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Mr. Pike: Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Mr. Evans: No. After what people have heard this evening, I suspect that even fewer will vote in future.

11.24 pm

Mrs. Roe: With the leave of the House, I shall wind up the debate. Many hon. Members have made points and it is courteous to try to respond.

The debate has been interesting and I am grateful to all hon. Members who contributed to it. I thank the Parliamentary Secretary for his support and I agree that all the souvenirs that are sold here should reflect the dignity of the House and be of high quality.

I thank my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire (Sir G. Young) for his support. He raised several questions. I agree that we should monitor carefully any possible abuse of charging by the operator. I made that point and we put it in the report, quite legitimately, to bring it to the attention of the House and so that everybody will know that we shall keep a careful eye on it.

On Members' use of the Line of Route in August and September, my right hon. Friend the Member for North-West Hampshire suggested that every day might not be needed. I have given my word that there will be no change in the current arrangements and my right hon. Friend will understand that this is not a matter that the Administration Committee should consider at this time. Members will have the same opportunity to bring their constituents to the House as they do now.

18 Jan 2000 : Column 815

I thank the hon. Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike) for his support and also for his suggestion about the survey that might take place among visitors. I am sure that the organisers will note that extremely helpful suggestion.

Mr. Campbell-Savours: Will the hon. Lady make it clear to those who operate the system that we will reverse it if they abuse it?

Mrs. Roe: That, of course, is the ultimate sanction and I am certain that the organisers will understand that that is exactly what will happen if they do not toe the line and behave honourably.

I am most grateful to the hon. Member for North Cornwall (Mr. Tyler) for his support and also for his advice and assistance during our deliberations while we were suggesting the new framework and when the whole matter was being reconsidered. I am delighted that the hon. Member for Thurrock (Mr. Mackinlay) will not vote against the motion and I reiterate that we shall monitor take-up of the tickets. On merchandising, I have already explained that I believe that high quality is very important. The Administration Committee is of course not responsible for that end of the House of Commons' selling programme, which comes under the Catering Committee, and I am sure that the Chairman of that Committee will note the points that he has made.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst (Mr. Forth) and my hon. Friend the Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans) argued for visits to the Palace to be totally free, but visits are not free at the moment unless visitors are personally escorted by an hon. Member or by a member of staff. As I said in my opening speech, under the present arrangements many people already pay a modest charge to come through--

Mr. Pike: Will the hon. Lady give way?

Mrs. Roe: No, because I have only three minutes in which to speak.

Mr. Pike: On a quick point?

Mrs. Roe: I shall give way briefly.

Mr. Pike: In answer to the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans), will not the overwhelming majority of people--whether they visit the Palace in the recess or at another time or go into the Gallery--come into the building absolutely free?

Mrs. Roe: That is absolutely right, and I am sure that my hon. Friend has taken that point on board.

I find the remarks of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bromley and Chislehurst confusing, because I feel that he was suggesting that the guests of hon. Members might pay to come into the House and the general public might not. Surely that cannot be right. Perhaps I misunderstood and he was advocating scrapping the present arrangements so that guests cannot take part in any tour if an hon. Member cannot personally escort them. I find it difficult to understand where my right hon. Friend is coming from.

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I reiterate that we propose an additional facility. None of the present arrangements for access will be changed and, as I said in the debate last year, no one will have to pay to see the House or its Committees at work or to meet their or any other Member of Parliament. The arrangements are exactly the same as they always have been.

I hope that the House will not divide, but if it does, hon. Members should be fully aware of the possible implications. The proposal will give many more people--possibly as many as 80 per cent. of whom will be overseas visitors--the opportunity to see the home of Parliament and its treasures. For some, and possibly most, of those visitors, a tour of the Palace of Westminster will be the opportunity of a lifetime. Should the House vote against the motion, there would be no alternative: no amendments were tabled and therefore there would be no advice or instructions for the Committee to follow up. The choice, I regret to say, is not between paying for a guide or providing one free, but between reopening the Line of Route this summer or having to forget the whole proposal.

Question put:--

The House divided: Ayes 78, Noes 4.

