HC Deb 16 July 1948 vol 453 cc1641-50
Mr. Belcher

I beg to move, in page 5, line 28, to leave out "Limited."

Since the introduction of the Bill, the Association of Certified and Corporate Accountants has received permission from the Board of Trade, under Section 18 of the Companies Act, to omit the word "Limited" from its title. The Amendment, therefore, puts the title of the Association into its proper form.

Amendment agreed to.

11.21 a.m.

Mr. Belcher

I beg to move, "That the Bill be now read the Third time."

I should like to say a few words at this stage of the Bill. It is largely non-controversial, and it would be right to say that its principles have been welcomed on both sides of the House. The Corporation it sets up provides a technical and financial bridge across which the products of the country's inventiveness and research can be made available in a directly usable form to our industries. It also provides a means for the full exploitation of our inventive talents both at home and overseas. With the passage of the Bill we may feel confident that no major invention need lie, In the future, on our laboratory shelves for lack of appreciation of its value, or of the finance required to bring it into use.

The Bill is so framed as to require the Corporation which it sets up to act largely through existing industry, so that its effect will be to provide industry with opportunities for increasing its efficiency, and producing better goods in greater variety for use at home and for the expansion of our export trade. I think it will be agreed on all sides that healthy and progressive industries form a firm basis for this country's prosperity and that any body which is able to promote a progressive industrial outlook should be given full scope for action.

This Corporation will be spending public money, but it will also be securing returns on its activities both from home and overseas. It is difficult at this early stage to see how the Corporation's finances will shape themselves, but there is no reason to believe that the returns will necessarily fail to match up to its expenditure. Even if this were found to be the case, however, it would be wrong to say that public money was being lost; on the contrary, it would be being invested in the turning of inventions into a form in which British industry could readily use them to make profits, especially profits overseas, to the ultimate benefit of the country.

We know there is a good deal of work waiting to be done. Other Government Departments have told us that they have large blocks of patents ready to hand over for exploitation. We have already come across one or two potentially valuable inventions from university sources, and we have a large portfolio of inventions—about some of which it would not do to say too much—which have been offered to us by private inventors. It is quite clear that from its first day the Corporation will find plenty to work on, and it may in its earlier stages have to be very selective in what it deals with if it is not to overstrain itself.

In the medical field the Bill fills a real need by providing means, not formerly available, whereby medical inventions and discoveries can be exploited for the benefit of the public as a whole, and in full accordance with the ethical principles of the medical profession while, at the same time, providing equitable returns to co-operating firms in industry which can reasonably claim them. All the way through the proceedings on this Bill it has been emphasised by all who have taken part in the discussions that the success of the Corporation depends on getting into it first-rate men in the fields of industry, administration, science, and so on. We have been working very hard on this, and I hope to be able to announce the name of the chairman shortly a name which I think will win universal acceptance and approval.

I know how dangerous it is to attempt to predict the course or the success or failure of a venture of this kind, but anyone is entitled to do a little crystal gazing on an occasion like this, so perhaps I may be permitted to say that I think Parliament has done a good job in forging this tool of industry. We can hope to see it in action very soon, and if it has to start slowly, as I believe it will, it will soon be playing its part, and a very valuable part, in making the most of the national economic equipment. Before many years are out we may find that it has become so important and so well recognised a feature of the national life that we shall wonder how we ever did without it. I am very grateful for the co-operation which I have received during the consideration of this Bill, and I would like to express to the right hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Lyttelton) my personal gratitude for his attitude all the way through.

11.26 a.m.

Mr. Lyttelton

We on this side of the House welcome the Bill. We are not wildly enthusiastic about it, because we think that in many ways it could have been improved, but to have a medium in the field of public research which will enable the Government to exploit the results of inventions which they have initiated, is certainly a good thing. Furthermore, as we said in Committee, there are several forms of activity which are quite outside commercial matters. The Parliamentary Secretary has mentioned the medical field, but I remember, in my industrial life, dealing with solid processes for the precipitation of carbon, and so on, in smoke by hydrostatic mist purification. The profits from this have no commercial value but the smoke coming out of stacks in big cities is purified, and the amenities of citizens thereby enhanced. In such directions a Corporation like this will supply a need, but I do not think that in the field of inventions, outside those which have been initiated by the Government, they will have a particularly happy experience because, as I said earlier, they will be in the main buying or examining inventions which other people have rejected already. So, I think we must be fairly lukewarm about the likelihood of their success in those directions.

I am sorry that the Government have not made the Corporation into a limited company. It is rather nonsensical to talk about a chairman, a managing director and a Corporation without using the appropriate and normal vehicle for this kind of thing, a limited company. All the mumbo-jumbo about the Corporation having to keep proper accounts, and how the auditors will be appointed, would be unnecessary if the Government would take the ordinary course of making it a limited company. However, they prefer their own form of amusement in this matter, and I think it is regrettable, because Clause 10 would be unnecessary if they used the normal vehicle.

