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10.49 am

The Minister of State, Home Office (Ms Joyce Quin): I congratulate the hon. Member for Worthing, West (Mr. Bottomley) on choosing this subject for debate and on the characteristically thoughtful way in which he introduced it. It is good to see the hon. Member for Congleton (Mrs. Winterton) on the Front Bench.I congratulate her warmly on her appointment. We welcomed her contribution and reaction to the statement made by my right hon. Friend the President of the Council and Leader of the House of Commons on the Government's drugs strategy.

There have been several contributions to the debate; obviously, they have been made by hon. Members who feel strongly about the issues, and they have raised some important points. I welcome the thrust of the contribution by the hon. Member for Hertsmere (Mr. Clappison). There were many points made during the debate with which I agree and some from Opposition Members and my hon. Friends with which I do not agree. I shall refer to those comments, particularly to some of the questions directed to me by the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Mr. Clark).

The misuse of drugs, as hon. Members have recognised, raises a range of complicated and interlocking issues. In the short time available to me, I shall concentrate mainly on the threat posed to young people by drug misuse and on the crime generated by an addict's need to buy drugs. Both those themes came out strongly during the debate.

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The hon. Member for Worthing, West talked about the need to look at changing attitudes and changing culture, and made some interesting points. He looked also at the effects of drug-related crime, the havoc that it can cause in some neighbourhoods and the individual heartbreak that it can cause to victims of such crimes.

Information on the level of drug misuse is hard to obtain, and I do not believe that any simple statement about whether the problem is getting better or worse is likely to do justice to the complex reality. However, clearer information is emerging from research both on the levels of drug misuse in the general population and on the extent and nature of drug-related crime. I believe that that improving research can help us draw up effective policies in response.

We are looking at a serious problem. On some measures it is stabilising and on others the trend remains alarming. For that reason, there can be no room for complacency, and there should not be any facile assumption that we are losing the war against drugs or that the cause is lost. I do not believe that; nor do the Government.

We know that young people are increasingly exposed to illegal drugs, as well as to alcohol and tobacco at even earlier ages. Some young people may be at particular risk because of other problems, perhaps to do with their family, housing, education or employment prospects. The activities of the Home Office drugs prevention initiative have included important work with young people. From that, we are finding that young people are concerned about drug-related risks and worried about the dangers. I believe that people, including young people, want reliable information about drugs. It is possible to reach those particularly at risk through existing services, but we need to stop as many youngsters as possible from experimenting with drugs. I believe that drug education can play an important role in that.

Recently, the Home Office drugs prevention initiative published an evaluation of one life skills drugs education programme. The objectives of the programme were to equip youngsters with the social competence necessary to cope with the pressure to begin using drugs, to enhance their self-awareness and self-esteem and increase their knowledge of the harmful consequences of substance misuse. The children from the programme were followed up four years after their initial involvement. The programme was piloted in three primary schools in Hackney in 1991-92 and the children were aged 13 to 14 when they were followed up in 1996.

The findings showed that those young people had a more negative attitude toward drugs than their contemporaries. They demonstrated a greater ability to resist peer pressure, which is an important part of the process, and were less likely than their contemporaries to have used legal or illegal drugs. Those encouraging findings provide important evidence on what works. They help to support the arguments that have been made for investing in drugs education and prevention for young people, which is part of our new drugs strategy.

Mr. Flynn: I believe that my hon. Friend is referring to Operation Charlie. May we consider bigger anti-drug propaganda and educational activities such as those which

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have been run for many years against the use of cigarettes? Does my hon. Friend judge those to have been successful with young people?

Ms Quin: Obviously, there have been mixed results. It is possible to change attitudes and culture, and the evidence quoted this morning on drink driving was an interesting example. We need to learn lessons from such experience, to find the most effective way to deal with the problem. It is obviously important to look at ways of imparting information and connecting with young people in a relevant way. The hon. Member for Worthing, West referred to some of those approaches.

