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General Committee Debates

Energy Bill

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairmen: Mr. David Amess, † Mrs. Joan Humble
Baron, Mr. John (Billericay) (Con)
Binley, Mr. Brian (Northampton, South) (Con)
Hendry, Charles (Wealden) (Con)
Horwood, Martin (Cheltenham) (LD)
Iddon, Dr. Brian (Bolton, South-East) (Lab)
Ladyman, Dr. Stephen (South Thanet) (Lab)
Main, Anne (St. Albans) (Con)
Owen, Albert (Ynys Môn) (Lab)
Palmer, Dr. Nick (Broxtowe) (Lab)
Reed, Mr. Jamie (Copeland) (Lab)
Robertson, John (Glasgow, North-West) (Lab)
Seabeck, Alison (Plymouth, Devonport) (Lab)
Swire, Mr. Hugo (East Devon) (Con)
Tipping, Paddy (Sherwood) (Lab)
Webb, Steve (Northavon) (LD)
Whitehead, Dr. Alan (Southampton, Test) (Lab)
Wicks, Malcolm (Minister for Energy)
Chris Shaw, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Public Bill Committee

Tuesday 11 March 2008


[Mrs. Joan Humble in the Chair]

Energy Bill

Clause 86

Security of sensitive nuclear information
Question proposed [this day], That the clause stand part of the Bill.
4 pm
Question again proposed.
The Minister for Energy (Malcolm Wicks) rose—
Steve Webb (Northavon) (LD) rose—
The Chairman: Order. I understand that the Minister was considering giving way to the hon. Gentleman.
Steve Webb: I have kept the Minister on tenterhooks for this killer intervention, and I hope not to disappoint him. Clause 86 on which he was just about to conclude his remarks earlier contains the two words “nuclear” and “secrets” and that always worries Liberal Democrats a little. Given the track record of the nuclear industry for secrecy and lack of disclosure, can he assure us that the scope of the clause literally covers national security and so on and that it will in no way give greater secrecy to commercial and other matters that enable us to scrutinise either the companies or the Government’s nuclear policy?
Malcolm Wicks rose—
Mr. Brian Binley (Northampton, South) (Con): Will the Minister give way? Will he allow me to add to that?
The Chairman: Order. The Minister should respond to the hon. Member for Northavon before moving on.
Malcolm Wicks: I can give the hon. Member for Northavon the assurance that he seeks. He said that I was about to conclude my remarks. He was being a little optimistic, so it might help if I make progress. Would it be of assistance to the hon. Member for Northampton, South if I said more about the clause before he made his intervention?
Mr. Binley: If the Minister thinks that it would, I should be delighted to wait.
Malcolm Wicks: Before lunch, I was making the important point that the Energy Act 2004 resulted in a major restructuring of the nuclear industry, whereby sensitive nuclear information pertaining to uranium enrichment could be taken and stored away from the two sites designated as prohibited places under the Nuclear Installations Act 1965. It would help the Committee if I emphasised the word “information”. We are talking about information, not materials. Materials must be kept on a licensed site. There are clear requirements for the holders of sensitive nuclear information and what they must do to protect it.
The Committee can be reassured that the security regulator—the Office for Civil Nuclear Security—is content that the requirements are both sufficient and up to date. The Bill proposes no change to the requirements. However, the Office for Civil Nuclear Security is concerned that, should an individual steal, or attempt to steal, sensitive nuclear information from premises that are not currently designated a prohibited place, the only sanctions available are prosecution for burglary or theft. I recognise that appropriate penalties are available for the usual offences of theft or burglary. However, I hope that the Committee will agree that theft and the potential onward dissemination of information that relates to uranium enrichment represents a risk to our nation’s security, so such matters warrant different treatment.
The regulator has therefore requested that the theft of sensitive nuclear information be punishable by stronger penalties. My view and that of the regulator is that the Official Secrets Act 1911 provides appropriate protection in such matters of national security. An offence under the Official Secrets Act carries a maximum prison term of 14 years, but the provisions also remove the requirement on the state to prove that the person broke into that prohibited place for a purpose that would compromise the security interests of the state.
To designate specific premises as prohibited places, they must either be owned or occupied by the Crown or deemed as belonging to, or used for the purposes of, the Crown. Clause 86 will therefore insert proposed new section 80A into the Anti-terrorism, Crime and Security Act 2001, which governs issues relating to the security of uranium enrichment information and technology. The proposed new section will allow for premises holding equipment, software or information that relates to uranium enrichment to be deemed as belonging to the Crown for the purposes of the Official Secrets Act. As a result, the Secretary of State may designate premises holding information that relates to uranium enrichment as prohibited places under that Act. That will provide more appropriate sanctions for theft or attempted theft of that information. The clause represents an important part of protecting our national security.
In answer to the hon. Member for Northavon, let me say that sensitive nuclear information that relates to uranium enrichment that is held on licensed civil nuclear sites is already covered by the Official Secrets Act. It is only right that we ensure that consistent sanctions are available for sensitive nuclear information that is stored or used off licensed civil nuclear sites—for example, at research facilities. The Official Secrets Act is the only appropriate legislation for issues of national security. Given the implications for national security, the sanctions under the Act are the most appropriate; they are a minimum of three and a maximum of 14 years in prison.