I must protest, once again, against Clause 3, about which I made some remarks in the Committee. I fear that the Government may have considered them to be put forward in a spirit of levity, because I described the Clause as a piece of morris dancing on Millbank, and this may have led the Government to suppose that I was not serious about it. A Clause which says that, taking one year with another, the Corporation's revenues should equal its outgoings is perfectly understandable when the Government are in a position to charge a rate or, as more usually happens, when they are in a position to exploit the consumer.

It is natural for the National Coal Board to say that their revenue, taking one year with another, shall equal their expenditure. If it should not do so in one year, they can put up the price of coal to the consumer. In that way, they can be sure that the consumer will be exploited, and that the Corporation will be solvent. In this case, an ingenious young gentleman in the Board of Trade has inserted these words, thinking it would be rather fun to have them in this field as well. One might as well start carrying a walnut in one's trousers pocket for fear of getting rheumatism as for the Corporation to put these words in the Bill. It is quite impossible to tell how they will turn out.

A large part of the activities of the Corporation will be connected with medical and health matters, from which there can be no possible profit. We let the Clause go without discussion in the earlier stages, but I hope this is the last time we shall see such a Clause in Measures of this kind. I impress upon the Board of Trade that such a Clause is all right, where there is ability to exploit the consumer or to charge a statutory rate. In this kind of Bill it is sheer nonsense. It is a piece of twentieth century totalism which I hope we shall not see again.

I agree very heartily with the Parliamentary Secretary when he says that the root of this matter will be the character and abilities of the board of directors of the Corporation. I can hardly think of any business function that will be more difficult to exercise than the function of these directors. It is very difficult to study and weigh up the value of research, development and invention in any industry. Many hon. Members, both behind me and opposite, know—[Laughter] well, it would be so, if they were there—that the activities of this Corporation are to be spread over the whole field of modern industry as well as of medical and scientific research. The extremely multitudinous, variable and diverse nature of the matters that the directors will have to consider will be so great that only people with the very highest attainments are likely to exercise those functions successfully. The Parliamentary Secretary has said that he will shortly be announcing the name of the chairman. From this side of the House that chairman will have every good wish for his success, but I must say that he will have to be supported by people of quite extraordinary abilities if this plan is not to prove a failure.

Outside the field of public research and the medical field I am sceptical about the Corporation doing anything but losing, respectably, a certain amount of the taxpayers' money. Within that field the objects are sufficient to make the Bill a useful addition to the legislative weapons which the Government already have in this field.

11.34 a.m.

Mr. House (St. Pancras, North)

It is gratifying that the Bill indicates the desire of the Government to exploit to the full our national inventive genius. It is in keeping with Socialist policy that the Bill ensures that public interest and not private enterprise or selfish interests should acquire the benefit of these national assets. It is inevitable in the extension of Government research that advances should be made in scientific knowledge. Our need will be to ensure that such improved scientific knowledge is devoted to manufactures and industries.

In the past there has been little co-ordination in the matter of relating inventions and discoveries to industry. Inventors in one industry have not known whether their discoveries and improvements could be of advantage to other industries. Under the co-ordinated arrangements proposed by the Government, improvements in one industry can be made use of in other industries. Moreover, in the past the fear of rendering existing plant and machinery obsolescent has made vested interests less inclined to adopt changes in methods of a revolutionary character, even though the inventions in question might be of great merit to the public. Members opposite have taken great note of the fact that the Swan Committee stated that there was no evidence of inventions being deliberately shelved by vested interests, but hon. Members should note carefully the wording of that report. The statement that no evidence was heard does not mean that evidence could not have been adduced.

The right hon. Member for Aldershot (Mr. Lyttelton) is not in his place now. I think he would have been greatly interested in a case that I can cite concerning the British Electrical and Allied Industries Research Association, and the air blast circuit-breaker, patented by that Association in April, 1926, for 16 years. The number of the patent is 278,764, Although manufacturing members of that association had the right to use that patent, not one of them did so over that period of 16 years. Suppliers of electricity who wished to make use of the device could only do so by importing from abroad an infringing apparatus. Therefore, when the High Court judge considered an application for a renewal of the patent, he agreed to an extension for four years but declined to continue the preferential right of use by the manufacturing members of that Association.

There are no doubt very good reasons why a board of directors who wish to declare a fat dividend should hesitate to change their methods of manufacture, if they can get agreement among all their fellow members in their association or, as I might call them, fellow conspirators, against the public. They would be happy to continue their dividends rather than to introduce any revolutionary change in method. Everyone would be happy, except the public. I am, therefore, glad that the Bill will safeguard the interests of the public in these matters of securing the advantages of inventions. The Bill is another example of the legislative activities of this Government in setting the people free. Because of the general trend of the Bill and the aims of the Bill in these vital matters, I greatly welcome it.

