House of Commons portcullis
House of Commons
Session 2007 - 08
Publications on the internet
Public Bill Committee Debates

Radioactive Contaminated Land (Modification of Enactments) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2007 (S.I., 2007, No. 3245)



The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Mr. Roger Gale
Bacon, Mr. Richard (South Norfolk) (Con)
Barker, Gregory (Bexhill and Battle) (Con)
Dorrell, Mr. Stephen (Charnwood) (Con)
Duddridge, James (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con)
Efford, Clive (Eltham) (Lab)
Flello, Mr. Robert (Stoke-on-Trent, South) (Lab)
Griffith, Nia (Llanelli) (Lab)
Horwood, Martin (Cheltenham) (LD)
Keeble, Ms Sally (Northampton, North) (Lab)
McDonagh, Siobhain (Mitcham and Morden) (Lab)
Michael, Alun (Cardiff, South and Penarth) (Lab/Co-op)
Purchase, Mr. Ken (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op)
Sheridan, Jim (Paisley and Renfrewshire, North) (Lab)
Turner, Dr. Desmond (Brighton, Kemptown) (Lab)
Webb, Steve (Northavon) (LD)
Woolas, Mr. Phil (Minister for the Environment)
Yeo, Mr. Tim (South Suffolk) (Con)
Dr. H. Weston, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Fourth Delegated Legislation Committee

Monday 18 February 2008

[Mr. Roger Gale in the Chair]

Radioactive Contaminated Land (Modification of Enactments) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2007 (S.I., 2007, No. 3245)

