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9 May 2007 : Column 81WH—continued

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): I am the constituency MP for the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority, and I wonder whether my hon. Friend will help me. Although he does not know any members of the board, he appears to be making allegations that
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the current members are involved in a cover-up. Will he specify the board members and the cover-up to which he refers?

Mr. Binley: I shall proceed at the pace at which I wish to proceed and in the way in which I wish to proceed, and I shall come to the matters that I wish to come to in the way in which I wish to come to them. My hon. Friend knows that all too well from past discourse. Let me continue after his interruption.

The truth is that we seek responsibility from members of the board, and I need an assurance that the non-executive members are able to carry out their responsibility to protect my constituents in that highly dangerous but vital industry. I am not sure that they are qualified to do so, so I shall ask a fair and proper question and then sit down. I make it clear that I have no personal knowledge of the board; I simply want from the Minister reassurances that I can take back to my constituents about the role of protection that a board ought to assume in serious terms. From some of the appointments that the Department for Trade and Industry has made, I am not sure that either the expertise or the time needed to do the job are in place to carry out that function.

I go no further. I simply ask the Minister to assure me so that I can assure my constituents, because I can tell him and the rest of the people listening to the debate that there is deep concern about the way in which the DTI has dealt with the matter. There is a deep concern also about some of the appointments that have been made, and there is a real need for reassurance.

Mr. Mike Weir (in the Chair): Before I call Mr. Vaizey, I remind him that I wish to begin the winding-up speeches at 10.30 am.

10.25 am

Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): Mr. Weir, I am very well aware that I have only five minutes to ride in on my charger to defend the reputation of the chairman of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority. That is one matter on which I shall touch during my brief remarks.

As I said when I intervened on my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley), the UKAEA is based in my constituency. I have the privilege of knowing the previous chief executive, Dipesh Shah, extremely well. He was a very effective chief executive, and I know the current chief executive, Norman Harrison, pretty well, too, and he is very good indeed.

Given the febrile climate that surrounds the position of Lady Judge, may I put on record my relationship with her? I have met her three times: accompanied by her chief executive, she came to the House to discuss constituency matters, and I bought her a cup of tea; I met her at a dinner at which the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) and other MPs with UKAEA establishments in their constituencies were present, and I had the privilege of sitting next to her; and I also met her in her apartment, because as is well known, her husband, Sir Paul Judge, is a great supporter of the Conservative party, and he
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was holding a reception on behalf of the party. It is interesting to note that Lady Judge’s husband is a supporter of the Conservatives but that, nevertheless, Lady Judge was appointed under this Government to do her job. It is a testament to her neutrality and to her ability to undertake the task.

I echo the comments that my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) made: nothing succeeds like success. I should think that anyone with even a smidgen of common sense would say that if somebody holds a number of directorships, it seems to imply that the organisations involved—many of which wish to be successful organisations in seeking the services of Lady Judge—are seeking the services of someone who is clearly competent at their job.

I do not have a physics degree, although I am studying for physics A-level, because there is so much physics in my constituency with the Diamond synchrotron. Lady Judge does not need a physics degree to do her job at the UKAEA. It is an incredibly important part of our economy and it is adapting to the post- and pre-nuclear age in which we exist. Under her chairmanship, it has strengthened its position as the leading nuclear decommissioner in Europe; it has achieved a reduction of £1.76 billion in the undiscounted estimate of liabilities on its sites; it has delivered a programme that was agreed with the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority at the Dounreay, Harwell, Winfrith and Windscale sites, below the estimated costs and within its deadline; it has put forward a robust business plan; and it has provided space for important scientific establishments such as the Diamond synchrotron, which the Minister will refer to later.

My constituency interest in the UKAEA is the Harwell site, where I keep in close touch with the UKAEA in the hope that together, we can build a fantastic science business park, science centre and—building on the Diamond synchrotron—the Rutherford Appleton laboratory, which will be a beacon for my constituency and the whole of Oxfordshire.

Mr. Binley: My hon. Friend talks about the chairman of the board, and I made the point that I have no personal involvement whatever. However, the chairman is also the deputy chairman of the Financial Reporting Council. That body, which produces guidelines for boards, said that

That is my point.

Mr. Vaizey: My hon. Friend’s point—I would hesitate to say—is effectively made. I say no more except that as far as I and everyone I know at the UKAEA is concerned, Lady Judge is an effective chairman who gives more than twice the amount of time for which she is contracted.

I also echo a point that was made by the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross and my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal about the past and the future. There is absolutely no doubt in my mind that during the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s, certain elements of the nuclear industry behaved in a cavalier fashion. I do not believe that such behaviour takes place at the moment.

