HC Deb 11 October 1946 vol 427 cc559-71

There shall be established a General Advisory Council of not less than seven persons appointed by the Minister to advise him on the exercise of all his powers and duties under this Act —[Mr. Blackburn.]

Brought up, and read the First time.

Mr. Blackburn

I beg to move, "That the Clause be read a Second time."

As I think hon. Members know, this new Clause is supported and was proposed by the Atomic Scientists' Association of Great Britain; it is also supported by the Association of Scientific Workers, and commands the complete unanimity of almost every scientist engaged at either a high or a low level in this project. I am sure that, even at this hour on a Friday, the Committee will consider it proper to take into account the views of those engaged in doing this very important work.

The fundamental principle upon which this Amendment is moved is a principle which has been embodied in the whole propaganda of the Labour Party since its inception, and that is that it is desirable in industry to have the closest possible participation between the workers and the people who are managing the industry, and, in relation to nationalised industry, those who, in fact, represent the State, because it is not suggested that the Labour Party believes in State capitalism. It does not; it believes in the establishment, whether concerning atomic energy and the work of scientists, or coal and the work of miners, of a form of organisation in which workers feel that their views are taken into account, and that they have an opportunity of getting their views heard in the highest quarters.

I do not desire to give reasons for this Amendment, because they have been so well given by my hon. Friends before. I desire only to deal with the point made by the Minister in his reply, and, in substance, this is the position. We must remember that the control which we are giving to one unadvised Minister under this Bill, is probably the greatest control ever operated by any one man in peacetime in the history of Britain, and that we are giving him control of all current industrial development, and, at the same time, of production, of what has been rightly described by a distinguished American as the absolute weapon. That, indeed, is a tremendous responsibility and I am sure that the Minister appreciates it, but we feel that there should be some form of check, because we do not know who the Minister may be in future years, and because it seems to us wrong in principle to put on the Statute Book legislation which gives an absolute unadvised dictatorship to one man.

I am astounded at the moderation of the demands of the scientists. They do not ask that they should appoint the advisory council. They leave that to the Minister. All they ask is that the Minister should indicate the names of the scientists on whose advice he is going to rely. They say, "If we are to have collectivism, let it be collectivism in the light and not in the dark." The Minister has suggested, in reply to this, that it would in some way interfere with the Parliamentary control of the Minister. I think the Minister's solicitude for our welfare and for the rights of hon. Members to criticise him is perfectly bona fide, and I think he recognises the need for Parliamentary criticism, but I would say that I do not think he need be afraid that we will refrain from criticising him because he can reply that he took his action on the advice of the Advisory Council.

I do not think my hon. Friends who have spoken are as timid as that. I do not think it will make the slightest difference to Parliamentary criticism whether there is an Advisory Council or not. Can it be suggested that hon. Members have shirked their duty of criticising the Secretary of State for War because he could say, '' I did this on the advice of the Army Council?" Can it be suggested, in relation to coal, that hon. Members opposite have refrained from criticising the Minister of Fuel and Power because the Minister can say, "This is a matter for the Coal Board"? It is obvious that Parliamentary control has nothing whatever to do with the demand of the scientists to have an advisory committee appointed and to have the names published. Therefore, I hope the Minister will not advance that argument again. I feel sure that he would not desire to persist with an argument which he knows to be invalid. He suggested that it would not be right to appoint a committee because this is such a broad subject. He said that it embraces so many aspects of science, engineering and technology that we could not appoint a limited committee. But my right hon. Friend is not a Member of the Cabinet —a fact which many of us regret—but surely my right hon. Friend does not say that when the Cabinet discuss iron and steel they do not invite him to attend?

Mr. Wilmot

They do.

Mr. Blackburn

Of course, they do. Then why should not my right hon. Friend appoint a limited advisory committee? If some new matter were to arise he could, ad hoc, invite anybody he wished to come to the committee just as the Cabinet do. There again we have an argument which is invalid. My right hon. Friend knows perfectly well that he could appoint a committee of 10 men who should represent scientists, engineers and anybody outside. On this committee we could have most distinguished people, such as Professor Coleman who is in the United States of America on a similar committee. Then, as the committee considers each particular aspect of the problem, it can call in, as it likes, individuals who it considers ought to give advice. So there we have the second argument in reply. I am fraid it does not hold water, and I think my right hon. Friend knows it. I hope he will give us the real reason for which he objects to having this committee.

I suspect that the real reason is that scientists generally are regarded as being too inclined to meddle in politics. I suggest that there have been no more important speeches made on this subject than those delivered about a year ago by the Foreign Secretary and the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Woodford (Mr. Churchill), both agreeing with each other, on this issue of scientists. The right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Scottish Universities (Sir J. Anderson), who is chairman of the Government's Advisory Committee, attended a conference of atomic scientists at Oxford in which he more or less told the scientists to keep to science and not to express opinions upon international affairs or politics. That statement was greatly resented in Britain and America, and I am sure the Government would not support statements of that kind. But here I think we have the essential reason for which the Government do not want to accept this new Clause, because if we had this committee of scientists we would give scientists an opportunity to register their dissatisfaction with the Government by resigning.

