Nuclear Material (Offences) Bill

– in the House of Commons at 9:51 pm on 22nd February 1983.

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Not amended (in the Standing Committee), considered; reported without amendment.

Photo of Mr David Waddington Mr David Waddington , Clitheroe 10:15 pm, 22nd February 1983

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

The Bill has made speedy progress through all its stages and, indeed, it would have been extraordinary had it not received a wide welcome. My only regret is that the Committee stage proceeded at such a pace that I had no opportunity to correct a poor answer that I made to a question put by the hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill). I find little comfort in the fact that no one else on the Committee spotted what a mess I had made of it. I should like, therefore, to put the matter to rights.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

The Minister knows that, while there may have been a poor attendance in Committee, it was so speedy that some members of the Committee did not even have notice that it was taking place.

Photo of Mr David Waddington Mr David Waddington , Clitheroe

I spoke to the hon. Member for Halifax, but I am very sorry that for some reason or other the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) did not receive notice. But he will, of course, appreciate that that was no responsibility of the Government. I am glad to see the hon. Gentleman present tonight.

The Committee stage passed quickly and some of the things that I said in reply to a question from the hon. Member for Halifax may have been misleading. I should just like to put the record straight on causes 1 and 2 of the Bill.

Clause 2 deals largely with acts which do not amount to offences under our law but which will become offences if done in relation to nuclear material. I was right to point out that clause 2 also deals with some acts which are already such offences. But when I read Hansard I discovered that the example I gave was not really apt. The example that I should have given is that it is already an offence in English law to threaten to kill or threaten to commit criminal damage. In that respect, the clause merely says that it is also an offence to make those threats by means of nuclear material. Beyond that, the clause does indeed create completely new offences in that it makes preparatory acts and threats other than those that I have mentioned criminal offences.

The Bill was widely welcomed on Second Reading and, while some hon. Members expressed their reservations to the use of nuclear power, even they recognised that the objectives of the convention that the Bill will enable us to ratify were laudable. I therefore commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Mr Bob Cryer Mr Bob Cryer , Keighley 10:17 pm, 22nd February 1983

As my starred amendment demonstrates, I have a reservation about the Bill which I mentioned on Second Reading. My reservation relates to clause 6. Had I been on the Committee, I am certain that the Committee stage would have taken longer. That is only right and proper because we are here to scrutinise legislation. Once legislation has passed through the House, it is enforceable. It is our duty to apply our minds to legislation as it is passing through the House.

Clause 6(2) states: If in any proceedings a question arises whether any material was used for peaceful purposes, a certificate issued by or under the authority of the Secretary of State and stating that it was, or was not, so used at a time specified in the certificate shall be conclusive of that question. That seems to exclude the Secretary of State from challenge in the courts. I always think that that is a dangerous path to follow. As the Minister has said, the terms of the Bill are necessary. We are discussing extremely dangerous material. A tiny minority of people behave extremely dangerously and, if coupled with dangerous materials, we have what is literally a potentially explosive situation. So it is right and proper that we should have legislation that safeguards us against the use of dangerous materials by terrorists.

But if people, against whom allegations were being made in court, could demonstrate that materials were being used for defence purposes when, in fact, the Minister was purporting to say that the materials were being used for peaceful purposes, an entirely different light would be cast on the proceedings. The Secretary of State might use that clause to deny any breach of the nuclear non-proliferation treaty.

On Second Reading the Minister said that the peaceful civil nuclear programme has nothing to do with defence. If that is the case, the Government have no need to worry about the Secretary of State being challenged in court by someone who claims that the nuclear materials were being used not for peaceful purposes but for war. If the Minister can produce the evidence in court, there should be no problem, and such claims can be demonstrated to be palpably false. The question does not arise if that is the basis of our nuclear power programme and if there are no links between the peaceful nuclear power programme and defence.

However, I am suspicious because the Bill provides that the Secretary of State may furnish a certificate, which is not open to challenge. I am not in favour of Secretaries of State being in that position. They should be open to challenge because it is dangerous to hand over such absolute power to a Secretary of State. Such Ministers are appointed by a Government, and the Government are accountable to the House. Yet this clause states that whatever the Secretary of State says is conclusive and not open to challenge in the courts. I have strong reservations about the matter. If what the Minister says is accurate—I am sure that he made the claim fully believing it to be correct—I still have reservations about links between the civil nuclear power programme and defence. Such legislation does not dismiss those suspicions and reservations.