I shall look now at the link between drugs and crime. Until fairly recently, our perception of the extent and nature of drug-related crime was ill defined. Various estimates of the extent of such crime had been made, but Home Office research published last month is helping to clarify the picture.

That research involved interviewing and urine testing a range of people held in police custody in five locations--Sunderland, Nottingham, Cambridge, Hammersmith in London and Trafford in Manchester. It showed that the level of drug misuse among offenders was remarkably high compared with the general population. More than 61 per cent. of arrestees proved to have one or more prohibited drugs in their urine and27 per cent. tested positive for two or more prohibited drugs. As a result of that research, we believe that referral systems at court level, as well as early intervention, will be particularly important in trying to get people off drugs at that stage.

I was interested to visit the "Get It While You Can" project in Brighton which involves going to see people who are being held in police custody and encouraging them to be referred to treatment services at that early stage. I believe that that early referral is extremely important in helping to tackle drug misuse and drug-related crime, which is so clearly revealed by the statistics.

The hon. Member for Hertsmere said that drug treatment and testing orders were an important part of the Government's proposals. That is true and we want to build on it. We will pilot that programme to see what lessons we can learn in the early months. I can tell the hon.

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Gentleman clearly that we are determined to take that programme forward. We believe that it will be an important part of our strategy.

I shall now say something about drugs in prison, about which I know that there is great interest. Unfortunately, I have only a couple of minutes left.

I do not accept many of the comments made by the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea, and I urge him to visit some prison establishments and to talk to prison staff and prison governors. The Prison Service is a disciplined service. It is given a framework in which it has to operate by the Government and the Director General of the Prison Service. That framework is built on a clear anti-drugs strategy, which was introduced by the Conservative party when in government. As the hon. Member for Hertsmere pointed out, that has had some success.

This is a considerable problem, so I shall certainly not gloss over it and say that there are no drugs in prisons or take a view that is artificially opposed to that expressed by the right hon. Member for Kensington and Chelsea. However, I am absolutely certain that the right hon. Gentleman's extravagant comments are simply not borne out by the facts.

Mr. Alan Clark: It is the director general.

Ms Quin: It is not the director general. The right hon. Gentleman does not seem to understand the difference between the Director General of the Prison Service and the chief inspector of prisons. Although the chief inspector of prisons has rightly drawn attention to problems in some prison establishments, he has not expressed himself in the way that the right hon. Gentleman did at Home Office Question Time on Monday, when he completely overstated the problem and tried to convince us that drugs were somehow encouraged in prisons. That is simply not the case. The results of mandatory drugs testing, as well as a panoply of measures on security, searches, testing and penalties, which we have added--

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Sir Alan Haselhurst): Order. We must now move on to the debate on plutonium disposition policy.

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11 am

Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): I am grateful for the opportunity to open this debate on plutonium disposition and the growing problem of Britain's, and the world's, plutonium stockpiles.

The timing of the debate is particularly interesting in view of recent events at Dounreay and the treatment of uranium from Georgia and events in India during the past few days. The Indian Government have conducted surprising nuclear tests that raise questions about the future of the comprehensive test ban treaty and the possibility of completing the nuclear proliferation treaty.

The question of plutonium disposition is critical for the British economy, the environment and for the health and safety of everyone in the UK, not just those who live close to nuclear power stations. It is also critical for the Government's ability to work across Departments. I am pleased to see that my hon. Friend the Minister for Science, Energy and Industry is here to respond to the debate, but responsibility for this matter does not lie solely with the Department of Trade and Industry--it is a matter for several Government Departments, and I look to the Government to act corporately on it.

The issue also concerns the credibility of the Government's standing in the international community in terms of our ability to show leadership on difficult issues and to negotiate with Governments with different perspectives on matters that can ultimately be resolved only at an international level.