It is suggested that the Government would not mind that occurring on a purely scientific matter, but the danger is that the scientists might concern themselves with politics, as some scientists have done, and that they would use their scientific position to political advantage. I believe that is what lies behind the minds of the Government, and I will reply in this way. If that is behind their minds the answer is to have a strong Minister. He could perfectly well over rale the scientists. It would be a purely advisory committee, and if they impinged on the area of politics he could disregard them or over rule them. He could even over rule them on a scientific matter as well, but certainly if they dealt with a political subject instead of a scientific subject, everybody would support the Minister if he pointed out that he was the politician and they were the scientist, and that he was entitled to over rule them on politics.

Therefore, I am in a difficulty on this. I have analysed—I think quite fairly— all the arguments the Minister can produce in order to defend his point of view. Almost every scientist is agreed that this Advisory Council ought to be appointed. Almost every hon. Member of Parliament who has taken a special interest in this subject is agreed that this Advisory Council ought to be appointed. The whole policy of the Labour Party, and the basis upon which the party—including my right hon. Friend who has so decorously occupied the Front Bench today—is founded, is that it has always stood for the very principle which is here embodied. I cannot for the life of me see why the Minister should not be conciliatory, and even more conciliatory on this than he has been in the past, and indicate that he accepts this which will effect immediate great results in science.

3.15 p.m.

Mr. Wilmot

As this is such an important matter I think perhaps it might be convenient, since time is getting on, if I were to give an answer to my hon. Friend the Member for King's Norton (Mr. Blackburn), who has advanced his reasons for this very reasonable request with his characteristic skill and charm which endear him so to hon. Members of the Committee. I can well understand the feeling, which is shared by quite a number of hon. Members, that something more is required than a politician to discharge properly these terrific functions, so pregnant with good or ill for all our people. I can understand that feeling. It is not to be wondered at that it is proposed, in so peculiar and fateful a matter, that the Minister should be advised by a body of scientists. On the face of it, the proposal is extremely attractive, and would appear to be one which any reasonable Minister would at once accept. I will put to hon. Members of the Committee one or two considerations which I think we must bear in mind.

It is true that the advisory committee can be a device by which a Minister shields himself from Parliamentary criticism. It can be such a device. That is one of the reasons—though not the main reason—why I am shy of this proposal. If ever there was a subject—and I am afraid I have said this several times in this Debate—in which Parliament has got to keep the most active continuous vigilance it is in the development of atomic energy. It can affect, and in time probably will affect, the whole of our life. It is quite different from the subjects upon which we are accustomed to appoint advisory bodies—limited questions affecting a profession, a trade or a section in which that special interest in the community has a sort of special right to be in contact with the Minister in the exercise of his functions. One can think of quite a number. At this stage of our knowledge of this vast vista of new developments, we cannot say that the thing is limited to any section or part of the community. The scientists have a part in it, but it affects the nation as a whole. All our lives may be affected by this thing, and we cannot put the responsibility on to a committee. The responsibility must be squarely on Parliament to safeguard the nation, to see that the development is adequate, thorough, energetic and proper, and to see that the Minister does his job. It would really be an unfortunate thing if any shield were erected so that the Minister could say, "Well, I did not know anything about it myself, but I did it because the Advisory Committee said so."

Sir P. Hannon

I do not think the hon. Gentleman opposite suggested that it should be a shield. What he suggested was that the Minister, who is taking over a great responsibility, would have practical advice behind him which he could take before Parliament in the discharge of his obligations. He never suggested that it should be a shield. May I suggest that in this House of Commons, where I have been for a very long time, it always strengthens a Minister if he can say that he has that highly technical advice behind him? It strengthens him in the decisions he has to face.

Mr. Wilmot

The hon. Member's views on this matter carry great weight, for he is one of the oldest and most distinguished Members of the House, but surely in strengthening a Minister you are in a sense protecting him, because he can plead in aid of his actions the advice of his Advisory Committee. However, I will not labour this point, because I think there is a much more substantial reason why this is not a wise thing to do. No Minister who was worthy of the confidence of the House and who was not utterly incompetent and unable to perform his functions, would attempt to carry on this work unless he had continuous access to all the scientific information and advice available. It must be done that way, and of course the Ministry of Supply is continually in touch, every day, on every aspect of this matter, with scientific advice—not only with the people serving full time in the Ministry under the Controller, who is that distinguished servant of the Crown, Viscount Portal of Hunger-ford, and Professor Cockcroft, but with leading scientists, and with scientists of every rank and kind, who are working in the universities or wherever they may be on research work. We are in daily touch with them about this work, we could not do it otherwise.

