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Clause 5—(Powers As To Purchase Of Land, Carrying Out Works, Etc)

Volume 526: debated on Thursday 29 April 1954

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6.45 p.m.

I beg to move, in page 6, line 14, at end, to insert:

(3) It shall be the duty of the Authority to secure that no ionising radiations from anything on any premises occupied by them, or from any waste discharged (in whatever form) on or from any premises occupied by thorn, cause any hurt to any person or any damage to any property, whether he or it is on any such premises or elsewhere.
This Amendment, I hope, carries out satisfactorily an undertaking I gave in the course of the Committee stage to table an Amendment to ensure that there should be an absolute liability for damage done by the escape of radio-activity from the premises of the Authority, subject to such defence as contributory negligence would allow. It is only because of the special nature and unique character of the work done by the Authority, and also because of the vast scale on which they handle radioactive substances, that we accepted this obligation. It is unnecessary in my view, as a matter of law, to make any reference to contributory negligence in this Amendment, because under the decisions as they now stand in the House of Lords that defence is open if there were contributory negligence, either as a complete answer to the claim or as a partial answer.

I should at this stage refer to the Amendment to the Amendment, to leave out from the proposed Amendment the word "ionising." I am afraid that I do not understand enough about this subject to appreciate the precise significance of this Amendment to the Amendment. If the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison) could refer to this Amendment in the course of moving the next Amendment to the Amendment, I think that would meet the case.

I beg to move, as an Amendment to the proposed Amendment, at the end, to add "or to any right."

I am very grateful, and so are my hon. Friends, to the Government, and in particular to the hon. and learned Gentleman the Solicitor-General, for having met or intended to meet so completely the point which we put at an earlier stage. I agree with him completely that this is exceedingly dangerous and special material, and it is right and proper that there should be a comprehensive statement of right in the matter. I accept from the hon. and learned Gentleman what he said just now, that he intends it to be quite comprehensive, but we should like to help him to help ourselves and to help any prospective victims by making quite certain that the intention has been fully carried out.

The first point is ionising radiations. I am very uncertain what the difference is between an ionising radiation and some other kind of radiation that is not ionising. Being a cautious person, I should like to be quite certain that damage caused by any kind of radiation out of an atomic energy factory, which I strongly suspect to be a dangerous place emitting nasty things, should be something against which we should have full protection.

I do not suppose that the hon. and learned Gentleman has any more detailed scientific information of his own than I have, but I feel certain that on seeing a certain Amendment on the Order Paper he has made inquiries. I hope he will be able to assure us that the word "ionising" is necessary, that it does not limit in any way the kind of matter or waste or radiation or emanation, whatever it may be, in respect of which liability is assumed, and that in fact it serves some useful purpose.

The next point relates to property. I may as well say at once that I met my hon. Friend the Member for Whitehaven (Mr. F. Anderson) outside the Chamber a little time ago. He looked at me and said, "What about cows?" and I said that I thought cows were property. He expressed a little doubt on the subject, and caused me to wonder whether there had been any cattle stealing up in White-haven, That is a matter that I know nothing about. I hope that, for his information and for the information of his constituents and other people who may be affected, the hon. and learned Gentleman will be able to assure us that any agricultural property of that kind is covered by the word "property."

Then my hon. Friend looked at me and said "What about fish?" to which he subsequently added black-headed gulls, for there appears to be a special sanctuary for these birds—why they should be entitled to sanctuary I am not so clear—in his constituency. The question whether this damage to property is going to cover damage to a bird sanctuary, to black-headed gulls and to fish, is one upon which I feel sure the hon. and learned Gentleman will be able to reassure us with his customary confidence and certainty.

But as regards the fish, I should like to ask whether he is quite certain that fish are property and whether a fishery is property. There appears to be a little doubt about it. Of course, the mere fact that we are entitled to have the same quantity of water coming down the stream is not quite enough. We have to deal not only with the rights of owners of the banks of the stream, but of those other people who have what the hon and learned Gentleman will recognise at once—a fishery in gross not appurtenant to nor appendant in any way upon riparian rights.

