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Column 412amendments on safety. I hope that in the weeks since those debates, he has recognised that he appeared to be moving towards a sympathy with safety. If he has, perhaps when the House approves Government amendments Nos. 2 and 28, he will allow new clause 11 to go through as well.
"protecting the public from dangers arising from the generation, transmission or supply of electricity".
We understand that that is to cover also the dangers that arise from the disposal of the waste products on the nuclear side of the industry and those arising from generation.
Mr. Hardy : My hon. Friend is right to make that assumption. Perhaps the Minister will make that point clear when he replies. I can see nothing wrong with the new clause except, as I have said, that it would have been useful if it had included specific reference to the people employed in the industry rather than simply assuming that they would be covered by the reference to members of the public.
I am not too worried about the reference to those who will serve on the committees, largely because I am suspicious of the sort of people who nowadays are appointed to quangos. They are more likely to embarrass or injure themselves than us. I am, however, concerned about the public good.
I had no intention of referring to those who live underneath transmission lines but, when I saw a scare story reported in a newspaper some time ago, I recall that I asked our local medical officer of health if it would be possible to carry out a survey. The statistical base would need to be a great deal larger than would have been possible in my local locality and therefore, as far as I know, no study has been undertaken.
Now that the matter has been mentioned in the House, the Minister had better be prepared to respond fully. If he cannot do so tonight, I have no doubt that the matter will be raised in another place. There is a possibility that more scare stories may develop and, if reassurance is justified, it would be as well for that reassurance to be offered. If it is not justified, perhaps a little more information should be given.
I recall the considerable strain and anger that existed, and may still exist, in Belgium, Luxembourg and the Saarland as a result of the anxieties of the people living quite close the French border, about French secrecy. We do not have any national or territorial boundaries with other countries, so we must contain our anxieties and strain within our island. I believe that the arguments advanced by the hon. Member for Gordon are justified and those who live in the proximity of a power station--it need not be nuclear- -are anxious. There is no reason why the Government should be furtive or secretive or seek to deny information. Information should be available if only because of the 1957 episode. Never again should people be denied information that is of direct relevance to their health and their other interests. For that reason I am happy to support the new clause. I only wish that it covered the employees of the nuclear industry.
We have already been told that the Government are unlikely to respond to any attempts to amend the Bill, but the hon. Member for Gordon raised the important issue of safety. We must all be safety-conscious, as that is the only way in which to deal with problems. Any laxity in safety means that we are put in peril. The Government must reflect on the experience of previous legislation. It is not good enough for something permissive to be written into legislation. If the argument advanced is right and proper, any obligations should be mandatory. In that way there is no argument. I hope that the Minister will not fall back on the excuse of previous Governments and decide that what is written into the Bill should be permissive.
The only weakness in the new clause--this is not meant as a criticism--is that the employees of the industry are not included. They are not just employees, but members of the public. Their knowledge would help to achieve the aims set out in the new clause. The new clause is important because of the defensive history of the thermal nuclear power industry. It has spent a lot of time and effort to promote the idea that everything is all right and that there is no danger. It has claimed that, technologically, everything is perfect. The possibilities of an accident have been worked out statistically, but, as the hon. Member for Gordon has said, Three Mile Island and Chernobyl have put paid to those efforts. Human weakness can always occur.
We are still suffering the effects of Chernobyl in Scotland. During last night's debate a Conservative Member made an absurd intervention during my speech and spoke about radiation from coal. I have never heard of any coal mine being responsible for radiation for year after year. I was in Norway at the time of the Chernobyl incident and when I was told that its reindeer herd had had to be slaughtered I was extremely sad.
The hon. Member for Gordon is right to say that the nuclear power industry has always been extremely defensive. I know of people who earn their livelihoods from statistics. If a construction is undertaken, people can calculate with amazing accuracy how many people are likely to be killed at the building site if the construction continues for a couple of years. As a consequence of our North sea oil explorations, people are now able to calculate, statistically, how many people are likely to be killed as a result of that exploration. As legislators we do not appreciate that when we approve some legislation it means that, inevitably, people will be killed as a consequence.
