HL Deb 22 July 1981 vol 423 cc298-300

7.19 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

Moved, that the Bill be now read 3a.—(Lord Skelmersdale.)

On Question, Bill read 3a.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I beg to move that the Bill do now pass.

Moved, that the Bill do now pass.—(Lord Skelmersdale.)

Lord Strabolgi

My Lords, before your Lordships pass the Bill, I should like to just briefly congratulate the noble Lord in piloting his small ship safely into port. This seems to be a case of youth at the prow and pleasure at the helm, if I may say so, because this totally unneecessary privatisation of a successful and profitable public company, such as Amersham, is little more than a piece of Government self-indulgence and pandering to some ancient Tory folk-lore which has little relevance to the modern world.

Lord Lloyd of Kilgerran

My Lords, may I join the noble Lord, Lord Strabolgi, at any rate in his first sentence, in congratulating the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, on the skill which he has shown in piloting this Bill through. In the early stages of the discussions on this Bill, I referred to this Bill as being dangerous, a kind of wolf in sheep's clothing, and I hold this view largely because of the broad definition of "atomic energy" in Clause 4, and because of the vague generalisations contained in the Bill relating to the control of company activities in relation to atomic energy authorities. It seemed to me also that the Bill might have international repercussions, in encouraging countries abroad to feel that the strong control, political as well as technical, as exercised by previous Governments was being relaxed, and that this could lead—albeit unwittingly—to proliferation of atomic energy activities in wider fields than those at present envisaged or desired by the Government.

Accordingly, in the spirit characteristic of this House, I submitted a number of amendments to try to help clarify the Government's position. But, of course, my submissions received little support from the Government in the many courteous speeches which the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, made on these problems. However, in fairness to him, he had emphasised on behalf of the Government that the products now manufactured by Amersham International are not relevant to the Government's atomic power programme. But he stated that the activities of other companies with which the Bill is concerned are, in fact, relevant to the Government's atomic energy power programme, but that these activities have nothing to do with weapons associated with atomic energy. In my view, these oral assurances, in themselves, are not enough and some amendment of the Bill should have been made.

The noble Lord also made clear that, at the present time, the Government hold shares only in the three companies mentioned in the Bill and in no other company. In these circumstances, I cannot understand why it was necessary—as he said, merely to save future parliamentary time—to contend that it was undesirable to limit this Bill merely to the activities of the three companies named. I feel that this is a wholly unsatisfactory and potentially dangerous situation. Of course, there is nothing further that we can do about this in your Lordships' House.

But, apart from questions of safety and control of atomic energy activities, we on these Benches expressed concern about the position of the 2,000 or so employees of the Amersham company. We were somewhat encouraged by the sympathetic views expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Skelmersdale, on these matters. He undertook on behalf of the Government, during the Committee stage, to look at a variety of ways in which employees of the Amersham company could be assisted and encouraged to share in the ownership of the company. I hope, therefore, that full attention can be given to the ways to this end which have been suggested by the Co-operative Development Agency, about which the noble Lord, Lord Oram, spoke so ably, and also to the suggestions emanating from Participating Consultants Limited.

7.24 p.m.

Lord Skelmersdale

My Lords, I am very grateful to both noble Lords who have spoken for the very kind references that they have made to me personally. I am only sorry that their welcome to this final stage of the Bill was somewhat muted. I have said, often enough, that the purpose of this little Bill is very simple—to enable the disposal of up to 100 per cent. of Amersham's shares and, while we are at it, to clarify the present disposal powers of the Secretary of State and the Atomic Energy Authority to sell shares in other companies, although there are no plans to do that at the moment.

I know that, throughout the remarks of the noble Lord, Lord Lloyd, at all stages of this Bill, has been the very important matter of safety and I hope that what I can say now will, at least, do something to reassure him on this matter. I fully accept that safety in nuclear matters is of paramount importance. Noble Lords on all sides of the House will, I am sure, agree with me on that. The point is that every company covered by the Bill which is engaged in nuclear work involving safety considerations is, and will continue to be, covered by the terms of the Nuclear Installations Act 1965. This Act requires every such company to operate only under a licence granted under Section 1 and, as appropriate, under a permit under Section 2. The following four sections make further provisions about safety.

The licences are granted and their conditions are enforced by the Nuclear Installations Inspectorate which has an excellent worldwide reputation. This enforcement is carried out regardless of who owns the shares of any particular company; and this includes Amersham International. British Nuclear Fuels and Amersham International are both required to operate under a licence and this would continue after any disposal. Therefore, the disposal of a company under the powers in the Bill will, in no way, change the safety position.

To get back to the main purpose of this Bill, we firmly believe that it will benefit Amersham International by allowing it full commercial freedom. It is, after all, very successful and able to stand up for itself, like any other company. To say that it cannot would be insulting, and neither noble Lord has suggested that. The Bill will also benefit the country by releasing much-needed public funds for use elsewhere where the national interest is directly involved. That is the role of Government—not to use public funds to act as a banker. My Lords, I commend the Bill to the House.

On Question, Bill passed.

Lord Lyell

My Lords, I beg to move that this House do now adjourn during pleasure until 8.20 p.m., as I understand was agreed through the usual channels.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

[The Sitting was suspended from 7.27 until 8.20 p.m.].