4.30 pm
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That the Committee has considered the Radioactive Contaminated Land (Modification of Enactments) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2007 (S.I., 2007, No. 3245)—[Mr. Woolas.]
The Chairman: With this it will be convenient to consider the Radioactive Contaminated Land (Modification of Enactments) (Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2007 (S.I., 2007, No. 3250), the Radioactive Contaminated Land Regulations (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2007 (S.I., 2007, No. 3236) and the Radioactive Contaminated Land (Scotland) (Amendment) Regulations 2007 (S.I., 2007, No. 3240).
Gregory Barker (Bexhill and Battle) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale, on such a glorious February afternoon. There is, perhaps, a certain delicious irony in the fact that on the day when the nationalisation of Northern Rock and the huge liabilities that that will impose on taxpayers—and that they are taking on board—is being debated in the main Chamber, upstairs we are debating a seemingly relatively obscure measure, but nevertheless one that also has the potential to lumber the taxpayer with significant liabilities. Indeed, it is possible to conceive that the liabilities could, under certain circumstances, run to billions and billions of pounds. Yet the Government would have preferred not to debate this small measure at all. They would have preferred no one to notice its passage. Nevertheless, I thank the Minister for formally moving the instrument and look forward to his closing remarks.
The radioactive contaminated land modification of enactments regulations are established in part 2A of the Environment Protection Act 1990 and are an important tool in protecting our nation’s fundamental asset—its land. By setting out a regime for monitoring and cleaning up contamination, we ensure that land quality is preserved. [ Interruption. ]
The Chairman: Order. If hon. Members wish to have a private conversation, it would be awfully helpful if they did so outside.
Gregory Barker: I am very happy to give way, Mr. Gale. [ Laughter. ]
Through the regime, we also ensure that greater pollution does not occur through neglect of a contaminated site, thereby allowing over time the pollution of lands surrounding it. We ensure that the causes of pollution are identified and managed so that further and avoidable contamination does not occur.
I support the 2006 regulations that extended the regime to pollutants relating specifically to nuclear industries and radioactively contaminated land. As we start to decommission previous generations of nuclear power stations, it will be of the utmost importance that the process of remediating land adversely affected by their activities is done in a carefully managed and thoroughly responsible way. Indeed, beyond the power stations, there are many associated facilities, storage plants and service industries that handle radioactive materials. They will be regulated, and the land that they use will be protected by these sensible regulations.
At the heart of the 2A regime is a risk-based approach that considers the current use and circumstances of the land, and that requires remediating actions to be taken to a degree appropriate to the risks. That fair and effective approach has been underpinned since 1990 by the fair and equally appropriate principle that the polluter pays. Putting it simply, the persons or industries responsible for degradation of the land are made to pay for its restoration, appropriate to the risks brought about by the pollution.
I believe we can all agree that that is a fair and sensible solution—it is not contentious. Since 1990, the system has worked well and there has been little resistance from industry to a system that it considers to be proportionate and equitable. Indeed, during a long and thorough consultation on the issue of land contamination and remediation carried out in 2006, local authorities, environmental regulators, industry and other stakeholders, including radiological specialists and environmental groups, were asked their views on whether and how the 1990 legislation could best be extended to cover land contaminated not merely with radioactive material or radiation, but through a nuclear occurrence—the subject of this statutory instrument.
The Government are obliged under articles 48 and 53 of the basic safety standards directive to satisfy those criteria within legislation. Indeed, they have spent such a period of time trying to solve the problem that they are now under pressure of infraction proceedings from the European Commission and large punitive fines from the European Union.
Within that consultation a variety of views were expressed, but the majority felt that part 2A of the 1990 legislation should follow the Paris convention requirement: that the polluter should pay. The Paris convention is a pan-European document on liability in the nuclear industry and covers specifically occurrences dealt with in the statutory instrument.
The Paris convention assumes that the operators will obtain commercial insurance against costs arising from such incidents: an approach, it seems, that was agreed upon across the EU through the Paris convention. So I ask the Minister: why has the British nuclear industry been unable, after a considerable period of time and a great deal of effort, to secure commercial insurance, as anticipated in the Paris convention? Can he explain why it has reached such a point here in the United Kingdom that the Secretary of State has taken upon the Government the costs of dealing with a contamination from any nuclear occurrence? However unlikely that might be, the costs of dealing with such an occurrence could run into billions and billions of pounds and would have to be accounted for by the Treasury.
Flying in the face of his own consultation, and of the Paris convention, The Minister is burdening the public purse with a totally open-ended cost of cleaning up any number or scale of nuclear occurrences. Can he explain how he came to such a remarkable decision? Given that the inability to secure commercial insurance can be the result only of an unacceptable, unviable, uncommercial degree of risk or cost surrounding any potential incident, can the Minister make a statement as to the state of our clearly ailing nuclear infrastructure if such insurance is unobtainable? What a state the industry must be in that it was unable to obtain insurance or unwilling to shoulder the costs that would be required by the market.
The Government announced in January this year a new generation of nuclear reactors. As part of that, they assured us that the public purse would not bear any of the costs of that new wave of development. We supported that. In what way exactly does removing the obviously prohibitively large costs relating to insurance and transferring any future risks and costs to the taxpayer out of the private sector not constitute bearing any of the costs of new development? Whether it is justifiable or not, how can it not be seen as a form of support for the nuclear industry by the public sector?
