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Radioactive Waste

5. Mr. David Chaytor (Bury, North): What her policy is on the management of radioactive waste. [4672]

The Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Margaret Beckett): The Government and the devolved Administrations published the consultation paper, "Managing radioactive waste safely" on 12 September. We propose a programme of national debate and research, leading to scientifically sound decisions on the long-term management of radioactive waste which, we hope, will inspire greater public confidence across the United Kingdom.

Mr. Chaytor: I thank my right hon. Friend for her reply. Can she give the House the latest estimates of the cost of decommissioning existing power stations and the management of waste? Would it be wildly inaccurate to suggest that that cost is in the region of £85 billion? Who will bear the cost regarding existing stockpiles of waste? Will she seek to ensure that, if there is any new nuclear build following the publication of the energy review in December, the costs of the management of waste are built into the initial economics of power generation?

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Does my right hon. Friend agree that, following the recent horrific evidence of terrorist groups gaining access to biological materials of warfare, it is now only a matter of time before they gain access to nuclear materials as weapons of war? Has she discussed that matter with—

Mr. Speaker: Order. That is too much for the Secretary of State to take in.

Margaret Beckett: My hon. Friend is entirely right; the figure of £85 billion is correct, and includes all civil, military, public and private radioactive waste as well as the costs of decommissioning. A rough breakdown of the figure is that some £34 billion relates to British Nuclear Fuels plc; some £30 billion to Ministry of Defence matters; some £7 billion to the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority; and some £14 billion to British Energy. The final cost of managing such waste depends on the decisions made in the light of the consultation that we initiated and, indeed, on the classification of radioactive waste.

My hon. Friend asked who will bear the costs of handling such waste; one way or another, our economy will bear those costs in some capacity. He asked about the performance and innovation unit review; he will know that that process is under way and any recommendations that it might make are some distance away. However, he is certainly correct; I am mindful that, on a number of occasions, those outside Government have long advised that the full knock-on costs of such projects should be part of the decision-making structure at the beginning, not something that emerges at the end. We certainly believe that that is a sound basis for planning.

Malcolm Bruce (Gordon): Will the Secretary of State explain how her recent decision to give the go-ahead to the Sellafield mixed oxide plant fits into her radioactive waste management strategy? Given that the Irish Government are now mounting a legal challenge and Sellafield has a history of leaks and fraudulent data, there is a lack of confidence in the management of the plant. Will she explain why in her announcement she concentrated on the economic aspects of the development, rather than the environmental aspects? Does she not recognise that there is considerable concern, not only about leakage from the plant but, in the post-September 11 circumstances, about the risk of an attack on shipments of plutonium by suicide terrorists? Has she made an evaluation of that, or does she not think that she should?

Margaret Beckett: To take the hon. Gentleman's last point first, he must be aware that that issue has been evaluated. There are risks in the existence of such a plant and those risks are little changed by the decision that was made. However, whether they made a difference was carefully considered.

The hon. Gentleman asks how the plant fits in. It is in the public domain that during the anticipated operational lifetime of the plant—a considerable number of years—the expectation is that it will add only about 1 per cent. to the total level of intermediate level waste now generated at Sellafield. The decision that the plant should go ahead was based on a range of environmental and other considerations.

The hon. Gentleman asked why I concentrated on the economic aspect. There is a mixture of issues here. First, a legal duty was laid on myself and my right hon. Friend

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the Secretary of State for Health, the nature of which is set down in the basic standards enshrined in statute. Secondly, not only have there been extensive and numerous consultations on the issue during the past three or four years, but the Environment Agency recommended that the environmental aspects did not impede going ahead with the plant and, having done all the independent economic assessments, recommended that the plant should go ahead.

