5.57 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr Andrew Murrison): I congratulate the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) on securing this debate—his fourth on the subject since November 2011. Believe me, Mr Speaker, I sincerely hope that he will not have cause to call a further debate, and that some of the things I say today will reassure him about what is happening and what is to be done in the near future, and that that will be helpful for him and his constituents.

As he said, I visited Dalgety Bay in July to see the situation for myself, and I have read the case file in depth. I assure the right hon. Gentleman that I have taken a close personal interest in this matter. We now have the draft outline management options appraisal report dated 30 September. That has been shared with SEPA and will be published early in the new year. I would be surprised if he has not had sight of it already, but if he has not, I will ensure he gets a copy.

Following a meeting between SEPA, the MOD and Public Health England on 28 November, the preliminary findings of the detailed risk assessment, heralded in July, will be available early in the new year. I think SEPA has now agreed that both are needed to determine a credible and coherent way forward.

Contrary to the impression that the right hon. Gentleman and others continue to give, the MOD has never sought to abdicate its legal responsibilities, much less “pass the buck” or delay progress in reaching a resolution. We have been upfront about the Department’s historical activities and the part they might have played in introducing radium into what was the royal naval air station Donibristle and HMS Merlin. Moreover, he will recall that we previously intervened to remove contaminated material from gardens within the housing estate that now occupies the former defence sites, while taking care to avoid blighting his constituents’ properties. Furthermore, removal of contaminated material is one of the options contained in the September options appraisal.

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To date, our support to SEPA alone has cost in excess of £1 million. Work undertaken by the Department has included: a site investigation; an ongoing monitoring and recovery programme; continual work to reduce the hazard by removing any radioactive contaminants found; and most recently work to develop the more detailed risk assessment necessary to inform the discussion and development of an effective long-term management strategy. This work has the support of both SEPA and Public Health England, which, despite its name, is also responsible to the Scottish Government.

As the right hon. Gentleman would expect, the MOD sought legal advice, and this has been shared with SEPA. Senior counsel’s advice deals with judicial review of SEPA’s risk assessment, SEPA’s appropriate person report, to which he referred, and the statutory guidance on which it apparently relies, and the advice is that this matter could be subject to a judicial review favourable to the MOD. That opinion was informed by acknowledged experts in radiological assessment, as he would expect. Rather than seeking to settle the matter by potentially expensive, protracted and divisive legal means, however, my Department favours dialogue and the development of a robust evidence-based understanding of the risk that accords with established best practice and is scientifically rigorous.

I understand the frustration caused and the impatience of the right hon. Gentleman and his constituents with the clean-up, and I can assure him that we are genuinely working as fast as we can, with the parties concerned, to bring the matter to a satisfactory conclusion. He will understand better than most, however, the complexity and the scientific and technical difficulties posed by the site. I am reliably informed that the site is unusual and that that has resulted in some of the delays to which he referred. I hope he agrees that, without the understandings I have mentioned, it is not possible to engage all interested parties in developing and delivering a viable long-term solution that is proportionate to the risk. It remains open to SEPA, if it is confident of its reports, to designate the MOD as an appropriate person, triggering either acquiescence by MOD or a legal challenge, but to date there has been no such designation.

The right hon. Gentleman has not specified precisely what remedial action he seeks. If I can be candid with him—he has referred to this too—I fear large opportunity costs translating to waste where there is negligible risk to public health. He will know that if the MOD concedes this case without identifying where any significant health risk might emanate on the site, the precedent could cost hundreds of millions of pounds in extensive and unnecessary remedial work across the country. Statute calls for a risk-based approach, but it remains doubtful whether there is a significant risk of harm. It is also unclear whether the activities undertaken on the land after my Department vacated the site changed the risk by potentially exposing the public to contamination.

Ultimately, the presence of radium at Dalgety Bay must be viewed and addressed in the light of the statutory regime for contaminated land, rather than the correspondence from the 1990s to which the right hon. Gentleman referred, or concepts such as ALARA —as low as reasonably achievable—designed primarily for other purposes.

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The draft report from the Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment states that

“there does not appear to be a current risk from external radiation”.

I take that to mean gamma and beta radiation. The right hon. Gentleman will recall that the Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards has previously concluded that the likelihood of a member of the public inadvertently ingesting an object contaminated with radium that could cause them significant harm is less than one in 10 million. I remind him that, in 1998, he was aware of the view that the annual risk of contracting a fatal cancer through inadvertent inhalation or ingestion was found to be less than one in 1 million—something that he regarded then as a “negligible risk”. Indeed, he pointed out at the time that it is more negligible than the risks run by people living among the granite of Aberdeen.

After the right hon. Gentleman made his remarks, a scoping risk assessment was undertaken by the Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards in 2012. It took account of the two high-activity objects found in late 2011 and two subsequent objects found in April 2012, and, together with the current management measures, concluded that the risk of attributable cancer from Dalgety Bay was actually less than one in 10 million. That is less than the risk that informed the right hon. Gentleman’s 1998 reassurance by an order of magnitude. In addition, the most recent cancer report collated by COMARE found no evidence of the occurrence of cancers in the local population that would ordinarily be attributed to the presence of radium-226.

