Relevant International Agreements: Reports

Nuclear Safeguards Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:30 pm on 14th November 2017.

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“The Secretary of State shall within three months of the passing of this Act and every three months thereafter lay a report before each House of Parliament detailing the progress towards conclusion of a relevant international agreement, until the agreement has been concluded.” —

This new clause would require the Government to lay a report detailing the progress of a “relevant international agreement” before Parliament within three months of the passing of this Act and update the House on progress every three months.

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time. The clause reflects what we have discussed in Committee about the process of securing an agreement that is voluntarily entered into with the IAEA to replace the previous agreement that was essentially mediated by Euratom, and hence has to be replaced.

One might think that the agreement should, in principle, be reasonably easy to arrive at. If we have a contingency nuclear safeguarding regime in place that we can demonstrate to IAEA fits the bill as a replacement for Euratom, the new voluntary agreement with IAEA should proceed reasonably straightforwardly. My understanding is that it is a voluntary agreement made by nuclear-possessing powers, and this is clearly about entering into an agreement as a nuclear-possessing power alongside other individual nuclear-possessing powers outside the ambit of Euratom. This would be something that we and the IAEA would want to conclude.

As we have heard, that agreement is still some way off being concluded. We are effectively in a position of preliminary discussions with the IAEA about what an agreement might look like, and how it should proceed. As we have heard, we are being asked to agree to put legislation on the statute book as if that agreement had been concluded. We are to take on trust the fact that the agreement can be concluded in reasonably good time, so that the Henry VIII clauses we discussed this morning could be put in place. We discussed those clauses without knowing when or whether an agreement with the IAEA would be forthcoming, what stage of negotiation we were at, and whether there were particular obstacles in the road, or whether indeed those obstacles had been substantially resolved. It does not look as if we are going to hear anything about the agreement until its conclusion. However, we are part of a Parliament that is putting legislation in place as if we had heard about it.

The new clause essentially proposes that within three months of the passing of the Bill, and every three months thereafter, a report be laid before each House of Parliament detailing progress towards the conclusion of a relevant international agreement—the voluntary agreement with the IAEA, in this case—until that agreement has been concluded. It simply asks for, and would essentially certify in the Bill, light to be shed on the process, and for light to come back to Parliament on the process—as legislators, we have been required to pass legislation without knowledge of where that agreement stood, in what order it was and where we are going with it.

I have been told that those negotiations are apparently going well, that there is not a great deal of animosity towards the idea that a new agreement can be brought about and that the appreciation on both sides of the need for that agreement to happen reasonably swiftly is propelling the negotiations forward. However, I happen to know that because I have been told informally, which is not really good enough as far as the rest of Parliament is concerned. This is something that should be publicly stated and reported and can be publicly discussed, so that we are sure, between us, that that agreement has been undertaken and properly fits with what we are legislating for in Committee.

The new clause is modest in intent but would actually strengthen our hand, so that as Committee members we could say that while we legislated in some ignorance of what was going on, we nevertheless rectified that by requiring the report to be laid before Parliament, allowing everybody to see the picture as it develops and giving them a good idea of where things are going. When our grandchildren ask us what we did on the Bill, we will be able to say that we made sure the treaty was on its way, was properly announced and scrutinised and that, when it appeared, we could put our imprimatur on it with an easy heart and full understanding that it was actually part of the process and the satisfactory conclusion to leaving Euratom.

Photo of Richard Harrington Richard Harrington Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 2:45 pm, 14th November 2017

I hope I can help the hon. Gentleman in his quest to answer his grandchildren’s questions about what he did during Brexit and the great time when we were leaving Europe and so on. We all hope that for ourselves and our grandchildren. I completely understand the sentiments behind his new clause, which is reasoned and well argued. I intend to consider it carefully, and will come on to that in a moment.

For the record, new clause 4 seeks to require quarterly updates detailing the progress towards the conclusion of “relevant international agreements”, which is a defined term set out in the Bill. As he said, it means an agreement, whether ratified or not, to which the United Kingdom is a party, which relates to nuclear safeguards and is specified in regulations made by the Secretary of State. I appreciate the objective of the new clause is for hon. Members, both on the Committee and generally within the House, to receive frequent updates on the status of international negotiations in this area. I will begin providing an immediate update on our international agreements relating to safeguards.