I am all in favour of technology and I am not against nuclear power in the sense that it represents new technology. It is against my background to be against new technology because I have always said, "If new technology can do the job, why should men's backs be broken?" The silliest thing that I ever heard in my life was the claim that hard work never killed anyone. I live in a small mining village and in the cemetery I could point out those individuals who died as a consequence of hard work. When people say that hard work never killed anyone, it generally means that they have never done any hard work in their lives.
Column 4148.45 pm
Forty years ago I was employed in the rail industry for a short time. About a month ago I had the great privilege of driving a diesel train--I had only driven steam trains. The first thing I asked was where the dead man's brake was, but, although we have such brakes, accidents still happen. Human error still occurs. Such error can arise in the nuclear power industry and it is not valid to argue that everything is perfect and every effort has been made to make things safe--experience tells us otherwise. Many people in many industries spend a great deal of time trying to make those industries as technologically safe as possible, but the human factor must always be taken into account.
I am anything but impressed by thermal nuclear power, as I believe that it carries built-in hazards. However, the new clause could help the nuclear power industry. We should reveal all and we should tell people what has happened. We should make them even more safety-conscious and, above all, those who work in the industry should be taken into the confidence of those who run it. Those employees will not brook any people who are anti their industry. They want to make it work and they believe in it.
I hope that the Minister will not use the old argument about making such things permissive. If we really agree with the hon. Member for Gordon, the legislation should be mandatory and not permissive.
Mr. Dennis Skinner (Bolsover) : I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) about permissiveness as opposed to something that is mandatory. I was reminded of what was said today by the Leader of the House. He used a time-honoured phrase about the Prime Minister making herself available to Gorbachev. Is that what my hon. Friend means by permissiveness? I have a picture in my mind, but I had better not take that matter any further.
I am absolutely certain that the provisions of the Bill must be mandatory if it is to mean anything in terms of giving power and rights to consumers. Our experience of permissive local government legislation in particular has made us aware of the pitfalls. My hon. Friend has hit the nail on the head.
I am pleased that my hon. Friend mentioned the effects of Chernobyl and the way in which they are still being felt in Scotland, let alone in Wales and other parts of Great Britain. I remember that incident clearly. Two or three days after it we heard that the radioactive cloud was making its way up the Thames estuary--there was a report on the "Today" programme about it. That morning there was a large demonstration outside the Department of Energy. The leading wet, now the so-called Secretary of State for Wales, was in charge of energy at that time. The Friends of the Earth were drawing attention to the fact that he had said that nuclear power was the safest form of energy known to man. People were scared. It is the only time that I can recall men and women, young and old, coming towards us, snatching the leaflets out of our hands so that they would know what effects Chernobyl might have.
Once that radioactive cloud went up into the sky it belonged not to Russia or to America but to mother nature, and it went the way that the wind blew. People were scared stiff about the consequences. I remember one woman standing about five yards away, who had her hand
Column 415out waiting to grab a leaflet. I said to her, "It is all right ; the cloud is moving away ; it is behind you. If you keep moving the other way you can race it if you get as far as Reading." Off she went, scared stiff. That is what nuclear power means to people when there is a disaster like Chernobyl.
Considering the matter from that point of view, I wonder what powers the director general will have. If there were explosions, could he do anything to protect consumers and their rights? Let us suppose that the director general had to deal with something less important. Let us suppose that he was confronted by four Tory Members of Parliament who told him that they had heard on the grapevine that the new organisation running nuclear power- -the new "opoly", or whatever it is called--had decided to dump low-level nuclear waste in their constituencies. Let us suppose that those four Members included a Cabinet Minister, perhaps the Leader of the House, and a junior Minister at the Home Office because they were to have low-level nuclear waste dumped in their areas.
Accountability is to be taken from the public sector and handed over to the private sector with a bit of a director general in charge who is to protect the rights of consumers. What would happen if the Leader of the House was complaining about the dumping of low-level waste in his constituency because he had had 5,000 letters from people taking a NIMBY attitude, people whom we might loosely call clones of the Secretary of State for the Environment. Under market force operations, what powers would the director general have in those circumstances? As we all know, similar proposals were made some time ago. Because we were coming up to a general election, and because there was an umbilical cord between the Secretary of State and the Leader of the House and other Tory Members, they managed to get rid of those dumping grounds.
