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Column 407Sackville, Hon Tom
Sainsbury, Hon Tim
Shaw, David (Dover)
Shaw, Sir Giles (Pudsey)
Shaw, Sir Michael (Scarb')
Shelton, Sir William
Shephard, Mrs G. (Norfolk SW)
Shepherd, Colin (Hereford)
Skeet, Sir Trevor
Smith, Sir Dudley (Warwick)
Smith, Tim (Beaconsfield)
Soames, Hon Nicholas
Spicer, Sir Jim (Dorset W)
Spicer, Michael (S Worcs)
Stanley, Rt Hon Sir John
Stewart, Allan (Eastwood)
Stewart, Andy (Sherwood)
Stradling Thomas, Sir John
Taylor, Ian (Esher)
Taylor, John M (Solihull)
Taylor, Teddy (S'end E)
Thompson, D. (Calder Valley)
Thompson, Patrick (Norwich N)
Townend, John (Bridlington)
Twinn, Dr Ian
Vaughan, Sir Gerard
Waddington, Rt Hon David
Wardle, Charles (Bexhill)
Winterton, Mrs Ann
Young, Sir George (Acton)
Tellers for the Noes :
Mr. David Heathcoat-Amory and
Mr. David Lightbown.
Question accordingly negatived.
(1) The Director General shall require that consumer committees, customers and members of the public have full access to any information regarding their health and safety resulting from any activities connected with the supply, generation or transmission of electricity.
(2) Nothing in this Act concerning the protection of information or persons shall prevent disclosure of any information required under (1) above.'.-- [Mr. Malcolm Bruce.]
Brought up, and read the First time.
Mr. Bruce : The purpose of the new clause is to ensure that information on safety is made available to consumer committees and to the public. That is not specifically allowed for in the Bill as it stands. The record of the electricity supply industry in the recent past suggests that such a measure is necessary. The Minister and hon. Members who served on the Committee with me know that I feel strongly about the conduct of the industry especially in relation to nuclear power. I believe that having the requirement that such information be made available to consumer committees and to the public would be beneficial to the image and to the esteem in which the industry is held by the public. The lack of such a provision has been extremely damaging in that respect.
The problem with the Bill as drafted is that the specific restriction on the publishing of information is likely to
Column 408work against the public interest and lead to the information being withheld or suppressed until long after it has any relevance or could in any way be helpful.
It might be helpful to the House if I quote three or four examples of the sort of information that I feel should be available. One problem that has been actively debated in recent years, especially since the Three Mile Island and Chernobyl accidents, is exactly what emergency procedures there should be for a nuclear accident at a British nuclear installation. At the moment there is a lack of public awareness about exactly what would happen in the event of a significant nuclear accident. Do people actually know what to do? Do the operators of nuclear power stations know that action they should take? At what point should they alert people round about? When should they shut down and evacuate the area? What should people in the area be told to do in the event of a significant leak of radiation that would require action?
There is no doubt that if there were such a leak without people being properly informed, the instinct would be to run, to panic and to evacuate the area ; yet there is evidence to suggest that that is the wrong thing to do, depending on how serious the accident is. When the plume of radiation is being discharged, that is not the time to be out in the open and, although there is a danger wherever one is, it may be safer to stay indoors than to go out into the open. People need to know when they should stay and when they should move. There are practical considerations too. Nuclear power stations, in particular, tend to be in rather remote areas where the roads are not designed to allow a lot of people to move quickly at one time ; the congestion could aggravate the seriousness of the incident. There is no agreed procedure as to whether or not and when, if and how, stable iodine tablets should be issued ; people do not even know where they could get them or whether to take them.
