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Dalgety Bay Radiation

Volume 559: debated on Wednesday 6 March 2013

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Greg Hands.)

I am grateful to you, Mr Speaker, for the opportunity to speak on behalf of the patient but hard-pressed and increasingly angry residents of Dalgety Bay in Fife in my constituency. They are residents who discovered 18 months ago that the houses that were built 50 years ago were built near or above radiation-contaminated particles. They are residents who in the last 18 months have suffered the fencing off of their local beach. At the same time, their amenities have been cut, with some now not able to be used. They are increasingly looking to the Ministry of Defence and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency for answers and, indeed, action. They wish for the radiation-contaminated particles to be removed. They wish for a remedial action plan and clean-up plan to be agreed for the Dalgety Bay beach area, and they wish to be reassured not only about the amenity of their area, their house price values and their ability to use the beach, but about the safety and health of the people in the area.

I have asked for this debate specifically because of the advice given in the last few weeks by the Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment—COMARE—which has published a report on Dalgety Bay. In its view, action to remedy and clean up the Dalgety Bay beach area has to be taken as quickly as possible. Residents in Dalgety Bay are increasingly angry because on other sites, particularly Almondbank in Perth—the Minister will know about this and may be able to comment on it in his response—action has been instructed and taken and is now under way, while we still await any clean-up of Dalgety Bay, any decision on how it will be funded and, indeed, any decision on who is responsible for the clean-up.

I thank my right hon. Friend for giving way. Has he had any indication as to why there has been such a delay in taking up this very important issue on behalf of his constituents?

I will come to that. It is incontestable—indeed, nobody disputes this fact—that about 50 years ago, radiation-contaminated materials were dumped in the Dalgety Bay area. Nobody disputes the fact, either, that in the past few years, 3,400 particles of radiation-contaminated materials have been collected in the Dalgety Bay area by scientists and others, who have seen coastal erosion bring many of these materials to the surface. Nobody disputes the fact that the safety risks associated with some of the finds are at a level that has made radiation experts increasingly worried. Indeed, five finds were above 76 megabecquerels, which, according to all radiation experts, constitutes a hazard that has to be dealt with.

The problem is that, even though we have all these finds and materials, the action that we have expected to be taken on Dalgety Bay is still to happen. Does the Minister agree that we need action and that the Ministry of Defence and the Scottish Environment Protection Agency should now agree that the previously identified programme of work should proceed as quickly as possible? The medical evidence says that action should be taken as quickly as possible, but the process of dealing with this radiation contamination has slowed down to the point where people are increasingly worried about whether the agreed timetables will be upheld.

As I have said, the reason why I have called for this debate is the medical evidence. If the Minister examines the medical evidence that has been provided to him and the residents of Dalgety Bay, he will see that the committee looked carefully at the health risks involved. Fortunately for the people in Dalgety Bay, the committee discovered that, although the radiation material was most likely to cause head or brain cancer, there was no higher incidence of those conditions in Dalgety Bay. It is also fortunate that, although rates of liver cancer are higher in the area, it is not usually identified with these radiated materials.

The committee said that there are three reasons why action should be taken as quickly as possible, however, and recommended the quick implementation of a remediation action plan. One reason was the long life of the discovered materials, which means that they will have a substantial life if nothing is done about them. Secondly, the committee was worried about the dynamic process whereby, as a result of coastal erosion, the materials were coming to the surface in Dalgety Bay and posing a health hazard to the population. The third reason is the size and scale of the materials. Not only have 3,400 materials been discovered and examined, but such materials are coming to the surface at a rate of about 1,000 a year. I suggest to the Minister that he must now take seriously the size, dynamic nature and long life of the materials located in Dalgety Bay.

I think that it was because of those things that the Ministry of Defence agreed in February last year to what was called an investigatory plan. The Defence Infrastructure Organisation agreed a timetable for action to be taken in the Dalgety Bay area. There was to be a review of the historical situation and of coastal processes. Then there was to be an investigatory report on the physical elements that made up the problem in the area. Then there was to be an assessment of that report, after which there was to be a review of the risks entailed. Then there was to be a set of options, which would be laid before us, on what needed to be done to remove the contamination. Then it was foreseen that there would be a plan that would deliver the area from the contamination.

That was set down clearly in a document that the Minister must have before him this evening: the investigation plan of the Defence Infrastructure Organisation. Unfortunately, that plan has not been observed. The coastal processes report, which was promised in October, did not arrive. By the time I called this debate, there was no indication that it would arrive. I understand that it was sent to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency on Sunday of this week, but it was five months late, at a time when we are asking that action be taken immediately because of the health risks in the area.