The same process will be repeated over and over again, especially as power stations are to be decommissioned. The companies will have to find somewhere to put the muck. The director general will be a Tory ; there is no doubt about that. The Prime Minister will ask, is he or she one of us? Whatever the Secretary of State says, the director general will go along with it because he will be in the Prime Minister's pocket. So the director general--good Tory that he will be--will say, "I will tell you what we will do ; we will make sure that the waste is dumped in Labour areas." Perhaps it will be dumped in Liberal areas, or it could go into the areas represented by the new-fangled party, the party that dare not speak its name, the one that changes its name every five months.
So the director general will say that the waste may be dumped in old mines, perhaps in Derbyshire, Yorkshire or south Wales. He will suggest that the rubbish should be put in those areas. That is what I can see happening. That is why it is essential that there are mandatory powers.
Mr. Hardy : Has not my hon. Friend noticied over the last two or three years that there has been remarkable uniformity and solidarity on the Government Benches? Does not he suspect that the Government Chief Whip has been using that as a threat to maintain discipline in Government ranks?
Column 416Prime Minister came to power. They have shop stewards on the door when we are voting. They may call them Whips, but they are really shop stewards. They hustle the Government Back Benchers in. Every so often they say, "If you behave yourself, we will give you a bisque." That is French for being absent without leave. It is a night off to do research or whatever they have to do in the course of those odd hours.
Mr. Skinner : Well, I never. Here am I, in this mirror image of the Eton debating society, and I have got the bisque wrong. Oh, what a disaster. Do I feel so small, so belittled that I do not know the croquet term "bisque"? I will tell hon. Members what I do know. I know that the Tories will trot through the Lobby behind him when the Minister decides to force a vote on the issue. They will be hustled in by the Tory shop stewards on the door. They will go through the hoop, or the French equivalent of the hoop--I have no doubt that there is a croquet term for that as well.
One of the most alarming things about all this is that the consumer has seen what can happen when parts of the public sector are privatised or when there is loose control by the Tory Government of the public sector. It means that less money is spent on safety and security. We have seen it at the airports ; we have seen what it has meant for human life. There will be less public control. The entrepreneurs and those who operate the market forces will be in charge of nuclear power. The state will not be able to exert its influence. Even though we are talking about a small point we need a mandatory provision that gives proper rights to consumers. Those are my few observations on the matter. I believe that the Bill will be looked upon in future as a disaster. People will reflect upon it and say. "What were the Government playing at? Why was a public utility responsible for nuclear power left to the whims of those who are in it to make money hand over fist and to line the pockets of the friends of the Tory party?" It would be a small price to pay if the Government were to accept the amendments and make sure that the Bill includes a mandatory provision.
Mr. Michael Spicer : Like other hon. Members, the Government attach great importance to maintaining the industry's high safety standards. That is why we undertook in Committee to examine safety questions carefully and to come forward, if necessary, with further safeguards. That is what lies behind Government amendments Nos. 2 and 28 to which only brief reference has been made by Opposition Members, including the hon. Member for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy). Opposition Members were rather churlish. We spent much time in Committee considering safety matters. As a result of those deliberations the Government have proposed amendments. They are the product of good work in Committee. I would have thought that Opposition Members would at least have made a passing reference to them.
I shall first refer to the two questions raised by the hon. Members for Gordon (Mr. Bruce), for Bolsover (Mr. Skinner), for Wentworth (Mr. Hardy) and for Cardiff, West (Mr. Morgan). The hon. Member for Bolsworthy, or
Column 417rather for Bolsover--Bolsworthy may be the right expression since we have been talking about croquet--mentioned mother nature and rightly said that nuclear incidents are international. The Government have signed an international convention on the notification of nuclear incidents under the aegis of the International Atomic Energy Agency and will ask Parliament to ratify that in the Atomic Energy Bill that the Leader of the House announced that we would debate next Thursday. On the basis of what Opposition Members have said tonight, I hope that they will vote in favour of the Atomic Energy Bill, of which a major part is the ratification of that convention. I hope that that partly explains what the Government have done, in answer to the important point raised by the hon. Member for Bolsover.
The hon. Member for Rother Valley (Mr. Barron) looks worried. Perhaps he has not yet geared up to dealing with the Bill. Perhaps I have just given him his first warning of it.
