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Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, it is a pleasant task to reply to such an impressive debate. I am very glad that the noble Baroness, Lady Byford, joined in and spoke of the trials and tribulations that Cumbria has suffered in recent years. Cumbria has, indeed, experienced very real difficulties. Before the noble Baroness entered the debate I felt that it was just like old times with the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin, making representations of a more general nature based on his expertise. In the speech of my noble friend Lord Woolmer I thought that I heard echoes of constituency representations and economic representations from the past. I appreciate very much that this debate is of great importance to a number of communities of which clearly Cumbria is one. However, I shall refer also to Caithness and Dounreay.

I hope that we can reach agreement on this matter. I believe we all recognise that the crucial responsibility of the NDA is to secure nuclear decommissioning and clean-up for the benefit of the nation. It is important that that task is carried out safely, securely and in ways which protect the environment. It is a programme that we all recognise will span many decades and will cost many billions of pounds. It is a huge commitment for the nation. The NDA is the organisation charged with this most significant task.

The NDA will certainly need to focus all its attention on the task to ensure that it is carried out effectively and as swiftly as possible, and to ensure best value for the taxpayer in what we recognise is a very substantial commitment of the nation's resources. The Bill clearly identifies the NDA's principal functions in Clause 3 quite separately from the other supporting and supplementary functions. The Bill is drafted in that way because those prime obligations of the NDA are of such importance to the nation.

Although I understand the motivation behind the amendment of the noble Lord, Lord Jenkin—that was reinforced by the contributions of other noble Lords—I do not think that we can accept it. This is a very important subject and I shall return to it in a moment. I want to reassure noble Lords that the issues which have been raised today will be tackled constructively. However, it would not be appropriate to deflect the NDA from its main task. The measure would turn the NDA into a vehicle for social and economic regeneration. It would make the NDA equivalent to a regional development agency when dealing with the economic consequences of nuclear decommissioning, and it would place on the NDA a very considerable burden in terms of resources and expertise in ensuring that it could carry out such responsibilities.

I venture to suggest that, as the amendment implicitly recognises, the duty of promoting regional development properly belongs to other bodies—to the regional development agencies and the equivalent bodies in

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Scotland. It is a well established framework for addressing the social and economic needs of the individual regions. It will be recognised that this Government have sought to strengthen the role of the RDAs. There is no reason why the relevant agency could not address the impact of nuclear decommissioning in the same way that it may have to address the closure of any other significant employer in a region. I recognise that there are particular issues that are associated with the location of nuclear plants, and why it is of such significance for the local communities when they go.

It is difficult to measure the economic consequences for a region in such cases. When one or two of our other great industries have gone sharply into decline—shipbuilding, steel making and particularly coal mining—the devastating effects on local communities have required governments to respond. They have done this with different levels of commitment, but I do not wish to make political points on that score at this time. When governments have responded to such situations, they have recognised that resources need to go into proper and appropriate channels, and that the responsibility for those needs to reside with local or regional bodies. The NDA does not have, and will not have, such responsibility.

The amendment would give the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry sweeping powers to direct detailed action by the NDA, as well as by the relevant regional development authority—for which other Ministers, including Scottish and Welsh Ministers, have responsibility. That is unlike any of the powers provided by the RDAs, who clearly have prime responsibility for this kind of operation and for meeting these issues.

As we considered other issues raised earlier in the Bill, I hope that I have convinced the House that the NDA is not the right body to have this responsibility. That is not to say—and I hasten to make this point—that we do not recognise the particular problems that will be faced by regions that are heavily dependent on the nuclear industry. The examples of West Cumbria and the north of Scotland have been graphically expressed this evening.

Nor does it mean that the NDA will have no role to play in this regard. It clearly has a contribution to make. Like any significant employer—such as BNFL before it—the NDA will play an active role in encouraging and supporting activities and initiatives that bring social and economic benefit to local communities. We have provided for that in the Bill. We are not prepared to see the NDA transformed into a super regional development agency, when it has a very important and significant national role that is related to its prime purpose.

I listened to the detailed representations that have been made this evening. As I have already acknowledged, in a number of cases they have been infused by both the expertise and experience that comes from elected members for such areas, and their insight into the impact on these communities. The Government are seized of these problems, in particular those of West Cumbria, where the nuclear industry has played a large role in the region's economic life.

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My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours referred positively to the strategic task force for West Cumbria that was announced by the Secretary of State last December. It is our intention for this to play a substantial role in the long-term regeneration of the region.

The success of the Dounreay decommissioning strategic response task force established in 2001 and the co-operation between the UKAEA and Highlands and Islands Enterprise and its network of local enterprise companies shows what can be achieved and what needs to be done. I have not the slightest doubt that a great deal more needs to be done, as was eloquently expressed today by the noble Lord, Lord Maclennan. But there we have an indication of work in progress with encouraging results. We will want to build on that experience as regards West Cumbria.

The Government have agreed to conclude a memorandum of agreement with the West Cumbria local authorities which will establish a framework for the roles and responsibilities of various stakeholders and a mechanism for the needs of the region to be given consideration by the Government. This is in the early stages of preparation, but it will be in place before the NDA takes up its responsibilities for sites in April 2005.

My noble friend Lord Campbell-Savours said that he is more than well aware that Furness in West Cumbria is one of the three priority areas in the north-west regional strategy. The North West Development Agency is working with local partners to co-ordinate funding schemes, including regional selective assistance, the European structural fund, the single regeneration budget and neighbourhood renewal funding. Under this Government, those programmes have contributed many millions of pounds and created or safeguarded thousands of jobs.

As I indicated earlier, it is not right to dilute the focus of the NDA by giving it direct responsibilities for regional development. It must make decisions on decommissioning and clean-up on their own merits. No other industry has obligations placed upon it such as the amendment would place on the NDA. There is no reason why the NDA should be required to take on responsibilities that others have not. This role belongs to the RDAs and to the local authorities.

6.30 p.m.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, I understand what the Minister says and I do not want to delay him because he is trying to be as positive as he can. However, there are things that can be done by bodies such as the NDA which cannot be done by development agencies. For example, they could allow a higher proportion of apprenticeships to be established at their sites. They might be strictly justified by a purely commercial lean organisation, but that could have the kind of benefits that would enable roots to be put down in the community. Those are the sort of initiatives one wants to see.

Lord Davies of Oldham: My Lords, I am grateful for that positive suggestion. The noble Lord,

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Lord Maclennan, is ploughing fertile ground. Where the NDA is the employer and where it is involved in taking responsibility for action, of course we must look at the way in which we can use its resources to support and buttress the local economies as best we can. That is why, as my noble friend will readily acknowledge, there has been an indication that West Cumbria is the preferred location for NDA headquarters.

That clearly demonstrates the Government's confidence in West Cumbria and our commitment to generating new growth and opportunities for the region. I realise that that example is no immediate solace to the noble Lord, but I hope that it meets some of his anxieties.

Lord Maclennan of Rogart: My Lords, the Minister could easily give me comparable solace by indicating that he would welcome the extension of the role of the pensions office in Thruso, currently run by the AEA, and allow it to take on other public pensions. We may want to return to that matter later.

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