During the past nine months, there has been unprecedented interest in the future of nuclear policy in Britain. At the end of last year, two major reports were published on mixed oxide fuel: the first by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, the second by the alternative group of scientists who published the international MOX assessment report. Earlier this year, we had an annual report on sustainable development from the Government's panel, which drew attention to the pressing need for the Government to take a lead on the growing problem of radioactive waste. A report on the management of separated plutonium was then published by the Royal Society, which makes an important recommendation to which I shall return later.

Several Government Departments have decisions pending. In the DTI there is a review of energy policy generally; the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is considering Sellafield discharge authorisations and the application to start commercial production at the Sellafield MOX plant; in the Foreign Office, negotiations are continuing on nuclear proliferation. The significance of those negotiations has been heightened by the events in India earlier this week.

This debate is not primarily about Dounreay and Georgian uranium, although I am sure hon. Members will wish to comment on that and on reprocessing at Dounreay in view of yesterday's decision on safety matters there. Nor is it primarily about what we should do as a result of the Indian nuclear tests, although yesterday's decision now opens the possibility of a further increase in the nuclear arms race in that part of the world. That relates directly to the global problem of stockpiles of plutonium.

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Nor do I regard this debate as simply an opportunity to bash the nuclear industry, although there are grounds for criticising it over many years, not only because it has given misleading information about the cost of nuclear energy--ironically, that information was finally corrected by the accountants charged with preparing the electricity industry for privatisation--but because it has given misleading information about its links with the military. Indeed, it denied that there was any connection between civil production and military use of plutonium. Many attempts have been made to conceal serious safety incidents, ranging from the Windscale fire of 1956 to the problem with the Dounreay shaft, which was exposed recently.

The British nuclear industry has a phenomenal record of technological innovation. It has a high level of technical skill and is a world leader in nuclear technology. Moreover, it has the capacity to solve for this country and others the legacy of 40 years of mistakes in the nuclear industry and to provide the dream of safe nuclear power at some stage in the future--possibly.

This debate is really about how the Government should respond to the legacy of mistakes and learn the lessons of misguided policies, not only by the previous Government but by Governments before them. It is about taking an objective look at the options for dealing with the growing stockpiles. I was much encouraged, at a recent meeting organised by the GLOBE parliamentary group in the House, when the spokesman for the British Nuclear Industry Forum said that the reprocessing route, which has been the favoured route to date, was questionable. He said:

It was refreshing to hear such honesty from the industry and to see that it is now questioning and criticising the reprocessing route.

I shall give the facts about the scale of the problem of plutonium stockpiles. The global stockpile now amounts to some 1,240 tonnes--of one of the most dangerous substances on earth. It is predicted almost to double by 2010. The stockpile of global spent reactor fuel is now about 800 tonnes. That, too, is predicted almost to double by 2010. The United Kingdom stockpile of separated plutonium as a result of reprocessing is now 50 tonnes and is predicted almost to double by 2010, by which time Britain's share of the global stockpile of separated plutonium will be about two thirds. This is clearly an international problem of growing significance, but the stockpiles of separated plutonium are a particularly British problem.

Radiotoxicity is one aspect of the problem. Although it is now generally accepted that safety standards and modern techniques in nuclear installations provide far better safeguards for people working in them than was the case some years ago, that must be qualified by the continuing reports of incidents and the record, over a number of years, of accidents of some kind. However, discharges into the environment give continuing cause for concern. The radioactive content of liquid discharges is up to 1,000 times stronger than the content of discharges into the air; hence many people's strong opposition to the policy of discharges into the Irish sea and the recent call by environmental groups for a complete ban on such discharging. Everybody knows about the Sellafield radioactive pigeons, but radioactive shellfish probably give more serious cause for concern.

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The second aspect of the problem is proliferation. Our minds have been focused by the events in India and, dare I say, the possible response by the Pakistan Government in the next few days. After many years of denials in this country that reactor grade plutonium could be used to manufacture nuclear weapons, several leading scientists have recently confirmed that it is possible to construct a crude nuclear device from separated plutonium. The current stockpile in the United Kingdom could be used to create several hundred such devices. It takes little imagination to understand the attractiveness of that option to terrorists, mercenaries and rogue regimes, especially in view of the political instability that prevails in many parts of the world.