Finally, the human tissue issue recently arose, and it came to light that certain autopsies may have been
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performed on people who worked at nuclear sites. The UKAEA has dealt with that issue in a completely transparent fashion, as have the Government. A helpline has been set up so that anyone with even the slightest concern can contact the UKAEA immediately. The organisation has also been utterly transparent in its dealings with me since the story broke. That is all that I have to say in the short period allotted to me.

Mr. Mike Weir (in the Chair): Bang on time.

10.30 am

David Howarth (Cambridge) (LD): Most of this debate has been about the case of Mr. Minter. I do not want to comment extensively on that case. However, I would say that it is perfectly proper of the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) to bring the case to our attention, as one of the House’s traditional functions is to deal with individual grievances. I hope that the matter can be resolved amicably. If it cannot be resolved amicably, I hope that it can at least be resolved justly.

I shall certainly not respond to the points made about the interaction of Scots law, the Nuclear Installations Act 1965 and the legislation on contaminated land, especially as I had a small part to play in the drafting of the 1995 legislation. My memory is that my advice was ignored completely.

The one serious issue that the Minister should respond to, and which was mentioned by the right hon. Members for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) and for Chingford and Woodford Green, is the part played by Ministers in the latest round of negotiations and whether there has been a ministerial intervention in the proposed settlement. The Minister should properly reply to that point.

The case raised illustrates two of the permanent problems of the nuclear industry: waste and secrecy, which are intimately connected. There are those, including the Prime Minister, who sometimes say that the problem of waste has been resolved, because of the report of the Committee on Radioactive Waste Management, which said that the deep depository of radioactive waste could be a solution. In fact, the report said that there cannot be any such solution until there is consent.

One of the reasons consent is so difficult to obtain is the nuclear industry’s record of secrecy and misdirection. Comments have been made about the industry’s attempts to become more open, and I acknowledge those attempts, but the nuclear industry cannot be open in the same way as other industries can. That is because of its intimate connection with a dangerous technology that has security consequences. The nuclear industry cannot be—and never will be—a normal industry.

That is one of the reasons I am not convinced in any way that the nuclear industry is part of the future energy system of this country. Unlike my hon. Friend the Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso), I do not think that nuclear power is necessary in the fight against climate change. The main problem is that the nuclear industry cannot be a normal industry. There never will be a purely private nuclear industry.

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Turning to the UKAEA in general, I should like to hear the Minister’s comments on the future of the organisation. It strikes me that it is in decline. Historically, a number of its functions have been taken away. Most recently, it transferred a large number of its functions to the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. It has also transferred functions to the Civil Nuclear Police Authority, and in the previous round of reductions it lost the Atomic Weapons Establishment, among other things. The UKAEA is now fundamentally a decommissioning contractor, working with other contractors. It has a lot of expertise, but it is not entirely clear whether it is viable for the UKAEA to continue doing that independently at its current size.

The UKAEA also has a research function. It is mainly involved in research into fusion, which takes up 48 per cent. of the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council’s budget. I wonder whether that is the proper balance for a research council’s budget. For my entire life, fusion has been just around the corner—or to be more accurate, always one generation away. As the generations pass, fusion remains one generation away. There has been some progress, as the Select Committee on Trade and Industry reported. However, the question is one of balance, especially in the context of Research Councils UK losing £68 million of its funding, with a raid by the Department of Trade and Industry on its budget, £28 million of which came from EPSRC. I understand that one of the projects to be cut is the Diamond synchrotron, which raises interesting questions about the interaction of the various budgets.

EPSRC is still in a state of uncertainty. There is still a possibility of its losing £30 million from its budget this year unless it receives proper assurances about its end-of-year flexibility. Other energy research—not just on renewables, but on the grid and materials science—is urgently needed to improve transmission losses. It is not entirely clear to me that the UKAEA can claim the priority that it currently receives, over the research funding that our universities receive. To a large degree, the UKAEA is becoming a property company. The question is whether it has a future as one.

That is the context of the perhaps more newsworthy problems that have been mentioned in this debate. I do not want to go into those in any detail, as they have already been covered. They include the pollution problems, the £2 million fine for spilling 58 gallons of radioactive fluid, the £140,000 fine for releasing radioactive particles into the sea and the travails of Lady Judge—I do not want to comment on that, as I gather that there is to be an investigation by the National Audit Office. If there is not, however, I at least hope that the case will be dealt with fairly. People should not be tried in the media. On the other hand, if there are concerns, they should be raised publicly. People in public office cannot expect to be judged purely on a private basis.

