Mark Leftly: To find someone ready to clean up Sellafield's mess, turn to the Lords

Westminster Outlook Lord Avebury was plain Eric Lubbock when he rose to political fame more than half a century ago. In March 1962, the 33-year-old descendant of the 18th-century Cambridge don and clergyman William Lubbock, sensationally seized the Orpington constituency in south-east London in what was the then Liberal Party's first by-election win in four years.

The Conservative Government was humiliated – a majority of nearly 15,000 became a 7,855 loss – and Mr Lubbock declared that there was "not a safe Tory seat in the country".

Not, as it turned out, his most accurate forecast, although the Prime Minister Harold Macmillan soon sacked half his Cabinet in the "Night of the Long Knives".

The term "Orpington Man" was born, describing a new type of classless voter who didn't automatically vote Tory or Labour out of blind, historical allegiance.

On losing his seat eight years later, Mr Lubbock came up with a worthy entry for any book of 20th-century British political quotation: "In 1962, the wise, far-seeing people of Orpington elected me as their member; in 1970, the fools threw me out."

However, he was soon back in Parliament, but as a member of the House of Lords having inherited the family baronetcy. At 85, Lord Avebury is still an astonishingly active peer (in fact, he was riding his bicycle to work until 7 October 2001, when he was hit by a motorist and hobbled to the red benches in order to wind-up a debate on Afghanistan; Baroness Shirley Williams forced him to go to hospital for what later turned out to be a ruptured colon).

Attacks on civilians by the Sudan air force, the immigration service's struggling IT systems, and the number of scrap-metal dealers who have recently gone out of business are among the incredibly diverse issues that are currently vexing this sprightly lord.

But what has particularly angered the trained engineer peer who answers his telephone as "Eric Avebury" is Cumbria's Sellafield, one of the world's most hazardous nuclear sites. The costs of cleaning-up what is, after all, only a 6 sq km site, have been put at an eye-watering £70bn, with many, many more billions expected to follow.

This week, the Public Accounts Committee issued a damning report into the performance of the private-sector consortium that runs Sellafield, Nuclear Management Partners. The cross-party committee of MPs demanded that the Nuclear Decommissioning Authority (NDA) terminate NMP's contract if timetables and budgets continue to be rendered worthless by endless delays and costs spiralling out of control.

The report follows the shock that accompanied last year's announcement that NMP was to be granted a five-year extension to its contract, given that nine of the 11 biggest projects needed to make Sellafield safe were a combined £2bn over budget last year.

Actually, let's stop calling it NMP for a second, as that acronym acts as camouflage; the companies that make up the roll call of shame are URS out of the US, France's Areva, and Britain's very own Amec.

Under the terms of the original deal signed in 2008, the NDA had the option of entrusting the clear-out and safe storage of radioactive sludge with these firms for 17 years. But there was effectively a break clause after five years, which meant 2013 was the ideal opportunity to boot them out and possibly even bring this horrendous job, involving more than 10,000 employees and more than 1,000 nuclear facilities, back into the state's hands.

That this opportunity wasn't taken provoked fury and disbelief. But what Lord Avebury wants to know is why the decision to reappoint this tri-national mess of a consortium was left with the NDA, which is, after all, a mere strategic authority. A nuclear clean-up that costs the Exchequer billions should be approved by ministers. In an answer to his Parliamentary question this week, Energy minister Baroness Sandip Verma argued that the extension was "an operational matter for the NDA".

"Scandal," huffs Lord Avebury.

Ministers did sign off the initial contract in 2008, but they should also have to approve a crucial decision at the break-point, given the amount of taxpayer money at stake, he argues.

While the rest of us have been trying to work out the "why" of the reappointment, this wise, highly experienced peer has actually uncovered a vital detail that should have been obvious: ministers have essentially absolved themselves of any responsibility or accountability for a decision that really is vital to the future of the UK.

Any failures at Sellafield over the next five years will have nothing to do – they can argue – with their judgement. This is arguably politically astute, but it's also an extraordinarily unbefitting way of treating public office.

Lord Avebury tells me he will now be "firing off" a letter to Ed Davey, the Energy Secretary who is a fellow Liberal Democrat, to draw attention to this oversight. He will want to know why Mr Davey, or at least one of his team, didn't insist on approving the latest deal: "Ministers should be called upon to explain themselves." That one's not a contender for a book of 21st-century political quotations; but while pithiness might have deserted Lord Avebury, an astute sense of the correct and proper way to govern Britain has not.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
sportWWE latest including Sting vs Triple H, Brock Lesnar vs Roman Reigns and The Undertaker vs Bray Wyatt
Arts and Entertainment
Louis Theroux: By Reason of Insanity takes him behind the bars again
tvBy Reason of Insanity, TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Cassetteboy's latest video is called Emperor's New Clothes rap
videoThe political parody genius duo strike again with new video
Arts and Entertainment
tvPoldark, TV review
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs Money & Business

Recruitment Genius: Retirement Coordinator - Financial Services

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: To provide a prompt, friendly and efficient se...

Recruitment Genius: Annuities / Pensions Administrator

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: You will be the first point of contact for all...

Ashdown Group: HR, Payroll & Benefits Officer - Altrincham - up to £24,000.

£18000 - £24000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: HR, Payroll & Benefits Of...

Ashdown Group: Learning and Development Programme Manager

£35000 - £38000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, int...

Day In a Page

Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

The only direction Zayn could go

We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

Spells like teen spirit

A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

Licence to offend in the land of the free

Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

From farm to fork in Cornwall

One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

Robert Parker interview

The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor
How to make your own Easter egg: Willie Harcourt-Cooze shares his chocolate recipes

How to make your own Easter egg

Willie Harcourt-Cooze talks about his love affair with 'cacao' - and creates an Easter egg especially for The Independent on Sunday
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef declares barbecue season open with his twist on a tradtional Easter Sunday lamb lunch

Bill Granger's twist on Easter Sunday lunch

Next weekend, our chef plans to return to his Aussie roots by firing up the barbecue
Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

Joe Marler: 'It's the way I think the game should be played'

The England prop relives the highs and lows of last Saturday's remarkable afternoon of Six Nations rugby
Cricket World Cup 2015: Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?

Cricket World Cup 2015

Has the success of the tournament spelt the end for Test matches?
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing