I must first thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to move this Adjournment debate. There were some procedural difficulties, and thanks to the kindness of the House, I have been allowed to initiate this debate at this time. Like other hon. Members, I was in the Chamber earlier.
I want to thank the Under-Secretary of State for Energy, the hon. Member for Wells (Mr. Heathcoat-Amory) because I understand that he faced some small local difficulties [Interruption.]—
Order. As a courtesy to the hon. Member for Warrington, North, will hon. Members who are leaving the Chamber do so quietly?
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I thank the Minister because he was not aware of my Adjournment debate until almost the last minute. Like me, he was caught unawares by the sudden collapse of our business this morning. However, this is a historic occasion, as the Minister and I will be participating in the last debate of this Parliament. Although I cannot speak for the Minister, I must say that this is the first time that I have had such an opportunity.
The subject of this debate is very important for Warrington, and I note the presence of the hon. Member for Warrington, South (Mr. Butler) in the Chamber. This debate is about British Nuclear Fuels plc, and the 750 redundancies that are due to take place by the mid-1990s. The announcement of those redundancies caused some shock, as it closely followed the press announcement of an agreement between British Nuclear Fuels and Scottish Nuclear Ltd. under which they signed a contract for fuel-cycle services which will last for 15 years and probably lead to contracts worth more than £2·7 billion.
I am sure that my hon. Friend accepts that this is a narrow debate about unemployment in his constituency at the British Nuclear Fuels headquarters at Warrington. However, in view of the importance of the occasion, the issue of redundancies will echo around the United Kingdom. There has been a stream of redundancies in the textile and engineering industries in my constituency, where 29,000 people depend on those industries for their jobs. I hope that my hon. Friend will consider that in his debate. I congratulate him on obtaining his Adjournment debate, but I hope that he will bear in mind the fact that redundancies are hitting at the heart of British manufacturing industry. Since 1979, some 2·5 million jobs have been lost under the Tory Government.
I totally agree with my hon. Friend and I will refer to the effects of the recession shortly. My hon. Friend is aware of my keen interest in the textile industry since I entered the House in 1974. The textile industry requires a more stable economy if it is to expand in future. I was pleased to give way to my hon. Friend about that.
As I was saying, a deal worth £2·7 billion was completed. We all knew that, when THORP ceased operating, there would be some redundancies. However, the number of the redundancies and the fact that the announcement was made so quickly after the good news, took everyone by surprise.
The search by British Nuclear Fuels for alternative contracts has not been helped by the recession. It has been extremely difficult even for a company with the expertise of British Nuclear Fuels to find alternative contracts which might have meant fewer redundancies at Risley and elsewhere.
Last year's reorganisation in British Nuclear Fuels did not help matters. British Nuclear Fuels was divided into three divisions—United Kingdom, international and engineering. It is clear that British Nuclear Fuels is still making large profits, but it would have been easier for the company to be more flexible if it had not been divided in that way.
Each division appears to stand in its own right. There is no flexibility in relation to profit distribution. It is not as easy to transfer the labour force across the company. I remind the Minister that it is the expertise and skill, particularly of design, that have created the wealth that is accruing to the United Kingdom division. I hope that the Minister will consider that when he replies. I hope also that he will say that there would normally have been an opportunity for work transfer. As I have said, the overall profits might have cushioned the effects of the recession and the shedding of jobs in the engineering division.
British Nuclear Fuels has always had a human face. I pay tribute to its work in the Warrington community and further afield. It has supported the environment, helped sport, and, in particular, taken an interest in the youth in the town and in education projects. That is why it is rather regrettable that, among those redundant people, there are 76 apprentices. The apprenticeships, both trade apprenticeships and design apprenticeships, have always been of a very high calibre. That training is applicable not only to that industry but to engineering elsewhere. One of the sad matters was the ending of the apprentices' school roughly 12 months ago. In the past three to four years, British Nuclear Fuels has not retained any apprentices.
Does my hon. Friend accept that, while out canvassing in Bradford recently, I met an apprentice-trained engineer who had worked for one firm for 37 years, was made redundant, obtained another job with an engineering firm, and then was told that he would be made redundant because of the recession? One of the points that my hon. Friend is making about his constituency and which is echoed elsewhere is that a pool of skilled engineering ability is simply being thrown on the dole by the Government's economic policies. That is a terrible shame and a waste of human resources.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my disgust at the Government cutting, at this very time, £100 million from the budget for employment and youth training? When I previously visited the hon. Gentleman's constituency in Warrington and saw the YMCA there, I saw the pool of talented youth people who are ready to go on training courses, yet, at this very time, when they have the ability, such as that of the young people I know in Eastbourne, the Government are cutting their training programme.