Work on the investigatory report itself was to have been finished in November; again there is work to be done by the Ministry of Defence, but that report is not yet available, even though it was promised by the end of January. The investigatory assessment has obviously not been done, because the investigatory report has not been completed. Many other promises have been made. We were told that between February and May, we would have the study of the options and the risk assessment work that had been done. We would then have the summary of what needed to be done as a whole, and an agreement on that. That timetable has now been completely disrupted by the failure to produce the initial reports.

I have to say to the Minister that it is the Ministry of Defence that is responsible for these delays. The coastal processes report is a Ministry of Defence report that is going to be put to the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. I see him looking at his civil servants. They will confirm that that is the case. It was agreed that the Ministry of Defence should do the investigatory report, not the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. Again, that has not been produced. It is now long delayed because of the Ministry of Defence’s failure to complete its work. The investigatory assessment was also to have been done by the Ministry of Defence and, as I understand it, that has not been done either. Next Monday, we have a meeting of the review group, the Dalgety Bay Forum, yet none of the reports except the coastal processes report seems to be available at this stage.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend not only on securing this debate but on the leadership that he has shown on this issue in his community. He will obviously be aware that Helen Eadie and Fife council are backing his calls for action. Does he think that the Ministry of Defence should listen not only to him, as a Member of Parliament, but to the council and to the local MSP, who are all backing his call?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. This is a real problem.

I have a letter from the Minister of State, Ministry of Defence, the right hon. Member for Rayleigh and Wickford (Mr Francois)—not the Minister who is replying to the debate—in response to my raising the question of radiation. In his letter, the Minister says:

“Correspondence should be addressed to SEPA as the Agency, and not MOD”.

The Ministry of Defence has failed to produce the report. It has failed to produce the investigation. It has not yet produced the investigatory assessment. At the same time, many people regard it as the initial polluter. For that Minister to say to a Member of Parliament that correspondence should be addressed to SEPA as the agency and not to the MOD is an abrogation of the Ministry’s responsibility in this matter.

I put it to the Minister that if he was writing to the chairman of his local council or to a constituent who had raised questions about the health of constituents as a result of contamination identified with the Ministry of Defence, and if the Ministry had not produced the necessary reports, he would have to be very careful about telling the chairman of his council or any other representative official that correspondence on such a matter should not be addressed to the Ministry of Defence. I hope that he will apologise for that when he speaks this evening.

The problem is deeper, however, and that is why I have had to come back again to raise the matter in the House. What has been omitted over the last 18 months is this fiction: the Ministry of Defence has refused to accept responsibility for the contamination of the area. The Ministry has persisted in saying that it does not yet accept that it was the original polluter in the area. We have evidence on the website of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency:

“It is thought that the contamination originates from the residue of radium coated instrument panels from military aircraft…The radium used by the MoD was primarily in luminescent paints.”

Then we have the letter sent to me by the Scottish Environment Protection Agency, which states:

“Works to identify other potential polluters at Dalgety Bay is continuing. However, to date, our investigation has not identified any other persons whom may have introduced the radium to the location.”

When this matter kicked off 18 months ago, the Ministry of Defence asked the Scottish Environment Protection Agency for a report and asked who was responsible. The agency was very clear indeed about who was responsible—the Ministry of Defence. The MOD chose not to accept this advice and it has been looking for landowners, developers, builders, residents and other participants in the area who might have been responsible for its pollution, but there is absolutely no doubt about it. It comes back not just to a legal responsibility, as I will show later, but a moral responsibility for the MOD to accept that it dumped the material in the first place, that the material is there because it came from MOD aircraft and that the pollution is the direct effect of having dumped it there. Refusing to accept responsibility is angering people in Dalgety Bay, with good cause.

Let me give a final reason why the Minister should stand before the House now and say that he will work closely with the Scottish Environment Protection Agency to get a remediation action plan under way so that work is completed by the end of the year. It is an irony that just at the time that the Ministry of Defence is refusing to accept responsibility for the contamination that exists in Dalgety Bay, a mile away at Rosyth dockyard, the MOD launched a consultation exercise two years ago and is examining whether the seven decommissioned submarines, four of them Polaris submarines, should be cut up and stored in the Rosyth area for years upon years. How is the MOD going to persuade the residents of Rosyth a mile away from Dalgety Bay that it should be entrusted with the safety and health of the local residents in decommissioning, breaking up and then storing submarines in Rosyth, when it cannot persuade the people of Dalgety Bay that the safety and health needs of the residents there are being taken seriously and it even refuses to admit its responsibility for the contamination while at the same time delaying the necessary remedial work?