The current solution to the problem is to accept the nuclear industry's argument that stockpiles will be dealt with by reprocessing. For more than 30 years, successive Governments have committed the British taxpayer to ever-increasing subsidy--explicit and concealed--to finance the great reprocessing experiment in the search for the virtuous circle of infinitely recyclable fuel.

The project was based on several assumptions: first, that the cold war would create endless demand for plutonium for nuclear weapons; secondly, that the availability of uranium would be severely restricted and its price therefore huge; thirdly, that fast-breeder reactors would be developed, endlessly to consume plutonium stockpiles; fourthly, that nuclear energy would eventually become dominant, if not supreme, in the national energy programme on the grounds of its cost and the availability of fuel supply; and, fifthly, that a solution would be found to the problem of storage of intermediate and high-level wastes. The preferred solution was a deep nuclear waste depository.

During the past 30 years, each assumption has been discredited and made obsolete by events. The cold war has ended and the United States of America and the former Soviet Union are reducing their stockpiles of nuclear weapons. Yesterday, President Clinton was one of the first to condemn India for reversing the move to disarmament internationally. New sources of uranium have been discovered and there are plentiful supplies at comparatively low cost. The United Kingdom withdrew support for our fast-breeder reactor programme some years ago and shortly after its general election last year, France announced the end of the Superphenix fast-breeder reactor.

Although nuclear power generates about a third of British electricity, it faces an uncertain future. At the beginning of their regime, the Thatcher Government promised a new nuclear power station every year. That programme was quickly abandoned. It is difficult to envisage a private investor proposing to build a nuclear power station, largely because of greater awareness of the effects and costs of decommissioning.

The final nail in the coffin was the refusal shortly before the general election last year by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer), the former Secretary of State for the Environment, of Nirex's application for a deep depository at Sellafield. The implications are interesting, because it will be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for British Nuclear Fuels to pursue the practice of substitution, whereby it returns a radiologically equivalent amount of high-level waste to the foreign generator, thus reducing the cost of reprocessing by saving the transport cost of returning the

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much bulkier intermediate or low-level waste. The fact that the cost of transporting intermediate-level waste is about 80 per cent. of the cost of sending the spent fuel to the United Kingdom has major implications for the cost of reprocessing.

The tragedy is that all that was widely understood before the previous Government approved the construction of the thermal oxide reprocessing plant at Sellafield, which firmly committed the United Kingdom to at least a decade of reprocessing, and continued the great British tradition of pursuing grand projects long after the original purpose has been left behind by events. Hon. Members may have favourite examples of such projects.

It is important to mention the role of mixed oxide fuel in the reprocessing industry and, in particular, BNFL's intention to establish a commercial production facility for MOX at Sellafield and develop what would essentially be an international trade in plutonium. Hon. Members should consider the impact of an international free market in plutonium following the events in India earlier this week. Do we really think that the way forward to global security is to allow India, Pakistan, North Korea, Iran, Iraq and Israel to benefit from a free market in plutonium?I think not.

For the nuclear reprocessing industry, MOX is the final link in the chain, because it creates a new fuel from separated plutonium and uranium that can be used in certain reactors. Significantly, MOX will not be used in British nuclear reactors. A spokesman for British Energy said recently:

advanced gas-cooled reactor--

    "to use the new MOX fuel. It is not just a case of cost either. It would require a lot of extra shielding and protection for our workers. It would be difficult, if not impossible, for us to use MOX fuel."

Consequently, BNFL considers the future of MOX to be in international contracts. If the MOX plant is approved, there will be a dramatic escalation of the quantity of spent nuclear fuel being flown and transported by train from all parts of the globe for reprocessing and remanufacture into MOX at Sellafield. We need only consider the intense opposition in recent years, especially in Germany, to appreciate how public opinion might be affected by an escalation in Britain's role in taking in the world's radioactive waste.