If there is no link between defence and civil nuclear power, the Secretary of State can, if challenged, prove it beyond peradventure in the courts. He or his representative should be able to go to court and say that the challenge is false because the materials are used for peaceful purposes. The clause is unnecessary, and I am sorry that I was not on the Committee, because, as I have said, I would have discussed this matter in a little more detail. Although the Bill is largely agreed, I wish my remarks to be on the record. Everyone recognises that criminal sanctions are necessary when dealing with criminal activities in respect of nuclear material. The problem arises on the margins of the Bill in the application of the powers by the Secretary of State. This clause takes his power a little too far, albeit in what one might call a good cause.

I did not wish the Bill to go through the House without a query being raised again, so that if a problem arises in future it cannot be said that the legislation was not questioned or that it was passed with a total consensus. When we have a total consensus our minds are lulled into acceptance and we should beware. However, having put that warning and reservation on the record, may I say that I shall not divide the House—some hon. Members may have been anxious about that—because most of the Bill is agreed.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian 10:25 pm, 22nd February 1983

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) that the legislation should not pass without comment. As I said on Second Reading, I am a strident advocate of civil nuclear power, and I again express my gratitude to the Atomic Energy Commission for the care that it has taken over many years, which has meant that, with the arguable exception of Mr. Throughton, no accident has in any way been traceable to the nuclear side. Incidentally there have been accidents on the civil engineering side, but that is a different matter. Of course, no one can be complacent, and I am sure that no one is. That should be said.

I do not want to stray from the margins of order, because there could be controversy over clause 2. However, I want to put one fact on record. Some of us continue to be extremely worried because of breaches of the Treaty of Tlatelolco, the non-nuclear treaty in the Western hemisphere. This may not be the time to do it, but sooner or later there should be an inquiry into the alleged infringement of protocol 1, which was signed by the Labour Government of my right hon. Friend the Member for Huyton (Sir H. Wilson), endorsed by the Government of the right hon. Member for Sidcup (Mr. Heath), endorsed again by the 1974–79 Labour Government, and endorsed—I thought—by this Conservative Government, who nevertheless allowed nuclear weapons to go from both Gibraltar and Portsmouth, although some weapons were taken off, to the South Atlantic.

I shall not test your patience, Mr. Deputy Speaker, but in my opinion there should be an inquiry into the circumstances in which nuclear weapons—if Lieutenant David Tinker is to be believed, and I am sure that he is—went south two days before the Prime Minister said that the crisis had come out of the blue. As I said, I do not wish to test the Chair's patience tonight, because the matter is very much on the fringes of the Bill. All I am saying, and I shall sit down on this thought, is that there really should be an inquiry.

Photo of Mr Bob Cryer Mr Bob Cryer , Keighley

I intervene before my hon. Friend sits down, because what he is saying is relevant to my remarks. Will he accept that the power in clause 6 could be used if people wanted, for example, to hush up the use of this type of nuclear material in the situation that he is describing? If, for example, anyone was charged over the disposition of nuclear material in the Falklands the Secretary of State, with these powers, could declare those materials to be for peaceful purposes. There is no challenge to the Secretary of State if he says that in court, no matter how ludicrous or bizarre the circumstances in which the nuclear material is being dealt with.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

I shall have to reflect carefully on what my hon. Friend says. His point is made by the fact that the Stena Inspector and the Stena Seaspread—as far as one knows, because one is told that it is not in the public interest to comment—are looking for nuclear materials in the tombs of poor Coventry and Sheffield. As long as this continues, there are matters in the South Atlantic of grave concern—or they should be of grave concern—because of the emission of radio nucleids and the way in which this material can build up dangers from the hill into the food stream and the whole ecology.

I see that you are getting impatient, Mr. Deputy Speaker. All I am saying is that I should like a letter to be written to my hon. Friend and myself.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

It is an interesting and substantial point.