It is worse than that. The hon. and learned Gentleman knows quite well the habits of salmon and sea trout. Having gone down to the sea and there cleansed themselves, they hang about at the mouth of a river in Scotland as they do in England, and wait their time to go up the river. Of course, very serious damage may be caused to the owner of a fishery, the owner of fishing rights in a river, if some of these ionised radiations or other radiations have a go at the salmon and the sea trout before ever they come up. It is rather difficult to say that they are property at that stage. For all these reasons, I am moving this Amendment to add some words regarding rights.

If the hon. and learned Gentleman can assure us with all the authority of his office that all the cases that I have mentioned, and not merely the cows—they are much the easiest—but the black-headed gulls, the salmon and the sea trout wherever found, are to be protected in a case of this sort, we should not wish to press the Amendment. But it seems to me at any rate doubtful whether they are covered by the word "property." I should think that a reference to rights could do no possible harm and could only make quite certain that the protective intentions of the Government were going to be carried out.

As soon as I saw the Amendment on the Order Paper to leave out the word "ionising," I made the most diligent inquiries to find out exactly why that phrase had been used. The first thing I found was that "ionising" radiation had been used in the Radioactive Substances Act passed in 1948 by the late Government, and no doubt used with the approval of the hon. and learned Member for Kettering (Mr. Mitchison).

The next reason advanced to me for the use of the word "ionising" was that there are other forms of radiation—radiation, for instance, by heat, noise and light—which are quite outside the scope of the undertaking which I gave and outside the scope of what we are trying to deal with today.

I then made inquiries to find out whether "ionising" radiation was the correct phrase for describing what we are trying to deal with here. I have ascertained that it is, because a nuclear energy establishment can cause damage in a way that closely resembles X-ray damage. In X-ray damage radiation passes through living organisms or matter and causes ionisation. The ionisation may arise directly in the case of charged articles—that is to say, alpha particles, beta particles, protons and mesons, or indirectly in the case of neutral particles—that is to say, X-rays, gamma rays neutrons, and neutral mesons.

Where the radiation acts indirectly, it does so by releasing charged particles—alpha particles, protons or electrons—in matter, and the actual damage is caused by those secondary particles, the radiation of which acts in exactly the same way as X-rays; they act in that indirect way. The radiation of X-rays is called, and always has been called, ionising radiation, so, quite apart from the precedent set in the 1948 Act, the term is technically the correct one to use.

7.0 p.m.

I hope that the hon. and learned Gentleman will be satisfied as I was, as a result of these inquiries, about protons, mesons and things of that sort, and that "ionising radiations" was the correct term to use in this provision.

There are two very tall chimneys at Sellafield. May I ask whether the kind of dust that appears to come from those chimneys is covered by what are called ionising radiations.

I would think it was, but which particular kind of particles are concerned I cannot tell the hon. Member.

I turn to the next point, the use of the word "property," and the Amendment to the proposed Amendment which seeks to add "or to any right." I would say to the hon. Member for Whitehaven (Mr. F. Anderson) that under the law of England cows are property; that is to say, they are owned and are not normally wild or savage beasts, and are reduced into possession. Black-headed gulls are not normally owned; they do not normally constitute property, so no one would have a right of action under this Clause in respect of damage suffered by black-headed gulls not owned by anybody.

The position with regard to fish is somewhat similar, because fish in the sea are not owned by anybody. With regard to damage done to fish in the estuaries by the release of waste into a river, the power to prevent that happening will be under the control exercised over the character of the effluents which is already provided for in the Bill. Fish in a river in this country—I can speak only for the law of England—do not belong to anyone until they are caught, so there will be no right of action in that form for damage to fish in the river, but I am quite sure that in England—I emphasise the words "in England"—any riparian owner will have the same rights as he now has in respect of the pollution of the river, whether pollution by sewage effluent or an effluent from one of the works of the Authority.

If the pollution destroys fish in the river, that will enable the extent of the injury suffered to be established, and enable the person concerned to obtain, as can be done in relation to sewage pollution, an injunction and damages so far as pollution of a river is concerned. Therefore, in my view the position in England in regard to a remedy will be precisely the same as it is in relation to ordinary pollution, and the right of individuals will be the same as in relation to ordinary pollution.

The riparian owner can sue. Whether or not the right of action vests in someone who has taken over the fishing rights for a short time depends on the nature of the arrangement made between the parties; but that someone can sue there can be no doubt. Therefore, in my view, in England the position with regard to fishing is satisfactory under this Measure.