It is not only the nuclear physicists and the men who are engaged in that aspect of the work; engineers are involved, chemists are involved, constructional people are involved, vast civil engineering projects are involved in the development of this matter, and you cannot confine yourself in seeking advice to a small body of selected scientists, because they would only deal with just one or two facets of this vast and developing science. The whole world of science must be at the disposal of the Minister if this function is to be properly performed. That is what is happening now. There is not a single man who has anything to contribute to this work who is not roped in, consulted and used. I do not want to substitute for that daily intimate working contact an official body of advisers. How many? We are in touch continuously in this work with hundreds of technical and scientific advisers. We cannot do without any of them. How am I to select from among that illustrious body of helpers a certain number to be designated an Advisory Committee?

There is another objection to this which I think has great weight indeed. This is a very new thing. We do not even see the beginnings of its scope yet. If we were to appoint an advisory body my belief is that it would tend to ossify. There would be a selected body of persons who would probably be the most distinguished, the most illustrious men, with established reputations—the type of men who do constitute the advisory bodies set up from time to time, and who are absolutely the right people where experience, judgment, and knowledge of traditions of the past form an essential part of the equipment. How utterly different may be the qualifications for this new, dynamic and developing thing. It may be that the respectable, the successful, the illustrious and the famous will not at times be the custodians of the truth of all this matter. Possibly the obscure, the unsuccessful, the unorthodox and the young will sometimes be the best advisers. Therefore, I want to be as free to call upon these men with equal weight and authority behind them as upon those who have household names in scientific circles. I cannot do that if always I have to go through an established advisory committee of illustrious scientists.

Sir P. Hannon

How would the appointment of an advisory committee on the lines suggested prevent the Minister from appealing to any source whatever? The obscure scientist, working in the dark and producing something novel, would be just as available to the Minister through his advisory committee.

Mr. Wilmot

Are we not getting to the point at which an advisory committee becomes a redundancy? If the Minister is to depend, as I think he should, on getting all the advice that is available wherever his advisers can find it, we do not want the facade of an advisory committee of certain selected persons. The whole world of science should be the advisers in this matter, and in fact it is. I can well understand the feelings of hon. Members in all parts about this. I have been wondering what steps I can take to meet this criticism, to see how I can give some assurance to the Committee, that, not only now in the infancy of this work, but continuously, the Minister will not tend to try and do it all himself with his officials. I think it is important to try to do that.

I ask the House to accept my assurance that at the present time we have built up a body of advice, flexible, unusual, active, which goes out into every place where knowledge can be found. We have not an advisory committee, but we have panels of advisers on whom we call in the course of the daily work. I am prepared to say, most earnestly—and I trust my words will bind my successors as much as they will bind me—that a system of advisory panels of scientific people will be an integral part of the Department's administration in this matter. I am prepared to undertake that that shall be the practice. The fullest regard will be had, by consultation with those panels, to the opinions of experts— scientific, engineering, constructional, and others—and on the many aspects of this vast work the advice of the best scientific opinion that is available will always be considered and taken into account. I give that undertaking in most solemn terms, and I believe it will achieve the objects of those who have put down this Amendment. I believe it will achieve it with a flexibility and a dynamic purpose that you would not get through some formal advisory committee.

3.30 p.m.

Mr. Palmer

Will the names of the members of the panels be published?

Mr. Wilmot

I think not. I think it would be unwise and undesirable to have to publish from time to time lists of people who are being consulted. There are several objections. If we are to get the best we need to be always changing. New ideas may come forth frequently, bringing with them now problems to be advised upon and the publication of names may give an indication of the trends of development. Further, I am not sure that all the people we call upon for advice necessarily wish their names to be published. I think it would be unwise to bind the Minister to publish names.

Wing-Commander Shackleton

I am very sorry at this late hour to have to reply to the Minister. We have been handing out a lot of bouquets to him today and, again, I congratulate him on his eloquence and his apparently conciliatory approach. But, in fact, he has advanced a number of objections to our proposal for an advisory committee which, in my opinion, and in the opinion of some of my hon. Friends, hold no water. First, he said that it is vital that responsibility should rest squarely on himself and on Parliament. I do not see how the existence of an advisory committee can alter that situation. We know that my right hon. Friend is a good enough politician to be able to hide behind his advisers if he wants to, without having to call upon the committee, although I am sure he would not want to do that.