I could not agree more with the hon. Member. The tragedy is that overall training has not been good enough. I look foward to the change of Government, since the next Government will provide adequate training for all. The hon. Gentleman will be very dismayed to know that the training of young people at the YMCA in Warrington is also coming to an end. That is the world that young people are now facing, and that is what will happen to young apprentices if there is no change of mind on the part of British Nuclear Fuels.
Unfortunately, having had an excellent record, British Nuclear Fuels has not retained any apprentices in the past three to four years, but it has offered short-term contracts, and some apprentices have been on contracts for up to four years. Those contracts are not being renewed.
Does my hon. Friend appreciate that, like Warrington, in many mining areas such as Pontefract and Castleford our mining apprenticeship schemes and mechanical and electrical schemes were the pride of the country and probably of the world? That is not now the case. Throughout the country, there will be an untrained work force if and when the economy ever lifts. We will not be in a position to use expertise, because it will not exist.
I reply to my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford (Mr. Lofthouse) with a little pain, because I went to Castleford the other Sunday and saw Warrington badly defeated there. However, I agree with my hon. Friend on apprenticeships. Mining is another industry in which apprenticeships are being cut. British Coal is renowned throughout the world for its training of engineers. It is sad that that is also coming to an end.
Although volunteers are taking up the redundancies that are being offered to them, in relation to the 76 apprentices, work is still continuing for agency staff. Some agency staff have been employed for 15 years. How temporary is that work? Surely, if work has been carried out by agency staff in the past 15 years, permanent posts should have been created during that time. When I discussed the matter with company representatives—they are always ready to discuss matters with me—it appeared to me that there were at least 12 months' work and perhaps more for those young people. In addition, people who have retired have been retained as specialists. Again, it might be possible to find such work for those young people.
Over the past few years, the company has been taking on 10 to 20 young clerical trainees. They have come into the company from local schools and colleges, and they have received training in business skills. They have also been well equipped for work in the community or, as has happened, been absorbed into the company. I appreciate that the company may not be able to do that in future, but I hope that it will continue the training scheme for 10 to 20 young clerical workers. Even if they cannot find a job with British Nuclear Fuels at the end of their training, they would be well equipped. Perhaps there will be a change of Government and better opportunities outside than are being offered at this moment.
It appears that the unions are not being given all the information they need on which to question what is happening to those young people and redundancies generally. I understand that, in certain areas, overtime is continuing, but they cannot get the full picture. I also understand that they cannot get the true picture of what is happening with agency staff. It appears that company employees are going, while agency staff are being retained. It would be good if the Minister could give an idea of the future corporate plan that British Nuclear Fuels announced when splitting into the four divisions. I do not want to take up much time, because I want to hear what the Minister has to say. I hope that he has some positive and constructive comments.
Does my hon. Friend accept that one of the interesting points about the debate is that the Minister will respond to my hon. Friend? One of the reductions in accountability to Parliament has been the privatisation of important public utilities, from which British Nuclear Fuels is exempt. The accountability and answers that my hon. Friend is seeking are no longer available from Ministers because they have shrugged off accountability. My hon. Friend has all our backing for his plea for information from the Minister, because that is the process of accountability which we call democracy. During the ensuing election, we shall bring that issue to the fore. I am sure that my hon. Friend agrees.
I could not agree more with my hon. Friend, as I have said on the two previous occasions when he rose to his feet. It is absolutely essential that we are able to question Ministers. As my hon. Friend rightly says, I can ask such questions in relation to British Nuclear Fuels because it is still in the public sector. Even in the public sector, such as the Department of Employment and elsewhere, quangos and agencies are being created. That makes it difficult to question Ministers. When one writes in, one is referred to the head of a quango instead of to a Minister. Ministers are ultimately responsible, but they can pass the buck, and that is what has been happening. That is one of the tragedies.
The Minister has given up his time and I am extremely grateful to him, because the matter was visited upon him at a late hour and he has had to perform at a rather earlier hour than he imagined this morning. However, I managed to have a word or two with him.
My great anxiety is that the overall total of 750 redundancies should be made by voluntary means, and that as much work as possible should be taken away from the agencies so that the company can retain employees. I hope that the future stategy will not be to use agencies and consultancies rather than directly employing people.
Even if the Minister cannot answer about the 76 apprentices this morning, I ask him to consider them in particular and whether they could be absorbed in some way and allowed to take over some of the work that is being done by the agencies. I have no criticism of the company. Indeed, it has good standing in the community for all the work that it has done. As my hon. Friend the Member for Pontefract and Castleford knows, rugby league has also benefited from sponsorship by British Nuclear Fuels, as well as by the coal industry and various other companies.
