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9 May 2007 : Column 87WH—continued

Without doubt, the right approach is to get the parties involved back to mediation. I believe that both sides want a settlement, although I understand from
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the UKAEA—I have heard only one side of the debate in advance—that it is still looking to Mr. Minter to quantify what he is looking for. It does not yet understand exactly what he is seeking in order to take the matter forward. If that information has been given, I hope that it can be restated so that the parties can go forward. For mediation to work, both sides need to know where the other side is coming from.

In so many ways, the issues go back to the historic actions of the nuclear industry. Whether we are in favour of or against nuclear power, all in this House have concerns about the obsession with secrecy that has so often surrounded the actions of the industry—the initial desire to cover up when anything goes wrong and hope that people do not find out the facts. That has happened not only in the cases that we have discussed today, but time and again.

The industry has learned the lessons, including those from overseas. For example, Sweden and Finland have managed to get public support for their nuclear industries through openness and encouraging people to have a look at what they are doing. They have been as clear as they can be. Historically, the British industry acted in a way that today we find unthinkable; it was careless and there was often bad practice. However, we know that those practices have ended and now we should recognise that the British nuclear industry works to some of the highest safety standards and has some of the best practices of anywhere in the world.

Given that that is how the UKAEA and others wish to proceed, we should work with them. I hope that the Minister will be able to give satisfactory answers. I was greatly concerned to hear the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) say that he understood that a potential offer had been rejected by Ministers. I hope that the Minister can clarify that situation. The only way to resolve the matter is to get the parties together again.

As my right hon. Friend the Member for Suffolk, Coastal said, there is a huge issue of public confidence. We are expecting the energy White Paper next week, and there will then be a new opportunity for consultation on the whole nuclear power issue following the recent High Court judgment. If there is to be a new fleet of nuclear power stations and they are to play an important part in the future of electricity generation in this country—as the Minister knows, we are not enthusiastic about that, but accept that it might be necessary—there has to be confidence and trust in the industry. How the issue is discussed and debated will be integral to that process.

10.47 am

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Jim Fitzpatrick): It is a pleasure to see you in the Chair, Mr. Weir. I congratulate the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith) on securing this debate.

I should explain that the subject of the debate is normally outside my ministerial brief and my usual areas of expertise. The Minister for Science and Innovation would usually speak for the Department of Trade and Industry on these matters, but unfortunately he cannot be here because of an unavoidable overseas engagement on behalf of the Government. He sends his apologies to the right hon. Gentleman and others.

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I shall make every effort to answer the points raised in the debate, and my prepared text will cover many of them. However, when my non-familiarity with the subject or lack of time mean that I am unable to do so, I will arrange for Members to be sent a written response on their individual points as soon as possible.

It would be remiss of me in a debate on the UK Atomic Energy Authority not first to acknowledge the progress that the organisation has made recently. It continues to be a leader in nuclear decommissioning in Europe, having dismantled 15 reactors and more than 40 major radioactive facilities. By constant and stringent scrutiny of its plans and the identification of new and innovative ways of approaching the clean-up of its sites, the UKAEA has successfully reduced the undiscounted estimate of its liabilities—and thus the expected cost to the taxpayer—by £1.7 billion.

At the UKAEA site at Harwell in Oxfordshire, some 7 hectares of land were delicensed in October 2006, the largest single area of land to have been delicensed to date in the UK. That is allowing the site to be turned over to other uses, including for the Harwell science and innovation campus. The UKAEA is leading the proposed development of the campus, in partnership with our newly formed Science and Technology Facilities Council, to create a leading global centre for science and innovation and a future home to some of the world’s most prestigious research facilities, building on the anchor facilities such as Diamond.

The UKAEA is also key to the UK’s role as a leading player in the search for a commercial fusion solution to future energy needs. At its site at Culham in Oxfordshire, the UKAEA manages the Euratom/UKAEA fusion programme, which is internationally recognised for its quality and effectiveness. The Culham team is also undertaking pioneering work on a design of fusion machine using its MAST—mega amp spherical tokamak—facility.