I urge the Minister to be very careful in what he says to the House this evening about what the Ministry of Defence is going to do on this matter. He will say that the Ministry has tried its best, spent money on investigations and is monitoring the work. I well know the speech he is going to make, but the fact is that it has not produced the reports in time, not admitted responsibility for the pollution, not agreed the options for cleaning it up and not yet agreed to fund the remedial work.

The people of Fife county, whom I represent, have for years been servants of the Ministry of Defence. Rosyth dockyard and Rosyth naval base were set up 100 years ago, and 15,000 people work there. They refitted the ships and the submarines in war time and in peace time, and they have been loyal in support of the defence needs of this nation. They have done well by the Ministry of Defence; it is time that the Ministry of Defence does well by the people of Fife.

I congratulate the right hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath (Mr Brown) on securing a debate on Dalgety Bay once again. We last discussed the subject in November 2011, and I visited the bay on 31 January last year. I walked on the beach and met local residents in the sailing club and heard about its problems. I also met Professor Curran, the chief executive of the Scottish Environment Protection Agency. I understand furthermore that the right hon. Gentleman had a meeting with the Secretary of State for an hour and more on this particular matter, so I do not think it is fair to say, as he suggests it is, that my Department has ignored the issues at Dalgety Bay, as we have not. Neither, for that matter, have we ignored the concerns of the local community and nor has the Ministry of Defence abdicated its responsibilities or sought to delay a decision on who is the polluter. I welcome the opportunity to explain how the MOD has actively been supporting SEPA over the last year or so.

The Department has actively supported SEPA in fulfilling its statutory duty to inspect the area of concern. I am afraid that this is more than can be said of other parties who have had an interest in either the former Royal Naval Air Station Donibristle or indeed in the foreshore. That includes the developers mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman, who have some responsibilities in this regard. Similarly, we have not acted inconsistently in our approach to sites that we formerly owned across Scotland.

The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Almondbank, which is a going concern. It is still operating, and we have a commercial contract which states that we will hand it over after clearing up contamination. That is rather different from the situation in Dalgety Bay.

Is the Minister saying that the only reason he is taking no action on Dalgety Bay is that he has no such commercial contract in that instance?

I will explain why we dispute much of what the right hon. Gentleman has said in a moment, but there is one thing that I particularly dispute. I know that when he was Prime Minister, and indeed when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, he was very profligate with public money. He was very willing to spend it, and then to leave us in the appalling financial condition in which we now find ourselves. I must tell the right hon. Gentleman that we take a rather more parsimonious and sensible view than I think he did when it comes to the spending of our constituents’ money.

My right hon. Friend mentioned the issue of aircraft carriers. Does the Minister regret blowing £100 million on two U-turns?

I think that you would rule me out of order if I pursued that point, Mr. Speaker, but, as the hon. Gentleman knows, it was not the actions of a Conservative Government that led to the rather ridiculous contracts for the aircraft carriers, which we have been trying very hard to tie down in many ways.

SEPA is the lead regulator in Scotland in relation to all matters pertaining to radioactively contaminated land. Notwithstanding that, my Department has undertaken voluntarily to assist SEPA and to deliver the necessary site investigation. That is in addition to the monthly beach monitoring, and it demonstrates how seriously we are taking the matter.

It is worth repeating that, in the opinion of the Health Protection Agency, the risk to beach users remains very low. The agency is on record as stating that the risk of contracting a fatal cancer is less that 1 in 100 million, which is significantly lower than the level that the Health and Safety Executive considers to be the upper limit for an acceptable level of annual risk for members of the public. Recent investigations of the incidences of cancers in the Dalgety Bay area appear to support the HPA’s assessment. I note the recommendation of the Committee on Medical Aspects of Radiation in the Environment—which was mentioned by the right hon. Gentleman—that remediation should proceed, but this is a matter for SEPA, and it needs to be reviewed in the context of the risk posed.

Is the Minister saying that this is some kind of modern hysteria, and that there is no real issue on the Dalgety Bay foreshore?

I am saying that the risk to health is extremely low. That is not my judgment, because I am not a scientist; it is the judgment of the Health Protection Agency and others.