This is in sharp contrast with the situation in the United States perhaps because, regrettably, that country has experienced a major accident. In the United States the telephone books in the area of a nuclear installation contain clear descriptions of what people should do in the event of a nuclear accident. We should, in any case, have that sort of agreement here. It should be published and available now, but it should certainly be done once the industry moves into the private sector, and the Bill should require it to be done. The Prime Minister and other Ministers have suggested in replies to hon. Members that the whole thing is under control, that they have discussed this with all the relevant authorities and that the latter know what to do. That does not appear to be the view of the County Emergency Planning Officers Society whose members remain concerned about a number of shortfalls in the agreement. A working party has produced a number of reports yet still has outstanding concerns as to what can and should be done. So nobody is in a position either to say that the relevant authorities have a nationally agreed scheme and a standard of what should happen. Nor does anyone know how to publicise this or ensure that the public know what to do and what not to do in the event of a major disaster.
I make no apology for the fact that my examples are drawn mostly from nuclear accidents, but what I am saying applies to other kinds of generating station. The same procedures should apply. There should be a clear understanding of exactly what happens and how the public
Column 409will be informed. It is quite proper that the consumer committees set up under the Bill should be an integral part of the process of ensuring dissemination of accurate information.
A problem has emerged, for example, in relation to overhead power lines. I am not competent to say whether the anxieties that have been expressed about safety risks from living close to overhead power lines are valid, but I think that consumer committees should be empowered to get the relevant information, publicise it and make recommendations about appropriate action. I have had a representation from a doctor in my constituency who says that he has had complaints from patients living in the area of overhead power lines. Although he has no statistical proof, he feels that there is some correlation, although it may be more psychological than real. That is the kind of information that needs to be examined and circulated.
Workers in the industry have suffered from overdoses of radiation. They are entitled to know exactly what the situation is. In 1986 British Nuclear Fuels said that 631 of its employees had received a dose of radiation in excess of the approved safety level. Although figures are not available for the Atomic Energy Authority and the Central Electricity Generating Board, there seems to be some suggestion that some of their employees have been affected. This is aggravated by the National Radiation Protection Board's view that the recommended safety limit be reduced to one third. If that were applied, the numbers exposed to unsafe radiation levels in the industry would rise substantially. That kind of information ought to be available and properly circulated, and people working in the industry should have the right of access to it.
Our most recent experience is the Chernobyl disaster. What happened then is indicative of our country's lack of preparedness in the event of a major accident, not just in the United Kingdom but across the Channel in France or Belgium. Those countries are much closer to us than Kiev, so the intensity of radiation to which we could be exposed and the speed at which it arrived would require much more urgent and coherent reaction than the Chernobyl cloud required. Yet the reaction to Chernobyl was confused and contradictory and did anything but inspire public confidence in our procedures.
Perhaps I could refer the House to a letter in The Independent of 10 August 1988 from a senior registrar in community medicine and a lecturer in community medicine, writing from London NW3. They conducted their own survey of district medical officers to ask how they viewed the response at the time of Chernobyl. The writers had a response rate of 89 per cent., which in itself indicated a high level of concern. Fifty-two per cent. of those responding said that they had tried to get information about local radiation levels but had had little success. The general view was that what information was available was in a form that was unusable, unintelligible and contradictory. It was said that the blind were leading the blind and that the advice which arrived was too little and too late. Two years after the incident, the letter writers' view was that nothing had fundamentally changed.
We need to know how we would respond if--I hope it does not happen--we had an accident close to our shores or within the United Kingdom where it would appear that
Column 410we have no mechanism for ensuring that safety information is properly conveyed to the public, information to which they can have access as of right.
Lack of information leads to a proliferation of rumour and suspicion, which, in return, may lead to an exaggeration of the problem. If, for example, there is a minor radiation leak in a nuclear power station, there is no mechanism for ensuring that the information is made available to the relevant people ; yet in the locality people will hear about it and will assume that it is much worse than it is because, they will argue, why should people cover up if it is only a minor incident? I am sure that the Minister will accept that it would be much better to state clearly the nature of the incident ; then the consumer committees, because they would gain a degree of understanding, could put the matter in its proper perspective.
