HC Deb 01 April 1993 vol 222 cc645-52 1.54 am
Dr. Norman A. Godman (Greenock and Port Glasgow)

This debate was prompted by the civilised and honourable campaign conducted by the Maralinga people of South Australia to have their land—or much of it—restored to them in a way that will allow the continuation of a culture that has existed for many years.

Between 1953 and 1957, the United Kingdom Government conducted nine atomic tests and 700 minor trials in the traditional lands of the Maralinga people. Those lands were restored to them in 1984 by the South Australian Government's Maralinga—Tjarutja land rights. The Maralinga people were traditionally nomadic, roaming across the Maralinga lands. From the 1920s, rations and a rudimentary education were offered to them by a mission at Ooldea, which was located on the east-west railway line. That mission, however, was abandoned in 1952.

In fact, 1952 was a momentous year for the people. It was in that year that the aborigines who had inhabited Maralinga lands were placed in a mission at Yalata, several hundred miles south of their tribal lands. The people were not consulted; they were simply moved by forces attached to the South Australian and federal Australian Governments. They stayed at Yalata and elsewhere until as recently as 1984. Some of the elders—including Hugh Windlass, who visited this Parliament not long ago—attempted to return to their lands, but were set back to Yalata by federal Australian nuclear test personnel.

Despite the setbacks, the Maralinga people were determined to return to their lands. They began a long struggle for land rights, which culminated, in December 1984, in the grant of title to 76,000 sq km of their lands by the South Australian Government.

The issue of the contamination of atomic nuclear tests sites arouses widespread interest—and, indeed, controversy—among those who seek to defend the interests of soldiers who, it is legitimately claimed, have suffered because of their physical involvement in such tests. On 14 March, The Observer said: Britain is facing a multi-billion-dollar bill to clean up hundreds of square kilometres of land seriously contaminated with radioactivity from its testing of nuclear bombs. Legislation before the US Congress threatens to make Britain pay its share of a huge decontamination project at the Nevada test site, which is leaking plutonium and other dangerous radionuclides. The position in Australia is much less grave. The same article, written by Geoffrey Lean, states: Meanwhile, Australia is demanding that Britain should pay a much smaller bill for the clean-up of the Maralinga test site, which it used before moving to Nevada … A joint British and Australian investigation concluded that a full clean-up would cost £300 million. The Government and Aborigines have agreed to a £45 million programme. I should be interested in the Minister's reaction to the press report; the figure of £45 million may be sheer press speculation.

Many people are interested in the issue. Yesterday morning I received a letter from Ken McGinley, the chairman of the British Nuclear Tests Veterans' Association. He says Dear Mr. Godman, Nuclear Tests—Maralinga. I write on behalf of the Maralinga Veterans and indigenous peoples of Australia who, I feel, have been treated extremely shabbily since the Atomic Bomb tests in the 1950's. It is the British Government's responsibility to clean up the Maralinga range and fully compensate the Aboriginal people for using their land for scientific purposes. Councillor McGinley—he is a district councillor in Renfrewshire—goes on to make an interesting observation: It is a fact that during the 1950's the British Government was contemplating using Wick [in Scotland) as a testing ground for atomic trigger devices. However, this did not materialise because (according to Lord Penny …) the climate was too wet! Otherwise the inhabitants of the north of Scotland would be in the same predicament today as are their Australian counterparts. Ken McGinley goes on to say: It is ironic that countries who have been involved in nuclear testing would not carry out these tests in their own countries. Some two and a half years ago, Archie Barton, Hugh Windlass and a number of others from Maralinga Tjarutja formed a delegation and came to London with the objective of securing a sympathetic response from both Ministers and Members of Parliament to what I believe to be their entirely reasonable claim that the contaminated land should be cleansed and, wherever possible, made safe for traditional aboriginal life and culture.

I readily acknowledge that our Australian visitors received a courteous reception from the Minister concerned and his officials. They also elicited a great deal of sympathy from Members on both sides of the House. However, nothing was achieved in terms of their legitimate claims. Consequently, a second delegation was sent by the Maralinga people to the Minister with the appropriate responsibilities, Lord Cranborne. Again the response was extremely courteous. Lord Cranborne is a very courteous man. However, matters remained largely unchanged.

