International agreements: devolved authorities

Nuclear Safeguards Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 2:45 pm on 14 November 2017.

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“(1) The Secretary of State must consult the persons or bodies listed in subsection (2) before concluding—

(a) a relevant international agreement, or

(b) any agreement with EU Member States relating to nuclear safeguarding.

(2) The persons or bodies are—

(a) Scottish Ministers,

(b) Welsh Ministers, and

(c) a Northern Ireland devolved authority.”—

Brought up, and read the First time.

Photo of Drew Hendry Drew Hendry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.

New clause 5 states that the Secretary of State must consult certain persons or bodies—the Scottish Ministers, Welsh Ministers or a Northern Ireland devolved authority —before agreement with EU member states relating to nuclear safeguarding.

As mentioned earlier, without confirmation of a transitionary deal, the Government leave a host of unanswered questions about nuclear safeguards. Falling back on World Trade Organisation rules risks the UK breaking international law. As a nuclear weapons state, the UK currently meets some of its safeguards obligations under international nuclear law through a voluntary offer agreement with the International Atomic Energy Agency, to which the Euratom community is also a signatory.

A report by the Nuclear Industry Association UK found:

“Falling back on World Trade Organisation (WTO) arrangements in the absence of a replacement safeguards agreement with the IAEA and/or an implementation period with Euratom risks putting the UK in breach of its obligations under international nuclear law and would have a significant impact on the UK nuclear sector.”

Those unanswered questions are big issues. Will the UK Government ensure that the UK’s nuclear facilities are subject to Euratom’s safeguards regime? If they are not to be monitored by Euratom’s inspectors, will the UK negotiate a replacement for the voluntary offer agreement with the IAEA to remain in compliance with international law? How will the UK Government design, resource and implement new UK safeguarding arrangements in line with accepted international standards?

We have already heard that the Minister cannot guarantee that fully trained, certified professionals will be available. What good are safeguards if there is nobody qualified to implement them? While safeguards and safety are reserved, areas of regulation such as waste and emissions from nuclear sites are devolved.

In the light of the Minister’s earlier comments on issues of national security that could arise, the Scottish Government must be involved in the negotiations regarding nuclear safeguards, and the UK Government must involve the Scottish Government at every stage of the negotiation process to ensure that the deal reached works for the people of Scotland. That is equally important for the other devolved Administrations in Wales and Northern Ireland.

Conservative Governments have a poor track record on Scotland and nuclear programmes. They must ensure that Scotland is not turned into a dumping ground for nuclear waste. I say to the Minister that as matters proceed in the House, there is an opportunity for his Scottish colleagues in the Tory party to help us stand up for Scotland’s interests. We look forward to seeing what they do. I hope the Minister accepts that it is only sensible and proper that the Scottish Government and the other devolved authorities are involved in this process in a meaningful way and involved in the negotiations, particularly given that the stakes are so high.

Photo of Richard Harrington Richard Harrington Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 3:00, 14 November 2017

I thank the hon. Gentleman for contributing new clause 5. It might surprise him that although I cannot accept what he asks for, I have a proposal for him and the Committee to consider. The new clause addresses the issue of consultation with the devolved Administrations on new international agreements relating to nuclear safeguards. As hon. Members will be aware, the UK Government are responsible for negotiating and signing these international treaties. The ratification of treaties is subject to the Act I mentioned before, the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010, which requires them to be laid before Parliament.

The Government have the power to conclude international treaties under prerogative powers but cannot automatically change domestic law or rights and cannot make major changes to constitutional arrangements without parliamentary authority. That will remain the case for international agreements relating to safeguards that are currently under negotiation, such as the new nuclear co-operation agreements with the US, Canada, Japan, Australia and so on that we have mentioned, and the agreements with the IAEA.

The measures put forward in the hon. Gentleman’s new clause would be a significant departure from the usual position—I know he knows that; it is why he proposed it and it is the policy of his party—and I do not consider it appropriate to accept them. As I said, nuclear safeguards are not a devolved matter, but I nevertheless reassure hon. Members that the Bill already ensures an appropriate level of transparency and scrutiny in respect of international agreements relating to nuclear safeguards, which I have been through before.

New clause 5 refers to “relevant international agreements”, which is a defined term as set out in the Bill. The existing drafting of Bill allows for the inclusion of any relevant international agreements as designated by the Secretary of State, so it is unnecessary to detail individual agreements in the Bill. While I appreciate the sentiment of the new clause, the role of relevant international agreements is already subject to a clear and open process under the Bill. I have explained that before and I do not intend to repeat it all again, unless any members of the Committee wish me to. It is a clear and open process.