Can the Minister explain why the historically heavily subsidised nuclear industry has found itself in a situation where it can refuse to insure itself and can oblige or force the Government to bear the costs of any occurrences, which presumably would be the result of the state that the industry has got itself into?
Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD): The hon. Gentleman mentioned existing nuclear plants and clean-up, but obviously the regulations will have implications for the viability of a new generation of nuclear. Is it his position that, because the regulations imply subsidy to the nuclear industry, and because his party’s position is “no nuclear with subsidy”, he is therefore opposed to new nuclear because of the regulations?
Gregory Barker: No, we are not opposed to new nuclear, which may have a genuine role to play in future electricity provision in the United Kingdom. But we are certainly against hidden subsidy and undeclared and back-door support for the industry, which seem to run totally counter to statements from the Prime Minister, no less. We want clarity so that people can make a sound judgment. The Liberal Democrats have taken a principle position on this and are, de facto, against new nuclear, but that is not our position. We believe that it should be without hidden subsidy, and that the taxpayer has a right to know what form support will take.
Steve Webb: But the position of his Front-Bench spokesman on energy, rather than on environment, is that there should be no subsidy—not just no hidden subsidy.
Gregory Barker: That is correct. We believe that there should be no subsidy, hidden or otherwise. We want to be clear about that, but we do not have an ideological position in the way that the Liberal Democrats do, or an ideological preferment in the way that some Ministers do. For the Conservative Front Bench, nuclear is a technology, not an ideology.
Will the Minister please tell the Committee what other sectors enjoy financial protection against accidents, their own mishaps, mistakes or mishandling, or their employees’ mistakes? Will he go over his Department’s rationale for what amounts to an open-ended pledge for a financial bail-out, albeit in the most dire and difficult-to-imagine circumstances? On the day on which the Government nationalised a bank, are they starting that process in the nuclear industry? If the Minister suggests that the solution is only a tide-over until commercial insurance can be obtained by the industry—that sounds familiar—can he give an estimate of how long that state of affairs, with the taxpayer on the hook, will last? Is he prepared to set a limit, or at least to set himself a goal? Can he suggest what events would initiate a reduction in insurance costs to a level with which the industry would be happy? Can he explain why any businessman would take out an expensive insurance policy when the alternative is to have those costs underwritten free by the Government?
Does the Minister accept that this statutory instrument is an open-ended spending commitment that will undoubtedly be costly in the large-scale decommissioning process that will take place soon in older power stations? It seems that their installations are in such a state that the risk of incidents is—I say this not from a scientific point of view, but because of their inability to secure commercial finance—too high to secure finance. Does he accept that that effectively amounts to a subsidy for new nuclear build in Britain, which, as is typical of this Government, is yet another U-turn, only six weeks after the Prime Minister gave assurances that no such subsidies would be granted? The Minister has a great deal to explain to the Committee.
4.43 pm
Mr. Ken Purchase (Wolverhampton, North-East) (Lab/Co-op): I rise briefly to make one or two points that may be relevant to our deliberations.
First, I consider such matters on a technical and not an ideological basis, because the science of nuclear physics can be used for good or evil, and I take a wholly dispassionate view of the subject. However, I find it difficult to understand the pursuit of nuclear power. There is no question that the science is brilliant, or that it has slightly outrun the technology, and no doubt that both the science and the technology massively outstrip our ability to marry those processes.
I speak from the perspective of great land pollution problems over many years in my west midlands constituency. Pollution from heavy metals and so on in the ground goes back 200 or 250 years, and is very difficult to clear. It is almost impossible to obtain a reasonable price for such land when safety clearance cannot be given for present or future purposes. I seek assurances from the Minister that when we adhere to the principle that the polluter pays, we ensure that the polluter actually does pay. The cost of clearing up in the west midlands and the north-west of England has fallen heavily on the public purse. Furthermore, much needed development has been delayed in many former industrial areas. We need to be certain that we can build in the certainty that the polluter will pay the totality of the costs, rather than hoping to externalise them to the community in 200 years’ time. Such certainty would be a step forward, and I hope that the Minister can give us those assurances.
4.45 pm
Steve Webb: It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship again, Mr. Gale.
I have a lot of sympathy with what the hon. Member for Wolverhampton, North-East said. I welcome the fact that a debate has been secured on the regulations, because they raise a number of issues on which we have had no clear answers from the Government, and I hope that the Minister will give us some specific answers today.
In each of the four sets of regulations, a liability that should properly belong with the nuclear generators will end up with the taxpayer—that is what the regulations are about. The query in my mind is how we have reached this point. My first question following on from that is whether the risk involved is inherently uninsurable. The presumption is that if something can be commercially insured, the polluter should pay by obtaining insurance. Presumably, the issue is not unique to the United Kingdom, and countries such as France will be dealing with similar issues, although that is obviously slightly different because of the ownership of the nuclear industry there. However, will the Minister clarify whether other countries with a nuclear industry have been able to deal with the lack of commercial insurance? In other words, are there other, similarly structured nuclear industries where the same issue has arisen, but where the problem has been resolved differently, or are such businesses generally publicly owned, so whether the business or the taxpayer pays the insurance amounts to the same thing?