The frustration and anger of these fine and decent people concerning what they see as this Government's failure to honour certain obligations that they have towards them and their land is mounting. This, to my mind, disgraceful state of affairs must be ended by joint action being undertaken and financed by the federal Government of Australia and the United Kingdom Government.

I ask the Minister, who always in these debates and others listens with characteristic attention, to accept my view that now that the dust has settled in the wake of the Australian federal election, Prime Minister Keating and our Prime Minister should sign an agreement that would satisfy the needs of the Maralinga people.

Perhaps I could offer a word or two about my involvement in this affair. At the time of Archie Barton's initial visit, a number of Opposition Members discussed the possibility of our visiting the site in South Australia. We agreed that if any one of us were lucky enough, a special effort should be made to travel to Maralinga Tjarutja in order, among other things, to discuss the problems with the local people. For me, that ambition was realised last September, when I had the honour of being appointed deputy leader of the United Kingdom's Commonwealth Parliamentary Association delegation for a three-week visit to Australia. I am not being facetious when I say that I was in interesting company. The group included the hon. and irrepressible Member for Billericay (Mrs. Gorman). It was an agreeable lot, ably led by the distinguished Conservative hon. Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth). We travelled to Maralinga Tjarutja in the company of two representatives of the South Australia Parliament—Mr. Graham Gunn, a Liberal Member, and Mr. Kevin Hamilton, a Labour Member. Those gentlemen were extremely kind, courteous and helpful to their United Kingdom visitors, and I am telling the truth when I say that both were utterly committed to the Maralinga cause. It is my view that this reflects the cross-party support to be found in the state Parliament of South Australia and in the federal Parliament in Canberra.

For our part, we quickly discovered that there were no party political differences between United Kingdom Labour and Conservative Members. In proof of the continuing cross-party support, I quote from a letter that I have received from the hon. Member from Stratford-on-Avon: Dear Norman I am extremely pleased that you have been able to secure the opportunity for a debate here in the House of Commons on cleaning up the former United Kingdom atomic test site at Maralinga. I am only very sorry that I am unable personally to attend this debate, which is to be held at short notice. The hon. Gentleman refers to the delegation of which we were members and to our briefing, both in Adelaide and at Maralinga. The letter goes on: I know that all of us were both impressed and moved by the case put to us by Archie Barton and other representatives of the Maralinga people. I know too that there is a body of opinion in all parties in the British House of Commons that is anxious to secure rapid progress towards a settlement of the outstanding issues which is accepted as fair and reasonable among all concerned. Speaking for myself, I do not think that environmental standards which may have been found acceptable in 1968 are adequate today. I believe that responsibility for clearing up the test site should be accepted as resting jointly with the British and Australian Governments. I make no apology for having quoted at some length from the hon. Gentleman's admirable letter. I believe that if his hon. Friends the Members for Billericay and for Harrogate (Mr. Banks) were here at this bleak hour they would be only too willing to voice identical sentiments. The other two Members of the delegation, my hon.]Friend the Member for Makerfield (Mr. McCartney), who is an old friend, and. Baroness Hollis of Heigham, hold exactly the same view.

This is a moral issue. It certainly is not a party political issue. For that reason, I have sought not to make a party political speech. The Minister might well ask how one could make a party political speech. After all, both Tory and Labour Administrations have made critical decisions that have had a severe and distressing impact on the Maralinga Tjaratja. My hon. Friends must be reminded of the fact that it was Prime Minister Clement Attlee who, by way of a telephone call to federal Prime Minister Robert Menzies, sought and obtained authorisation for the creation and establishment of this atomic bomb test site. In 1968, it was a Labour Government who made what with 1993 hindsight can be called the erroneous claim that matters had been put right. It was also a Labour Government who prepared the way for the 1979 accord which said that things were all well and good in the area.