Secondly, my right hon. Friend said that there was no real advantage in a committee, because he had to consult so many different scientists. Again, I do not see that that affects the issue at all. What we want is a committee of proved integrity and importance which we can be certain will be doing their duty in investigating the administration of this industry. There is no such body in existence today. There is the Anderson Committee, presided over by the right hon. Gentleman the Member for the Scottish Universities (Sir J. Anderson), and which is concerned with broad policy, and there are certain smaller committees, but there is no broadly responsible committee or council to look after the industry as a whole. It has been an inherent principle of the policy of Members on this side that we should appoint such a committee. We have consistently urged from our platforms that when industry is nationalised it will not be run by civil servants, but by public boards. Now we are proposing to run an industry not only without a public board, but without any check at all.

It will not be possible to find out what is going on in the industry. Another objection of my right hon. Friend was: How could he appoint members to a committee when there are so many hundreds of scientists? Well, how is anyone appointed? Either it is a case of "jobs for the boys," or you choose the best people you can. I submit that my right hon. Friend's argument is specious, and that he should reconsider the matter. We have not said, in the Amendment, that the people chosen must be only scientists. We would like to see a body which would be in a position to keep an eye on the general administration of the industry. We are not happy about the present situation. Despite my right hon. Friend's assurances about setting up independent panels, I do not think we can be certain that there will be proper supervision, except through his advisers. We know that it is all right where he is concerned, but what about the future? What we have suggested has been done in America and Australia. The names of the scientists are published in America and, no doubt,. they do the same in Australia. I ask my right hon. Friend even now to consider making some concession with regard to this point.

Mr. Eric Fletcher

I intervene only to make my own position clear in this matter, as I was one of those who, on the Second Reading of the Bill, urged the greatest possible consultation between the Minister and scientists. On this occasion I am bound to say that I find myself opposed to my hon. Friend the Member for King's Norton (Mr. Blackburn), who through his zeal and expert knowledge of this subject has contributed so much to our Debates on this Bill, and has put down a number of valuable Amendments. I think a constitutional question is involved in this point, and I am unable to support the Amendment. There are two things to be secured. First, to make scientists completely happy, because they are naturally proud and jealous of the research which has produced such immense results in the field of nuclear fission. I believe that scientific organisations, when they read the Minister's remarks, will realise that their interest is protected and preserved, not only in the hands of the present Minister, but in the hands of his successors. I would have thought it undesirable in any circumstances that there should be an advisory body, the names of which were made public. This vast field of research is still in its infancy, none of us knows in what directions, or on what lines, progress may be made in the next few years.

I should have thought that it was of the essence of the matter that in the most necessary consultations between the Minister, as the political head of this Department, and the scientists, engineers and other technicians upon whom he is dependent—that there should be at all times the greatest flexibility of consultation. In my view, that flexibility can only be assumed if full responsibility is left in the hands of the Minister, with power to consult at any time without having his hands tied by a fixed statutory advisory body.

Major Vernon

There is one point which has not come out sufficiently clearly so far to which I ought to draw attention. The conception in the mind of the Minister, as it has come out now, seems to be that the ideal organisation is a single hierarchy, one command. In the increasing elabora- tion of our activities in these days, not only in this Ministry but in all Ministries, we are finding that something different from the old fashioned organisation is necessary, due to that elaboration. We have the simple chain of command as it exists in the Army and which everyone understands, and in Britain we have a bypass from the worker or the general public through the Member of Parliament to the Prime Minister. What we have in mind here, however, is another chain, not of command but of consultation. Examples are the workshop committees, in some cases, and the advisory councils being set up under various Bills in various Ministries. There is a fundamental difference between an advisory council of the sort where the names are published and known to the public, and the occasional advisers whom the Minister calls in from his staff in ones and twos and whose advice he can take or reject according to whether it fits in with his own ideas. These staff advisers are very different from the independent body which other people have in mind and which I think is in line with the whole progress and development of the organisation of government in these days.

Mr. Blackburn

In view of the fact that it is twenty minutes to four, and as we have had a very long discussion privately with the Minister on this subject, I feel that we ought to take a decision now. I cannot speak for my hon. Friends because I do not think we are all exactly in agreement, but personally I do not think the Minister has answered the arguments which have been put so cogently. Certainly he has not answered those put by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Preston (Wing-Commander Shackle-ton), but I think he has given an assurance which I believe he will be prepared to operate generally. For myself, I certainly could not vote against the Clause but, on the other hand, unless my hon. Friends decide to divide upon it, I personally would not do so. I am only one of those whose names are attached to the Amendment and am not therefore in a position to withdraw for anyone else.

Sir P. Hannon

I think it would be deplorable on an issue of this magnitude, vis-à-vis the United States and vis-à-vis the whole world, to divide the Committee against the Minister in view of the statement he has made this afternoon.

Question, "That the Clause be read a Second time," put, and negatived.

Schedules agreed to.

Bill reported, with Amendments; as amended, considered; read the Third time, and passed.