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority. It also assumes responsibility for ensuring that adequate research of this kind is done. The executive will manage those matters on the commission's behalf and subject to its direction. I reiterate that point in order to clarify the situation.

Under Section 11(4)(a) of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 it is the duty of the executive to exercise on behalf of the commission such of the commission's functions as the commission directs it to exercise. Research into matters relevant to the general purposes of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 is one of the commission's functions. Subject only to a direction by the Secretary of State under that Act, the commission already has sole discretion to give directions to the executive; in other words, the Secretary of State's power of direction is an additional one.

The Secretary of State for Energy has indicated his wish that the commission should assume responsibility for certain categories of nuclear safety research which the executive would administer on its behalf. In due course the Secretary of State for Energy will write to the chairman of the Health and Safety Commission setting down agreed guidelines under which the commission will assume responsibility for the management of this research. Those gudelines will confirm the independence of the commission's discretion in that area. That question was in fact raised by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, and indeed the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, during the debate on Second Reading. I can now confirm that some guidelines will be established.

We believe that the suggested amendment is therefore unnecessary and if adopted would conflict with the existing provisions of the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974, which empowered the Secretary of State to give the commission directions with respect to its functions. I also venture to suggest that the proposed amendment is inappropriate since it attempts to insert a power to direct research into a section which is actually dealing only with a power to recover expenses. I hope that what I have said deals with the amendment itself.

However, perhaps I may just turn to the clause stand part, as he put it, remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel. He referred to the provisions listed in Schedule 1 and whether the clause relates to all the Acts listed in the schedule. The answer is, no. The provisions of that Act referred to in the clause relate only to the provisions of the Nuclear Installations Act. Those provisions concern the licensing functions of the Health and Safety Executive.

4.30 p.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel

I am grateful to the noble Baroness. I shall have to read the final point she made because I am not sure that I wholly agree. Nevertheless, let me now turn to the amendment. Section 11(3) of the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 provides: It shall be the duty of the Commission to submit to the Secretary of State from time to time particulars of what it proposes to do for the purpose of performing its functions". Section 12(a) reads: The Secretary of State may approve, with or without modifications, any proposals submitted to him in pursuance of section 11(3)(a)", which is the section I have just quoted.

As a layman reading the Health and Safety at Work Act, it seems to me that the commission has a duty to propose to the Secretary of State certain things which it wishes to do in pursuance of what it is required to do by the statute and the Secretary of State has the power to approve them with or without modifications. If with modifications, it seems to imply that the Secretary of State has considerable influence over what the Health and Safety Commission can do in its sole discretion. That is the point I wish to bring to the attention of the noble Baroness. I hope that she will be able to clarify the legal position. As we know, it is not a question of what Ministers may say in this House or another place to which the courts refer when deciding what the statute means; it is a question of what the statute says. I hope that the noble Baroness will obtain legal advice and that she will be able to say that my worries are unfounded.

Baroness Hooper

The legal advice I had in anticipation of the noble Lord's remarks was that which I have outlined. Under Section 11(4)(a) it is the duty of the executive to exercise those functions on behalf of the commission. It is within the commission's remit to decide the matter. We are talking here about an additional power for the Secretary of State, if necessary, to direct the commission or the executive in whatever research the Secretary of State feels coverage by the commission is inadequate.

It may help the noble Lord if I say that the Secretary of State can use the power to give directions to the commission; but in that context the Secretary of State has indicated his wish that the commission should assume responsibility for certain categories of research. It is intended that the guidelines, when set out, will confirm the commission's independence in that matter.

Lord Williams of Elvel

I am grateful to the noble Baroness. I understand that the guidelines may well confirm that the commission has discretion. I am asking for an interpretation of the statute as the Government see it. I shall be grateful if the noble Baroness would consider the matter, write to me and place a copy of the letter in the Library. We can then resolve the matter. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 2 agreed to.

Clause 3 [Nuclear installations: cover for compensation]:

Lord Williams of Elvel moved Amendment No. 3: Page 3, line 22, after ("any") insert ("necessary").

The noble Lord said: This is a simple and rather elementary amendment. It seems reasonable to expect those who take out contracts of insurance to ensure that they do so at the cheapest possible price. It would therefore be sensible that the Nuclear Installations Act 1965, which is being amended by the clause, should contain some assurance that a properly costed commercial contract of insurance has been taken out. "Any amounts" leaves the door open to excessive insurance costs. I beg to move.