Judy Mallaber (Amber Valley): As my right hon. Friend knows, the Environment Agency has asked Rolls-Royce Marine Power Operations Ltd. to apply for new authorisations for its work in Derby and the associated approval since 1966 for the dumping of gloves, coveralls and other items contaminated with low-level radioactive waste at Hilts Quarry at Crich in my constituency. Is she aware that since the Environment Agency started looking in detail at the application, and with the advent of a local protest group, Rolls-Royce has somehow managed to reduce its waste substantially, now tipping a lorry load only once every eight weeks instead of weekly? Will she ensure that the agency applies similar pressure to minimise waste elsewhere? I realise that she cannot comment on an application currently being determined, but will she look sympathetically at any request to transfer the Rolls-Royce waste to a more secure site that is not unlined and in a village next to a school?

Margaret Beckett: As my hon. Friend accepts, I am aware of the basic issue, and it is clear from what she said that she is aware that these are matters for the Environment Agency. I freely confess that I am not aware whether the amount of waste has been substantially reduced or is simply being transported less often. However, those are issues that the Environment Agency, with the company, keeps under review and we retain information on those matters from time to time.

Michael Fabricant (Lichfield): In the light of the present situation, does the Government have a view regarding the transportation of waste through residential areas, especially London?

Margaret Beckett: The transportation of waste is always a sensitive and difficult issue. The hon. Gentleman will know that over the years many studies have been carried out and the issue of how to maintain high security is always kept under review.


6. Paul Flynn (Newport, West): What the contribution of the farming industry was as a proportion of English gross domestic product in the latest year for which figures are available; and what the average figure is for the last five years. [4673]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Mr. Elliot Morley): The contribution of the farming industry as a proportion of English gross domestic product in 2000 was £5 billion—0.7 per cent. The average contribution during the years 1996 to 2000 was 1 per cent.

Paul Flynn: When subsidies are taken into account, the total contribution made by agriculture in the four years

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before foot and mouth was less than 0.5 per cent., compared with manufacturing industry which contributes 20 per cent. We know that the contribution is now less than zero. We all feel sympathy with the farming industry as a result of the suffering caused by foot and mouth, but is it reasonable to expect manufacturing industry, particularly the steel industry which is facing a new crisis, to contribute to and subsidise just one industry alone? Is not the answer to listen to what Lord Haskins is saying today and for farming to be made more entrepreneurial in future, rather than continue with the mistake that we have made in farming since the war where the industry has been subsidy sensitive but market blind?

Mr. Morley: My noble Friend Lord Haskins is a farmer and business man. His assessment is important and will be listened to carefully by the entire farming industry. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State has made it clear that the future for farmers is to become closer to the market and more consumer and customer oriented. The present level of subsidies to agriculture is not sustainable in the long term—it is not good for the consumer or the environment, and it has not been good for farmers as it has distorted the market. The Food and Farming Commission, which the Government have set up, will provide important pointers for the future of farming. There is no doubt that changes need to be made: we live in a changing and dynamic society, and agriculture is part of that.

Mr. David Curry (Skipton and Ripon): The Minister is aware of the contribution made by the sheep industry to gross domestic product, especially in the uplands. In the light of that, can he explain the total confusion that has arisen over the research programme into BSE in sheep? Is he aware that the Spongiform Encephalopathy Advisory Committee has apparently cancelled the meeting at which that was to be discussed? At 10.30 last night, DEFRA apparently put out a press release about it.

On the radio news this morning, it was said that the samples that were being examined to find out whether there was BSE in sheep were actually samples from cows. A state of total confusion has descended, and the matter is of colossal importance to the entire agricultural industry. Can the Minister tell us what is happening? If he cannot tell us now, will he come back to the House as soon as possible and be specific about it?

Mr. Morley: In all matters relating to BSE and animal health, the Government have been open and transparent. For that reason, the Government and our Department commissioned DNA testing in relation to the long-term experiment being carried out by Professor Bostock and the Institute for Animal Health. There were some concerns that there may be contamination by bovine brain material in the experiment. The step taken was appropriate and prudent, in order to control the quality of the research.