Mr. Spicer : I said that I assumed on the basis of the arguments and very good points which have been made by Opposition Members tonight, that because the Bill will meet those reasonable worries, the hon. Member for Rother Valley would vote in favour of it. In answer to the hon. Member for Cardiff, West, the responsibility for the safety of nuclear waste and nuclear power stations generally is a matter for the operators of the stations, acting under the regulations, guidelines and monitoring of the nuclear installations inspectorate and Her Majesty's inspectorate of pollution. That is how safety regulations apply in this country.
Mr. Hardy : The Minister mentioned that I had referred to Government amendments Nos. 2 and 28. He will also recall that I expressed slight criticism of new clause 11 because it did not refer to employees of the industry. The same point could be made about Government amendments Nos. 2 and 28 because they refer to the public. The Minister will recall that when I took part in this debate in Committee, I made reference to employees in the industry. Will he assure the House that the new clauses will refer to employees of the industry as well as to members of the general public?
Mr. Spicer : I am checking the precise answer to that question but I am pretty certain that I can give that assurance to the hon. Gentleman. I want to be absolutely clear and I am just awaiting confirmation of that.
In our view, new clause 11 is not the sensible way to approach this extremely important--we are all agreed on this--issue of safety. By implication, it gives the primary responsibility for the safety of the general public to the director. In the Bill, it is implicit that the responsibility for safety is covered by the electricity supply regulations, the Health and Safety at Work etc. Act 1974 and other Acts and secondary legislation which deal with specific aspects of safety. Those include the Factories Act 1961 and the Control of Industrial Major Accident Hazards Regulations 1985. Within the broad panoply of these
Column 418health and safety regulations it is right that the director and the Secretary of State should take safety into account as a major factor when the economic regime and regulation is set. That is the key issue and that is why amendment No. 2 specifically requires that the duties and functions of both the Secretary of State and the director should be exercised in the manner best calculated to protect the public from dangers arising from the generation, transmission and supply of electricity. The need to comply with that duty will clearly be a factor in the director's use of information powers under clause 44. That partly answers the question of the hon. Member for Wentworth.
Mr. Eadie : I talked about permissive and mandatory legislation. Am I to assume that the Minister is telling us that the director of information will have discretionary powers. The thrust of our argument is that the public, and employees of the industry, are entitled to know where they stand. Is not the Minister contradicting that if he says that the director is to have certain discretionary powers?
Mr. Spicer : All I have said is that the health and safety regime is laid down by a mass of parliamentary legislation and that we must ensure that our amendments achieve what they are intended to achieve ; that nothing that the director--who is concerned primarily with economic and not safety regulations--does when applying his economic regulation duties, conflicts with the safety and health regime which exists by statute. In the Bill we must make it absolutely clear that, when assessing the duties of the director, they do not conflict with existing legislation which is outside the Bill.
Mr. Morgan rose--
Mr. Morgan : I wonder whether the Minister has seriously considered the practicalities of what he is saying--that the director will be mostly concerned with the economic and not safety regulations, and that the two interests should not conflict. What about when they do? Last night the Secretary of State mentioned the possibility of renegotiating the BNFL contract on reprocessing with National Power. One way to do that would be so that BNFL did not reprocess some of the fuel from the AGRs but, instead, left it for storage. National Power would say that it would save money by doing that. Would the director have the right to say that he did not consider that safe?
Mr. Spicer : The Government amendments emphasise that the director will have to bear in mind public safety at all times when making his decisions. These amendments will have additional effects. When clause 3 was first discussed in Committee, it was suggested that the duties of the director and the Secretary of State were deficient because they did not refer specifically to safety. However, that concern is met by amendment No. 2 which underlines the duties of the Secretary of State and the director to consider safety at all times. At present, the general framework for safety in the electricity industry is set by the electricity supply regulations. The Government were responsible for instituting the first full-scale revision of those regulations
Column 419for 50 years, culminating in the issue of new regulations last year. Those regulations established a general framework of standards. The key point in answer to the hon. Member for Gordon is that only those with expert knowledge of a particular site or installation and with responsibility for its operation can determine the precise safety measures required under the general regulation. That is established practice in Britain for dealing with safety. That is why the first responsibility must and does rest with the industry. Those responsibilities are laid down in an array of primary and secondary legislation and that is further supported by the common law on matters such as the duty of care under the law of negligence. None of that will change with the passage of the Bill. That is the answer to the point made by the hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie). Licence holders and those operating under exemptions will have to act in accordance with the same regime that has resulted in the current high standards of safety in the industry.