Baroness Hooper

It may help to clarify the need for Clause 3 if I explain that the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority is in a different category from other nuclear installations operators. Because of its position as a public body it is not required to provide separate insurance for its liabilities under the Act. Cover is instead provided by public funds. However, the authority became a trading fund in 1986 and occasions may arise when commercial insurance may be considered a more attractive option than the present arrangements. In such circumstances, we should want to be able to take account of that insurance when working out how much public money is needed to meet compensation claims. That is what Clause 3 is intended to do and, I believe, does.

The effect of the amendment would be to nullify the purpose of the clause. As the UKAEA is not required to insure its liabilities under the Nuclear Installations Act there is no necessary insurance which could be taken into account in the computation of how much public money might be needed to meet compensation claims. I cannot therefore accept the amendment. I trust that the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw the amendment in the light of that explanation.

Lord Williams of Elvel

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her reply. She has seized on what I regard as a narrow point about the wording. If she wishes to use the word "reasonable" I am quite happy to use it if that obviates the difficulty that she has set out, which I understand. The word "necessary" means obligatory and would therefore nullify the effect of the clause, which we do not want to do. It would be sensible to have some qualification of "any amount" put into the Bill. If the Minister would accept the word "reasonable" I should be happy with that.

Baroness Hooper

I am afraid that I cannot, because I do not think that it adds anything to the clause which fully copes with the situation.

The Earl of Halsbury

Surely the word "payable" implies that it is payable under the terms of the contract. I cannot see that inserting the word "necessary" adds anything to the thing being payable in any case.

Lord Williams of Elvel

Perhaps the noble Earl did not listen to what I said. I do not insist on the word "necessary". I was going for the word "reasonable". However I understand what the noble Baroness said. I shall look at her remarks in Hansard to see whether I should return to the point later. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 3 agreed to.

Clause 4 [Effect of grant of new nuclear site licence to existing licensee]:

Lord Williams of Elvel moved Amendment No. 4: Page 3, line 38, leave out ("always").

The noble Lord said: It may be for the convenience of the Committee if I speak also to Amendment No. 5 because the two amendments go together. We referred to this point on Second Reading. The noble Lord, Lord Ezra, picked upon it as being significant. I think that he would have joined me in discussing this issue had he been here. It is no more than a question of drafting; it seems odd nevertheless that a subsection of a Bill to be enacted should read: The amendments made by this section shall be deemed always to have had effect".

That is a strange expression. Judging from what the noble Baroness said on Second Reading and from the letter she kindly wrote to me afterwards, and since, so far as I am aware, this does not go back prior to the commencement of the Nuclear Installations Act 1965, it would seem to be appropriate to have that wording in some way in the subsection. However, if the noble Baroness can tell me that it is necessary to have "always" and to go back to the beginning, to the Book of Genesis, I shall accept that she may have a point. I beg to move.

Baroness Hooper

I shall do my best. I have some sympathy with the intention of the noble Lord, Lord Williams, in introducing these amendments. The effects of the amendments are not dissimilar to those of the clause as written. In order to clarify matters perhaps I should make clear that the amendments made by Clause 4 of the Bill could not take effect before Section 19 of the Nuclear Installations Act 1965—the provision being amended—itself came into force. Where it is necessary for a Bill to amend an earlier Act retrospectively, the draftsman often uses a form of words like that contained in Clause 4(2) of the Bill, or at least so I understand. For example, it secures that where the provision to be amended has already been amended at an earlier date since its original enactment, the later amendment takes effect at the correct time.

A further difficulty with the proposed amendments is that the Act did not all come into force on the same day, as the noble Lord may appreciate. The bulk of the Act came into force on 1st December 1965, but Section 17(5) did not come into force until 1st September 1983. Thus the objective of the clause is to cover all these various contingencies. I trust that the noble Lord will feel able to accept the reassurances on that point.

Lord Williams of Elvel

The noble Baroness makes a good point about the different times at which different parts of the Nuclear Installations Act came into effect and the problems of commencement. The other pointwhich she made—and I should listen very carefully if she could reaffirm it—is that this expression has been frequently used by the draftsman and occurs in other legislation. It tripped me up, reading through the Bill. I have never seen it before in legislation, but if it is perfectly in accord with precedent I should be happy to withdraw the amendment.