We are therefore grateful to the company, but we ask that the apprentices be retained. We also ask the company to retain clerical training. Even if it is not able to take on the young people at the end of the training period, at least they would be well equipped to face the future, I hope under a new Government, in an economy that is recovering.
I am glad that we managed to retrieve this Ajournment debate. I congratulate the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle) on the way in which he introduced the debate and his sense of timing in securing it, not too early and not too late in the Session —and, indeed, in this Parliament.
The hon. Gentleman spoke about the regrettable job losses at Risley in his constituency. As he recognised, they came about primarily because British Nuclear Fuels plc has just finished building the thermal oxide reprocessing plant—the so-called THORP. The commissioning stage is still to come, and will take a few months, but already the company has secured about £9 billion-worth of orders for the plant, of which more than half are from overseas. This is a remarkable achievement. It will ensure that THORP generates wealth for the region and the company for many years to come.
BNFL is also past the peak of a major programme of updating and upgrading its waste management and treatment plants at Sellafield. Each element of its nuclear process is being resolved, and solutions are being achieved to the highest environmental standards. So both programmes are somewhat in decline in terms of investment expenditure. The projects were a large task. The large team at Risley has worked on project management, design and procurement for some years.
I join the hon. Member for Warrington, North in paying tribute to the remarkable work that it has done and to the fact that it has finished construction of the plants on time. However, BNFL has concluded that, with the builk of its programme concluded, there is simply not enough work to maintain the present level of employment at its Risley office. Accordingly, the company has offered voluntary severance terms. I hope that there will be no need to move to compulsory redundancy.
The hon. Member for Warrington, North spoke about apprentices and the position of some ex-apprentices who are now on fixed-term contracts. I understand the hon. Gentleman's anxieties, but the bulk of the people involved were offered permanent jobs at the Sellafield site on completion of their apprenticeships. Most of them chose to remain at Risley on fixed-term contracts, knowing that those contracts might not be renewed. BNFL has made it clear that it will assist those people in the pursuit of alternative employment, both within the company and outside. The apprentices have gained substantial training and work experience with the firm, which should stand them in good stead in whatever career or alternative employment they may pursue. However, I undertake to pass on the hon. Gentleman's particular points to the company.
The company has told me that it will give sympathetic consideration to providing additional work experience within the company for the apprentices who may finish this summer. I shall be in touch again with BNFL to ensure that it is aware of the contents of today's debate. I emphasise that such matters are for the management of the company. It is for it to decide, not Ministers. It would be wrong for us to prevent management from managing and put rigid barriers in the way of releasing staff who are no longer required.
I speak as a constituent of my hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle), and I am pleased that he has raised this issue. I know what will be the impact in the community of job losses at BNFL. The Minister takes the usual line that we have heard for the past 13 years: he says that a commercial decision must be taken by management. But has the Minister attempted to estimate the social cost to his Department and the Department of Social Security of the redundancies that will occur in the Warrington area? If he has not, he is abdicating some responsibility.
Of course, there is always a cost associated with redundancy, but there would also be a cost associated with any decision by the Government to interfere with the commercial management of a company such as BNFL. Future wealth, prosperity and employment in the region depend very much on the success of the company in future, and in particular of its major asset, THORP. That success would be put at risk if we interfered in commercial management decisions of the company.
May I at this point say how glad I am that it is my hon. Friend who is replying to this debate, because 31⅓ years ago, I took over from the well-loved Derick Heathcoat-Amory? It is a particular pleasure that, at the end of my last Parliament, a member of the same family should end that Parliament at the Dispatch Box.
I listened carefully to what the hon. Member for Warrington, North (Mr. Hoyle) and the hon. Member for Liverpool, West Derby (Mr. Wareing) said about protecting jobs. I have been trying to protect jobs in my constituency in the coal industry, yet the hon. Gentleman's colleagues come into my constituency and say that they will phase out nuclear power and nuclear energy. That is a direct contradiction of what the hon. Gentlemen said today. Will my hon. Friend the Minister highlight the hypocrisy of the Labour party? Whenever it suits them, Labour Members say one thing, but when they go to another area they say another thing.
My hon. Friend makes a telling point. I cannot end the debate without drawing attention to the inescapable connection between long-term employment prospects at BNFL, and therefore at Risley, and the future of the nuclear industry in general. Indeed, the future of the nuclear industry would look extremely bleak under a Labour Government.
In its policy document "Opportunity Britain", published last year, the Labour party said that it was committed to phasing out nuclear power. The document said that no new power stations would be built and that most existing ones would be shut by the year 2000. The Liberal party has made an even more emphatic promise to shut down the nuclear industry. All that would be extremely serious for BNFL and all its employees. The job losses that we have seen recently at that company would be as nothing compared with what would flow from the full-scale running down of the nuclear industry as promised by the Labour party.