I shall sit down on condition that the Minister promises that the relevant Departments—the Home Office, the Department of Energy, the Ministry of Defence and the Foreign and Commonwealth Office—will give a long and serious explanation—there may be such—of the legal position concerning the Treaty of Tlatelolco and the whole question of nuclear weapons going south some 48 hours before the Prime Minister said that the crisis had come out of the blue to her. The House will recall that on 26 October the Prime Minister told us, in answer to question No. 1, that the crisis had come out of the blue on 31 March. It is now common knowledge that nuclear weapons—

Photo of Mr Paul Dean Mr Paul Dean , Somerset North

Order. The hon. Gentleman is right to say that I am becoming impatient. He is now going outside the scope of the Bill. Only that which is in the Bill can be discussed on Third Reading.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

As the debate is being conducted in such a good natured way, I shall sit down, with the request that there be a letter touching on and hopefully explaining those events.

Photo of Dr Shirley Summerskill Dr Shirley Summerskill , Halifax 10:30 pm, 22nd February 1983

Although Labour Members welcome the Bill as a necessary piece of legislation to implement the United Nations convention, some important points have been made during its passage which I hope the Minister will take into careful consideration.

One new point which has occurred to me about clause 1 relates to offences committed outside the United Kingdom which could endanger life by reckless conduct in relation to nuclear material for peaceful purposes. It is ironical that we are going to all this trouble to introduce the Bill creating the new offences a few days after we read a report that the Government—perhaps the Minister will confirm or deny this—are defying a decision by representatives of 30 countries who met in London last week to suspend the dumping of nuclear material in the Atlantic 600 miles off Cornwall, which is apparently being done at the moment by Britain, Belgium and Switzerland. Those representatives voted by 19 to 6 to suspend that dumping of radioactive waste at sea while scientists assess the environmental impact of such action. Yet I understand that we are going to continue to do that for at least two years while the study is being carried out. If we are to continue that, will the Minister say why we are defying the decision reached by representatives of 30 countries and will Belgium and Switzerland also continue the practice? That is relevant to the Bill and deserves as much consideration as the other points that we have discussed during its passage.

Photo of Mr Thomas Benyon Mr Thomas Benyon , Abingdon 10:32 pm, 22nd February 1983

I am grateful for a chance to make a brief comment. I represent Abingdon, Harwell is situated in my constituency and I have close relations with Harwell and Culham.

I wish to draw attention to a letter which appeared in The Times yesterday from the director of Harwell, Dr. L. E. J Roberts in order to put the comments of the hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) into perspective. Dr. Roberts said: Last year the UK disposed of 2,700 tonnes of packaged waste, of which 90 per cent. was concrete packing. The present regulations, which were drawn up on the advice of an international committee of marine scientists, are based on very conservative assumptions and an annual disposal of 100,000 tonnes of packaged waste for 40,000 years. The scale of dumping could be increased by a large factor before any significant addition was made to the natural radioactivity of the sea' I wish to draw attention to that to put into perspective what many people understandably think is a highly emotive subject.

Photo of Mr Thomas Benyon Mr Thomas Benyon , Abingdon

May I finish my point before I give way?

Many people are anxious about the emotive practice of nuclear waste dumping. I am anxious to stress that the committee of international scientists spent a great deal of time looking at the subject. Anyone who visits my constituency and Harwell and meets Dr. Roberts and his staff will be reassured that they are not in the least complacent about the matter. They give the matter an enormous amount of time and study to ensure that all they do is done in the interests not only of this generation but of future generations.

Photo of Dr Shirley Summerskill Dr Shirley Summerskill , Halifax

Does the hon. Gentleman feel that this study, which is going to take about two years to complete, is unnecessary? Is he completely certain that this material can be put into the sea without any possible harm? If not, then surely it is worthwhile to carry out the study. Until we are absolutely certain, we should not incur any more risks while the study is being carried out.

Photo of Mr Thomas Benyon Mr Thomas Benyon , Abingdon

I am sure it is right for the studies to continue. Not being a scientist of even local, never mind international, stature, I have to rely on the advice that I am given by people such as Dr. Roberts. I have every confidence in the amount of time and the reliance that lie and those who have made this careful study place on this matter. I am happy to rely on his views.