If these risks are not inherently uninsurable commercially, how long will the regulations apply for? As the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle asked, will they apply indefinitely, or are they just to give us some breathing space while commercial insurance can finally be arranged? If we do not have a clear answer on that, we are being asked to accept an open-ended liability on the taxpayer. I have looked at the explanatory memorandums and other sources, but I can find no estimate of the size of that liability. My understanding of good practice in Treasury and national accounts is that a long-standing major liability taken on by the public sector should be quantified and recorded. Will the liability that we are taking on today be on the public sector balance sheet? If so, has a valuation been put on it? In evaluating the regulations, we need to know how big the blank cheque is that we are being asked to sign. Hon. Members should make no mistake about the fact that we are being asked to sign a blank cheque, because the Government—obviously, the Minister has not spoken yet—have not told us how big the cheque will be.
We are clearly talking about a subsidy to the nuclear industry—that is what is going on here. We are talking about a private business running a commercial activity with which a cost is associated, and the taxpayer being asked to bear that cost. In my intervention, I said the Conservative position was that there should be no new nuclear if it involved a subsidy. If the regulations go through, as I suspect they will, a subsidy will be put in place. The Conservatives will therefore either have to reverse their policy and say that they will have new nuclear anyway, notwithstanding the subsidy in the regulations, or they will have to propose to repeal the regulations, and I am not sure whether that is actually their position.
The key questions are threefold. The first relates to the time scale. Are we being asked to accept that these liabilities will fall to the taxpayer indefinitely or are the regulations just a stop-gap to prevent heavy penalties from the European Union, although we will eventually hand the liabilities back? Is this just a temporary fix—of the kind discussed elsewhere in the building earlier today—to get us out of a hole or is it a long-term liability?
How do the proposals sit with the stated policy of the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform that there will be no subsidy for new nuclear? It is hard to reconcile those two positions. A set of regulations—[ Interruption. ]
The Chairman: Order. I am sorry, but this Chairman likes to hear the debate. It is a small room and chirruping in the background does not help. If hon. Members wish to have private conversations, please do so on the comfortable benches outside.
Steve Webb: Thank you, Mr. Gale, I will give way in a moment.
On the issue of joined-up or lack of joined-up government, the Liberal Democrats think that the environment and energy need to be dealt with in an integrated way, which is why we have a single spokesperson on both of those issues. The Government deal with those subjects separately and we can see the problem with that approach in the proposals. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs says that the nuclear industry needs to be subsidised, but the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform says that we should have nuclear with no subsidy. One of those two statements is wrong and it is not clear to me whether the answer is different depending on who one talks to.
Gregory Barker: Does the Liberal party support the measures? The clean up has to be dealt with and the nuclear industry is a fact; we cannot uninvent it. Whatever the Liberal party’s view is on new nuclear, does it support the measures or does it propose to nationalise the nuclear industry as well?
We do not believe that this liability should be passed on to the taxpayer or that the regulations are consistent with what another Department down the road is saying about no subsidy for new nuclear. It is interesting that the explanatory memorandum on the regulations shows that there was a consultation. Guess what? The vast majority of people said that the polluter should pay, but the Government decided that the polluter will not pay—yet another Government consultation that has not had any meaningful impact. People say one thing and if it is not the answer that the Government first thought of, they come up with a different answer.
On the time scales involved, my concern might simply be because of confusion on my part, but we are talking about part 2A of the Environment Protection Act 1990, which came into force on 1 April 2000. Nearly eight years later, we are discussing regulations that state that the liability will end up with the taxpayer. It would be helpful if the Minister could say what vigorous activity took place between Departments to make sure that we did not reach this point. One senses that the Government’s hand has been forced by, as the Minister says from a sedentary position, legal action. It would be nice if the Government had been more proactive and, rather than being dragged into a last-ditch bail out, had come up with a constructive policy to ensure that the liabilities ended up where they properly belong: with the generators, not the taxpayer.
4.53 pm
The Minister for the Environment (Mr. Phil Woolas): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr. Gale. On reflection, I welcome the fact that the Opposition have prayed against the order because, having heard what the Machiavellian conspiracy suspicions are, it gives me the opportunity to reassure Opposition Members that what they have been talking about may be arguments in the debate on the future of nuclear, but they have little—indeed, virtually nothing—to do with the regulations, which do not cover nuclear power sites.
I shall try to respond to the questions asked and explain why it is a matter of a tiny tidying-up—I hope that hon. Members will accept it is a tiny tidying-up when they have heard the explanations. The regulations are not of the import that has been stated in the contributions today. On reflection, I welcome the fact that this is a prayer as it has given us the opportunity to hear the arguments.
The four statutory instruments are transposing regulations required to implement European Union directives; there is one each for England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland. They are required to complete the transposition of articles 48 and 53 of the council directive 96/29/Euratom, which lays down the basic safety standards for the protection of the health of workers and the general public against the dangers arising from ionising radiation.
The United Kingdom believed that it had fully transposed articles 48 and 53 of the directive. However, a small loophole, albeit one that has proved technically difficult to plug, was identified after the due date for transposition. The loophole covers a situation that is highly unlikely to arise. Following its identification, the European Court of Justice ruled that the United Kingdom was in breach of its obligations under the Euratom treaty, by failing to transpose those articles completely into national law. That was a serious matter because it raised the potential for damage to the UK’s reputation. As has been said by hon. Members, it raises the possibility of infraction fines from the European Union. Nevertheless, we should and would be doing it anyway.