Given the scope of the clause that I have outlined, I hope that I have put at rest the fears of the hon. Member for Northavon. To answer his question in a little more detail, I suppose that he is really asking whether the clause applies only to national security issues. The answer is yes. The clause will apply only to persons who steal sensitive nuclear information, where the sanctions are those under the Official Secrets Act.
Charles Hendry (Wealden) (Con): This is clearly an important clause that deals with serious issues. Normally, we would have let this sort of thing go through without further discussion or debate. At the heart of the clause seems to be the rather quaint notion that Government secrets are kept in the places where they are supposed to be and are not sent to the United States, lost in the post or dropped on roundabouts somewhere in the west country. We must consider at exactly which places are covered by such establishments. Clearly, there is an issue when material is in transit. If material is being moved from one of the establishments that the Minister mentioned to research laboratories elsewhere, is it protected while in transit? What happens if some of that material goes astray?
Malcolm Wicks: I am sorry to intervene so soon, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman has taken on board the fact that the clause deals with information, not nuclear materials.
Charles Hendry: I totally understand that. The Government have not so far managed to lose nuclear materials, but they have lost an awful lot of information in various places. If the information is held on a computer disc or a laptop, what happens if it goes astray once it is in transit or someone gains access to it who should not have access to it? What happens in relation to international establishments? The companies that are likely to build the new nuclear power plants are either Areva, which is French, or Westinghouse, which is American. There are a couple of alternatives, but those are the likely ones. If an issue required close investigation, it is quite possible that that would involve sending the information to an overseas base to be analysed and investigated further. What protection do the Government have for the security of information in those circumstances? Does the clause cover material that is held in different countries?
Mr. Binley: I wish to carry my hon. Friend’s argument just a little further. I agree with the Minister that this is a very important clause. I recognise that what we are really doing is carrying on from the restructuring of the Energy Act 2004, but other factors have come to light since the creation of that Act with regard to the safe handling of information. I do not wish to bring up the incidents that have been a great cause of concern to the Government, but we are talking about stronger sanctions for theft and attempted theft under the clause. However, nothing is said about people who lose information, do not follow protocols and are incompetent, negligent or whatever, thereby allowing information to go astray or to fall into undesirable hands.
I do not suggest that we have penal sanctions for those offences—I see them as offences—but there ought to be some consideration of the matter and some tightening up of protocols and of how we keep information safely, especially in this important area. Would the Minister consider that viewpoint, too? It is not covered in the clause.
I might need to correspond with the hon. Members for Wealden and for Northampton, South about issues such as whether the information might go to companies registered abroad. I will have to write to them. The issue raised by the hon. Member for Northampton, South is obviously vital, in that everyone in the workplace—everyone involved—should be absolutely vigilant and follow proper procedures. I am sure that that happens and that we have a rigorous regime in place. At the next opportunity, when I talk to the Office for Civil Nuclear Security, I will take to it the Committee’s concerns.
Dr. Stephen Ladyman (South Thanet) (Lab): My reading of the clause suggests that it pertains to inserting into a clause of a terrorism Act something that relates only to the enrichment of uranium. The clause is narrowly restricted to secrets and information about the enrichment of uranium. It goes no wider than that. Concerns by the Liberal Democrats that other information might be hidden are certainly outside the scope of the clause; likewise, the exchange of information about the construction of commercial reactors.
Malcolm Wicks: That is helpful. I will return to some of the issues about sanctions. I have given a broad answer. I am advised that existing regulations—the Uranium Enrichment Technology (Prohibition on Disclosure) Regulations 2004 and the Nuclear Industries Security Regulations 2003—already cover the duties and responsibilities of those who hold such information and deal with sanctions. I am advised that, if information were to get lost in transit, sufficient protections are available on the holders of information on site, off site or in transit. However, I take the point about human error. Everyone needs to be absolutely vigilant.
The places covered are those where research into uranium enrichment technology is undertaken. The technology represents a proliferation risk and needs to be appropriately protected, in line with our international obligations and our national security. Supply chain companies that manufacture parts for uranium enrichment technology are also covered.
Returning to the question of whether such information could be transferred overseas and how it would then be protected, I am advised that that could be done only with agreement on how it would be protected by the receiving authority. Our duty would be to be satisfied with that protection. I hope that I have satisfied the Committee.
Question put and agreed to.
Clause 86 ordered to stand part of the Bill.
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