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Atomic Energy Policy

5. Dr. Julian Lewis (New Forest, East): How many times he has met the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority in 1998 to discuss energy policy. [45574]

The Minister for Education and Industry, Scottish Office (Mr. Brian Wilson): Earlier this year, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State met the chief executive of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority to discuss nuclear issues.

Dr. Lewis: We have learnt that in March the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority had already recommended closing Dounreay. That was at about the time the Prime Minister agreed to accept a further nuclear shipment from Georgia. Was the Prime Minister informed of that UKAEA recommendation and, if so, why did he not tell the full story to the House? If he was not informed, who at the Scottish Office was responsible for the failure to inform him? If that failure was the fault of the Scottish Office, is that not another reason why the Secretary of State's reputation is fast approaching critical nuclear meltdown?

Mr. Wilson: If I knew who the hon. Gentleman was, I would be able to reassure him personally that the Secretary of State's reputation across the political spectrum in Scotland is extremely good, and it is based on integrity over many years in public life. The decision to accept the Georgian shipment was based entirely on our international commitments and it would have been a dereliction of duty not to accept that small cargo when we had the capacity to do so. I am proud of the fact that we in this country are willing to accept our international obligations--and we shall continue to do so.

Miss Anne Begg (Aberdeen, South): My hon. Friend will remember the BBC programme "Frontline Scotland" that exposed last year the existence of the waste shaft at Dounreay and nuclear hot spots on the beach there. What action are the Government taking to ensure that the Dounreay site is safer?

Mr. Wilson: We are doing a great deal. My hon. Friend mentioned the waste shaft. The problems associated with it did not arise after 1 May last year; they developed over many years--and Conservative Members have the brass neck even to raise this issue. The previous Administration completely ignored the problems, presumably in the hope that they would go away or not be noticed. This Government came to power, recognised the problems at Dounreay and acted on the waste shaft, just as we acted on other issues that arose at Dounreay over a long period.

If ever a Government inherited problems that they did not create, and showed that they had the courage to face up to them, it is the present Government, in our response to the problems that had built up over the years at Dounreay.

Ms Roseanna Cunningham (Perth): The Minister will be newly aware of the fact that 75 kg of weapons grade

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plutonium will shortly be on its way to Dounreay. Will he now advise us how many other commercial reprocessing contracts are outstanding for Dounreay?

Mr. Wilson: It is the usual stuff from the SNP. To throw in--

Ms Cunningham: It is a straight question.

Mr. Wilson: If it were a straight question, it would not be the usual stuff from the SNP; the hon. Member for Perth (Ms Cunningham) should listen to the answer. She threw in the words "weapons grade". Is the implication that Dounreay is being used in connection with nuclear weapons? Is that the scaremongering impression that she tries to convey to people watching our proceedings?

What is being done is entirely in line with the commitment that existing contracts would be dealt with. That is the commitment; it is a binding contract, and it will be dealt with. The hon. Lady does no favours with her scaremongering--not to me, not to Members of the House, and above all not to constituents of the right hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (Mr. Maclennan) who have worked in that industry for many years and have made a major contribution to the science, technology and economy of Scotland and the United Kingdom.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (Linlithgow): On the Minister's recent visit to Dounreay, what did the shop stewards and professional associations say to him, and what did he say to them, about their future?

Mr. Wilson: I had many conversations during my recent visit. It was a very positive occasion, because it was the occasion of the announcement of a major inward investment in Thurso, as a spin-off from the presence of Dounreay in Caithness. As a result, some 500 jobs will be created by AEA Technologies and its Japanese partners in the manufacture of renewable batteries; that was extremely positive. As always, when I speak to people who have given their life to Dounreay and have contributed so much to the Dounreay economy, they say that they despair of the ignorance, the scaremongering, the hysteria and the utter disregard for the feelings of families in Caithness who have lived with the plant for a long time and have a very much fuller awareness of what goes on there, and has gone on there, than the hon. Member for Perth will have if she lives to be 100.

Dr. Liam Fox (Woodspring): Perhaps I can help the Minister by asking a question to which there is a very simple answer. How far into the decommissioning process will we be able to fulfil our international treaty obligations at Dounreay?