Division No. 33
[11.29 pm


Ainsworth, Robert (Cov'try NE)
Allen, Graham
Anderson, Janet (Rossendale)
Atherton, Ms Candy
Beckett, Rt Hon Mrs Margaret
Betts, Clive
Bradley, Keith (Withington)
Browne, Desmond
Campbell, Rt Hon Menzies
(NE Fife)
Campbell-Savours, Dale
Caplin, Ivor
Chapman, Sir Sydney
(Chipping Barnet)
Clwyd, Ann
Crausby, David
Darvill, Keith
Davey, Valerie (Bristol W)
Dawson, Hilton
Dobbin, Jim
Dowd, Jim
Emery, Rt Hon Sir Peter
Fitzpatrick, Jim
Flynn, Paul
Foulkes, George
George, Andrew (St Ives)
Gerrard, Neil
Gilroy, Mrs Linda
Griffiths, Jane (Reading E)
Griffiths, Nigel (Edinburgh S)
Hall, Mike (Weaver Vale)
Hamilton, Fabian (Leeds NE)
Hanson, David
Heald, Oliver
Heppell, John
Hogg, Rt Hon Douglas
Hughes, Kevin (Doncaster N)
Hughes, Simon (Southwark N)
Iddon, Dr Brian
Jenkins, Brian
Jones, Martyn (Clwyd S)
Key, Robert
King, Andy (Rugby & Kenilworth)
Kirkwood, Archy
Ladyman, Dr Stephen
Lepper, David
Lewis, Ivan (Bury S)
McAvoy, Thomas
Mackinlay, Andrew
Merron, Gillian
Miller, Andrew
Murphy, Jim (Eastwood)
Naysmith, Dr Doug
Olner, Bill
Pickthall, Colin
Pike, Peter L
Pope, Greg
Prentice, Ms Bridget (Lewisham E)
Quinn, Lawrie
Rendel, David
Roe, Mrs Marion (Broxbourne)
Ross, Ernie (Dundee W)
Russell, Bob (Colchester)
Sawford, Phil
Spellar, John
Stewart, Ian (Eccles)
Stringer, Graham
Stunell, Andrew
Sutcliffe, Gerry
Taylor, Rt Hon Mrs Ann
Taylor, David (NW Leics)
Taylor, Matthew (Truro)
Tipping, Paddy
Touhig, Don
Twigg, Derek (Halton)
Twigg, Stephen (Enfield)
Tyler, Paul
Watts, David
Wray, James
Young, Rt Hon Sir George

Tellers for the Ayes:

Mr. William Ross and
Dr. Nick Palmer.


Barnes, Harry
Cousins, Jim
Dalyell, Tam
Winterton, Mrs Ann (Congleton)

Tellers for the Noes:

Mr. Eric Forth and
Mr. Christopher Chope.

Question accordingly agreed to.

18 Jan 2000 : Column 817



    That Mr. Laurence Robertson be discharged from the Environmental Audit Committee and Sir Richard Body be added to the Committee.--[Mr. Robert Ainsworth]

    Public Administration


    That Mr. Nicholas Soames be discharged from the Select Committee on Public Administration and Mr. John Townend be added to the Committee.--[Mr. Robert Ainsworth]

18 Jan 2000 : Column 818

Nancekuke Base

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. Robert Ainsworth.]

11.40 pm

Ms Candy Atherton (Falmouth and Camborne): This debate concerns both my current constituents and, sadly, some who are no longer with us. The issues that I plan to raise involve the use of land by the Ministry of Defence on the north coast of my constituency, at the base formally called Nancekuke, near Portreath. I shall be asking for a totally new inquiry into operations at Nancekuke and the possible effects on my constituents.

Nancekuke was a chemical defence establishment--although that rather bland title hid its real role. Nancekuke was used to produce and test nerve gas after the second world war, and some of its equipment was salvaged from Nazi Germany.

The production of nerve gas was given real impetus by the arms race, and the fear that the eastern bloc was moving ahead in the sphere of chemical warfare. As the Government stated in a declaration to the United Nations, Nancekuke was the United Kingdom's main chemical weapons research and development facility. Chemical weapons produced at Nancekuke were, it is believed, used offensively by the United States until 1964. More than 20 tonnes of the nerve agent GB sarin were produced at Nancekuke--which was a rather large amount, one might think, for research purposes alone.

Nancekuke closed in 1980, after the 1976 defence review, and the buildings and equipment were buried on the site. That is but one of the issues that I wish to pursue in the debate.

Nancekuke consists of eight scattered farms and old quarries and is at the heart of Cornwall's mining history. Many mines were never mapped. Mining is not referred to within the said disclosure to the United Nations. Originally, during the second world war, the site was used as an airfield, but, in the 1950s, people realised that it was being used as an Army research centre.