If I may crave the Committee’s patience, I shall give more technical detail on the matter and explain why we are where we are. The statutory instruments for England, Wales and Scotland amend earlier regulations extending part 2A of the Environmental Protection Act 1990 to radioactivity. The statutory instrument for Northern Ireland makes similar amendments to the radioactive regime created by earlier Northern Ireland regulations. However, part 2A is not relevant in that instance, as it does not apply to Northern Ireland.
At the time of the consultation, questions were raised as to whether the approach in earlier regulations, based on the “polluter pays” principle, was compatible with other international obligations under the Paris and Brussels conventions on third-party liability. As a result, the earlier regulations excluded land contaminated by a nuclear occurrence where civil liability was already regulated by the Nuclear Installations Act 1965. The Paris and Brussels conventions cover claims for third-party damages—
Gregory Barker: The Minister placed great emphasis on the words “already regulated”, but there is a difference between being regulated by that Act and the responsibility for the liability. The two are quite different.
Mr. Woolas: The hon. Gentleman’s logic is coherent, and I will answer his question as I proceed. He will find that we are dealing with a potentially tiny proportion of incidents outside existing and decommissioned nuclear sites. That is the main point.
I was trying to explain that the Paris and Brussels conventions cover claims for third-party damages arising from nuclear occurrences.
Gregory Barker: I apologise for interrupting the flow of the Minister’s speech, but he is wrong to suggest that the main thrust of my speech was simply concerned with nuclear sites. I made it clear that nuclear fissile material passes through other sites handling supply. Practically every day of the week large amounts of nuclear material are transported on our rail network, from being decommissioned up to Sellafield and across the country. People would be amazed if they realised how much nuclear material was simply in transit, let alone in other places such as storage centres and supplying our nuclear power stations. Our interest is not exclusively with the generators, whether current or decommissioned.
Mr. Woolas: I thank the hon. Gentleman for that clarification. I did not intend to imply anything different. I am happy to make that clear. Indeed, the regulations, to which I refer when talking about nuclear sites, include the supply chain that he mentioned. It is perhaps not often understood in the public debate that most of the materials that fall under the DEFRA regime are not directly related to nuclear power. By volume, they more often relate to hospital procedures and manufacturing processes. However, the regulations before us today, fall outside that already-regulated regime.
It might help Committee members understand, and me to convince them, if I explain that the decision to tighten up the regulations arose from the case of a gentlemen who believed that he had nuclear waste in his private property—his house. As far as we were aware, there was no reason to think that that was the case. However, he brought a legal case and it was shown that there was nothing to worry about and that there was no nuclear radioactive waste in his garden, which for whatever reason he thought that there was. As a result, we discovered that the Environment Agency needed powers to intervene, because, owing to a loophole, it was not covered by the regulations. I accept the hon. Gentleman’s point, but the regulations before us do not cover the supply chain, if I can put it that way, which is already regulated. The regulations before us cover the regime outside that. I urge him to listen to the rest of the argument and I am sure that Committee members will be convinced—I can see the anticipation on their faces.
I shall touch on two main principles under the 1960 Paris and Brussels convention: the first is the channelling principle, which channels all liability on to the operator and means that others involved in nuclear installations, such as contractors, cannot be liable for damage. That also means that the operator can incur no liability for nuclear damage outside the convention. Operators of nuclear installations are liable for nuclear occurrences, irrespective of fault on their part—strict liability—up to a financial cap. The second principle is that operators must have adequate financial security in place to ensure that they can meet the costs of any liability placed upon them. The convention regime therefore provides legal certainty, not only for operators, but for potential victims damaged by a nuclear occurrence, who in the event of such an occurrence will know against whom they should claim and will be assured that the operators have financial cover for such claims.
James Duddridge (Rochford and Southend, East) (Con): The Minister talks about a small tidying-up, but are the Government not accepting unlimited liability? He does not know the cost—£1 million, £100 million, £1 billion or £100 billion—because the liability is unlimited. It is not a tidying-up matter at all.
Mr. Woolas: It is not £1, let alone £100 or £1 million. We are not writing a blank cheque, but dealing with potentially ionised radioactivity outside the regime for radioactive substances in this country, which is already covered by regulations. These regulations apply to those instances outside the regulated regime, so the question of an open-ended liability does not therefore arise. Indeed, it is not expected that these regulations will ever be used. An event in which they would be called for is extremely unlikely.
Steve Webb: I am grateful to the Minister, who is trying to explain the regulations, but I am more confused than I was when we started. He just said that the commercial insurers have not been able to come up with an insurance package because it is so hard to know what the future environmental costs might be. I believe that that is almost verbatim what he just said. So we have no idea what the future costs will be. If they were perhaps not £1 or nil but potentially as tiny as the Minister implies, why would any insurer worth their salt not think that they could have some money for old rope? They would offer a policy because the future liability is likely to be negligible. Are not his two statements irreconcilable?
Mr. Woolas: Not in the real world. We are not talking about insurance of nuclear installations on the broadest definition as given to us earlier. We are talking about whether, for example, a private individual could get insurance in respect of nuclear contamination in their back garden. The question is not the one that the hon. Gentleman raises but one that would apply in all such environmental situations, nuclear or otherwise. In short, there is not an insurance market for the sort of extremely unlikely event that we are discussing.
