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9 May 2007 : Column 75WH—continued

That is a bland statement of fact, but I remind hon. Members that none of this is his fault. Why has the UKAEA had to expend so much energy, time and effort? Because it polluted the bay in the first place. Why has it all taken so long? Because the UKAEA lied about things and refused to accept responsibility.

That mindset seems to have percolated through to the DTI. It is time to settle this case, to accept what has happened and to deal with it, but one can almost see officials at the DTI wonder whether to drag it out a bit more. They might think that Mr. Minter is a private individual with limited means and that if they drag the case out and go to court and make him go through all that, at some point he will break himself, because he does not have very deep pockets. They might think, “He is just an ordinary individual: the Government are always going to win in the end,” so the UKAEA will also win in the end. That is a critical point because this case is about the abuse of power.

What was Mr Minter’s crime? It was simply to care about the land that he owns and loves. If he did not love and care about the land, he would surely have taken up one of the purchase offers and walked away from it, but he cares about what will happen. He cares about the next generation, to whom he wants to hand on his land, and about others in the area who will have to pick up the pieces of the appalling deceit.

I have three words to say to the Minister: “Shame on you.” Shame on the Government, shame on the UKAEA and shame on those people who have deceived, cheated, delayed, prevaricated and refused to settle. Shame on those who polluted the land and shame on those who have lied about it and attempted to hide things. I know that the Minister is not directly responsible—the responsible Minister is in the other place—but I ask him to reconsider the case. I ask him to imagine himself in this position and that someone had dumped radioactive material on his land, which was consequently being damaged. Would he be quite so blasé or circumspect in those circumstances? Would he care quite so little about the outcomes and pressures not only on the Minter family, but on other families whose livelihoods are at stake?

If the UKAEA cared about this case enough, it would drive it to a settlement and would apologise absolutely for everything that has gone on. It must ask real questions about the care, safety and environment of every site that it has controlled throughout the relevant period. I started by saying that I am generally a supporter of nuclear energy, and I remain so, but I have had that belief severely tested when dealing with this case. People who I believed and trusted have shown that they did not deserve that trust. I now say to the Government simply that if someone has dumped the garbage, it is time to pay to clear it up.

Mr. Mike Weir (in the Chair): I intend to call the first winding-up speech at 10.30 am, so will Members bear that in mind when making contributions?

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9.57 am

John Thurso (Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross) (LD): I begin by declaring an interest. I am not sure if I need to declare it, but it is worth doing so. I recently served on the steering group for the public consultation to find the best practicable environmental option for dealing with the particles that we are debating, which gave me access to a considerable amount of independent advice on the particles. The UKAEA is engaged in a widespread consultation, which is guided by the steering group’s work, into who it should see and how things should be done.

The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) is right to say that the particles could prove fatal if ingested. The information that I saw showed that risk is a measure of the severity of an incident multiplied by its probability, and I wish to reassure those who plan to spend happy times touring the north coast that the risk is relatively small. I say that not to take anything away from what has been said, but to put matters into context.

I congratulate the right hon. Gentleman on securing this debate on the UKAEA’s legacy. He concentrated largely on the disturbing case of my constituent, Mr. Geoffrey Minter, on which I shall remark. However, I shall also discuss the UKAEA’s legacy generally, which is, in large part, beneficial and one to be proud of. It is no secret that I am in no way opposed to the nuclear industry, but I am sure that we will hear a different view from my Front-Bench colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (David Howarth). I believe that nuclear power may prove to be the least worst option in addressing climate change, and it is one that should certainly not be ruled out.

The legacy of the UKAEA’s work at Dounreay is some of the best scientific and engineering work that has taken place in the field. The UKAEA and the UK were top of the tree in fast-breeder technology in the 1960s and 1970s, although we have now given all that away. Many patents came out of that work, such as the one for the battery that is in most people’s mobile telephones—the lithium ion battery. That battery makes up part of the power for the Bowman 2 communications system and is made in the battery factory in Thurso. Those things are all part of the asset side of the legacy balance sheet, but there is also a liability side to it, and we cannot and should not shy away from that, because it must be dealt with. The right hon. Gentleman raised one particular liability: the particles arriving on Sandside beach.