The hon. Gentleman said that he had been briefed informally, hopefully by me and others as part of general communications, but I would like to place it on record that the UK has begun formal negotiations with the IAEA on the future voluntary agreements for the application of civil nuclear safeguards in the UK, so that they are ready to be put in place by the time of our withdrawal from Euratom. We are seeking to conclude a new voluntary offer agreement and a new additional protocol on a bilateral basis with the agency. Our intention is that those agreements should follow exactly the same principles as the current ones. The discussions that began last September have been constructive and fruitful, and substantial progress has been made. I fully expect that the new agreements will be put to the IAEA board of governors for ratification in 2018. They will be subject to the usual ratification procedures, including parliamentary consideration.

As hon. Members will be aware, our aim is to maintain our mutually successful civil nuclear co-operation with the rest of the world, and we are working to ensure that arrangements are in place to allow that. Where action is required to ensure that civil nuclear trade and co-operation with non-European partners are not disrupted by our exit from Euratom, the Government are already entering into negotiations to ensure that nuclear co-operation agreements will be in place. Our team are in negotiations with key partners such as the USA, Canada, Australia and Japan. I met Ministers from those countries in Paris last week. The UK has a range of bilateral nuclear co-operation agreements in place with several countries, and we expect those to continue. The work highlights our commitment to ensuring that all arrangements are in place to allow our mutually successful civil nuclear co-operation to continue.

Turning to the specific requirements imposed by new clause 4, as I said, although I appreciate the sentiments behind the clause, I cannot agree to the proposal. As I have just explained, “relevant international agreement” is a defined term referring to agreements already negotiated, and the specification of an agreement as a relevant international agreement is subject to a clear and open process. I fully appreciate the important role that parliamentary scrutiny plays. We have been and will continue to be open and honest with Parliament about ongoing negotiations.

Negotiations on international agreements relating to safeguards are progressing well, and the intention is to present those agreements to Parliament before ratification, before the UK’s withdrawal from Euratom, so that they will come into force immediately on our exit. Incidentally —as I know you will be aware, Mr Gray—international treaties are already subject to the ratification processes laid out in the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010.

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

It had slipped my notice, but I am glad to be reminded.

Photo of Richard Harrington Richard Harrington Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

Thank you, Mr Gray. I note that, in accordance with provisions in the Bill, an international agreement may be defined as a relevant international agreement for the purpose of Bill only if the Secretary of State specifies that agreement in regulations. The Bill provides that such regulations will always be subject to the draft affirmative procedure, providing the opportunity for parliamentary scrutiny of whether an agreement should be a relevant international agreements as defined by the Bill.

As I have established, relevant international agreements are already subject to an open and transparent process. My fear is that imposing an additional reporting requirement would provide little added value and might hinder negotiations, which I know the hon. Gentleman would not want. Indeed, requiring such frequent updates on negotiations could risk weakening our position and might compromise our ability to build rapport and trust with our negotiating partners. I am concerned that that should not happen, but I recognise fully the importance of transparency and the need for Parliament to be able to provide input into the negotiations, so I am sympathetic to the sentiment underpinning the new clause. If the hon. Gentleman is prepared not to press this to a vote—in fact, even if he does—I would like to give the matter some further thought, because I think I can come up with a proposal that strikes the right balance and maximises the transparency that he wants and that I am not afraid of at all. I do not want to impede the progress of these time-sensitive and vital negotiations, which of course involve other parties.

Photo of Alan Whitehead Alan Whitehead Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Energy and Climate Change), Shadow Minister (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I thank the Minister for giving a constructive response to the new clause without going quite as far as saying that he agrees with it. I hope that he will be able to come up with something that, while not necessarily this proposal, maximises the transparency of the process. We are not only talking about the outcome and a report of the outcome that will come to Parliament. Because of the unique circumstances in which we are legislating while the treaty is being discussed and legislating for something that is quite central to that treaty coming about, it is important we have transparency on the journey as well as the conclusion. If the Minister can work out a device that allows that to happen, which I think he indicated he wishes to think about seriously, we would be happy not to press this. I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Clause, by leave, withdrawn.

New Clause 5