Late last year, Archie Barton wrote a letter to Viscount Cranborne, the Under-Secretary of State for Defence: He said: Dear Lord Cranborne, Thank you very much for agreeing to see the delegation from the Maralinga Aboriginal Community and our solicitor on Friday 25 September … My delegation is looking forward to meeting you to discuss the problems facing the Maralinga people arising from the residual radioactive contamination on the Maralinga lands from the British Nuclear Tests, and in particular:

  1. (1) the deep concern of my people at the delay in resolving outstanding questions between the Australian Government and your Government relating to the funding of the clean-up of our lands.
  2. (2) matters of common interest to the Maralinga people and the British Government relating to the future clean-up of the lands and including:
    • —the views of the Maralinga people as to the most appropriate clean-up;
    • —the use which my people can make of the rehabilitated land and test site facilities after the clean-up has occurred."
I sincerely hope that there will be no more procrastination or prevarication in the negotiations between our Government and the federal Government. I shall be delighted when the Australian and United Kingdom Governments agree to make fair and reasonable contributions to the overall cost of a comprehensive clean-up of the site. Account should also be taken of claims for compensation by the Maralinga people for the lands which they accept cannot be cleared up.

When I and my parliamentary colleagues visited the site, we were not allowed inside the fence as we did not have the necessary apparatus to protect ourselves. Even though that site is a very small part of the hugh area of 76,000 sq km, it is extremely important to the people of Maralinga Tjarutja.

Mr. Jim Cousins (Newcastle upon Tyne, Central)

In light of his visit to the area, does my hon. Friend know when there might once again be open access to the traditional lands of the Maralinga people, which have been contaminated?

Dr. Godman

I am not a technical man, as the Minister knows. Australian and United Kingdom specialists and scientists believe that a small area will remain contaminated for thousands of years. The aboriginal people accept that that is the case. The McClelland royal commission of, I think, 1984 confirmed that. Another investigation conducted by Australian and United Kingdom scientists made a similar observation. In any case, the parliamentary delegation was not allowed beyond the fence, and I was not going to argue about it.

Yesterday the Premier of the South Australian Government wrote to Archie Barton, and the office kindly sent me a copy of the letter. It is a short letter, and I believe that it is worth quoting, because it reveals the sense of involvement of the state Government: Dear Mr. Barton, I am informed that your compensation claim to the British Government is to be brought on for debate in the House of Commons in the immediate future. I congratulate your organisation on your tireless campaign to pursue the rights of your people, and I reiterate the full support of the South Australian Government for your efforts. Let me assure you that I am committed to assisting the Maralinga people whenever possible in the pursuit of your claim. As you are aware I took the opportunity on my recent overseas trip to meet with the Under Secretary of State for Defence for the Armed Forces, Lord Cranborne, in order to reinforce the importance that the South Australian Government places on your cause. I trust our combined efforts will result in a successful resolution of your claim. In conclusion, you will not be surprised, Mr. Deputy Speaker, to hear that I hope to hear a positive response from the Minister. The Maralinga people deserve a reasonable reaction to their eminently honourable, peaceable and civilised campaign—I believe that they deserve no less. The Australian federal election is out of the way, and the British Government, with the federal Government of Australia, now have a fine opportunity to settle the issue in the interests of those fine, decent people, the Maralinga people of South Australia.

2.16 am
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archie Hamilton)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow (Dr. Godman) on raising this important and topical subject on the Adjournment tonight. I also commend him for the moderate tone that he has taken; I think that he accepts that there is no party divide on the issue, and that we hope to resolve it.

In my response, I hope to set out some of the history of the issue before dealing with the factors that the Government are taking into account in deciding how to respond to the Australian Government's request for a British contribution towards the cost of carrying out further rehabilitation of the Maralinga site.

As the hon. Gentleman knows, Maralinga is located in a remote and generally uninhabited region of the Nullabor plain in South Australia. It is about 1,000 km from the nearest major population centre at Adelaide. That is why the site was selected, with the agreement of the Australian Government, for the conduct of a series of tests and experiments as part of the United Kingdom's nuclear weapons development programme.