I should make the quick general comment that it is important to put comments into the perspective of time. It is easy to look back on past events and judge them in the light of today, as happened recently on the question of the tissue samples. It is important to put that in the context of the time. When X-rays were first invented people did extraordinarily stupid things that we would not even countenance today, but that does not lead us to throw away X-rays. That brings me on to the fact that today is different; as the right hon. Gentleman mentioned, there is a more open and positive culture, and the current management at Dounreay are to be congratulated on that.

I first became involved in the specific case of the particles on Sandside bay in 2000—before I was elected
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to this place—at the invitation of Mr. Minter, when I accompanied my predecessor, Lord Maclennan of Rogart, to what became known as mediation one. It involved a meeting in London attended by the then chief executive of the UKAEA, John McKeown, and some legal advisers, the outcome of which was that Mr. McKeown said that there was no liability, that they were completely covered, that they had insurance for anything that might come up and that, in any case, Mr. Minter must have known what he was getting into when he bought the land.

After my election, I spoke to Mr. McKeown, whom I met several times to discuss this issue, and I believe that I had reached the point of persuading him that a settlement was in order. He went off to talk to his board, but unfortunately he left his post shortly thereafter, so that process came to an end. I then spoke at considerable length to the new chief executive officer, Mr. Dipesh Shah, pointing out to him the damage that the repeated publications about this issue were having in the local community and the fact that it was imperative for my constituent to have a just settlement and for the community to have a resolution. Both Lord Maclennan and I worked hard to persuade Mr. Shah—who then agreed—and Mr. Minter that the best way to deal with this was through a mediation process.

That process became mediation two. As that has largely been covered, I shall not go into detail, suffice it to say that it ended with a unilateral offer that was not based on the discussions that had taken place. I am sorry that that happened, because during the process there were moments when I thought that both sides were close to dealing with this. The great frustration that I have had as the constituency MP seeking the best for my constituent and for my wider community is that we have so often been within a fingertip of sorting this matter and somehow we have slipped away from doing so.

Last September, I had a chance meeting with members of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority on another subject and I raised the fact that I thought that a settlement was possible and should be attempted. In the light of that, a non-executive director of the UKAEA was invited to meet Mr. Minter. That process began in October or November and culminated in a wish to recommend an offer. I understand that it was discussed at the Department of Trade and Industry in February and has remained there more or less since then. I have had a number of meetings with various people in the UKAEA, and their view is that they would like this matter resolved, because it is a big drag on them, it has a huge cost, and they would like it to be gone. I was therefore very disappointed to be told yesterday that the offer recommended by the UKAEA has been rejected by Ministers. I ask them to re-examine it, because I feel that there are grounds for a settlement and that it remains by far the best way forward.

I turn to the general issue of the UKAEA’s legacy, which, as I have said, contains many positive parts. I shall touch on one specific aspect of it: the socio-economic legacy. To date, one of the legacies in Caithness of the UKAEA’s involvement is a larger, more prosperous and better educated population than would have been the case without it. For 50 years, the Dounreay drive-to-work area has had the highest gross domestic product in the highlands, and that has resulted in infrastructure.

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I remember my mother taking me as a four-year-old to watch the cranes digging the estate where the “atomics”, as the milk rounds people named them, were going to live. The point being that the local council at the time, of which my father was a prominent member, decided that it would welcome them with open arms and integrate them into our community. The result is that Thurso and Caithness is a cosmopolitan community that has high levels of education and skills.

Whether that legacy is a good one will depend on whether the work currently being done on the socio-economic legacy can be brought to fruition and on whether this challenge is the opportunity that it could and should be. I have been chairing the socio-economic strategy taskforce for the area. Let us try to understand the scale of the problem. The Nuclear Decommissioning Authority now accepts that this is, in relative terms, the biggest socio-economic challenge that it has faced. If we consider the percentage of the community’s GDP and the percentage of the work force involved, it is, relatively, the single biggest challenge that it has.