Mr. Wilson: I am not quite clear about the question, but I am sure that, if the hon. Gentleman addresses it to the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, it will give him a far more technically reliable answer than he would expect from me at the Dispatch Box. The hon. Gentleman shakes his head. I wish that anyone who was a member of the previous Government would make the slightest effort to defend the fact that, for 18 years, the Tories allowed the problems of Dounreay to accumulate and did absolutely nothing to address them. The Government are addressing

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the problems, but we are also determined to maintain employment for people in Caithness, because we are aware of social and economic factors as well as of the legitimate safety concerns that have been expressed.

Direct Labour Organisations

6. Mr. Andrew Rowe (Faversham and Mid-Kent): What steps he intends to take to regulate direct labour organisations. [45575]

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Donald Dewar): The Government will not tolerate incompetence or inefficiency. I expect all councils to look critically at whether direct provision is required, and to put performance and value for money at the centre of all that they do.

Mr. Rowe: What steps will the Secretary of State take to ensure that the appalling problems that have arisen in Scottish local government do not afflict the new Scottish Parliament?

Mr. Dewar: I remain an optimist about the Scottish Parliament, and I am sure that that optimism is shared by the hon. Gentleman, who always has the slight air of a rebel on the Conservative Benches. I do not believe that comparison with local government is relevant. At the end of the day, Westminster's powers will go to the Scottish Parliament; local government will not be raided. The Scottish Parliament will be a policy-making legislative body; local government, essentially, is involved in the provision of local services. I do not therefore believe that the machinery is the same, or that the parallel is relevant.

Mr. Malcolm Savidge (Aberdeen, North): What effect does my right hon. Friend believe compulsory competitive tendering and local government reorganisation have had on the regulation of direct labour organisations?

Mr. Dewar: The consequences of the last reorganisation of local government--which was very much a pattern imposed by a Government who, however honourably they may have acted, did not command widespread support in Scotland--were undoubtedly a great deal of disruption, financial difficulties and unavoidable expenses that are still being met by council tax payers and taxpayers. That is perhaps an answer for Conservative Front-Bench spokesmen who now worry about such matters.

North Lanarkshire

7. Mr. Jonathan Sayeed (Mid-Bedfordshire): If he will make a statement about the current level of non-housing debt in the North Lanarkshire local authority. [45576]

Hon. Members: Hurry up.

The Secretary of State for Scotland (Mr. Donald Dewar): My apologies, Madam Speaker. It is worth waiting for, though--it is all good stuff and a very precise answer. Non-housing capital debt in North Lanarkshire council was £256.8 million at 31 March 1997.

Mr. Sayeed: That is an unusually helpful answer from the Labour party. Did Labour not know about those

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problems when Neil Kinnock was Leader of the Opposition, but nothing was done; when the late John Smith was Leader of the Opposition, and nothing was done; and when the Prime Minister was Leader of the Opposition, and nothing was done? Only now, when Labour is in government--and because those councillors have served their purpose and got Labour into power--is the Labour party prepared to do anything. For all those years, the people of Monklands and North Lanarkshire have had to pay through the nose for incompetence or worse.

Mr. Dewar: I totally failed to follow the logic of the hon. Gentleman's question, which seemed to have many of the characteristics of any early Monty Python without the humour. I am sure the hon. Gentleman appreciates that the £256.8 million is long-term debt for financing a number of capital projects. There was repayment of more than £10 million in the last financial year. That matter is not in dispute; the situation is under control. Interest payments are, of course, met directly from Government grant. I hope that that provides some consolation for the hon. Gentleman, and that he will go home a rather happier man.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East): I think the thrust of the Opposition's second question was about the performance of local authorities in general. Will the Secretary of State take the trouble to commend the many local authorities in Scotland that have done a wonderful job in the face of adversity and attack from the Conservatives over 18 years? Will he give the House a possible timetable for the publication of performance indicators that the Government will release? When are the performance plans of local authorities likely to be presented to the public? I am sure that the Secretary of State will join me in saying that, in many cases and for many services, they will show the excellent performance of local authorities in Scotland.

Mr. Dewar: Of course I am glad to pay tribute to the very many effective and hard-working councillors--many of whom are my personal friends--who dedicate themselves to delivering in local government. It is a service to them to try to root out and deal with any abuse that occurs. However, we must be very careful about how we judge such matters. For example, I am informed that Bedfordshire county council, which is Conservative controlled, is running a debt of £120 million in its housing department for the current year. I do not know the circumstances in Cambridge, so I do not condemn that local authority; I suspect that those on the Opposition Benches would sometimes be wise to exercise a similar caution.

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