Steve Webb indicated dissent.
Mr. Woolas: The hon. Gentleman shakes his head. With respect, he is not listening to the common sense in my argument. The Government’s expectation is that the regulations, which were required because of the loophole identified in the case that I referred to, and because of the European Court of Justice ruling, are outside the existing regulation of nuclear materials. I hope that that reassures the hon. Gentleman.
James Duddridge: I am afraid that the hon. Member for Northavon has been given no reassurance whatsoever. The Minister’s comments do not fit at all with discussions that I have had with Lloyd’s of London. Certainly, from a pragmatic perspective, I am sure that many members and syndicates at Lloyd’s would take on the type of business that involved receiving £1 worth of risk and taking a premium. Has the Minister even met with Lloyd’s of London?
Mr. Woolas: The hon. Gentleman is trying to create a picture that does not apply in the real world. It is not that people are seeking insurance for such an eventuality and that the insurance companies are refusing to provide it, but that the circumstances whereby the regulations could possibly apply are so remote—they derive from a legal tidying-up of the regulations, given the obligations on member states comprehensively to introduce transposition of the original directive—that the question simply does not arise. I am sure that I could spend my time engaging in debate with Lloyd’s of London about the matter, but I do not think that that would be the best use of my or my colleagues’ time. I shall conclude my remarks as I suspect that we have covered the purpose of the regulations.
In the short term, there is no alternative to the potential liabilities remaining with the state, where, as I said, they have lain since the directive came into force. That is not, of course, ideal, and it is not where we want to be. The Government are analysing options for nuclear operators to obtain financial security for the new heads of damages in the amended Paris convention. In the first instance, we will consider whether any of the possible options will be of benefit in enabling us to move the liabilities arising under the statutory instruments from the state to elsewhere.
Steve Webb: I sensed that the Minister was concluding without answering one of my questions. Presumably other nuclear states have had to address the same issue. Have any others addressed it through a commercial insurance approach?
Mr. Woolas: I am not aware of any. Let me explain the point about the Paris convention. That will probably help. The regulations we are discussing would only go up to the Paris convention cap in any event. Beyond that cap the state is already liable in order to protect the public. [ Interruption. ] From a sedentary position the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle asks me what the cap is. It is £140 million. The idea that these regulations introduce an unlimited cap is mistaken.
On the wider point, the Government have no intention of subsidising new nuclear build, which is a completely separate issue from these regulations. The accusation made by the hon. Member for Northavon that the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs were not joined up on this issue is not fair. We sing from the same hymn sheet. We consult closely with each other. The policy that was put forward recently in the statement on nuclear power is perfectly co-ordinated between the two Departments and other Departments, mainly the Department for Transport, which is also directly involved. Irrespective of the policy debate on nuclear power, these regulations would be being brought in because of their purpose.
The work on the completion of implementing this directive has been going on for a number of years. The public consultation that I referred to a moment ago took place in 2005, well before the current developments on nuclear power. The Government have been clear throughout that operators of any new nuclear power station must pay for decommissioning and cleaning up their activities. A few weeks ago we introduced the Energy Bill which sets out robust financing arrangements to ensure that private sector energy companies cover their full costs of decommissioning and waste management.
The statutory instruments deal with contamination outside nuclear sites. That is the broadest definition of sites, the point which the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle asked me to clarify. The purposes of the instruments are already achieved on nuclear sites by licensing requirements under the Nuclear Installations Act 1965. Licence conditions provide the licensing authority, the Health and Safety Executive, with extensive powers to ensure the site remains in a safe state during its operational life and subsequent decommissioning. A site will be released from licensing requirements only when the HSE is satisfied that it presents no danger from ionising radiations.
The statutory instruments before the Committee would apply only in the unlikely instance where despite the requirements of the 1965 Act, lasting radiation exposure was being caused to people as a result of past activities undertaken on the site. In practice, we know of no such land that would be determined as radioactive contaminated land under the proposed regulations. In addition, detailed requirements for responding to a nuclear emergency are already set out in existing legislation: the Radiation Emergency Preparedness and Public Information Regulations 2001.
The statutory instruments before the Committee only have effect where, for any reason, the emergency response does not fully provide for any necessary off-site remediation. All in all, there is only a remote possibility that these regulations would ever be used. A number of conditions would have to apply. First the land must be outside a nuclear site—in its broadest definition, as covered by the licensing of nuclear sites—that is the important reassurance that the hon. Member for Bexhill and Battle seeks—and be causing lasting radiation exposures above a specified threshold to people.
Mr. Purchase: How can something be outside the widest definition of a site? All the conditions will have been taken into account earlier, such as the transportation of nuclear waste. I understood that that was regarded as a site in the widest sense, so how can something take place outside that site?
Mr. Woolas: It probably could not; that is the point. That is my difficulty in trying to explain this statutory instrument, which covers a not hypothetical, but extremely unlikely case. The licensing regime for the processing, transportation and use of radioactive material covers the eventualities that it is possible to imagine from experience. My hon. Friend’s point is therefore extremely helpful, and he is spot on. I wish I had said that 20 minutes ago and we would not have had to go through the tortuous exercise of the past 20 minutes.