The base first reached prominence when a local Redruth man, Trevor Martin, claimed that he was suffering from nerve gas poisoning after working as a fitter at the factory. Subsequently, it was discovered that the Ministry of Defence was dispatching nerve gas along the A30, to Porton Down, causing great local alarm.

In the 1960s and 1970s, local Members of Parliament started asking questions, and one particular story rose to prominence. It concerned Tom Griffiths, who is delighted that his personal quest for the truth may--I very much hope that it will--be successful today.

In 1958, Tom was working as a fitter at Nancekuke and had signed a declaration under the Official Secrets Act 1911. One day, he was the victim of an industrial accident, with another worker who has since died in an unrelated accident. Tom had been told to enter a laboratory cubicle without any protective clothing, after being told that it would be safe to do so. However, sarin was leaking into the cubicle.

From that day onwards, Tom has been ill. He received no atropine, which many people believe is a partial antidote. He also did not tell his general practitioner of the accident, fearing the consequences of the Official

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Secrets Act provisions. Tom's cholinesterase level dropped from 133 to 105 and did not return to normal for 15 months. Consequently, Tom was misdiagnosed, and therefore mistreated.

It was not until 1969, when people started to understand Nancekuke's role, that Tom's GP realised that toxic chemicals were involved and referred him to a neurologist. He diagnosed nerve gas as being responsible for Tom's prolonged neurological and psychological problems. Later, a consultant toxicologist examined Tom and became convinced that sarin was responsible.

Subsequently, Tom spent years of medical tribunals, appeals, counter-appeals and ombudsman involvement. It was a harrowing time, to put it mildly. I could spend the entire debate outlining Tom's case, but I do not have the time.

It was eventually concluded that Tom had suffered from anti-cholinesterase action of organic phosphorous compounds. He received a very small payment from the Ministry of Defence. Tom has had to fight official secrets and duplicity for many years. It is time that his concerns were addressed.

Another worker at Nancekuke who came to see me recently was responsible for testing the blood of fellow workers. On one occasion the machine that protected him from fumes malfunctioned and blew fumes into his face rather than away from him. To this day he has suffered effects consistent with toxic poisoning.

I have also been contacted by people from constituencies further up the coast in Cornwall. They claim that toxic compounds were swept on to the beach at Padstow, leaving them burned and suffering from unusual and classic nerve gas effects. Their then Member of Parliament, John Pardoe, asked many questions about the subject. At much the same time, a large number of seals on the north coast were found dead. Decontaminants were flushed out through a cave into the sea. Those chemicals, rather than nerve gas, may well be responsible. We shall probably never know. Those who believe that they suffer to this day would like to know the answer.

All that might be the stuff of anti-nuclear dissertations, were it not for Carlton Television's south-west news programme "Westcountry Live". Its "Insight" feature broadcast last month broke new ground in the long-running saga, producing the new evidence that many believe justifies a fresh inquiry.

In 1970, because of concerns and legal battles, Ministers decided that a medical inquiry was required to look into the deaths and ill health suffered by workers at Nancekuke. I believe that there was a genuine wish to unearth the truth. I am pleased to say that it was a Labour Government decision. Sadly, in the interim between the decision to investigate and the results of the three-year survey, the Government changed complexion and the truth remained hidden. I am pleased that this Government have agreed to authorise the early release of the information. That is a tribute to open government and I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister and his colleagues for agreeing to a request from Graham Smith, the reporter from Carlton Television, for privileged access to examine the documents at Kew a full three years early. They make disturbing reading.

Beneath the rather prosaic language that civil servants of only a few years ago seem to have adopted, the message is clear. Some 41 men died--nine during

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employment and 32 after leaving the establishment--between 1950 and 1969. We learn more than was published before about how they died. Some complicated statistical analysis was applied and the conclusion was reached that such a death rate was lower than the national average. If a small company employing 150 people lost 41 current and former employees among a relatively young and healthy cohort, alarm bells would ring.

Those men were working not underground or at sea, but in a factory and a laboratory environment. I should like my hon. Friend the Minister to look again at the issue. Can fresh thoughts be applied and modern statistical analysis used?

The key time for the production of nerve gas--we are talking about production, not research quantities--was the 1950s. During the four years from 1955 to 1959, there were 306 cases of respiratory disease--almost double the numbers for the following years. Can those figures be explained by procedures having been tightened up? Are the figures a reflection of the amount of nerve gas produced?