The hon. Gentlemen referred to the fact that the Maralinga people had been moved out, and at this stage it is important to explain that that was Australian Government policy. The people were not moved to make way for a nuclear test site; they were being moved anyway, and once that had happened, the area from which they had been moved seemed an ideal site for nuclear tests. The decision followed a move already made by the Australian Government for other reasons, and that is significant in connection with the claims for compensation made by the Maralinga people.

In all, four atmospheric nuclear weapons tests took place in 1956, and several hundred more minor trials not involving nuclear detonations took place between 1955 and 1963. Most involved the release of short-lived radio-isotopes with no-lasting effects. A few, however, involved the release of quantities of plutonium, which is the primary cause of the residual contamination at Maralinga.

The use by the United Kingdom of the Maralinga site was originally governed by ad hoc arrangements between Her Majesty's Government and the Australian Government. The hon. Gentleman referred to Prime Minister Attlee and his conversations on that with the federal Prime Minister. But in March 1956 the ad hoc arrangement was formalised in a memorandum of arrangements, signed by both Governments. The memorandum provided for the clean-up of the test site to standards agreed by the Australian Government, once the test programme was complete. Accordingly, Her Majesty's Government carried out an extensive rehabilitation operation in 1967, known as Operation Brumby, aimed at reducing residual contamination to an acceptable level, assuming no permanent habitation of the area—the position that obtained prior to the start of the test programme. Following completion of Operation Brumby and a survey of the sites by a joint Atomic Weapons Establishment/United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority team, the United Kingdom" and Australian Governments signed an agreement on 23 September 1968, which stated: The United Kingdom government have completed decontamination and debris clearance at the Atomic Weapons Proving Ground Maralinga to the satisfaction of the Australian government; and: With effect from 21 December 1967, the United Kingdom government are released from all liabilities and responsibilities under [the 1956] Memorandum of Arrangements save that the United Kingdom will continue to indemnify the Australian government in accordance with Clause II of [the 1956] Memorandum in respect of claims for which the cause of action took place after 7 March 1956 and before 21 December 1967. The exception relates specifically to a limited class of claims for death or injury to personnel and damage to property.

The range has remained wholly in Australian hands since then, though the United Kingdom authorities carried out an operation in 1978 to repatriate 0.5kg of plutonium that was regarded as potentially recoverable. An exchange of notes in November 1978 following that operation confirmed that there was no question of the United Kingdom having any further responsibility to repatriate waste. This exchange also expressed the United Kingdom's willingness to provide technical advice on further clean-up, should the Australians decide to carry out such an operation.

Since 1968, various surveys and investigations have been conducted by the Australian Government. In 1984, it appointed a royal commission to investigate the situation and propose further action. The commission reported in November 1985 and, among other recommendations, proposed that the sites be released for unrestricted habitation by the traditional aboriginal owners of the land after further clean-up, and that, notwithstanding the 1968 agreement, the United Kingdom should pay for such a clean-up. The Australian Government, in response to the royal commission report, appointed a group of experts, known as the technical assessment group—TAG—in February 1986 to examine options for possible further clean-up of the site. In accordance with the undertaking given by the United Kingdom in 1978, the group included two United Kingdom experts. We also provided two RAF helicopters to assist in carrying out radiological surveys of the sites. The National Radiological Protection Board also carried out some associated studies.

The TAG reported in November 1990 and set out a range of clean-up options, ranging from the erection and maintenance of light fencing and warning notices to the wholesale removal and treatment of large quantities of topsoil. The report also identified the possible broad costs of the options, ranging from less than £10 million to over £300 million, a figure to which the hon. Gentleman referred. A copy of the report is in the Library of the House.

Following publication of the TAG report, the Australian Government approached Her Majesty's Government in September 1991 stating their view that there was a need for further decontamination, that the United Kingdom was liable for any clean-up, and requesting that Her Majesty's Government make a significant contribution towards the cost of further rehabilitation. The Australian Government also claimed that the United Kingdom had a responsibility to pay compensation to the traditional aboriginal owners of the land, Maralinga Tjarutja, for any remaining restrictions on access.