I would stress the need for the President of the Board of Trade to be particularly careful in his appointments of the members of the Corporation. He will need to find not only men of great administrative ability and of considerable scientific and technical knowledge, but men who understand the legal twists and terrors of patent monopolies. There should be representation on the Corporation of men with a full knowledge of labour relations.

This Bill will give an improved opportunity for the fair and full consideration of inventions submitted by fellow workers, which is very desirable. The qualifications I have mentioned rank among those which are very highly paid, but I do not think the Government ought necessarily to pay unduly high salaries for these jobs, because there are men with these characteristics who wish to serve the public interest and who will be only too glad to avail themselves of this opportunity. If men will not come forward, the President of the Board of Trade or the Government should go in search of them, because we have such men with the right qualifications who have proved themselves in the same line of activities during the war in Government departments, in the Services and in Government controlled concerns.

I conclude by welcoming this Bill, in the first place because it will obtain the advantages of inventions and discoveries for the public interest, and, more particularly, it will give that wide range and scope which is so necessary to garner the full benefits of inventions of our working people.

11.41 a.m.

Sir Henry Morris-Jones (Denbigh)

I fear the medical part in the Bill, for the very reason which has been adduced in favour of it, in the sense that the Corporation established by the Board of Trade is taking over, or will control to a great extent, medical discoveries and inventions. It will tend to socialise industrial inventions and will bring them more and more within the power of the State. The Parliamentary Secretary may enlighten us on this matter. What will be the relationship between this Corporation and the Medical Research Council? The Medical Research Council, as we know, only recently was responsible for the discovery of the new aid for the deaf which has been introduced by the Ministry of Health and, no doubt, will help deaf people very considerably. I think the Medical Research Council is an ideal body for the development, initiation and encouragement of research in the medical field, and I should have thought that it might possibly have been left for a further period to develop its functions in that regard.

Mr. Belcher

If the hon. Gentleman will allow me, perhaps I may put him out of his misery. There is not the slightest intention, nor is there the power in the Bill, for the proposed body to use the functions of any existing organisation. It is not proposed that this body shall have any compulsory powers. It is merely being set up in order to enable inventions, which would otherwise remain on the shelf and which would not be employed, to be utilised for the benefit of the country. There is no compulsory power, and the Corporation will only undertake this work with the consent of the inventor.

Sir H. Morris-Jones

I only want to be assured that the field of private enterprise in inventions will not be impinged upon by the overruling powers of the Board of Trade or by this Corporation. Only the other day—and I am glad to see that the Minister of Pensions made an announcement afterwards—we had an instance of discoveries made by private enterprise relating to artificial limbs. Within a week or two of the introduction of the Health Act the Government recommended one channel for the manufacture of those artificial limbs. One is always rather afraid that medical discoveries by private individuals may be concentrated into one channel, and I fear the inclusion by the Board of Trade of medical inventions within the scope of this Corporation.

11.45 a.m.

Mr. Emrys Hughes (South Ayrshire)

I am glad that the Minister has put the hon. Member for Denbigh (Sir H. Morris-Jones) out of his misery; I hope he will put me out of mine. There are certain questions which I wish to ask, and certain fears that I would like allayed. I suppose we are all interested in wanting to stimulate the inventive genius of our people, though I fail to understand why our people are any more inventive than others. The trouble about inventors is that in the last century or so they have been inventing the wrong things, so that today we live in a world in which the inventors and scientists have invented such things as the atomic bomb and other implements of warfare, with the result that many people wonder whether it would not have been a good thing if these inventors had been strangled at birth.

I want to ask the Parliamentary Secretary how much money is likely to be at the disposal of this Corporation this year, and from where it will get the inventors and scientists. I have recently seen a very alarming statement by Professor Bernal, who I understand is the Chairman of the Scientific Workers' Association, and who has estimated that over 50 per cent. of our inventors and scientists are now preparing scientific research for the purposes of war. Those of us who have taken the trouble to peruse the Service Estimates have seen that the Navy, for example, are going to spend £9 million this year on research. I presume there will be quite a large staff of people with scientific attainments, experience, inventive and mechanical capacity, devoting their energies purely to purposes involving the expenditure of this £9 million.

Then we have been told by the Ministry of Defence that scientists are engaged in the study of, and are specialising in, bacteriological warfare. I would like to know whether under this Bill these scientists are to be taken away from the Services, and whether this Bill will concentrate purely on inventions which will help to alleviate the labour and the toil of the people in different spheres of national activity. Are we going to spend the money that should be spent on research on agricultural machinery, for example, which is essential if our inventors' genius is to be used constructively instead of destructively.

I hope that under the powers which we shall give the President of the Board of Trade, the inventive genius of our scientists and research workers will be diverted from destructive activities and devoted to constructive purposes for the benefit of humanity.

Question put, and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed, with Amendments.