We have worked to help ourselves. Our strategy group has produced an excellent strategy, the result of which is a partnership between Highland council, Highlands and Islands Enterprise and the NDA, with a specific body set up—an action board—to deliver results, and new people and money to make things happen. A couple of months ago, we even had a visit from the enterprise Minister in Scotland. I hope that, whatever the shade of the new Administration, we may look forward to similar attention from the new enterprise Minister.

Last July, I spoke to the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, inviting him to visit Dounreay. I did so because morale is fragile—we are losing people to Aberdeen—and we need to show that the Government are as committed to the socio-economic legacy of decommissioning as they were to the experimental stage that took place all those decades ago. I am sad to say that despite an agreement in principle to come, notwithstanding a multiplicity of invitations and reminders, since then no Minister has been able to find themselves in Caithness. The signal that that has sent to our community is not a good one, so I gently urge the Minister to take back to his Secretary of State the fact that we are having a conference in the week of 5 September—the exact date can be of his choosing—and if he would be good enough to attend that, I am sure that all would be rectified.

Our community is working hard to find solutions to our problems. We are doing our bit, but we now need the active and positive interest of the DTI to help us find them. The points have been made on the constituency case. It has been unfortunate that much of this has been fought out publicly in the press. Will the Minister put all those considerations aside and do what our community would like and what the UKAEA management would like—find a proper settlement of the case?

10.10 am

Mr. John Gummer (Suffolk, Coastal) (Con): First, I declare an interest in that I have two nuclear power stations in my constituency. Were the UK to extend its
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nuclear capability, I would fight for a third. I have always supported nuclear power and my constituency might well have written the same sort of encomium about the effect of the Sizewell nuclear power stations A and B that the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) has just done about Dounreay. Secondly, I have known Lady Judge, chairman of the UKAEA, for some years, so I also declare that interest.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) promised that he did not intend to make personal comments, and repeating a statement from the Daily Mail was perhaps unfortunate. After all, he and the rest of us ask for public support because of our abilities without being able to show academic reasons for that. He sought the public’s vote to become Prime Minister, but found it rather difficult to suggest that he had the academic qualifications for that. What happens is that people are chosen because of their qualities.

I want to say absolutely clearly that Lady Judge’s qualities are remarkable. She is a good chairman of the UKAEA. She works much longer and harder than she is employed to do, and I am a little tired of people who do good public service being undermined because we follow the easy path, which has now become popular, of making anyone who puts their head over the parapet a subject of criticism. I want to put it on the record that Lady Judge is a fine public servant of remarkable ability who has led the UKAEA with considerable distinction.

My problem with the whole discussion is that it seems to be a perfectly understandable argument between two neighbours. No doubt, there have been all sorts of mistakes on both sides. I have read the details of the other side and I have heard the details from my right hon. Friend. I do not believe that this sort of discussion is suitable for a debate in the House of Commons, because an awful lot of such arguments happen between neighbours—in this case a neighbour who bought his land when he knew that the Dounreay building was next door. He might have thought that such discussions would arise.

Mr. Duncan Smith: Will my right hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Gummer: In a moment.

I am no more in touch with the details, except that I have heard both sides of them. I merely wonder whether in this debate to discuss the future of the UKAEA we should use words such as “lies”, “deceits” and “cheating”, all of which I have found during my many years in the House do not help debate.

Mr. Duncan Smith: I hope that my right hon. Friend is not inferring that Mr. Minter was or should have been aware of any pollution before he purchased his property. The position was clearly established by checks at the Ministry and at the time. I hope that my right hon. Friend is not inferring that Mr. Minter disregarded that with some other intent.

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Mr. Gummer: No. I am not inferring that. I am merely stating the fact, which is clear, that Mr. Minter bought the land knowing that Dounreay was next door. That is all I am saying, and nothing more. I am also trying not to use any of the words about Mr. Minter which one might wish to use, having read the details, because I do not believe that any debate is advanced by using words such as “deceit”, “cheats” and “lies”. I do not believe that that is the way to debate.