Since that time, there have been a number of meetings and exchanges between the Australian federal authorities and Her Majesty's Government to discuss the matter. This included a meeting in November 1991 between the responsible Australian Minister and my noble Friend, the then Under-Secretary for the Armed Forces. Both he and my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence, to whom the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow referred, have met representatives of Maralinga Tjarutja to hear their particular concerns. There have also been meetings with representatives of the Government of South Australia, within whose territory Maralinga lies. We have stressed that we see this as a matter between Her Majesty's Government and the federal Government, rather than the state Government.

The current position at Maralinga is that about 3,000 sq km of uninhabited land around the former test site remains subject to restrictions on access imposed after Operation Brumby. The hon. Gentleman confirmed that because he was not allowed into the area. This represents about 4 per cent. of the 76,000 sq km of traditional Maralinga Tjarutja land. The TAG report identified about 100 sq km—about 0.1 per cent.—of the Tjarutja lands as being contaminated to the extent that exposure for continuous occupancy would result in an annual radiological dose of 5 milliSieverts or more. Exposure to 5 mSv gives an annual risk of one in 10,000 of contracting a fatal cancer. It is worth pointing out that the average lifetime risk of an Australian contracting cancer is about one in four. It is worth mentioning that the inhabitants of Cornwall regularly receive an annual dosage of 8 mSv arising from natural background radiation. If the hon. Gentleman had gone through the fence and into the area involved, he would not have been in any greater danger than if he had not been in Australia at all but in Cornwall.

Clearly, those are factors which need to be taken into account in deciding whether further decontamination is required. This is a matter for the Australian Government, as is the option for clean-up which is selected. Our understanding that a middle-range option from those identified in the TAG report has been selected by the Australian Government. This would involve the treatment of some 2 sq km of the test area, the reburial of some waste material and the erection of light fencing. The indicative estimated cost of this is about 100 million Australian dollars, or about £50 million. We also understand that, in pursuance of their case for compensation, Maralinga Tjarutja have claimed the sum of 45 million dollars, or about £22.5 million.

That is the background and history against which the issue has developed. The Government have made it plain on a number of occasions that it is their view that our obligations for the decontamination of the Maralinga site were fully discharged after the clean-up carried out in 1967. That was formally recognised in the 1968 agreement to which I referred earlier. We also firmly believe that any question of providing compensation for the aboriginal population is not a matter for Her Majesty's Government. The Australian Government are well aware of our position, and it is against that background that we have been studying their request for a United Kingdom contribution for further clean-up. The Australian case has raised a number of complex and detailed technical and legal points which have required study and research by my Department's nuclear and legal experts.

That process has been completed and Ministers are now considering what substantive response should be made to the Australian Government. A final decision has not yet been made, but we hope to be in a position to make a full response shortly. Clearly, that response will need to take into account the real concerns which the hon. Gentleman and others have raised about such contamination as remains at Maralinga. We are keen to resolve the issue as soon as possible. I am confident that the excellent relationship which we enjoy with the Australian Government as close friends and allies will enable us to do so.

It is necessary to take into account some of the other points which I raised earlier: first, the site is very remote and was deliberately chosen for that reason; secondly, the absolute risk to health, even without further decontamination, is slight; and, thirdly, the United Kingdom has already cleaned up the site once to the satisfaction, confirmed in writing, of the Australian Government.

In summary, the Government fully recognise the anxieties expressed by the hon. Member for Greenock and Port Glasgow and others, both in the United Kingdom and in Australia, about the condition of the former test sites at Maralinga. We are examining the case made by the Australian Government for a United Kingdom contribution to further rehabilitation. We have listened carefully to the particular anxieties expressed by the Maralinga Tjarutja about access to their traditional lands. We recognise that, as the hon. Gentleman said, it has taken some time to respond fully to the Australian request. But the hon. Gentleman and others can be assured that that reflects the care with which we have addressed this complex issue.

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