Inside Parliament: Gummer defends Thorp delay: - Minister's strong line on ozone layer - Pledge to publish edited Mates letters - European seats Bill overcomes hurdle

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Indy Politics
John Gummer made plain yesterday in his first Question Time outing as Secretary of State for the Environment that he intends to adopt the same high moral tone in defence of the ozone layer that he used to deploy on behalf of the British sausage during his years at the Ministry of Agriculture.

'I take a very strong view about the need for this generation not to destroy the next generation,' he said, as he assured MPs that he wanted to see the 'full rigour of the law' directed at firms that release ozone-damaging gases into the atmosphere.

Immediately after his move to the DoE, Mr Gummer alarmed environmentalists by wrongly attributing the hole in the ozone layer to emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2 ). Since then he has not only brushed up on his chlorofluorocarbons (it is CFCs that damage the ozone layer) but pleased the green lobby by delaying the start-up of the Thorp nuclear waste reprocessing plant at Sellafield.

Mr Gummer defended his decision to hold a further round of consultations, this time to consider weighty questions on the justification for the pounds 2.8bn facility. 'Frankly I am going to take my responsibilities as the House would want me to do. I shall take as little time as necessary to do the job properly. I will do it as quickly as possible, but I will not do it in a slapdash way. There are special interests pleading on both sides. My job is to try to uphold the public interest,' he said.

Dale Campbell-Savours, Labour MP for Workington, urged him to let British Nuclear Fuels commission uranium lines at the plant. Many jobs could be saved (redundancies were announced on Tuesday) and BNFL were prepared to pay the cost of decommissioning if, ultimately, the project could not go ahead.

Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General, much as expected, made a statement knocking down Michael Mates' allegations of impropriety by the Serious Fraud Office over the Nadir case. The Attorney agreed to publish letters between himself and Mr Mates, after editing, but his defence of the SFO was undermined by the revelation that last year one of its officers forged a letter or fax purporting to be from Sir David Steel, the former Liberal leader.

Raising the incident, Alex Carlile QC, Liberal Democrat MP for Montgomery, said no disciplinary proceedings 'of any meaning' had been carried out. 'The explanation given by the SFO for that outrageous forgery was an April Fool.'

Sir Nicholas maintained that the SFO carried out its work professionally and carefully. 'There was a very serious lapse from that standard in a grave error of misjudgement, about which I have aplogised personally to Sir David.' It was not a matter of dishonesty, but 'a stupid thing to do'. Much like giving a watch to a tycoon in trouble perhaps.

Mr Mates was not in the chamber for the statement. He would have appreciated the Attorney's dry observation that the former Northern Ireland minister had gone into a good deal of detail 'in his own way', but not the superior remarks of Sir Ivan Lawrence, practising Tory barrister and chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, who said: 'There is always a danger when backbenchers of all parties get carried away with their enthusiasm about some right or wrong that may exist in the judicial process, that at the end of day, what we will achieve is the pollution of the pure stream of justice.'

Opposition MPs, who hooted derision at Sir Ivan, clearly thought that another Tory, Richard Shepherd (Aldridge-Brownhills), was nearer the mark when he asked if allegations against an agency for which Sir Nicholas was responsible, were generally investigated by the agency itself. 'If so, is that the most satisfactory way of assuring public confidence? . . . Could it not be self-serving?'

It 'very often' was the case that agencies investigated themselves, Sir Nicholas said, in an instructive reply on the workings of what Mr Mates had repeatedly called 'the system'.

The Attorney told the House: 'In relation to the SFO, I went straight away to the director of the SFO (George Staple) and asked him to have these matters extremely carefully looked into.

'The director of the SFO is a very senior and independent public official. Just as his predecessor was a distinguished Queen's Counsel, now the Director of Public Prosecutions, he was a leading member and a senior partner of one of the largest and most highly respected firms of solicitors in the country. He did not come into his office to abuse his position and he is the person who can best instigate the investigation in this kind of case.'

Later, MPs gave a Second Reading to the European Parliamentary Elections Bill, dealing with an allocation of six more seats - five in England and one in Wales. It provided an opportunity for anti-Maastricht Tories to try to spike the Euro-works, complaining that the short-cut procedures for fixing boundaries were a further step 'weakening the traditional democratic safeguards of this country'. Meanwhile, in the Lords, their noble soulmates were vainly slugging away at the treaty legislation itself as the European Communities (Amendment) Bill completed its sixth and final day in committee.