So far as Scotland is concerned, of course I cannot express any view on the law there. I can assure the hon. and learned Member, however, that we are making inquiries in order to make quite sure that it is put beyond all doubt that the position in relation to Scotland is such as we on both sides of the House wish to see; namely, to ensure that there is this absolute duty, as declared in the Amendment which I have moved, and that there are equivalent if not precisely similar rights in respect of pollution of a river by a radio-active effluent or an effluent containing ionising radiations as there is in respect of an effluent containing sewage.

May I ask the Solicitor-General one question? He is content, I think, to leave rights arising out of damage to fish on quite a different footing from other rights because they are to depend on the control of the Ministries and on whatever common law rights there may be. They are not really covered, if I understood him rightly, by this statement. Would the hon. and learned Gentleman look at the statement again, and consider whether it is not possible to extend to these rights—a comparatively small class, but they may be important—the same special protection as has been given in the case of other things, such as the cattle to which the hon. and learned Gentleman referred? It is a complicated and difficult question, and I should not feel justified in pressing my Amendment to the proposed Amendment, but would the hon. and learned Gentleman consider that point?

We will certainly look at that, but as at present advised I am satisfied there is no need for what the hon. and learned Gentleman suggests, because there is the very strict right which the riparian owner has of receiving water which is not adversely affected by effluent having been put into it. That right being in existence, and applied to an effluent from an atomic energy 'plant, would, in my view, give quite as entirely adequate a protection as a specific reference to the rights of riparian owners or fishery owners in this provision. I will certainly look at the point again. I have told the hon. and learned Gentleman that we are looking at it in relation to Scotland.

In view of the undertaking which has been so kindly given by the hon. and learned Gentleman, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the Amendment to the proposed Amendment.

Amendment to the proposed Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment agreed to.

I beg to move, in page 6, line 22, at the end, to insert:

"after consultation, in each case, with such local authorities, river boards, local fisheries committees or other public or local authorities as appear to the Minister in question to be proper to be consulted by him."
The Amendment concerns consultation with local authorities about the effects of the discharge of effluent, or rather a form of radio-active waste, from any of the atomic energy plants. During the Committee stage it was felt, and we had sympathy with the view, that where possible the local authorities should be consulted. But we came up against the difficulty that local authorities and other public bodies, such as river boards, do not at present possess the skill for making, or the equipment by which to make tests to see whether those discharges are dangerous or not. We felt, therefore, that in this transitional stage the right thing to do would be to place squarely on the two Government Departments—the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and the Ministry of Agriculture—the responsibility to see that the public comes to no harm.

None the less, there are cases in which it is a very good thing to consult the local authorities or other bodies, and we have done so where it has seemed obviously an advantage, such as—in connection with the effluent from Harwell—the Metropolitan Water Board and the Thames Conservancy. I have gone as far as I can to meet the very understandable desire of hon. Members that local authorities should be brought into consultation as much as possible and yet to preserve the position that the ultimate responsibility for protecting the public from radio-active waste must remain with the Government for the time being.

Hon. Gentlemen will see that the Bill provides that for a period of seven years, or less, as by Order in Council it is possible to make it less, we are proposing this unusual form of placing the whole responsibility on to the central government. I therefore hope that this Amendment, which provides that there shall be consultation
"with such local authorities, river boards, local fisheries committees or other public or local authorities as appear to the Minister in question to be proper to be consulted by him,"
will be found satisfactory.

I wish to express our thanks on this side for the accommodation which the Minister has thought fit to make in putting down these words. I feel that it will serve a very useful purpose. As one who has experience of a very big undertaking, with miles and miles of pipeline in the Sellafield area, I think it essential that the various authorities should be consulted before anything serious is done.

Amendment agreed to.

I beg to move, in page 7, line 3, at the end, to insert:

For the avoidance of doubt, it is hereby declared that the restrictions imposed by this subsection on the Authority are in addition to and not in derogation of their duty under the last preceding subsection, and that the presumption required to be made by paragraph (d) of this subsection operates only for the particular purposes mentioned in that paragraph.
This Amendment is merely to avoid doubt and to make it clear that the effect of subsection (3) is not to cut down the obligation which is now carried into the Bill by the Amendment which I recently moved and which the House agreed to.

Amendment agreed to.