As it happened, the results of the DNA testing, which did not come out until this week, demonstrated that there was serious contamination of the sample, and that in fact it was predominantly bovine brain material. There will have to be a full audit trail and evaluation of the

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experiment. It is therefore not surprising that SEAC has cancelled the meeting scheduled for Friday until we can evaluate the situation carefully.

Paddy Tipping (Sherwood): But is it not the case that farming produces a wider economic contribution to the rural economy, in that it provides a landscape and an environment that people wish to visit? Given that, is it not rather strange that there are those who argue against compensation for farming instead of tourism, and against greater investment for rural rather than urban areas? Those things are interdependent. Should not that be the policy that we support?

Mr. Morley: All independent studies and our recent rural White Paper demonstrate the clear interdependence between urban and rural areas, and between agriculture and other rural businesses, including tourism and the leisure sector. Agriculture is the country's biggest land user, so it has a key role not only in food production, which is its primary objective, but landscape, habitat and biodiversity measures. For those reasons, the Government are committed to shifting the current damaging and market-distorting subsidies in the common agricultural policy from production support to the second pillar of the common agricultural policy, the rural development structure, so that we can develop all those aspects in a holistic and integrated way that will benefit agriculture, the rural economy and the economy generally.

David Burnside (South Antrim): Does the Minister share my concern, which is also the concern of the entire farming community, that in the departmental strategic review of policy, farming was listed as only the fifth priority? Is it not about time that the Government started to build confidence by restoring agriculture to the departmental title of the Department, and followed that up with more constructive policies for the farming community?

Mr. Morley: I think that it is a serious mistake to try to apply a league table of priorities to Departments' aims and objectives. DEFRA was formed, quite rightly, to bring together a range of environmental, land-use objectives in an integrated way. I believe that that is the view of the majority in the House and certainly the majority of people outside the House, as well as in the agricultural sector. In that respect, those are all important issues. DEFRA covers not just agriculture but environmental issues, land use, forestry, floods and environmental control. It is a strength of the Department that it does so, and we should not try to prioritise the list or draw up league tables.

Mr. Peter Ainsworth (East Surrey): The Minister talks about transparency; the only thing that is transparent is the muddle and confusion that the Government have brought to this whole area of their competence. Is he aware that farmers are saying that the Government do not understand or care; that it is no good telling farmers that they must change without telling them how; that they need not lectures from Ministers but clarity and leadership; and that, with earnings down to a pathetic £2,500 a year they cannot invest in the future? How can farmers be entrepreneurs when they have no funds to invest? Does the Minister accept that if there is no viable future for

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farming, it will not just be the rural economy that suffers, but the whole economy, our environment and millions of people and businesses, whether they live in the countryside or the towns?

Mr. Morley: Of course farming has suffered a decline in income, but that has gone on for years. It is not a recent issue. Farming has been going through structural changes for a very long time—since 1945—and those changes will continue. Our job is to try to work in partnership with the industry to manage those changes and assist farmers. We contribute some £3 billion a year to agriculture, which is a high level of subsidy.

The hon. Gentleman talks about understanding. In my frequent meetings with farmers and land-use managers, they say that they very much appreciate the direction that the Government are taking. Those who use the word "understanding" often measure it by the size of the cheque that they are asking for.

Mr. Ainsworth: The Minister's reply reveals the extraordinary complacency that the Government have shown throughout their handling of foot and mouth and towards the countryside in general. I agree that there are no quick fixes, but the Government could make a start today by announcing that they will claim the £57 million compensation available under EU rules—but for just another 13 days. Does the Minister accept that failure to do so will simply confirm the widely held view that the Government have turned their back on rural Britain?

Mr. Morley: This demonstrates the bare-faced cheek and hypocrisy of the Opposition. The Conservative party opposed the introduction of agrimonetary compensation measures within the Council of Ministers and has been arguing for cuts in public expenditure, yet demands increases in public spending. The two do not match because there is no logic. The hon. Gentleman's question is an example of his party's empty promises and rhetoric on countryside issues.

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