The issue is that on a number of occasions, Mr. Minter has been offered ways in which the problem might be solved. It is clear that there is difficulty on both sides in coming to an agreement. I have had many constituency problems during the 30 years that I have been a Member of this House and often it is not a question of one side or the other. People get themselves into a mess, and begin to dislike each other because they both feel that the other person did not do what they said they would do, and by the time one gets to the present stage, it does not help to dig over the past. What matters is that an agreement is made, and that would have been the better way to proceed.

I do not have a very high opinion of the Department of Trade and Industry, and I think it is the most reactionary Department in the Government. It is the least environmental; it largely holds up any policies that would be good and finds good reasons why things should not be done. It is a dreadful Department, and the sooner we get rid of it and put trade into the Foreign Office and industry into a department for the environment, the better. I hope that the new Prime Minister will do that.

I do not believe that there should have been attacks on the individuals concerned. Quoting and referring to officials who cannot answer for themselves is unfair and unacceptable. There should be access for the UKAEA across the land to carry out the decommissioning properly. That is the first thing that is necessary. The second is that there should be a clean-up process that ensures that the land is returned to its pristine condition. Thirdly, it is necessary to ensure that we retain and protect the contribution that the UKAEA has given to the area over many years.

I support the words of the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross. We do not help by exaggerating the concerns, or by pretending that there are no concerns. Hon. Members with such constituencies, who must deal with these issues day in, day out, must strike a careful balance. We must choose our language carefully.

Will the Minister hurry the matter up, because the long delay has not helped, and it is a great pity that we are still at the same stage? I want to hurry him up for two reasons: first, for the area itself and, secondly, for constituencies such as mine. I have come straight off an aeroplane to this debate because of my constituency. I want my constituents to feel that when such issues arise they are dealt with rapidly, cleanly and clearly, and that the UKAEA has greater power to make decisions. One matter about which I am concerned and with which my right hon. Friend struck a chord is the long time it takes the Ministry to do anything. I am surprised that it manages to find its way to the House of Commons without special guidance, because it takes so long. Why are we still waiting, month after month, since earlier this year for a decision on a perfectly simple matter?

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Could we have a new spirit abroad in the Ministry? When it gets a letter, can it reply within a week, and when there is a problem, can it reply within a fortnight, but can it not leave it to fester? If the Minister could make that change, there would be a big difference, so I hope that he will tell all of us who represent constituencies with nuclear power stations that we can expect the DTI to move at the pace of private industry, to answer questions when they are asked, and to recognise that compensation paid in due time and changes made rapidly usually cost a great deal less than what must be paid after 10 years.

10.19 am

Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): Mr. Weir, I assure you that I do not wish to talk about the subject of English legal supremacy over the property matters of Scotland; I shall leave that to my colleagues. I am sure that you will be relieved.

I do, however, wish to widen the debate to encompass the protection of the citizens of this country. We are talking not simply about factories that sit in constituencies, but about sites that affect all the citizens of the islands in which we live. We must recognise that the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority and its board have a particular responsibility of diligence and protection. They must instil in the citizens of this country the confidence that the UKAEA can guarantee a degree of safety in those sites, which, from a citizen’s point of view, is not necessary in many other industrial sites in the country.

Of course, safety is directly related to a smaller or wider area depending on what happens on the site, but the question of nuclear waste is vital not only to the energy industry’s well-being and our nation’s future, but to the safety and well-being of the people whom we serve. I want to consider the UKAEA’s record, and I want to ask questions about whether the board is capable of doing the job that it should do to protect us all.

There has been a history of cover-up, and my right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) outlined some of the details at one particular station. However, we know that concerns have arisen not only at that site. There is a history of concern, and it places even greater onus upon the UKAEA board to ensure that its responsibilities are carried out properly.

I am a chairman of a company, and I regard my board as being responsible in several areas, but most of all it is responsible to its customers to ensure that they are not only treated to the very best service possible, but protected in the very best way possible from any eventuality that might befall and concern them. I am not sure that the UKAEA board does so. My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) is smiling. I do not know the members of the board personally, and I am not interested in knowing who they are.

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