HL Deb 28 March 2001 vol 624 cc259-61

2.39 p.m.

Lord Tombs asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they expect to publish the consultation paper, first promised for spring 2000, in response to the Science and Technology Committee's report, Management of Nuclear Waste (HL 41), published on 24th March 1999.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions (Lord Whitty)

My Lords, as soon as possible; but this is a complex issue and the decisions involved will take many years to implement. We must get the public debate off to the right start in the right framework.

On 28th February, the Government announced proposals for the second stage of the quinquennial review of the UK Atomic Energy Authority. It identifies options for organisational change in managing nuclear liabilities. Our consultation paper will invite comments on possible organisational changes, so the review may have significant implications. We want people to be aware of them so that they have a proper opportunity to comment. The paper will be published once the review's implications are clearer.

Lord Tombs

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that the Government have taken considerably longer not to produce a consultation paper than the Select Committee, with its slender resources, took to conduct the whole inquiry and publish its report? Will he enlighten us on the reasons for that delay, which puzzle me? It seems to me to come down to a choice between incompetence and lack of commitment. I should be grateful for his views. Finally, will he express a view—I hope that it will be a favourable one—on the extent to which the nuclear industry, environmentalists and society at large are awaiting progress on this important topic?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, neither of the reasons advanced by the noble Lord lies behind the delay. We are taking time because the issues are complex. We now have the additional complication that the review of the AEA has made recommendations and is likely to make further recommendations in its second stage that relate to organisational and institutional change, particularly in the management of liabilities and therefore in the management of waste. That will have implications. We are doing the job diligently. The proposals will take up to 50 years to implement. We need to ensure that we get the answer right, but we also need to be sure that we take public opinion with us. That is why we need a well focused public debate.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, am I correct in believing that the disposal of nuclear waste in Scotland and Wales is a matter for the national assemblies? If so, has that played any part in the delay?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the answer, broadly speaking, is "yes" and "no".

Lord Campbell of Croy

My Lords, why do the Government appear to give low priority to such reports when the United Kingdom is uniquely fortunate in having in its second Chamber Peers with enormous experience and outstanding records in science, technology and industry, such as the noble Lord, Lord Tombs, and other members of the Select Committee?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, the Government are not giving this matter low priority; they are giving it serious consideration and are taking into account all aspects, including future institutional changes. The report of the Select Committee was much appreciated by the Government, who have, of course, responded to it. However, part of the action arising from that will be the production of the consultation paper, which will lead the public debate. Therefore, we are taking very seriously the views of the Select Committee.

Lord Marsh

My Lords, perhaps I may return to the matter of transparency. I had assumed that the answer would probably be "yes" or "no". Can the Minister explain the "yes" part of it?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am afraid that my enunciation may not be too clear. I said "yes" to the first part of the noble Lord's question; namely, that the devolved assemblies have responsibilities within this area, subject to international commitments, and so forth. The answer to the other part of his question is "no"; that is not the cause of the delay.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, why did Mr Michael Meacher, the Minister responsible in the Commons for this area of policy, decline to accept the invitation from the Select Committee to explain the Government's policy to us?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I am not aware that a formal invitation has been issued since the inquiry took place. The Minister has indicated that he is prepared to explain the position to the committee. However, we are still drawing up the paper. The appropriate point would be when we are about to issue that paper. We have not yet reached that point.

Lord Ezra

My Lords, does the noble Lord agree that the Select Committee's report contains some very well argued and reasoned proposals? Could those not have formed the basis for a consultation document which could have been issued some time ago?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, I certainly agree that the report contains some very well based and well argued cases. That does not necessarily mean that the Government agree with all the conclusions or that those conclusions provide the only options that are open to us. We wanted to ensure a wide debate which considered all the options and examined the process for reaching further conclusions.

Lord Craig of Radley

My Lords, one of the recommendations of the Select Committee was that plans should be made for the establishment of a new low-level waste disposal facility which could be opened before Drigg closes. Bearing in mind that Drigg will be full well before the end of the 50-year period, can the Minister give the House an indication of what plans are in place for when Drigg is full?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, it will be some years before Drigg is closed. However, I can assure the House that alternative arrangements will be made at that point. The consultation is dealing primarily with high-level waste as opposed to all waste, but it will cover what action should be followed if Drigg becomes exhausted. To put the matter in perspective, Drigg should be large enough to hold all low-level waste produced until 2050. That is the time-scale involved.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, would it not have been helpful if the electorate and interested bodies had had some idea of the Government's thinking on this matter?

Lord Whitty

My Lords, we intend to give them ah idea of the Government's thinking, but we also intend to ensure that all the options are put before them. These decisions are important and difficult and will have long-term implications, some of which will arise from what is now the review of the AEA. Therefore, we believe that we should put the full, rather than a partial, picture to the electorate and other interested parties.