The UKAEA has responded well to the challenges brought about by the advent of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority. It has already established a working alliance with two major international partners in preparation for the competition for the management of its sites. The UKAEA board’s aim is to create a strong commercial business and the Government hope that it will flourish in the new competitive environment that the NDA has created. Given that impressive progress, it is hugely disappointing that one of the main people responsible—the chairman, Lady Barbara Thomas Judge—has been subjected to such unpleasant and unjustified personal attacks in the media. I want to use this opportunity to correct the inaccurate claims that have recently been made.

Few chairmen or board members devote themselves as fully to their organisations as Lady Judge. The claims that she has too many directorships to do her UKAEA job properly have been investigated and reinvestigated by the Department of Trade and Industry and have been found to be absolutely without foundation. Following a suggestion from the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green that her work load warranted investigation, the National Audit Office similarly concluded within the space of two days
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that there was no need for a special investigation. The NAO does not believe that the matter warrants any further work from it.

It is also worth remembering that as a non-departmental public body, the UKAEA routinely has its accounts audited by the NAO. Should that work identify issues of concern in any aspect of the UKAEA’s activities, the NAO would, of course, consider reporting in the normal way. The fact is that Lady Judge’s various non-UKAEA commitments take less than one and a half days of her time each week. She does a fair amount of that from her home and in the evenings or at weekends. Even her overseas-related commitments make a minimal impact on her time, with much of that work taking place over a telephone. We are therefore entirely satisfied that those non-executive and advisory positions, many of which relate to charities—although I did not realise until the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Vaizey) mentioned it that she has a strong family connection with the Conservative party—allow more than enough time for her properly to fulfil her chairmanship responsibilities at the UKAEA, which she does most efficiently, effectively and with complete dedication.

What is more, given the challenges that the UKAEA faces as it necessarily restructures to facilitate the Government’s competition policy for the decommissioning of nuclear sites, Lady Judge is providing the necessary leadership to the board, executive team and employees during a challenging time for the organisation. Her remuneration from the UKAEA of £60,000 a year for two days a week represents good value to the DTI and the taxpayer. Indeed, we probably get twice as much of her time as we pay for.

I hope that the malicious and unwarranted campaign against Lady Judge will now stop. Although a level of scrutiny is entirely appropriate, excessive criticism will deter able people from working for the public sector when they can earn far more in the private sector without the unwelcome intrusion, which is the point that has been made by several right hon. and hon. Members.

Let me turn to the contamination of Sandside beach. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the DTI is fully aware of the situation and receives regular reports from the UKAEA on the progress in the discussions between its representatives and Mr. Minter. Right hon. and hon. Members might appreciate an explanation of the nature and scale of the contamination. The UKAEA monitors nine beaches used by the public around Dounreay. That work is regulated by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. As of 3 May 2007, 94 particles have been recovered from Sandside, which is the nearest public beach to Dounreay, and two from beaches at Dunnet bay. I understand that the particles are typically the size of a grain of sand, as the hon. Member for Wealden (Charles Hendry) pointed out.

All the particles found on public beaches to date pose little risk to human health. That scientific advice contradicts the assertion of the right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green in his opening remarks. The probability of contact with a relevant particle at Sandside for a regular beach user has been estimated at one in 80 million. In the unfortunate event of contact, the Health Protection Agency has reported
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that particles of the type found on beaches used by the public would have to remain in stationary contact with precisely the same area of skin for at least seven hours to have any discernable effect. If a particle were ingested, it would need to remain stationary against the gut wall for six hours to cause ulceration. In either case, the effect would be temporary or healed by natural regeneration.

Mr. Duncan Smith: Will the Minister give way?

Jim Fitzpatrick: If the right hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I did not intervene on him despite some of the outrageous remarks that he made. If I have time at the end, I shall certainly give way, but he made some points that I have to rebut on the record. If he will allow me to finish, I should have time to take an intervention.

The right hon. Gentleman will be aware that Lord Truscott of St. James’s, the Minister for Energy, and his predecessor, the Minister for Science and Innovation, have taken a personal interest in the case. They had hoped that the authority and Mr. Minter could reach a fair, reasonable and documentable resolution. As the record shows, a deal has unfortunately eluded us despite every effort.