The second criterion is that the land must be contaminated by radioactivity arising from a past activity, rather than a current one, or by the after-effects of a nuclear emergency, not an ongoing one. Thirdly, there must be a civil liability for the incident, which is regulated by the Nuclear Installations Act 1965, and, fourthly, the operators must have failed to take action themselves to clean up the contamination. I do not accept the accusation that the Government have been anything other than completely open about their intentions regarding liabilities arising from the transposition of the directive.
Martin Horwood (Cheltenham) (LD): The conditions that the Minister has just described would apply to almost any large-scale nuclear accident on the scale of Chernobyl, for example. I am not saying that an exact parallel will happen here, but surely that would go outside the widest definition of a site and would contaminate above a certain level. It would also be beyond the scope of the site operator to clean up afterwards. Is not that exactly the kind of risk that, although unlikely, appears to be uninsurable?
Mr. Woolas: No; such an accident would be covered by existing regulations on nuclear accidents. Returning to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, North-East, the type of situation we are discussing would be beyond that. If it were not, this would be a major debate and the Government would, indeed, be guilty of the accusations made by the hon. Members for Northavon and for Bexhill and Battle. The regulations do not pertain to incidents that are covered by existing regulations, legislation and international treaties.
Gregory Barker: I am sorry to interrupt the Minister again, but he keeps confusing regulation and liability, although I am sure that he is not doing it on purpose. The fact that a set of circumstances is regulated by an Act or a set of rules is quite different to the liability for picking up the bill. We regulate on all sorts of things here, but we do not pick up the bill when they go wrong. It is not good enough for the Minister to replace the word “liability” with “regulation” and think that the Committee will be satisfied. We are not concerned with the regulations around incidents; we are concerned with liability and to whom it falls. Will the Minister please use the word “liability” and not confuse the issue by talking about regulation?
Mr. Woolas: It is unfair to say that I have confused regulation and liability. Perhaps the hon. Gentleman chooses not to accept the logic of my argument. The liability for any such incident from nuclear activity is clearly covered, whether it be of the kind that the hon. Member for Cheltenham described when he gave the example of Chernobyl or an accident during transportation or on a generating site. It is clearly covered by the conventions, the legislation and the insurance—notwithstanding the point about the cap—that are already provided. We are not talking about such incidents, but about those outside of those existing regulations and liabilities. That must be understood.
It is unfair to say that the Government have been anything other than completely open about their intentions regarding the liabilities arising from the implementation of the directive. The consultation on the future of nuclear power was always clear in that obligations under the Paris convention might have to be met with a continuing degree of state liability. I refer to paragraph 4.15 of the consultation document where we said:
“We intend to legislate in a way which has regard to the liability principles of the Paris Convention as implemented in the UK and which does not impose liability on operators for which financial security is not available”.
We stated under paragraph 4.32 that
“we expect to implement Articles 48 and 53 of the Euratom Basic Safety Standards Directive for the nuclear industry in a way which will involve at least some degree of government liability”.
Hence, as I said at the outset, that demonstrates that the regulations are well founded and are necessary to meet European Union obligations and hide nothing untoward. I believe that I have answered all the questions that I have been asked, other than the one from the hon. Member for Northavon about the time scale of the regulations, to which the answer is that the regulations can be revoked if, and when, there were commercial insurances to cover such a peculiar set of circumstances. However, notwithstanding that, the regulations will last until such a time as Parliament decides. They do not have an end date.
Gregory Barker: I thank the Minister for his explanation. It certainly has, in part, answered some of our queries. However, I am still not entirely satisfied by his answer or at least as matters were explained to the Committee. It is difficult to comprehend how the hon. Gentleman can fail to define nuclear occurrences as they are described in the statutory instrument and say that they are so small as to be almost unimaginable. He said that a pound would overestimate the liability, but then claimed the protection of the Paris convention by saying that we were maxed out at £140 million. Deep down there could be some logic in that argument, but we have not heard it this afternoon.
Article 4 of the Paris convention sets out clear guidelines on the liability in respect of the carriage of nuclear substances and their storage. It makes clear that the operators are liable for that. We are only having the legislation brought forward because—to quote the explanatory note that was prepared presumably by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs—
“Unfortunately, under pressure of infraction proceedings from the European Commission, we are now obliged to complete our transposition of the Directive or face punitive fines although it has still not proved possible to secure commercial insurance or to put in place another form of financial guarantee. This instrument therefore...completes the transposition of the Directive allowing the UK to meet its obligations but does so by placing an obligation on the Secretary of State to deal with contamination arising from a nuclear occurrence”.
We have not heard the Minister pray in aid what other responsible Governments have done in those circumstances and whether they have been able to secure private insurance. It may not be an issue of fundamental principle, but with regard to efficiency and competency, we remain dissatisfied with the Government’s handling of this particular instrument.
Question put:—
The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 4.
Division No. 1 ]
AYES
Efford, Clive
Flello, Mr. Robert
Griffith, Nia
Keeble, Ms Sally
McDonagh, Siobhain
Purchase, Mr. Ken
Turner, Dr. Desmond
Woolas, Mr. Phil
NOES
Barker, Gregory
Duddridge, James
Horwood, Martin
Webb, Steve
Question accordingly agreed to.
Resolved
That the Committee has considered the draft Radioactive Contaminated Land (Modification of Enactments) (England) (Amendment) Regulations 2007 (S.I., 2007, No. 3245)

