AEA, Atomic Energy Authority, British Parliament, Chernobyl, democracy, Freedom of Information, government secrecy, government secrets, House of Commons, Khysthm, Ministers, nuclear energy, nuclear industry, nuclear power, nuclear waste, public debate, Sellafield, Tony Benn, UK, UK Parliament, USA, USSR, Windscale fire
Anthony Neil Wedgwood (Tony) Benn (3 April 1925 – 14 March 2014) was a Member of the British Parliament (MP) for 47 years between 1950 and 2001, and served as Minister of Technology (1966-1970), Secretary of State for Industry (1974-75) and for Energy (1975-79). https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tony_Benn Thus, he was a Member of Parliament during the Windscale fire of 10 October 1957.
Tony Benn speaking in the British Parliament:
“The real reason why I want to contribute to the debate is because of the nuclear industry, for which I had responsibility for many years. Recent events at Sellafield confirm what I learned by experience; even as a Minister–let alone a Member of Parliament–I was never told the truth by the nuclear industry. For example, I found out about the fire at Windscale–now called Sellafield–only when I visited Tokyo. My officials had never told me about it. When I asked them why they had not done so, they said, “It was before you were a Minister”.
When the Americans discovered that there had been an explosion at Khysthm, the major Soviet reprocessing plant, I was never told. I asked the chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority, “Why didn’t you tell me?” He replied, “We were told by the Central Intelligence Agency not to tell British Ministers, because it could create concern about the safety of nuclear power”. 5 April 2000, UK Parliament (See in context below.)
Tony Benn speaking about nuclear energy on DemocracyNow, March 10, 2006: “I learned from experience, it wasn’t cheap, with the cost of storage of nuclear waste and the research; it isn’t safe, because Chernobyl and Three Mile Island and Windscale and so on; and it wasn’t peaceful. But all the time it was motivated by the desire to build nuclear weapons.” https://miningawareness.wordpress.com/2015/03/12/former-labour-mp-tony-benn-on-how-britain-secretly-helped-israel-build-its-nuclear-arsenal/ (DemocracyNow.org)
From the British House of Commons-Hansard:
“5 Apr 2000 : Column 999
Mr. Tony Benn (Chesterfield): First, I congratulate the Members of the House on both sides who have fought this campaign. I regard this as the beginning of a recovery of power by the legislature in dealing with the Executive. This debate and its conclusion will be seen as very significant in the development of parliamentary democracy.
Of course, there have been some moves towards this. The Government of whom I was a Member introduced Green Papers to allow consultation. However, the Bill is a disappointment. The older I get, the more I realise how difficult past reforms were. I am not sure that the Home Secretary would encourage the publication of Hansard. He might well say–[Interruption.]–Hon. Members laugh, but there was a battle; Hansard was put in prison. I am not joking. The argument would be that it would not be in the public interest for the public to know what was said in Parliament.
We are approaching the heart of the democratic deficit. Ministers say, “The democratic deficit means that I must decide, not the House of Commons”. However, the fault line in democracy does not lie in what Ministers say. When we first arrive at the House as MPs, we all have to take an Oath of Allegiance to the Crown. As this is the High Court of Parliament, I always assumed that I should take an oath to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. That seems to be an appropriate oath for a Member approaching the High Court of Parliament. Privy Councillors take another oath. The truth is that, at that moment, the Executive, in the form of Ministers, are standing against Parliament and the public interest. That is what the matter is really about.
Ministers are often kept in the dark. When I was in the Cabinet, I once said that I wished we had freedom of information for Cabinet Ministers–but that was seen as an inappropriate joke. However, I should be very surprised if the Home Secretary knows much about what
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the security services are doing. If he does, he is the first Home Secretary ever to do so. He is a manager and we are representatives. The division between the Government and the House is the real division.
The longer I served in Government–I was a Minister for 11 years–the more I found that it was easy for people to confuse the public interest with the convenience of Ministers. That is easy to do; if it embarrasses Ministers, it cannot be in the public interest–but in fact, it is not in the interest of Ministers.
That argument leads to another point: I cannot think of any secrets that I ever knew. I do not want to disappoint those Members who are hoping for office, but those of us who have held office know that there are few secrets in government. I knew what would be in the Budget 24 hours before it was announced, and was afraid that I should sleepwalk and tell somebody. I knew that we were going to devalue the pound 48 hours before we did so. I knew the Government’s position on negotiations with foreign Governments–that all came out when the negotiations took place. I knew what would be in the honours list before it came out–but everybody knows that.
In the old days, if the fact that a man was to be given a peerage was leaked, that ruled it out completely. Nowadays, the immigration laws have been amended; if one agrees to live here, one is put in the House of Lords. However, that is another question.
The real reason why I want to contribute to the debate is because of the nuclear industry, for which I had responsibility for many years. Recent events at Sellafield confirm what I learned by experience; even as a Minister–let alone a Member of Parliament–I was never told the truth by the nuclear industry. For example, I found out about the fire at Windscale–now called Sellafield–only when I visited Tokyo. My officials had never told me about it. When I asked them why they had not done so, they said, “It was before you were a Minister”.
When the Americans discovered that there had been an explosion at Khysthm, the major Soviet reprocessing plant, I was never told. I asked the chairman of the Atomic Energy Authority, “Why didn’t you tell me?” He replied, “We were told by the Central Intelligence Agency not to tell British Ministers, because it could create concern about the safety of nuclear power”.
It was not until I left office that I discovered that, while I had been making honest speeches about atoms for peace, all the plutonium from our civil nuclear power stations was going to America to make the bomb. The atoms for peace power stations were bomb factories for the Pentagon. I felt affronted by that. Had people known the facts at the time, the development of the debate on nuclear power and the nuclear industry would have been much better informed. We should not have had the problem at Sellafield, because the matter would probably have been dealt with earlier.
These provisions are probably the most important in the Bill. After 30 years, we can find out at the Public Record Office what Ministers have done, but if we want the public to have an influence on their Government, they must know about the debate before it is concluded. I realise that there are arguments about fact and advice, but I have never believed that information about the nature of Government policy making was damaging.
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What is damaging are leaks, malice and so on. If the public know that the Cabinet is considering how to respond to the BMW crisis, for example, and about the various options, that is extremely sensible. People with knowledge of the situation could contribute. The trouble with the official secrets that surround the Government is that they lock Ministers in with their officials.
Some Ministers are rather like constitutional monarchs. They can say yes or no to their permanent secretaries. However, once we let it be known publicly that we are considering a matter, we make available to Ministers a range of advice that they would not be able to get from within Whitehall and that allows them to become umpires between their civil servants and public expertise outside. I therefore make the case–I hope that it does not shock anyone–that open government and freedom of information are good for Ministers, not just for Parliament and the public. That argument needs examination.
I had always been in favour of freedom of information, but my experience of ministerial office made me even more convinced of the need for amendments of the type that my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) has introduced. Therefore, I hope that the campaign succeeds. I think that it probably will. Whether we have to depend on the House of Lords is a slightly painful thought for me because, as a representative of public opinion, the House of Lords is very shaky.
I will not go into the democratic credentials of the other place, but at least we are sure that its members will all be there after the next election, so they are more secure than any of us. I never thought that they spoke for the people, but they provide a pause to allow public opinion to form itself. I hope that public opinion makes it clear to the Home Secretary and others that we are not prepared to accept that we should be treated as children and left outside the inner knowledge of what happens. It denies Ministers the advice that they need and the public the opportunity to participate in some way in their future, rather than being just spectators of their fate.” http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm199900/cmhansrd/vo000405/debtext/00405-10.htm