The right hon. Gentleman—who was of course Chancellor, then Prime Minister, between 1997 and 2010 —did nothing on this subject during that time other than to announce that his constituents faced a negligible risk of harm in 1998. I have to say to him that he needs to be very careful indeed about raising fears in his local population. He knows full well that the Government will comply with statute, but I have told him that we will go beyond that. We will voluntarily play our full and proper part in protecting public health, but that has to be evidence based and underpinned by a proper risk assessment.

Mr Gordon Brown: I think the Minister knows—and no one should be under any other impression—that it was only in 2010 and 2011 that the scale of the particles appearing on the surface became so great that we had to have the extra investigations, to find out what needed to be done. The main point, which should not be evaded when we are talking about all the other issues in this debate, is that this clean-up will have to happen. The engineering options will have to be set out, and the Ministry of Defence will have to accept responsibility. When the Minister presents the options paper in January, will he narrow down the options to those that are realistic, and then have an immediate public consultation on them? Will he then agree to set a timetable under which he will agree to fund the chosen option? We have agreed that he wants to dispense with lawyers whenever possible. Let us now have a sensible timetable so that we can get this done. We must not go through another winter with this contamination rising to the surface.

Dr Murrison: I have given the right hon. Gentleman an assurance that I want to see this sorted out quickly. There are two bits of material that are necessary in order to do it properly. One is the options appraisal

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study to which I have referred. It is currently in draft form and will be published very soon. The other is the risk assessment. The two need to tie in together because we cannot otherwise make a determination on which option to choose, or on whether to choose a mixture of some of the options, in order to obviate the various risks that might be posed by contaminants across this complicated site. I think it is true to say that SEPA now agrees that both those elements will be necessary in order to plan credibly and comprehensively for the future at Dalgety Bay. I hope that the right hon. Gentleman is getting a sense that those two things are now coming together very quickly, and that we will be in a position to make a determination on this matter, which I hope he will find satisfactory, very soon.

Mr Brown rose—

Dr Murrison: Before the right hon. Gentleman intervenes again, may I just comment on the objects that were found and the influence they had on the assessment of risk? As I said, the risk was determined at one in a million. That went down to one in 10 million. It was the same organisation that did the assessments. What had changed were the mitigation measures taken, notwithstanding the finding of the four high-intensity objects.

Mr Brown: I accept what the Minister says, but the health protection organisation that advises him has said that this work has to be done. I repeat: the clean-up will have to happen. It is right that the engineering options are investigated in detail so we can target where the remedial work must be done, but I put this again to the Minister, as I think he misunderstood me: when he publishes his options paper in January, having a range of all possible options will simply mean another few months of delay. Can he not narrow down the options by January, so that we can then set a realistic timetable to get the work done, and proper funding for it, as well as the public consultation exercise? There is one kind of options paper that looks at everything. There is a specific type of options paper, which was promised and which should be done by January, that looks at the main and realistic options for cleaning up as soon as possible.

Dr Murrison: Yes, of course, but it is not a decision to be taken unilaterally by the MOD; SEPA will wish to take a view and it has a copy of the draft paper already. It will want to make a determination, it has said, once it is in possession of the risk assessment to which it has contributed and, indeed, which it has formed in a way, because it has insisted on particular data sets making up that exercise.

Lindsay Roy (Glenrothes) (Lab): Does the Minister accept that the MOD cannot abdicate its responsibility in this area?

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Dr Murrison: The MOD has consistently made it clear that as the default position it will accept its legal responsibilities, but that it wants to go beyond that and make sure—without the intervention of expensive lawyers who will wrap us up for years—that we take action by negotiation with all interested parties so we can get a plan that will satisfy the right hon. Gentleman and his constituents. Our position in respect of liability has not changed at all.

In its draft report, COMARE says that

“we recommend that, in conjunction with all stakeholders, an evaluation of the means of remediation should be instituted immediately considering efficacy, practicability and cost.”

I wish to conclude this evening by saying that we could not agree more. To go back to my opening remarks, I sincerely hope very much that while the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath has been assiduous in bringing this matter to the House—I commend him for that—he will not have to be here for a fifth time in another six months.

Thomas Docherty: Further to the point that my right hon. Friend the Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) and I have made to the Minister about submarines, will he take the opportunity to give real cast-iron guarantees to my constituents and those of my right hon. Friend that there will be no attempt to move on these submarines until this is all joined up going forward?

Dr Murrison: The hon. Gentleman is talking about the submarine dismantling project and will be aware that there are seven hulls currently at Rosyth awaiting dismantling. Their cores have been removed; he knows that. The pressurised vessels that contain those cores remain, and because of the exposure to radiation over the years they have become intermediate level waste and need to be disposed off responsibly. The hon. Gentleman will probably be aware—because Babcock has briefed MPs and the councils—that Babcock is not interested in storing the intermediate level waste. It is difficult to see how this becomes a relevant factor in the context of Rosyth.

I am very grateful for the opportunity to come here to talk about Dalgety Bay again. I hope that I have made it clear that I take a personal interest in this; I hope the right hon. Gentleman is reassured by that. I will do my utmost to make sure that this process is moved on as swiftly as possible

Question put and agreed to.

6.14 pm

House adjourned.