The Nuclear Safeguards Bill comes back to Parliament this week for further deliberation, following the passing of cross-party amendments in the Lords ministerial concessions in the Commons. The legislation is necessary because of the government’s decision to quit the EU’s longstanding nuclear treaty – Euratom. As a result, the Bill deals with nuclear non-proliferation and ensuring that post-Brexit the UK is able to illustrate it is a responsible international state.
The best option of course, would be for us to stick with Euratom, or at the very least stay closely associated. On the legislation before us however, and as ever with Lords scrutiny and revision, the primary focus was about making it fit for purpose.
From the outset, it was clear that Ministers wanted a fast-track approach – framing the legislation as technical in nature. To have taken them at face value however, would have prevented full consideration of how the Bill related to wider policy issues, including medical resources, research and development, and trade. Or indeed of our concern that the proposed Office of Nuclear Responsibility has little time to recruit and train inspectors to Euratom standards.
The wider debate over Brexit continues to be binary and fraught, weighted down by opposing sides and slanging matches. Vital details, however, cut across this and we and others have worked together to make changes to this Bill.
Work in the Lords has stopped Ministers being given unchecked ‘Henry VIII’ powers – with a time limit now placed on those powers.
The government will also have to be more transparent about progress and deal with our concerns about the safeguarding regime. Ministers accepted the need to report formally to Parliament and have since accepted our voted amendment that such reporting must reflect on wider issues, specifically research and development, and trade.
We remain however, up against some pretty severe time constraints. International agreements are a legal necessity if the UK is to continue trading as a responsible state post-Brexit. And there are serious concerns over our ability to get these agreements signed and ratified. Industry is facing a potential cliff-edge moment and the government has so far been either wilfully ignoring this fact or relying on a wing and a prayer.
Our other key win was to give industry some assurances on nuclear co-operation. Common sense in both reason and design, our cross-party amendment ensures that Euratom obligations will continue if vital international agreements are not in place by exit day.
In suggesting changes to legislation, the Lords give MPs and Ministers time to think again about legislation before it hits the statute book. It’s been a bit of a slog but with the government having now seen the light we might just be able to make this Bill work on its own terms. Whether it works in practice however, is another story.
Lord Grantchester is a Labour peer and shadow energy minister
Baroness Featherstone is a Lib Dem peer and energy and climate change spokesperson
Lord Broers is a crossbench peer in the House of Lords