The Bill provides for the continuation of the existing electricity supply regulations and clause 27 enables the regulations to be added to or revised as necessary.
In Committee there seemed to be some doubt about the precise purpose of clause 27. Amendment No. 28 is designed to put its purpose beyond doubt. It makes it explicit that regulations made under the clause can include those concerned directly with safety aspects of the industry's operations and, in particular, the protection of the public.
I hope that, having explained the philosophy of not only the electricity industry but other industries with which I have been concerned--for example, the aviation industry, where the primary duty is placed upon the operator within the standards laid down--we have made it clear that nothing done under the Bill, in particular under the terms laid down for the duties of the regulator, conflict with the standards, regulations and legislation laid down to protect safety, which all agree is paramount. I hope that, on the basis of that explanation, the hon. Member for Gordon will feel able to withdraw his new clause.
Mr. Malcolm Bruce : The Minister has dealt with the Government amendments rather than with my new clause. I accept that amendments Nos. 2 and 28 improve the Bill and that they are a response to our debates in Committee. But they do not relate to the points that I and other hon. Members have raised tonight. The Minister has essentially debated the quality of safety inspection and enforcement under the licences proposed by the Bill, whereas we are talking about the public's right to have information about safety and the directors' responsibility to ensure access to that information when it is needed.
I intended my new clause to include employees within the industry because they have a particular right to information. The new clause can include them, but it might have been better if it had specifically done so.
The hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) referred to reindeer in Scandinavia suffering from the fallout from Chernobyl. That is the sort of information that is important. Reindeer's metabolism enables them to operate efficiently in the Arctic tundra, but it also makes them especially vulnerable to radiation. They convert food quickly so that the build-up of radiation in their natural food, the tundra moss, affects them much more intensely than other animals. That is the kind of information to
Column 420which the public are entitled and it was the kind of information that was not available in any clear or consistent form at the time of the Chernobyl disaster.
Many hon. Members will recall the confusing information that came from the Government at that time. The Scottish Office said that milk was not safe to drink, then that it was safe and then that it was not safe. That did not inspire public confidence and did not provide the important and relevant information.
However, the essential point is that the Minister is saying that the director should not impinge on safety ; that the new regime will ensure that there is a specific responsibility to have due regard to safety. We say that the public and those working in the industry should have the director's support to get access to information that they need to enable them to make decisions. The Minister is effectively arguing that the public have to trust the experts who are entrusted with safety and have no right to know what the experts are talking about. In other words, they have no right to explanations in the kind of language that people can understand which show exactly what is expected of them, the action open to them and to whom they can turn to obtain the relevant explanation of expert information. 9.15 pm
Helpful as they are, the Government's amendments are not relevant to my new clause, without which the Bill will be substantially weakened because consumer committees and the public do not have the right of access to essential information. All the anxieties and reservations that many of us have had about the industry during the past 20 years are passing unanswered into the private sector. If we could not get the information that we needed when the industry was in the public sector, accountable through Ministers to the House, what chance have we of getting it through a private commercial organisation from which the director has no power to demand such information on behalf of the consumer committees or the public? The answer is that we have no chance of doing so. I intend to force my new clause to a Division and I hope that right hon. and hon. Members will support it.
Question put, That the clause be read a Second time :
The House divided : Ayes 77, Noes 197.
Divison No. 143] [9.15 pm
Abbott, Ms Diane
Banks, Tony (Newham NW)
Barnes, Harry (Derbyshire NE)
Beith, A. J.
Bennett, A. F. (D'nt'n & R'dish)
Bruce, Malcolm (Gordon)
Buckley, George J.
Campbell, Menzies (Fife NE)
Carlile, Alex (Mont'g)
Davis, Terry (B'ham Hodge H'l)
Evans, John (St Helens N)
Ewing, Mrs Margaret (Moray)
Garrett, John (Norwich South)
Golding, Mrs Llin
Hogg, N. (C'nauld & Kilsyth)
Home Robertson, John
Hughes, John (Coventry NE)
Hughes, Robert (Aberdeen N)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark)
Johnston, Sir Russell
Lloyd, Tony (Stretford)
Macdonald, Calum A.