On the specific focus of the new clause—consultation with the devolved Administrations, which I know is the hon. Gentleman’s main interest—it appears to require formal consultation with the devolved Administrations prior to our concluding international agreements relating to nuclear safeguards or any agreement with EU member states relating to nuclear safeguards. As I am sure hon. Members are aware, the Bill extends to and applies to England, Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and in the case of amendments, to the same extent as the provision amended.

As I have said, nuclear safeguards are not a devolved matter. Despite the responsibility legally being the UK Government’s, I hope that our general approach of having an open and transparent process, which is evolving, would be described as reassuring. The Government are acutely aware of the value of consultation in developing this new regulatory regime—obviously with the ONR, but also with the industry generally and formally and informally with parliamentary colleagues. As I have explained before, the nuclear safeguards regime regulations will be subject to detailed consultations with the regulator and industry. Industry stakeholders across the UK, which of course includes Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, will be widely encouraged to take part in that consultation. The outcome of the consultation will then be made public, in line with the Government’s general policy on consultations.

The public consultation on the draft regulations will not be the first or only opportunity for stakeholders to be made aware of our intentions, and it will not be their only opportunity to provide the Government with their views. We have had detailed discussions with the nuclear industry since the referendum, and we will continue to work closely with it and other stakeholders when taking the development of the new regime forward, including the development of regulations. My officials have already been in discussions with colleagues from across the devolved Administrations and the relevant environment agencies, such as the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, Natural Resources Wales and so on, to ensure effective collaborations on key Euratom-related policy areas—including the domestic nuclear safeguards regime—and will continue to do so.

I have been clear that the relevant international agreements will be subject to a clear, open and transparent process involving a high degree of consideration, scrutiny and external engagement. However, I do appreciate the concern behind new clause 5, which is why I already committed to the hon. Member for North Ayrshire and Arran to address her query on consultation with the Scottish Government by writing to her on the subject. I would therefore propose instead, if it will be satisfactory to the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey, to write directly to Scottish Ministers, Welsh Ministers and the Northern Ireland devolved authority on the subject for consultation. In the light of these explanations, I hope the hon. Gentleman feels able to withdraw his amendment.

Photo of Drew Hendry Drew Hendry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

I thank the Minister for his attempts at reassurance. I know that the Minister is genuinely trying to concede some ground and I appreciate that. However, his attempts at reassurance do not really hit the mark. There should be negotiations with the Scottish Government and the other devolved authorities in the light of the devolved responsibilities. It just is not good enough that after the deal is done a consolation might be undertaken with Ministers. That is not the way that this should happen at all. There are significant impacts on the nuclear industry and those devolved responsibilities.

Question put, That the clause be read a Second time.

The Committee divided:

Ayes 7, Noes 10.

Division number 5 Seasonal Working — International agreements: devolved authorities

Aye: 7 MPs

No: 10 MPs

Aye: A-Z by last name

No: A-Z by last name

Question accordingly negatived.

Question proposed, That the Chair do report the Bill to the House.

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

On a point of order, Mr Gray—it is the first point of order I have ever raised. I want to thank you as Chair, and Mr McCabe, who is not here today. I would like to thank the Clerks. I would like to thank hon. Members on both sides of the Committee for their patience, time and valuable contributions. I look forward to seeing the Bill progress in terms of the discussions we shall have before Report and then on Report and beyond. I hope the Bill’s progress continues to be characterised by the spirit of co-operation and conciliation that we have enjoyed. I particularly thank the shadow Minister for that, but also everybody else who contributed.

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)

On a point of order, Mr Gray. I join the Minister in thanking you for your exemplary chairing of our sessions. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I thank Mr McCabe, too, for his assistance with chairing.

I would also like to thank all Committee members for the constructive and helpful way that we managed to proceed. We had our disagreements. We put those squarely in the open and discussed them, and as a result of those discussions we had a number of exchanges that look to be constructive for the future. I am grateful for the spirit in which Committee stage has been conducted, and I look forward to Report and to the stages that follow with some optimism for the Bill. I am pleased to have taken part in such a constructive endeavour on all our parts.

Photo of Drew Hendry Drew Hendry Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy)

On a point of order, Mr Gray. May I, very simply, associate myself with the remarks made by the Minister and the shadow Minister?

Photo of James Gray James Gray Conservative, North Wiltshire

All three points of order are of course entirely bogus and out of order, but they are none the less very welcome.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill to be reported, without amendment.

Committee rose.

Written evidence reported to the House

NSB 05 EDF Energy

NSB 06 Dr David Lowry, Institute for Resource and Security Studies, Cambridge