I understand that there was an unbridgeable gap between the parties on the numbers and that after careful consideration it was agreed last summer that the authority should bring last year’s mediation to a close by offering a full and final settlement. The Government believe that the offer subsequently made by the authority was fair and equitable. The right hon. Gentleman has argued that in years past Mr. Minter’s concerns may not have been accorded the concern or respect they deserved. Although that may have been the case in the early days, it is not our understanding of the situation now or since the mediation process that commenced in May 2005. It was probably not even the case even further back during the earlier mediation effort in 2001.

Furthermore, in January this year, Norman Harrison, the authority’s chief executive, expressed regret to Mr. Minter on behalf of the authority for past statements. The mediation attempts did not succeed in the end. Many people on both sides worked exceedingly diligently and in good faith as part of a genuine attempt to find a solution. Whatever Mr. Minter may believe, I am assured that everyone connected with this case at the UKAEA, as well as in the DTI and more recently in the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, has made every effort in good faith over the past two or three years to fashion a solution. That includes the authority’s chairman, Lady Judge, who has been personally active in trying to promote a solution.

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It is acknowledged that Mr. Minter, his business and his family have suffered damage. The authority has apologised for the contamination and, on behalf of the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority, which now has responsibility for the site, it is committed to remedying the situation and to reaching a solution that compensates Mr. Minter appropriately. It is not in any of the parties’ interests not to reach a fair, reasonable and documentable solution. Finding a way through the current impasse would be in the interests of not only Mr. Minter, but the authority and the nuclear industry in general, which was the point made by the right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal (Mr. Gummer). It would clearly also benefit the local community, as economic and social development are critical for its future. It cannot flourish when the continuing dispute gives the impression that the area is seriously and permanently contaminated, which it is not.

It would not be appropriate for me to get involved in the detailed negotiations, or to speak about the process or results of the mediation, which are rightly confidential. The Government, however, remain keen to ensure that the parties find a resolution. To that end the Government have been pleased to support further discussions between Mr. Minter and the authority aimed at trying better to understand why Mr. Minter rejected the offer made to him last year, and the scope for recasting the detail of a settlement to achieve a mutually agreed solution. The authority’s representative in the discussions, Mr. Wagner, acts with the full authority of not only the UKAEA but the DTI and, most importantly, the NDA, on whose behalf he is working.

The right hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green said that the UKAEA was fined for four offences in February 2007. That is true, but those offences related to four breaches of the Radioactive Substances Act 1960 that took place between 1963 and 1984. He said that officials holding the purse strings at the DTI should be involved directly in talks. The authority is directly responsible for remedial action and for settlement of the dispute with Mr. Minter. The Government are not working in some dark way to undermine a deal. The accusations are fanciful.

In his effective speech, the hon. Member for Caithness, Sutherland and Easter Ross (John Thurso) raised an invitation to my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State. I will ensure that that invitation is reinforced.

The UKAEA publishes details of all finds of particles on all the beaches that it monitors, including Sandside, irrespective of ownership. The right hon. Member for Suffolk, Coastal expressed his clear view on the DTI. Time will tell whether the new Prime Minister agrees with him. In the meantime, I can assure him that those of us working at the DTI—as Ministers or officials—will continue to do our best to serve the interests of the United Kingdom.

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UK Bilateral Relations (Russia)

11 am

Daniel Kawczynski (Shrewsbury and Atcham) (Con): In my estimation we have never truly had close relations with Russia, certainly not during my lifetime, yet it is such an important country. It has a permanent seat on the UN Security Council and a huge influence in the middle east and other parts of the world where we are seeking to solve long-standing problems. I have visited Russia on a number of occasions and been in awe of it, but it has huge cultural differences from us that we must learn to understand and appreciate. We must learn to respect the fact that Russians think differently from us and do things in a different way. We need to achieve greater mutual respect.

Russia faces many foreign problems including in the Kaliningrad enclave, which borders Lithuania and Poland. Russia has borders with 14 countries and there are various problems with some of those neighbours, ranging from diplomatic spats to outright confrontation. I wish to mention a couple of them.