Apart from the dubious economics of such an international trade in plutonium, the increased potential for nuclear accidents caused by spent fuel making more journeys over greater distances and the threat of nuclear terrorism, there is the question of the impact of MOX on the plutonium stockpile and the stockpile of other intermediate and high-level nuclear wastes. Although the manufacture of MOX consumes some of the stockpile, it creates more plutonium for recycling and even more waste, which we do not have the faintest idea how to deal with. Significantly, the December 1997 OECD report on MOX did not refer to the problem of intermediate and high-level waste created by MOX production.

There is an alternative. For a number of years, the consensus among those who are primarily concerned about protecting the environment against radioactive discharges and nuclear accidents and about reducing the risk of nuclear terrorism and proliferation has been to

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abandon reprocessing and to adopt a policy of dry storage. Dry storage of spent fuel can be either by vitrification in glass blocks or by ceramic immobilisation. Either way, the material can be stored indefinitely, in a geological depository, or temporarily, until technology develops to perfect other safe and environmentally harmless ways of disposing of spent fuel.

It is conceivable that the fast breeder dream will one day be realised. Only Japan is continuing research on a fast breeder, but we must accept that its attempts may be successful. Reactors may be developed that do not use plutonium. The dry storage option would buy time for future research to prove itself. No one pretends that that option is cheap or simple, but it is generally accepted that it is cheaper and safer than reprocessing and avoids the risks of transporting material over long distances and of proliferation and theft.

We are left with a legacy to manage for hundreds, if not thousands, of years. The Royal Society report on the management of separated plutonium states:

Current Government policy is to delegate responsibility for the decision about plutonium stockpiles to the commercial judgment of the owners of the spent fuel. In view of the changing circumstances in recent years, that is no longer a sensible policy. I do not believe that the enormous implications for everyone of the growing plutonium stockpiles can be left solely in the hands of the operators. Plutonium is no respecter of international borders. The size and scale of the problem, its international dimension, the potential impact on the environment and on people's health and safety and the impact across the globe if we get it wrong combine to argue powerfully that the matter is for the Government as a whole, and that all Governments must take responsibility.

I therefore propose five steps towards a new approach to the problem of plutonium stockpiles. I accept that few of these fall within the remit of my hon. Friend the Minister for Science, Energy and Industry, which highlights the fact that the issue crosses the whole of the Government, but I should be grateful if he could comment generally on them in his response.

First, it is important that the Environment Agency completes the review, for which the previous Government asked, into the operation of Sellafield and THORP before continuing work on making recommendations on the application for commercial production of MOX at Sellafield. Secondly, although the Environment Agency has responsibility for considering the MOX application and making a recommendation, that must ultimately be a political decision, so I hope that the matter will be called in by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for the Environment, Transport and the Regions.

Thirdly, I endorse the Royal Society's call for a national inquiry into plutonium disposition. Its report of January this year states:

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    I hope that the Government will respond positively to that recommendation.

Fourthly, to illustrate that this is not a matter only for the United Kingdom or any individual state, the Government have an opportunity to take an international lead, as we did in the negotiations on climate change in Kyoto, by convening an international conference to agree an international strategy for dealing with plutonium stockpiles. That conference should include such issues as establishing an international register of fissile material, the potential for placing all nuclear establishments under an agreed international safeguard regime and a review of the potential conflict of interest between some of the functions of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

Finally, the Government must do everything possible to press ahead with international negotiations on the nuclear non-proliferation treaty and to push for an international fissile cut-off treaty, which has already been agreed in principle by Governments.

I want my Government to demonstrate that they can respond, across Departments and reconciling their different perspectives, to the changed circumstances of the post cold war period and to the new environmental agenda. Our commitment to putting the environment at the heart of government is central to our future policy on reprocessing and plutonium stockpiles. It would be an enormous disappointment to many millions of people if the new Labour Government simply continued with the old nuclear policies.

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