RADIOACTIVE CONTAMINATED LAND (MODIFICATION OF ENACTMENTS) (WALES) (AMENDMENT) REGULATIONS 2007 (S.I., 2007, NO. 3250)

Motion made, and Question put:—
That the Committee has considered the draft Radioactive Contaminated Land (Modification of Enactments) (Wales) (Amendment) Regulations 2007 (S.I., 2007, No. 3250)—[Mr.Woolas.]
The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 3.
Division No. 2 ]
AYES
Efford, Clive
Flello, Mr. Robert
Griffith, Nia
Keeble, Ms Sally
McDonagh, Siobhain
Purchase, Mr. Ken
Turner, Dr. Desmond
Woolas, Mr. Phil
NOES
Barker, Gregory
Duddridge, James
Webb, Steve
Question accordingly agreed to.

RADIOACTIVE CONTAMINATED LAND REGULATIONS (NORTHERN IRELAND ) (AMENDMENT) REGULATIONS 2007 (S.I., 2007, NO. 3236)

Motion made, and Question put:—
That the Committee has considered the draft Radioactive Contaminated Land Regulations (Northern Ireland) (Amendment) Regulations 2007 (S.I., 2007, No. 3236)—[Mr. Woolas.]
The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 3.
Division No. 3 ]
AYES
Efford, Clive
Flello, Mr. Robert
Griffith, Nia
Keeble, Ms Sally
McDonagh, Siobhain
Purchase, Mr. Ken
Turner, Dr. Desmond
Woolas, Mr. Phil
NOES
Barker, Gregory
Duddridge, James
Webb, Steve
Question accordingly agreed to.

RADIOACTIVE CONTAMINATED LAND (SCOTLAND) (AMENDMENT) REGULATIONS 2007 (S.I., 2007, NO. 3240).

Motion made, and Question put:—
That the Committee has considered the Radioactive Contaminated Land (Scotland) (Amendment) Regulations 2007 (S.I., 2007, No. 3240)—[Mr. Woolas.]
The Committee divided: Ayes 8, Noes 3.
Division No. 4 ]
AYES
Efford, Clive
Flello, Mr. Robert
Griffith, Nia
Keeble, Ms Sally
McDonagh, Siobhain
Purchase, Mr. Ken
Turner, Dr. Desmond
Woolas, Mr. Phil
NOES
Barker, Gregory
Duddridge, James
Webb, Steve
Question accordingly agreed to.
Committee rose at half-past Five o’clock.
 
Contents

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries ordering index


©Parliamentary copyright 2008
Prepared 19 February 2008