Photo of Mr David Waddington Mr David Waddington , Clitheroe 10:37 pm, 22nd February 1983

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Keighley (Mr. Cryer) for raising the point he did, because it gives me an opportunity to emphasise something which is often overlooked.

Hon. Members are concerned with the case of somebody committing a crime abroad and fleeing to this country. We are concerned with the question of what happens if a person flees from one country where he has committed a crime to another and that country is reluctant to extradite because the domestic laws of that country prevent it from extraditing its own nationals.

There is no difficulty as to the commission of a crime in England concerning either nuclear material for warlike purposes or nuclear material for peaceful purposes.

Hon. Members are concerned in the Bill with giving power to the English courts to try crimes which are committed abroad. One need only think for a short time to realise the difficulties which will be faced. The English courts are given the jurisdiction by the Bill to recognise these new crimes committed abroad, but how is proof to be presented to the English courts to the effect that the nuclear material in issue is nuclear material for peaceful purposes? Unless the courts in this country are so satisfied, they will not be able to convict on the new offences created by the Bill.

The fears voiced by the hon. Gentleman, and I can well understand why he voiced them, are unreal. There is no scope in the Bill whereby a Secretary of State in this country could cover up his tracks by issuing a certificate so as to pretend that certain nuclear materials which had been stolen were nuclear materials used for peaceful purposes when they were used for warlike purposes. A Secretary of State would never wish to get himself into that position even if he were a dishonest Secretary of State. He could prosecute the person under the ordinary law of the land for theft. We are concerned with proof for the English courts to convict somebody of an offence committed abroad.

I must tell the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) that it is not for me to comment on whether the United Kingdom has complied with the treaty of Tlatelolco. However, when he spoke about such matters on Second Reading, I undertook to write to my right hon. Friends and I took steps to ensure that they were informed of the points that he made. The Government have at all times complied, and continue to comply with their obligations concerning the introduction of nuclear weapons into the territory or territorial waters for which they are internationally responsible within the treaty's zone of application.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , West Lothian

This issue is not simply a matter of history, because—if the press is to be believed—concern about nuclear weapons in the south Atlantic was raised with the Foreign Secretary, when he was accompanying the Queen in Mexico. It has certainly been the subject of a statement by the presidents of Panama and Venezuela. Therefore, the question is not hypothetical but real, and the Government will have to respond to it.

Photo of Mr David Waddington Mr David Waddington , Clitheroe

I cannot blame the hon. Gentleman for taking this opportunity to raise such points. However, he knows perfectly well that they are not matters for me. I have taken all the steps that I could be reasonably expected to take to ensure that those points are transmitted to those responsible. I shall leave it at that, as otherwise I shall be as out of order, as I suspect the hon. Gentleman has been.

The hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) referred to clause 1(i)(a) and to the words endangering the life of the lieges". I promise the hon. Lady that, as long as she lives south of the border, she has nothing to fear from those words. That is a reference to some obscure Scottish offence, for which I do not feel in any way responsible.

Photo of Dr Shirley Summerskill Dr Shirley Summerskill , Halifax

Will the hon. and learned Gentleman bear in mind the words "by reckless conduct"? It could be said that dumping radio-active material into the sea is reckless conduct committed outside the United Kingdom.

Photo of Mr David Waddington Mr David Waddington , Clitheroe

Clause 1 sets out a list of criminal offences under the law of England and Wales or that of Scotland and says that if those same offences are committed in relation to or by means of nuclear material, they shall also be offences triable in this country even if they were committed overseas. All the offences listed in subsection 1(i) (a), (b), (c) and (d) are existing offences under the laws of England or Scotland. The reference to Endangering the life of the lieges, by reckless conduct is a reference to some form of assault or threatened assault. I cannot now remember its nature, but I assure the hon. Lady that it is an existing offence in Scottish law. However, that does not mean that she was not perfectly entitled to use those words as a peg on which to hang an important point about the dumping of nuclear materials. I make no complaint about that. All I can tell her in that regard is that the International Maritime Organisation, meeting in London last week, noted the Spanish resolution to suspend the dumping of low level nuclear waste, but the resolution is not binding on the United Kingdom or, indeed, on any other country which dumps low level waste.