Russia has a long-standing dispute with the Japanese over the Kuril islands, which were seized after the second world war, and that has led to a lack of Japanese investment in Russia. Recently we have read about the growing tensions between Russia and Estonia, because the Estonians have taken down a statue commemorating the tremendous sacrifices of Russian soldiers during the second world war in liberating that country. That has led to some serious intimidation of Estonian diplomats in Moscow and, as an ally of Estonia in NATO, Great Britain has shown serious concern about the treatment of Estonians over the matter.

Belarus is, in my estimation, the last dictatorship in Europe—a most appalling, dreadful regime in the heart of Europe with which Russia is having to grapple. President Lukashenko is commonly known to have instrumented some of the worst human rights abuses and is causing the Russians a great deal of problems by blackmailing them to pay for the transit of Russian oil to Europe through the pipelines in his country.

Of course Russia has relations with North Korea, which is near Vladivostok on its far eastern border. Both Russia and ourselves are extremely concerned about nuclear proliferation in North Korea, which has an unstable regime that is extremely cruel to its population but is pursuing an extremely expensive programme of nuclear weapons production.

Russia has many problems but I have time to mention only a few, of which the last is Chechnya. The right hon. and learned Member for North-East Fife (Sir Menzies Campbell) has written an open letter to the Russian authorities, together with others including the Conservative former Foreign Secretary, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Kensington and Chelsea (Sir Malcolm Rifkind), and the former leader of the Liberal Democrats, the right hon. Member for Ross, Skye and Lochaber (Mr. Kennedy), outlining their concerns about the atrocities in Chechnya. It is an ongoing, terrible problem for Russia and there are appalling human rights abuses on both sides. That is happening in Europe, which is of great concern to us as well as to the Russians.

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I wish to talk about the areas in which we need Russian support and why it is so important to have good relations with Russia. We need Russian support in the war on terrorism. Russia has a huge influence over Syria and Iran, and we know that there is an ongoing problem with border-crossing between Syria and Iraq. Insurgents and terrorists are coming from Syria and other countries across the Syrian border into Iraq, directly threatening the lives of serving British soldiers there because of the porous border. I know that Russia has long-standing trading and diplomatic relations with Syria.

On the other side of Iraq, Iran has allegedly been assisting insurgency in Basra and the rest of the south. Russia has huge influence over Iran and has been supplying it with a great deal of nuclear technology, ostensibly for a peaceful programme of nuclear power generation. We in Great Britain and others are concerned about the possibility that Iran may use that technology to produce nuclear weapons. Russia is at the forefront of supplying such countries with nuclear technology.

Just today we learn that Russia is allegedly selling attack helicopters and gunships to Sudan. An article from today’s The Daily Telegraph states that Russia has

It concerns me greatly that a country such as Russia, which has a permanent seat on the Security Council, is allegedly selling such appalling weapons to Sudan to enable the Sudanese Government to carry out some of the worst human rights atrocities imaginable. We should be putting a great deal more pressure on Russia and seeking explanations as to why it is breaking a UN embargo, which is totally unacceptable behaviour. I return to my point that we need a better relationship with the Russians in order to lobby them and put pressure on them. Many people in our own country feel strongly about what is happening in Darfur and look to us to stop the atrocities. We must use our influence as a major military and economic power in the world to lobby the Russians to try to prevent such exports.

What more needs to be done? I look forward to listening to the Minister, who will hopefully explain what he is doing to draw Russia ever closer to the European Union and into our camp to be our close allies. We must consider the Kaliningrad enclave, which is a remnant of the settlement of the second world war and is cut off from the rest of Russia, sandwiched between Lithuania and Poland. It has significant problems through being surrounded by European Union countries but not having the benefits of being in the EU. I am sure that we in the EU could do more to give special status to that part of Russia, which is almost encased within the EU, to assist with trade and better transport links. We want to encourage trade between the Baltic states, Poland and Russia. I would certainly urge the Minister to spend some time considering what could be done about that anomaly in Europe, and about whether Kaliningrad’s status could be modernised.

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