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UK Atomic Energy Authority

3.30 pm

Mr. Matthew Taylor (Truro and St. Austell) (by private notice): To ask the President of the Board of Trade whether she will make a statement regarding the resignation of Anthony Pointer as chief constable of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, and the reported threat to security at United Kingdom atomic energy installations due to staff shortages.

The Minister for Science, Energy and Industry (Mr. John Battle): I should inform the House that the chief constable of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority constabulary, Mr. Anthony Pointer, resigned in late January, though the resignation takes effect from the end of this week. It occurred while discussion was under way in the UKAEA on the need for six extra police to be added to existing UKAEA numbers at Dounreay to increase the effectiveness of armed response capabilities at the site. At no stage has the chief constable expressed concern about the effectiveness of security at any other nuclear site.

Mr. Pointer tendered his resignation some months ago. The UKAEA and the adviser to the police authority, Sir John Woodcock, a former chief inspector of constabulary, attempted to dissuade him from resigning; but he resigned while the question of the constabulary complement was still under discussion in the UKAEA. Agreement to the six extra police that he had requested was concluded shortly thereafter. The agreement was reported to the police authority meeting in early February, where the chief constable, Mr. Pointer, declared himself satisfied with the extra staff numbers. The additional six police agreed are already in place at Dounreay and have been since March.

Mr. Taylor: Does the Minister agree that the information should have been brought to the attention of the House at an earlier stage--especially about the security concerns that the chief constable had about British nuclear installations? Can he confirm that that comes on the back of previous expressions of concern, not least in the previous year's annual report of the chief constable, about a one-third decline in numbers in the constabulary? Can he say whether the chief constable's concerns on staffing, which were expressed not only in January but on previous occasions, have been met?

Given the expression of concern by the British intelligence and police services and by the American Government about security at British nuclear installations, not least Dounreay, was it not incumbent on Ministers to give such information to hon. Members when a statement was made last week on the import of weapons-grade material to Dounreay?

Is not it time for a full inquiry--perhaps through a Select Committee or through Privy Council members, because of the sensitive nature of the issue--which should report to the House so that we can be satisfied that British nuclear installations are safe and secure as one of the world's largest depositories of plutonium?

Mr. Battle: We cannot call for a full inquiry when there is no problem. The chief constable agrees with that.

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These are operational matters for the UKAEA, but it was in the public domain some time ago that the chief constable had tendered his resignation.

Of course UKAEA constabulary numbers are lower than they were some years ago. The constabulary is at its full complement--the agreed strength of 470. That is the figure required for security to be in full command of the situation. The numbers are lower because there are now fewer nuclear establishment sites, so they do not need the numbers that there were in 1987.

Security is maintained in full conformity with international recommendations and requirements and with national standards. Those standards are kept under constant review by the Directorate of Civil Nuclear Security. The Director of Civil Nuclear Security who is responsible for the setting of standards of physical security on all sites and for auditing security overall has confirmed that he is content with the standard of security now in place at Dounreay and at all the other nuclear sites. I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Gentleman, but there is no problem.

Mr. Tim Boswell (Daventry): The House will accept that the detailed consideration of security matters is not best rehearsed in this place. However, does the Minister accept that we have a duty to ask, and he to give assurances in general terms, about the security of nuclear installations, the more so as the Government have this week taken on themselves the rescue of the material from Georgia and its transfer to Scotland on a non-returnable basis, in the interests of the security of that material and of the global community?

Can the Minister give the House these explicit assurances? First, is he satisfied that nuclear security at Dounreay and other establishments is and will remain adequate for any anticipated threat? Secondly, is the staffing of the Atomic Energy Authority police at the various establishments at all times maintained at an adequate level to deal with any perceived threat?

Thirdly, what considerations--again, in general terms--led to a recent increase in staffing levels, including the appointment of six extra officers at Dounreay? Did that proposal have the support of the UKAEA board, and will the board or the Department carry the cost of the extra staff? Did the proposal have anything to do with any paper or real exercises conducted on the security at Dounreay or other establishments?

Fourthly, did Mr. Pointer resign because of the staffing problems? If he thinks that they were being rectified, why did he not stay? It seems strange that a chief constable is being lost after only 18 months in the post.

Fifthly, is there not a case, which I hope the Minister will consider, for some further measure of independence and a higher profile than hitherto for the independent Directorate of Civil Nuclear Security? The director could then, in principle, draw attention to any failures whose disclosure he considered to be in the public interest, at least on the restricted basis with which we are becoming familiar in the case of security matters--for example, on a Privy Councillor level.

Finally, as the Government are fond of simplifying issues, will the Minister tell us explicitly which he is prepared to put first--nuclear security or the cost of securing that installation?

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Mr. Battle: Security and safety at those establishments are paramount, as I made plain. The hon. Gentleman asked whether we are satisfied with security arrangements. The answer to his three questions is yes, yes and yes. We attach the utmost importance to security at Dounreay and all other sites.

The Directorate of Civil Nuclear Security is the standard setter and auditor of security in the civil nuclear industry. It works closely with the Department of Trade and Industry on a regular, almost day-to-day if not hourly basis from time to time, as the ultimate regulator of security in the industry. That is why I believe that matters are well under control.

I referred earlier to the full complement of 470 constables. That is regarded as satisfactory by the Directorate of Civil Nuclear Security. Of course, standards are kept under constant review.

As to the hon. Gentleman's question about the resignation of the chief constable, he was pressed to withdraw his resignation. Why he did not do so is obviously a matter for him. His request for extra police officers at Dounreay--which was under review by the UKAEA at the time--was agreed by the UKAEA management within days of the chief constable's resignation. At a police authority meeting this February the chief constable, Mr. Pointer, said that he was satisfied with the outcome of that review. Therefore, his failure to withdraw his resignation is obviously a matter for him.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): Does my hon. Friend know whether the hon. Member for Truro and St. Austell (Mr. Taylor) who asked this mischievous question--and whose constituency is located some 700 miles from Dounreay--has taken the trouble to visit that facility and talk to Roy Nelson or the trade unions involved? Does he understand that trade unionists and others who work in those plants are extremely proud--and rightly so--of what they have achieved for Britain and what they can achieve for all people on the face of the planet? Is it not right that their case should be put properly and their pride in their industry registered by the House?

Mr. Battle: I am extremely grateful to my hon. Friend for that contribution--not least because he used the word "mischievous". I believe that it is irresponsible to be mischievous in this area. I have visited the site at Dounreay--I do not know whether Opposition Members have--and, on my recent visit, I saw the new inner security fence that has cost more than £1 million and the new state-of-the-art alarm systems that were installed last year. Judging from some comments in recent days and hours, one would think that there is no security. However, I am confident that the security systems are in place.

Mr. Douglas Hogg (Sleaford and North Hykeham): Will the Minister tell the House why we were not told in last Wednesday's statement about the chief constable's anxieties? Will the Minister tell the House whether the Prime Minister was aware of those anxieties when he entered into the secret agreement with President Clinton? Does the Minister understand that many of us find it difficult to reconcile his statement that all is well at Dounreay with the chief constable's determination to resign?

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