This is an important and necessary Bill, as the Secretary of State confirmed, to ensure that a contingency is available should the Government’s negotiations with the European Union and Euratom fail. That was why we did not oppose it on Second Reading, and it is why we will not oppose it on Third Reading tonight.
That does not mean, however, that we do not continue to have concerns about the Government’s approach and about whether there was any necessity at all for the Bill. On Second Reading, I made the case that it should be possible—or would have been possible—to retain the UK’s membership, or to secure a close association with Euratom that would allow the continuation of nuclear safeguarding. The Opposition still think that continued membership of Euratom or a close associate status is both achievable and necessary for the most efficient continued working of a whole raft of procedures relating to the nuclear industry, not just to safeguarding.
I am pleased that the Government seem to have acknowledged that negotiating a close association would be the best outcome for our nuclear industry and that Bill does not constitute a replacement for all Euratom’s functions. The Secretary of State’s written statement on
“seek a close association with Euratom and to include Euratom in any implementation period negotiated as part of our wider exit discussions”.
It went on to say that the
“exact nature of the period will be subject to forthcoming negotiations”.—[Official Report,
Vol. 634, c. 9-10WS.]
Given that statement, I wonder why the Government did not accept a number of Labour’s proposals: new clause 1, which would simply have asked the Secretary of State to “seek to secure” a transition period during which the UK could secure an association with Euratom, or indeed build any domestic capability; and new clause 2, which would have established that the provisions of the Bill are contingency arrangements if it proves impossible to establish an association with Euratom.
I point out that we could have been more legally robust in our language, especially in new clause 1. We could, for example, have used the words “best endeavours”, but we appreciate the issues that the Secretary of State faces and would have given him the opportunity simply of saying that he would try to secure a transitional period. We are sad that new clause 1 was not accepted today, but none the less I appreciate that the Secretary of State has listened somewhat to Labour’s concerns and promised to report back every three months about overall progress on Euratom in the EU negotiations. As three months from the first statement will be
My Front-Bench colleagues have argued that a transitional agreement is vital if we are to ensure that the UK is physically able to provide a functioning domestic safeguarding regime. The evidence taken by the Public Bill Committee highlighted that particular concern of the industry. Dr Golshan of the ONR said:
“given our membership of Euratom, it has not been necessary for the UK and ONR to build capacity and resilience in this area.”
“a transitional arrangement will be extremely helpful.”
That is not least because the training of inspectors takes several years, as outlined by the representatives of Prospect and Unite the union. Indeed, when she was asked about training, Dr Golshan said:
“We have started that process, but it is a long road and I am not going to sit here and pretend that it is all going to be a smooth run.”––[Official Report, Nuclear Safeguards Public Bill Committee,
c. 5-9, Q3, 8 and 16.]
We have ongoing concerns about the timely replacement of inspectors, so we urge Ministers to agree a transitional arrangement to prevent full obligations from being placed on an unready ONR. The Government did not see fit to accept amendment 4, which would have required the Secretary of State to declare that the ONR had the resources necessary to take on extra responsibilities for nuclear safeguarding in the UK, but I hope they will listen to this plea.
I will say a little word on the powers that the Bill will hand to the Government—the very small Henry VIII provisions, as they were referred to previously. The Minister did not see fit to accept our amendments that attempted to curtail the executive powers conferred by the Bill, but he promised to publish regulations ahead of Report. He did indeed publish those regulations, but not until Friday afternoon—beyond the deadline to table any further amendments to the Bill. I would just like to put on record that although I welcome the publication of the regulations, the timing was rather cheeky and not altogether in the spirit of the constructive approach that both sides have taken to the Bill.
I associate myself with the words of the Secretary of State in thanking all who have spoken throughout our consideration of the Bill, as well as all members of the Public Bill Committee. I want to thank the Front-Bench teams, including the Secretary of State and the Minister. I think it is fair to say that they have been in listening mode. I especially thank my Labour colleagues, not least my hon. Friend Dr Whitehead, who have worked diligently on the finer details of all things relating to nuclear safeguarding. Finally, I want to thank the Public Bill Office and the Clerks for all their tremendous support, as ever.