Having been a very strong critic of the conduct of the nuclear industry, I think that there has been an improvement--although it is not perfect by any means--in recent years. The difficulty is that the industry has spent so many years misleading the public and suppressing information that there is a fundamental inability to take anything that the industry says at face value. People are extremely suspicious.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of suppression of information that the public had a right to know is that of the Windscale fire. It happened a long time ago and we are fortunate that, although it was a serious incident --the most serious in the United Kingdom--we have not had an incident on that scale since. I believe that what happened there is indicative of how serious the suppression problem is. I shall not go into the political domain about the fact that the Prime Minister of the day basically suppressed the information because it was thought to be unwise, undesirable and politically embarrassing to reveal it. My concern is that the National Radiological Protection Board estimated that the Windscale fire led to 260 cases of thyroid cancers, 13 of them fatal.
Another estimate has suggested that there could have been up to 1, 000 fatal cancers linked to that fire. That is serious information. What happened was that there was a fire and a discharge of radiation, and information on the matter was suppressed. People in the area were not told and therefore were not able to take any precautions. They were exposed to excessive levels of radiation and as a result 1,000 people died of cancer during the years that followed. Clearly, if they had had the right of access to that information, some of those deaths would have been avoided because precautions could have been taken at the time.
The right to know is a fundamental right, as is the right to take relevant action to protect one's own life. The new clause would ensure that the consumer committees and the public generally had a right to obtain information relating directly to their health requirements. I believe, therefore, that the new clause would be welcomed.
The Minister should accept the new clause because at the end of the day it will be beneficial to the industry. The industry's record of suppressing information and releasing bits and pieces of information late and in a form that does not increase knowledge, adds to public concern and anxiety and has probably damaged the industry's public image almost irreparably. There is no doubt that, if that action were taken, a start could be made towards ensuring
Column 411that there was greater confidence between the public and the consumer committees and the industry. The public would have the right to information about what was happening in the electricity supply industry that would have implications for their safety and that of those working in the industry.
I hope that the House will accept the new clause.
Mr. Hardy : I shall not take as long as the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce), but I urge the Minister to look favourably on the new clause. I accept that it may have one defect that is perhaps regrettable, which is that it does not refer directly to those who are employed in the industry. However, one assumes that the Democrats were including those people in the reference to members of the public. I believe that the intention of the new clause is one that we should support and, if it comes to a vote, I shall be in the Lobby with the hon. Member for Gordon.
The Minister should recognise that education goes hand in hand with safety. We see far too much of the furtive commitment to secrecy from the present Administration. I shall cite an example. Probably the only open Department of State nowadays is the Department of Transport. It has recognised that it is necessary to put warning notices up on our highways. I accept that under this Administration warning notices proliferate much more than they have ever before. However, if the Department of Transport feels that it is necessary to warn people of approaching road hazards, surely the Department of Energy should insist that a similar approach is adopted for generation. I am not talking only of nuclear generation. I accept, too, that the hon. Member for Gordon was not restricting his remarks to that sector.
The Government must recognise that people demand more information. About two days after the Chernobyl incident I recall a member of the present Cabinet saying to me, "Is it not disgraceful that the Russians are not saying anything about this event that is reported to have happened in the Soviet Union?" I said, "I don't know anything about it, but, if they don't say anything about it, it would, indeed, be disgraceful and disreputable." After the first few days the Russians were quite severely criticised for an excessive reticence, which may have been due to an excessive bureaucracy. However, the fact remains that after that period of discretion, reticence, or whatever one likes to call it, they were a great deal more open and informative in telling the world about the details of that dreadful accident that some Western countries have been in regard to incidents or accidents in their plants, which, fortunately, have not been on the same scale as Chernobyl. However, that perhaps is a matter of fortune rather than of skilled administration.
We have been too furtive. In the past decade we have seen example after example of the use of public resources for unnecessary secrecy. I learned the other day that there are techniques and staff in the public service in various Government Departments devoted to detecting photocopies of pieces of paper. That causes one to wonder sometimes about the Minister's hesitation in incurring expenditure on matters which are perhaps far more in the public good.
I believe that the new clause is a good one. I hope that the Minister will respond positively to it, because with new clause 11 have been selected Government amendments Nos. 2 and 28. The Minister will recall that, in Committee, he appeared to be slightly persuaded when I moved