The report made conclusions over a 15-year period from correspondence between civil servants in the Ministry of the Defence and the Office for National Statistics. The documents show that civil servants then were well capable of spin. They wrote to the director of chemical and biological defence research saying that they wished to amend the draft letters to Members of Parliament. They eventually claimed that it was impossible to draw conclusions. In effect, they redrafted the results of the investigation politically. There was clear evidence of a doubling of bronchitis among industrial staff. That was not reported to Parliament at the time.

The overwhelming impression that one gets is of the civil servants desperately trying to manipulate the facts to help themselves out of a hole--not out of concern for the then Government's workers, but in terms of defending negligence claims. Meanwhile, trade unions and their members were fighting health actions, with the Official Secrets Act coming between them and answers.

A number of my constituents have contacted me in recent weeks, and they are genuinely concerned. In many cases, they worked at Nancekuke at the height of production. What medical checks have there been on former Nancekuke personnel since the closure? Does my hon. Friend the Minister not think that, given the high incidence of bronchial problems at the height of production, a sensible course might be to look again at the medical records of those who worked there--particularly in the late 1950s?

Will my hon. Friend look again at the case of Tom Griffiths and others--not necessarily because they seek financial compensation, but because they want to know what happened? I would like to know why it was felt that it was too dangerous in the 1950s to manufacture nerve gas at Porton Down or elsewhere, but all right in Cornwall. Was it because Cornwall is surrounded on three sides by water and has a relatively smaller population than other areas?

Nancekuke was closed in 1980. It is now a RAF listening station and attached to RAF Portreath. I have written to request a visit to the station, and I hope that I will shortly receive a positive reply. I would like to see the site for several specific reasons. When Nancekuke closed, the chemicals were transported to Porton Down.

18 Jan 2000 : Column 821

Could my hon. Friend confirm that, and tell the House who conducted the work? Also, the buildings and equipment that could not be guaranteed as clean after decontamination were buried on site. In effect, the polluted elements were left on site 23 years ago.

As I said, the site is a labyrinth of mine shafts. I have been told by many local people that there is a widespread belief that some of the equipment was just dumped down shafts. Production was concentrated on three sites, with the north site as the hub. I understand that only the south and central sites are used by the RAF today, and that several buildings still standing, but used for production, are not currently used.

Why is the north site not used? Are there fears for safety? When was the last complete survey conducted? Is it true that a survey of the site was conducted last year? Would my hon. Friend the Minister be prepared to use modern scientific techniques to survey the land to check that containers are not buried on the site, rather than relying on previous assurances? Will he ask the Environment Agency to monitor water levels for the foreseeable future?

My requests are given more urgency, given the experience of the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key). I understand that similar clear-up operations at Porton Down have revealed large amounts of buried chemicals--chemicals that we had been assured did not exist. I and many of my constituents have real concerns about this issue. What if the rumours are true, and there are chemicals buried locally? After 20 years, they may not be as securely buried as we would all wish. Did the recent survey find such evidence?

Given that health and safety procedures were not as rigorous even a few years ago, might the materials be leaching into the ground? Given the Porton Down experience, will my hon. Friend the Minister conduct such a survey? This is a holiday area and, rightly, local people and visitors will want to know, and be reassured if he has the answers.

I have felt as though I have been involved in a cloak-and-dagger operation since I started raising concerns about Nancekuke. Several figures in the county have implied that I am taking a risk in asking these questions. I find that rather fanciful, but respected individuals in the area have suggested that I take care.

I would like to reiterate my thanks to my hon. Friend the Minister for his openness in enabling us to discover a little more about Nancekuke. Rather like the song, the opening of the documents has raised more questions than answers. Will my hon. Friend initiate the investigations that I am calling for? I cannot believe that it would be a problem, as the ability to locate chemical weapons and tackle leaks must be an element of armed forces training in a world where far too many countries have this capacity.

Also, the ability to monitor those affected by nerve gas and other poisons must be a skill required in tackling chemical accidents. Pensions records should assist in locating those people, and the Government could gain many new friends if, once again, they showed that they were prepared to try to resolve the problems inherited from others.

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We have this opportunity and I ask my hon. Friend the Minister to look with fresh eyes. These were toxic chemicals manufactured by and close to my constituents. We all need to know the answers and I look forward to my hon. Friend's reply.

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