Euratom Debate

Today my amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill was debated by MPs in the House of Commons.

The aim of the amendment was to ensure that the Government sets out its plans concerning our future relationship with Euratom, the European Atomic Energy Community. I am pleased that as a result of my amendment, which had more signatures than any other on the Bill, the Government has promised to publish a strategy on next steps on Euratom, and give updates every three months.

Please see below my full speech:

"I am very grateful, Sir David, for the chance to speak in this important debate. It has been extraordinarily interesting and, actually, enjoyable. I want to make a brief detour on amendment 7, because the dialogue between my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset (Sir Oliver Letwin) and my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield (Mr Grieve) was absolutely terrific. Listening to my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset took me back—to a certain extent—to meetings that I had with him when I was a Minister. You could not go in and order a cup of coffee without engaging in a two-hour debate about exactly what was meant.

In the end, however, the answer emerged, and it emerged in this exchange. Notwithstanding all the technical debate, it is extremely simple. Clause 9 was written before the Government realised that they would have to put the withdrawal agreement into a statute, and now that they have to put it into a statute, both clause 9 and, potentially, amendment 7 have reached their sell-by date. The offer from my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset is serious and real: to come back, effectively, with a rewritten clause 9 which tells Parliament exactly what the Government need to do as we implement the withdrawal agreement in legislation.

I shall end this section of the speech with some unashamed flattery, as I look at the triumvirate of titans on the Treasury Front Bench: three Ministers for whom I have the utmost admiration, including my constituency neighbour, the Solicitor General, my hon. and learned Friend the Member for South Swindon (Robert Buckland). They have heard this debate, and they are thoughtful and effective Ministers and I am sure they will have taken the mood at least from a certain part of this House about the brilliant opportunity for a solution to this Gordian knot.

The second part of my remarks, which will be as brief as possible because so much time has been taken up, is about amendment 300, standing in my name, which has the largest number of signatories of any amendment to this Bill. I am astonished that only four of them are Conservatives, but I think that reflects the standing in which I am held in my own party; I could not even persuade the leader of the rebel alliance, my right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield, to sign my Euratom amendment, and I really do not want my right hon. Friend the Member for West Dorset to talk about bad law when he comes to look at it.

The point of the amendment is simply to put the issue of Euratom under parliamentary scrutiny, and I note the comments made by the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire (Dr Whitford) in her excellent speech about the importance of Euratom in our medical life, ​and her own real experience at the chalkface in her extraordinary work. So Euratom is not an esoteric issue; it affects us all. It has been debated in the House before and I shall not spend a lot of time talking about how extraordinarily successful our nuclear industry is. My own personal interest comes from the fact that although Culham is not in my constituency, many of my constituents work there, and it depends on Euratom. I thank the Government for last week’s announcement of £86 million of investment in Culham for two new centres of excellence for the testing of components and for fuel storage; that is a real vote of confidence in Culham.

The point, of course, about Euratom is that nobody voted to leave it. Euratom was not in the European Union Referendum Act 2015, and was not on the ballot; it falls under a separate treaty. So the British people did not have a chance to have a referendum on our membership of Euratom.

The reason we are leaving Euratom is technical. Legal advice, which we have not seen, deems Euratom to be inextricably linked to the European Union and therefore an article 15 notice would be defective if it did not include Euratom. However, the mood of the Government and, I think, the House is that we are leaving Euratom on a technicality, not because we object to being governed by Euratom. There is no mood among the general population to leave Euratom as far as I am aware, and I think that only one hon. Member has managed to stand up and say that there is a plausible reason to leave it.

The implications of leaving Euratom, some of which have already been identified the hon. Member for Central Ayrshire, also extend to our nuclear industry, which provides 20% of this country’s energy. At the moment, we simply cannot move nuclear material around unless we are members of Euratom. So when we leave Euratom, we will have to have, in effect, a Euratom-style arrangement to allow us to move goods around. “Goods” can mean a variety of things. We imagine highly radioactive canisters being moved in special trains at the dead of night, but the movement of goods also involves mundane things such as heat pumps, motors, spares and other components, all of which, because they are part of the civil nuclear ecosystem, have to be moved under the terms of these treaties.

Euratom covers not only objects but the freedom of movement of people. We depend on our membership of Euratom for a nuclear power industry, for our medical industry—isotopes have been mentioned—and for the ​Joint European Torus at Culham, where Britain has done extraordinarily well. Huge advantages have been made in robotics and other sciences, and there are £500 million-worth of contracts already in ITER, the successor to Culham, thanks to the expertise we have built up here.

Let me make it clear that, throughout this process of our technical move to leave Euratom, Ministers have been absolutely brilliant in engaging with me and other hon. Members who share my concerns and have similar interests. They have bent over backwards to do what they can to accommodate our concerns. Looking forward, we need Ministers to give us clarity on a number of issues. We need nuclear co-operation agreements with other countries—the United States, Canada, Australia, Japan and possibly the European Union as well—and they need to be in place by March 2019. These agreements can be complex, and they can depend on the legislation in other legislatures. For example, the US Congress would have to pass a new nuclear co-operation agreement with us. We will also need a new safeguards regime, and this will come in through the Nuclear Safeguards Bill as a contingency, although I understand that the Government might want Euratom to continue to cover the safeguarding role.

The hon. Lady (Rachel Reeves - Leeds West) and her Committee have published an excellent 45-page report this morning, and I read it when it was hot off the press. It makes all the points that I want to make about the need to have as close an association as possible with Euratom, particularly in regard to safeguarding. What worries me about the Office for Nuclear Regulation is that, while the will and desire are there, this is another job that cannot be done overnight. It will need to triple the number of inspectors over the next four years, for example. Training a qualified inspector takes between 12 and 18 months; it takes five years to train an unqualified one. The ONR already needs another £10 million just for recruitment and IT, not even for specialist equipment. Some people argue—in fact, I think it is in the BEIS Committee report—that the specialist equipment at Sellafield, which is currently owned by Euratom, would have to be replaced, at a cost of £150 million.

We need clarity on the nuclear co-operation agreements, clarity on the safeguarding regime and who will conduct it, and clarity on whether we will reach International Atomic Energy Agency standards, which the ONR is currently aiming for as a realistic target—Euratom’s ​standards are higher. We also need free movement of nuclear workers in the broadest sense, and I am not talking about nuclear scientists; I mean the people who actually build nuclear power stations. For example, I think the UK has 2,700 registered steel fixers, half of which will be needed to build Hinkley Point C. That kind of specialist construction worker will come under the category of nuclear workers. As for the future of our continued international co-operation, a particularly live issue at the moment is the extension of funding for the Joint European Torus, which is currently going through the Council for the fiscal years 2019-20, and the European Union is keen to get clarity from the Government on our intentions.

The amendment’s purpose is to provide parliamentary scrutiny of the important process of replicating the effect of a treaty that nobody wanted to leave. My challenge to Ministers is to engage with the amendment, and I look forward to hearing from the Dispatch Box whether the amendment is acceptable or whether they have an alternative way of providing the House with a strategy. On that note, after 14 minutes, I will sit down."