However, I hope that we may receive some view from another part of the Chamber on where, in legislation, the phrase, deemed always to have had effect occurs. If certain precedents can be cited—I see that the noble Baroness wishes to intervene.

Baroness Hooper

I wished slightly to pre-empt the noble Lord by saying that I am not sure that I can quote him chapter and verse of precedents at this moment. However, I am assured that the provision is normal in legislation and that it is often used by the draftsman.

Lord Williams of Elvel

Perhaps again the noble Baroness will be kind enough to write to me with the precedents. Of course I accept her assurance that they occur. I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendment No. 5 not moved.]

Clause 4 agreed to.

Clause 5: [Mutual Assistance Convention: implementation:]

4.45 p.m.

Lord Williams of Elvel moved Amendment No. 6: Page 4, line 22, at end insert— ("( ) If at any time Her Majesty's Government shall make a call for assistance under paragraph 1 of Article 2 of the Convention, the Secretary of State shall take all necessary steps to inform the public of the subject of the call, its nature and likely effects.").

The noble Lord said: this is a particularly important amendment because, as I explained on Second Reading, the convention in our view does not go far enough in allowing the public to be informed about nuclear incidents and their effects. I was reminded of this by an article today in the Independent which referred to the effects of the Chernobyl incident on certain pasturage in North Wales and, I think, in Cumbria. I am well aware of what happened in North Wales. The effect, it is alleged in the newspaper, was obscured from the general public for some period because the Ministry of Agriculture was not entirely happy that the farmers should know quite what was going on. This was reported in the Independent. I have no view one way or the other as to whether that is the truth. I am simply saying that it appeared in the newspaper this morning.

At Question Time the other day, the noble Baroness and I had a short exchange about the reporting of nuclear accidents. I think she made it clear that accidents in nuclear power stations in the United Kingdom have to be reported under the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate's reporting procedure which was revised in April 1987. These reports are made in weekly site newsletters. However, there is no publication which gives a regular national overview of such incidents. To be honest, the newsletter is a slightly arcane publication which in some cases the public has a good deal of difficulty in obtaining. I suggest that the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate or the Health and Safety Executive should publish a quarterly report, drawing together all reported incidents at UK nuclear power stations.

Secondly, and perhaps much more important, with any incident which takes place under the terms of the convention—in other words, where a country appeals for help from another country or makes it known or informs other countries under the convention of any such incident—that incident should be made known to the public. Nothing is worse than trying to cover up incidents which could have a damaging effect on public health in the belief that in some way, by covering up, the public will not get round to rumbling it.

We must learn the lessons of Chernobyl. That is what the convention is about. I believe the convention to be weak in a number of respects, but above all in that which I have described. The public need to know when something like this happens; they need to know what is the likely effect. That is why I propose the amendment. I beg to move.

The Viscount of Falkland

Once again on behalf of my noble friend Lord Ezra I wish to support the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Williams. In her Answer the other day to the noble Lord, Lord Hatch, the noble Baroness said, I think, that there was very little likelihood of information not being available to the public. It is the strong feeling of the noble Lord, Lord Ezra, and others on these Benches that we cannot understand why that principle should not be embodied in the statute.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

Perhaps I may assure the noble Baroness, returning to the Question I asked on Tuesday, that I am not quoting from the Observer. I never was. The information I used on Tuesday came directly from the Macmillan papers. It included the direct quotation I gave of the note that had been written by Rab Butler on the minute from the noble Lord, Lord Hailsham, who was then Lord President of the Council. The Macmillan papers reveal—

The Earl of Halsbury

I begged for a close season on this subject until 1st January next year. We have debated it fully. Why do we have to bring this in by its tail?

Lord Hatch of Lusby

I am talking about 1st January 1989, not 1st January 1990. On 1st January 1989 the Macmillan papers were published and the information on which I based my Question on Tuesday was taken from those papers. They reveal very clearly the power of a government and, in certain circumstances, the intense desire of a government, to keep from the public knowledge of a nuclear disaster. Again I remind the noble Baroness that I am not talking about the fire alone. I am talking about the accident that occurred six months before the fire which is shown in the Macmillan papers to have been deliberately kept from the public, lest the public should turn against the use of nuclear energy.