As part of the monthly monitoring, contractors working for my Department have recovered and removed radioactive items from the foreshore, thereby ensuring that any potential risk is as low as reasonably practicable. We adopted that precautionary approach because it was consistent with the advice given by the Health Protection Agency, and provided a suitable safeguard while SEPA undertook its inspection. However, there appears to be a concerted effort in the media to circumvent SEPA’s statutory inspection by raising anxieties unnecessarily and calling for remediation. The press reporting of the recent investigations of cancers in the area appears to be a particularly egregious example. When I visited the area, the sailing club informed me that it seemed likely that it would have to cancel a regatta owing to heightened concern arising from media reports that did not reflect the low level of risk, and that people were unlikely to visit because they had read those reports.

The proper course of action is to allow SEPA to complete its work and form an opinion on whether any of the land meets the statutory definition of radioactively contaminated land, on what needs to be done, and on who is responsible.

We should bear it in mind that the royal naval air station at Donibristle was closed in 1959, 54 years ago, when the right hon. Gentleman and I were in short trousers and some Members of Parliament had not even been born. The publicly available records show an organised and systematic rundown of the various site activities, with a focus on the salvage and sale of assets. As the right hon. Gentleman will know, the statutory regime requires that, if land is deemed to be radioactively contaminated, it is necessary to consider all the actions of later parties which may have contributed to or caused contamination. The subsequent redevelopment for housing as part of the Dalgety Bay new town, together with the construction of what is now the boat park and sailing club, would have involved significant demolition, site clearance, infilling and land reconfiguration. This is supported by contemporary photographs and plans. Indeed, a refuse tip appears at what is now the headland in the 1964 Ordnance Survey plan, which was approximately five years after the developer took over the land. It is the areas of the headland and boat park where radium has been identified, and that could go some way to explaining either the current or historical occurrence of such material on the beach.

The presence of demolition material, including bricks, roofing material and other debris, is consistent with the demolition and site clearance that preceded the redevelopment of the Donibristle site. There is no documentary evidence that the MOD attempted to clear the land through demolition.

My officials have previously raised concerns as to whether “designation” of the land is appropriate. While I fully recognise that the very mention of radioactivity gives cause for concern among some of the right hon. Gentleman’s constituents, the current view held by the Health Protection Agency remains, as I have already stated on at least two occasions, that the risk is very low.

Nevertheless, given that items, often referred to as “particles”, with a relatively high level of radioactivity were found beneath the beach in October and November 2011, the HPA felt there was a need for a detailed risk assessment. The comprehensive investigation undertaken by my Department, the results of which are to be released very soon, will enable SEPA to undertake a full and conclusive assessment.

Will, therefore, the investigation report, which is the basis on which SEPA will be able to make the decisions, be before the Dalgety Bay Forum when it meets next Monday? Otherwise, we will face considerable delays before this report can be examined. Will the Minister also accept that, despite all the information he is trying to give us, SEPA has already said its investigation has not indicated any other persons who may have introduced radium to the location?

First, there has indeed been a delay. One of the problems was with accessing some of the land, which delayed things. I understand that SEPA has yet to publish the analytical data, which delayed our factual report, but we are meeting with SEPA on 14 March, which will be next—

Yes, Thursday. Thank you, Mr Speaker. At that meeting we will hand over the factual report and discuss the way forward. I will not say that will take place on Monday, but it will take place next Thursday. [Interruption.] Indeed, it would be possible to move the meeting of the Dalgety Bay Forum.

So my officials have already agreed to meet SEPA on 14 March to ensure the prompt transfer of the factual findings. It will then be for SEPA to make its determination as to whether or not any land at Dalgety Bay meets the requirements for designation as radioactive contaminated land, based on all the scientific and technical evidence.

My officials have raised a number of concerns with SEPA in connection with its approach, in order to provide clarity on the MOD’s position and avoid any future misunderstanding. These included, for example, the lack of consideration of activities other than those of the MOD that could have caused, or knowingly permitted, the contamination to be present within the foreshore. SEPA confirmed that it was now carrying out an investigation to identify all the potential appropriate persons, should any land at Dalgety Bay be designated as radioactive contaminated land.

In conclusion, I am as keen as the right hon. Gentleman for the issue of contamination at Dalgety Bay to be resolved to the satisfaction of all concerned, and I do understand the concerns of his constituents—who would not be concerned? However, the risk remains very low.

The right hon. Gentleman contends that the MOD has a responsibility for remediation, but this is not his determination to make. I should point out that, perhaps, for some 13 years it could have been his determination to make, but he did not choose so to do. It is for the professionals at SEPA to establish the need for remediation and who is liable for the cost, based on a proper scientific and technical assessment. However, we have assisted, and will continue to assist SEPA in every way possible.

In closing, may I say how pleased I am to see the right hon. Gentleman in the House?

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.