Finally, there is the organ retention problem. I accept that that was the consequence of an older way of thinking about such matters, but it is an illustration of attitudes in the industry that are still there. It is not a normal industry, and I repeat that it will never be a
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purely private industry, acting in the way that the private sector normally acts, because of its connection with security.

I shall be interested to hear the Minister’s reply on the individual case raised, and especially on the role that Ministers have played in recent events. More than that, however, I should be interested in his views on the future of the UKAEA. It is an important organisation, but its role has changed, declining dramatically over the past 20 years.

10.38 am

Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): We have certainly had a lively debate, but a serious and interesting one, too. There are some points that I have agreed with and some that I have not agreed with. The point that I agreed with least was the one that my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer) made about how, departmentally, the DTI should be put under a department for the environment. There needs to be a Department and a Minister at the Cabinet table, arguing the case for wealth creation in this country. That Department can be the DTI or a department for economic affairs, but heaven help us—

Mr. Duncan Smith: Declare an interest.

Charles Hendry: Of course I declare an interest, with my aspirations to be a junior Minister in such a Department in a few months’ time.

Other serious issues have been raised. I hope that my hon. Friend the Member for Northampton, South (Mr. Binley) has written to the UKAEA with the concerns that he has expressed today and that he asked for a response before airing them in public. Equally, I am sure that my right hon. Friend has written to the UKAEA to try to broker a deal between his friend and the company before raising issues in the Chamber. Clearly the answers that my right hon. Friend received were not satisfactory.

I have also known Lady Judge for some years, and I also have the highest regard for her. The question of her qualifications needs to be seen in perspective. Peter Sutherland, the chairman of British Petroleum, has an astounding record. I do not believe that he is a geologist, but he does know how to chair one of the world’s leading companies. I do not believe that Lord Stevenson, chairman of HBOS plc, has a degree in finance, but he is an outstanding chairman because he brings other qualities to his role. Lady Judge is one of the most highly regarded business women in this country. She has worked for many other organisations—all of which, as far as I am aware, have been incredibly grateful for her input and contribution.

Under Lady Judge’s chairmanship, the UKAEA has addressed many of the issues that it needed to. It strengthened its position as the leader in nuclear decommissioning in Europe, and it delivered on time and below budget its work with the NDA at Dounreay, Harwell, Winfrith and Windscale. Critically, it has driven forward the work at Harwell, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey), as its constituency Member of Parliament, has referred. Harwell’s work makes it one of the most pioneering nuclear science establishments in the world.

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If, as we have all been hoping, we are to see the breakthrough for fusion, it will happen at Harwell. We should all pay tribute to the contribution that this country can make through the expertise and incredible knowledge of people at Harwell. I also pay tribute to the organisation for how it has reacted to the issue of human tissue experimentation. It has been incredibly responsible and has been working fast to bring reassurance to the families involved. We should recognise that as well.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) raised some serious issues. My understanding is that the particles were generated from the milling of material test reactor fuel between 1958 and 1973, and that that resulted in active particles being discharged through the low active drain. The process continued for 15 years after the end of milling. A particle was first found in the Dounreay foreshore in 1983, and at Sandside beach in 1984. My understanding is that such particles are typically the size of a grain of sand, and that they can be categorised as significant, relevant or minor. I understand that the only significant ones have been found at Dounreay beach; at Sandside, 17 relevant ones and 77 minor ones have been found. I hope that the parties will be able to work together this summer to retrieve the particles from Sandside beach and finish the job.

I was slightly confused as I listened to my right hon. Friend’s comments. He said that people had not got on to the beach to carry out the work. He then said that the beach had been closed to the UKAEA for other reasons.

Mr. Duncan Smith: That is part of the dispute. Only half the beach was being cleared and only at a depth that did not pick up the most difficult particle finds. All the scientists say that that is the reason for the dispute and why they have occasionally been banned from the beach. It is doing the job properly that counts.

Charles Hendry: I am grateful to my right hon. Friend. However, the evidence that I have had from the UKAEA is that it wants to go on to the beach to complete the work. I believe that it is genuine and sincere in that aspiration, but obviously it cannot do that without access rights.

I hope that the Minister can answer some questions. For example, can he give us information on how the general level of radioactivity on Sandside beach compares with the general background level of radiation? There is greater radioactivity generally in the environment. How different is it at Sandside beach in comparison with elsewhere? What about restrictions on bathing? Has it been established whether Sandside beach is safe for bathers? Is it closed to them? More generally, does the Minister believe that a study should be undertaken to review the areas surrounding nuclear sites which need to be off limits? That ties in with the comment made by my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal about the wider implications of this debate.

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