The noble Baroness assured me that things were different now. I accept her assurance; but, nevertheless, as my noble friend Lord Williams has pointed out, there is great concern both in Wales and in Cumbria about the effect of Chernobyl and the lack of knowledge which the public has had, and which farmers have had, of its effect and the consequent at least possibility—some people would put it much more strongly than that—that lamb that has been eaten from that area has been contaminated. In view of the evidence of the past 30 years right up to the present year, the least that the Government could do to reassure the public that they have no intention of following the example of the Macmillan Government in covering up nuclear accidents and their consequences is to accept the amendment. That would strengthen the Bill and strengthen public confidence in what is contained in the Bill.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

I wish to support what my noble friend has just said. I should have thought there should be no difficulty on this side of the Chamber, the other side of the Chamber or on the part of anybody else in relation to nuclear safety and the informing of the public about nuclear matters. I am not talking just about accidents but about nuclear matters full stop.

The noble Baroness will be well aware that when my right honourable friend Anthony Wedgwood Benn became Secretary of State for Energy he found to his horror that many incidents had been suppressed. It was as a result of his action that we have now reached what I would term a more open regime. But there is public concern about what happens in the nuclear industry. The noble Baroness and the Chamber will remember that not so long after Chernobyl the Central Electricity Generating Board—fortunately this was made public—decided in its wisdom or otherwise to undertake a group of experiments at Trawsfynydd power station. The experiments were very similar to those which had been carried out at Chernobyl with catastrophic effects.

I mention that to draw attention to the necessity for absolute openness on nuclear matters. Whether we are engineers, scientists or ordinary folk like myself, we appreciate that the nuclear industry is not only an important industry to the economy of this country, but that it is also a potentially very dangerous industry. It is essential for us all—it behoves those in office to recognise this—that the public should be kept fully informed and is taken completely into the confidence of the Government and the nuclear industry, for only in that way can we proceed to the proper and fullest possible use of civil nuclear energy.

Baroness Hooper

I fully appreciate the concern that exists regarding any risks or dangers flowing from nuclear accidents. We of course regard safety as being of paramount importance. The Government have no quarrel at all with the principle that the public should be kept fully informed in the event of a nuclear accident of radiological safety significance, whether it occurs in this country or abroad. In the post-Chernobyl period there was evidence of that. Therefore, I cannot accept the suggestion made by the noble Lord, Lord Hatch, or as I understand it the suggestion made in the Independent article today, that there has been concealment.

There has been no concealment of levels of radioactivity in sheepmeat. On the contrary, bans were very quickly imposed and they are still in force where necessary. I accept that the noble Lord, Lord Hatch, was quoting directly from the Macmillan papers the other day; but as I said then, and as he has repeated today, the 1950s was a very different period. I think everybody will agree that there is far more frankness and openness in discussions or in information dissemination nowadays than there was then. Nevertheless, even then the information was not concealed from the public. The 1957 White Paper, to which I referred in relation to the fire accident, also mentioned the pre-accident emission. Further detailed mention was made in papers published in 1958 and 1960. As I said before, I believe that post-Chernobyl information has been very full and open.

The noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel, questioned somewhat the value of the site newsletters as methods of disseminating information to the public. I assure him that those newsletters are not only placed in the Houses of Parliament but are also sent to local newspapers, to anybody who expresses an interest, and in particular to the local liaison committee which exists for every nuclear installation in this country.

There is even a regular summary of such incidents. The Health and Safety Executive publishes a quarterly report of formally reported incidents—that is incidents which could have significant public effects. As I believe I mentioned in the discussion on the Question of the noble Lord, Lord Hatch, the other day, all matters are formally reported to the relevant committees dealing with health aspects.

On the Trawsfynydd experiments, the CEGB proposed to undertake carefully controlled tests to demonstrate the safety of the station. That was proposed in full consultation with the NII. Taking this on the broader front, having I hope established that the fullest public information would be available under our existing emergency arrangements in the event of an accident occurring in the United Kingdom, there would be no question of waiting until decisions had been taken to decide whether or not to call for assistance from outside the United Kingdom under the terms of the Mutual Assistance Convention. At the same time, we would of course honour our international obligations by informing the IAEA under the Early Notification Convention, and our partners in similar bilateral agreements, of any UK accident of radiological safety significance.

In the event of an accident outside the United Kingdom, the IAEA would exercise its functions under Article 4 of the Early Notification Convention to inform any state which may be physically affected as a result of the accident. Indeed a very sophisticated network, incorporating use of the global telecommunications system, has been adopted by the IAEA to ensure that member states are kept fully informed. In addition we have established a new monitoring network in this country designed to provide early warning of nuclear accidents occurring outside the United Kingdom.