The Minister has been helpful in giving way this morning.
My hon. Friend the Member for Warrington, North mentioned the 750 job losses and expressed his grave anxiety about them. The Minister said that the project was a fixed construction project which was coming to an end, resulting in redundancies. Does the Minister accept that BNFL should have developed alternatives, rather than simply putting people on the dole? Does he agree that it is a good idea for industries such as the nuclear industry to do that, because, at any time, environmental pressure is present and processes can be changed and improved or, like people, made redundant? Should not the Government encourage BNFL and other similar companies to plan change to ensure that redundancies do not take place?
I am informed that there is an excellent training and enterprise council in the north and mid-Cheshire areas. It has already been in touch to offer its services. There are also the more routine services available from the local department of employment offices.
My point is a slightly separate one. The nuclear industry employs some 40,000 people, and all those jobs would be put at risk by a Labour Government operating the policies that Labour announced last year.
My hon. Friend mentioned the long-term interest of the industry. Will he take into account, and perhaps report to the chairman, the fact that, throughout much of eastern Europe and in some of the new republics of the former Soviet Union, there is an enormous amount of work potentially in assisting in the demolition and safe disposal of nuclear fuels of redundant nuclear power stations? If we were to follow the recommendations of both Opposition parties and virtually dismantle our nuclear fuels industry, we should lose a potential export market of great importance.
My hon. Friend makes a telling point. There is a huge potential need to help eastern Europe dispose safely of fissile materials. We can help. Indeed, BNFL and the Atomic Energy Authority are following up a number of opportunities. That, too, would be put at risk if we were to shut down or wipe out our home-based facilities.
Will the Minister acknowledge, first, how much of this has resulted from the privatisation of electricity and the surcharge that is already causing many problems? Secondly, will he acknowledge our point about the difficulty that the recession has caused BNFL in seeking alternative contracts? Thirdly, nothing is ruled out in eastern Europe, because the expertise that we have developed here can gain contracts for BNFL in the nuclear industry in eastern Europe, so that is irrelevant.
The hon. Gentleman mentioned the privatisation of electricity. I must remind him that the nuclear industry, particularly Nuclear Electric, benefits from the fossil fuel levy, which is also helping to retain expertise and employment in the industry, including in BNFL. That, too, I understand, would be at risk from a Labour Government. The hon. Gentleman makes that point for me.
I must emphasise that the Government will carry out an impartial review in 1994 of the future of nuclear power. We will not prejudge the issue by issuing hasty documents in advance that threaten to shut down the industry, regardless of its improving performance. We will permit Magnox stations to run if it is safe and economic for them to do so. They bring substantial work to BNFL.
We also support Nuclear Electric in its efforts, which are increasingly successful, to get more electricity and a higher performance than at present from the advanced gas-cooled reactors. We will commission Sizewell B in 1994, or thereabouts. Silence from the Labour party on that point.
All those projects would be put at risk by an incoming Labour Government and would feed through directly to the employment prospects of people at BNFL and Risley.
If the hon. Gentleman will forgive me, I must proceed to a conclusion. This is, after all, only an Adjournment debate.
Even at this late stage, the hon. Member for Warrington, North should approach the Labour leadership and put the utmost pressure on his party to remove this threat to the nuclear industry. Perhaps there will be another U-turn and some change in the manifesto. In that case, employees in the nuclear industry will have to ask themselves whether a deathbed repentance on the part of the Labour party on nuclear power can offset years of hostility to their industry.
The Minister will appreciate that THORP is fully committed, with 10-year contracts. He will understand, too, that there is no return clause in the early contracts, so the rubbish and waste after reprocessing is left in this country. Does BNFL plan to increase the work force to make sure that waste from abroad dumped here will be made safe?
All that is done at Sellafield will be to the highest safety and environmental standards. I can confirm to the hon. Gentleman that all reprocessing contracts since 1976 have included a provision for the return of the subsequent wastes arising. The voters will have to ponder these matters during the forthcoming campaign.
A dissolution is imminent. I believe that I am the last Member to speak from the Dispatch Box and, indeed, in this Parliament. A new House of Commons will meet in six
weeks' time, and I fully intend to be here, but exactly who returns and on what side we sit will be decided, as it should be, by the electorate. I have no epitaph for this Parliament beyond saying after Suetonius,
Ave, Populus, morituri to salutant".
The sitting is suspended until 2.30 pm when either Black Rod will be expected imminently or a further announcement will be made about when he will arrive.