A study will certainly be considered by the IMO and by the United Kingdom. Of course, we are ever mindful of the risks attendant upon the use of nuclear energy, but we have a record of safety of which we can be proud. We go to endless efforts to cut down the risks. The fact that there have been no known deaths from the use of nuclear energy in this country is the best illustration of the pains to which we have gone to ensure that this new and valuable source of energy does not cause risks to people.

We are equally determined that this new and valuable source of energy should not cause danger to succeeding generations. My hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Benyon) was so right to put the whole thing in perspective. We must never be complacent, but there is always the temptation when something is new and frightening for people to say that the dangers are much greater than they are. One should therefore look with a certain amount of scepticism at some of the reports which appear in the newspapers. One has to contrast them with what has happened since nuclear energy was first used here for peaceful purposes.

Photo of Dr Shirley Summerskill Dr Shirley Summerskill , Halifax

I am sorry to learn that we do not feel obliged to conform with the resolution. The vote was 19–6. Presumably we were one of the six and not an abstention. I do not see any point in 30 countries meeting and deciding on joint action if we then defy it. Can the hon. and learned Gentleman say whether Belgium and Switzerland will defy the decision, or will they abide by it and not dump off Cornwall?

Photo of Mr David Waddington Mr David Waddington , Clitheroe

I do not think it is right for the hon. Lady to talk about defiance. Defiance imputes a breach of a legal obligation when all we are talking about is a body of people coming together and reaching a conclusion that it would be advisable to cease the dumping of nuclear waste, whereas other equally well informed or perhaps better informed people have already come to a contrary view.

I do not think I can take the matter much further. The usefulness of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes is obvious to all. Scientists have been struggling, and will continue to struggle, to make sure that the peaceful use of nuclear energy does not result in new risks to mankind. As I say, we have taken great trouble to see that no risk is caused. We will continue with that purpose in mind. The hon. Lady has to accept that what we are doing is perfectly within our rights. While we will be mindful of the resolution we will also he mindful of the abundant advice which has come from other sources.

Photo of Dr Shirley Summerskill Dr Shirley Summerskill , Halifax

Before he sits down, would the hon. and learned Gentleman answer the two questions I asked specifically? Were we one of the six countries which voted against the resolution? And will Belgium and Switzerland continue to dump off Cornwall?

Photo of Mr David Waddington Mr David Waddington , Clitheroe

I think the answer is yes in both cases. Certainly I can say yes to the first question. I will have to check about the second.

Photo of Mr Thomas Benyon Mr Thomas Benyon , Abingdon

I wish to try to put the mind of the hon. Member for Halifax (Dr. Summerskill) at rest. This is not simply because of my constituency interest. I have been privileged to go round Harwell and Culham many times and to talk to those who lead this country and, I believe, the world in nuclear expertise. I am totally satisfied that they are men of enormous responsibility. I do not say that lightly.

I feel genuinely that Dr. Roberts would like to extend an invitation to the hon. Lady and any Opposition Member who feels a degree of disquiet to go round Culham or Harwell. They could put to Dr. Roberts and his team the questions that they now direct to the Minister. I am sure that the hon. Lady, given an open mind—it is a characteristic of her—would come away feeling reassured. It is implicit in her remarks that the hon. Lady feels that Dr. Roberts and his team of scientists are flying in the face of conventional nuclear wisdom that says that dumping in the sea is dangerous and that, despite that, dumping continues irresponsibly.

This is based on a complete fallacy. It is not the case. Dr. Roberts and his team would not accept that point. I am sure that they would take great pleasure—and also provide an excellent lunch—in showing the hon. Lady the steps they are taking to act most responsibly and to explain why her obvious fears need not exist.

Photo of Mr David Waddington Mr David Waddington , Clitheroe

The resolution is not binding. Many people do not agree with its terms. We believe that we are doing what is right in all the circumstances. In any event, it has little to do with the Bill. I believe that I would probably meet the wishes of the House if I now sat down, thanking both sides for the support that has been given for this worthwhile measure.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.