I hope therefore that the noble Lord, Lord Williams, will be reassured that the Government fully accept their obligations to keep the public both at home and abroad fully informed and that the appropriate mechanisms have been developed to ensure that these obligations are met. In the light of that reply, I hope the noble Lord will feel able to withdraw his amendment.

5 p.m.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

May I ask the noble Baroness a question arising out of what she has just said to me? She says, and she said on Tuesday, that there had been information given about the accident which occurred previous to the fire and she has just told us that information was given after the fire, referring also to the previous accident. This of course was not by any means widely publicised and the Macmillan papers show quite clearly that there was at least an attempt to cover up the facts from the public.

The question I want to ask her is this. If that report was made after the fire, is it not the case that during the months following the original accident, when it is estimated that about 800 farms were infected, milk was being sold in this country to the public that was certainly very likely to have been contaminated and the public knew nothing about it? If we just take the noble Baroness's reply during the months between the original accident and the report after the fire nothing was known about the effects of the accident on the farms in the area and on the produce of those farms being sold to the public.Meanwhile the Medical Research Council had reduced its permitted limit of Strontium 90 during that same period.

Can the noble Baroness answer this? Was there not a danger to the public caused by the Government's cover-up and is it not precisely this point that we want to include in the Bill to make quite sure that no government, now or in the future, repeat that cover-up?

Baroness Hooper

It is my belief that that point has already been dealt with by the new procedures that are now in place to cover this situation. In fact at the time of the incident to which the noble Lord refers a panel of radiobiological consultants was set up and agreed that the maximum observed levels of contamination were below hazard levels and that it was highly unlikely that any harm had been caused to any individual. Destruction of milk did indeed take place after the subsequent fire accident in October 1957, but no milk ban was judged necessary in respect of the pre-accident emissions.

Lord Williams of Elvel

I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for her detailed exposition of the Government's view on the necessity—and I use the word advisedly—to keep the public informed about nuclear incidents, and I am glad to see that there is no difference between this side of the Committee and the Government on that. I have a very strong feeling that if there is no difference, if we all agree that something should happen, then we should put it on to the face of the Bill. If there is no difficulty about that, I hope the noble Baroness will say that she will accept this amendment because it is a minimalist amendment.

It is not as though I was asking for anything more than a very basic undertaking in law that the Secretary of State shall he obliged to do this. If that is put on the face of the Bill we have no particular difficulty, because there is no question of anybody accusing the Secretary of State of avoiding his obligations, since somebody can take him to court if he does not adhere to the Act when it is enacted. That is why I want it on the face of the Bill. I cannot see any problem from the Government's view on this, and I hope very much that the noble Baroness will he able to accept this amendment. Otherwise I shall be forced to press it.

The Earl of Halsbury

Are we not in danger of emptying the baby out with the bathwater? The accident in 1957 took place, from the standpoint of nuclear power, in the dawn of time. We have to learn from our mistakes. How can somebody take the Government to the court over an accident about which they have no information because it has not been announced? I ask the Committee to think of what happened at Chernobyl. There were banner headlines over the whole of the press, Parliamentary Questions descended like flakes of snow; everything has been thrown out into the public domain and always will be.

Baroness Hooper

I fully appreciate the remarks made by the noble Lord, Lord Williams of Elvel. However I had hoped I had made it clear that it simply was not necessary. Is it our business to put into legislation something which is not necessary? I do not believe so.

Lord Peston

If I may just join in this discussion, I think that those of us who are really rather keen that nuclear power generation should take place, assuming it is economic, are very worried, as is often pointed out, by the irrationality of the public about these matters. They believe that there are cover-ups. They believe that governments are tempted to cover up, no matter what they say. It seems to me that those of us who favour nuclear power in that sense wish the Government would take this opportunity, because, as my noble friend Lord Williams of Elvel puts it, it really would at the very least confirm in statute what the Government propose to do. It would he immensely reassuring in the unclear context, and that is why one is rather disappointed by the noble Baroness's reply.

Baroness Hooper

Perhaps the best i can do is to say that I will take back the amendment and look at it in order to deal with it at a subsequent stage.

Lord Williams of Elvel

I am most grateful to the noble Baroness for that undertaking. In the light of that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 5 agreed to.

Remaining clauses agreed to.

Schedule agreed to.

House resumed: Bill reported without amendment.