HC Deb 23 October 1950 vol 478 cc2488-92
Mr. Erroll

(by Private Notice) asked the Minister of Supply if he has any statement to make on the disappearance of the Harwell atomic scientist, Professor Bruno Pontecorvo.

Mr. G. R. Strauss

Dr. Pontecorvo is a senior principal scientific officer at Harwell. He was granted leave of absence on 25th July last and was due to return to duty on 31st August. He had accepted an appointment at Liverpool University and was shortly about to take up this position.

Dr. Pontecorvo was born in Italy. He left that country for France in 1936 and went from France to the U.S.A. in 1940. In 1943 he became a member of the Joint Anglo-Canadian atomic energy team at Montreal and was transferred to the Ministry of Supply atomic energy organisation in January, 1946. He remained in Canada as a member of that organisation until January, 1949, when he was posted to Harwell. Dr. Pontecorvo became a naturalised British subject in March, 1948. For several years past Dr. Pontecorvo's contacts with secret work have been very limited. I have no information about Dr. Pontecorvo's present whereabouts beyond what has appeared in the Press.

Mr. Erroll

May I ask two questions? First, can the Minister state that the Professor has never had the opportunity of acquiring knowledge of atom bomb manufacture likely to be of value to a foreign power, and, second, can he explain how reliable the British screening of this person was in view of the fact that, according to the "Daily Herald," his sister is the wife of a Communist official in Italy?

Mr. Strauss

Although Dr. Pontecorvo has not had direct access, except in a very limited way, to secret subjects for some time, it would be quite impossible to say that he has not been able to gather information while he was resident in Harwell or in Canada which might be of value to an enemy. On the second point I can only say that this individual has been screened several times during the last few years by our security officers.

Mr. C. S. Taylor

When a man like this is known to have relations who are Communists—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—when it is also known that he was a bosom friend of Dr. Fuchs, why is it he is allowed to continue in such a responsible position?

Mr. Strauss

I do not agree with the hon. Member in his last allegation. I do not think it is true. As I say, this man has been screened several times, and according to the security officers the screenings were particularly satisfactory.

Mr. R. A. Butler

Would the right hon. Gentleman tell us, in view of the profound disquiet created by this news, whether, since the Fuchs episode, the whole of this screening business has been tightened up, and whether there has been any investigation since this case into all the officers concerned?

Mr. Strauss

Yes, Sir, since the episode the whole matter has been looked at very carefully and there has been a certain tightening up of the system.

Mr. Butler

Does that apply to this case in particular?

Mr. Strauss

Yes, Sir, but this man was leaving Harwell anyhow and going to Liverpool.

Sir P. Macdonald

Is not it a fact that he was leaving the country? Why was he allowed to take his family and car to Italy when it was well known that he was visiting his sister, who is the wife of a prominent Communist in Italy?

Mr. Strauss

As he was the holder of a British passport there was no means of retaining him in this country.

Mr. Blackburn

While entirely admitting the great difficulties of screening refugee scientists and welcoming the policy of the Government in accepting refugees, may I beg the Minister to bear in mind that this very distinguished scientist, as the Minister admitted, was only making £1,100 a year and that the salaries of scientists ought to be reconsidered?

Mr. Low

In replying to my right hon. Friend the Member for Saffron Walden (Mr. R. A. Butler) the right hon. Gentleman seemed to indicate that, because this man was shortly leaving Harwell, the new, strict precautions for screening were not taken in this case. [HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I may have misunderstood the right hon. Gentleman, but is it not important that this screening should have been applied because of the opportunities the man had to get to know the most detailed secrets?

Mr. Strauss

I said that more rigid screening was applied after the Fuchs case. I continued that just at that time this man took up an appointment at the Liverpool University and was not going to be at Harwell more than a few months longer at the outside.

Mr. Sutcliffe

Has the right hon. Gentleman given any indication of the reason for his leaving Harwell to take up another appointment?

Mr. Strauss

This post was offered to him; it was suggested he would be doing more useful and more remunerative work at Liverpool than at Harwell.

Mr. Boyd-Carpenter

In view of the fact that the right hon. Gentleman said this gentleman was due back from leave on 31st August, can he say when inquiries as to his whereabouts were set on foot?

Mr. Strauss

No, not at the moment. I am not sure when the inquiries started. I imagine quite recently, when he was overdue from his leave, but I am not certain about the exact date.

Mr. Pickthorn

When the right hon. Gentleman says that it was suggested that this scientist would be more useful at Liverpool than elsewhere, can he tell us by whom it was suggested, and to whom?

Mr. Strauss

The deputy director at Harwell was taking up an important post in Liverpool and he wanted assistants. It was suggested by the people at Harwell that this man might well go with Dr. Skinner, the deputy director, and would be useful to him at Liverpool, and he agreed to take the post.

Mr. H. Strauss

Was any investigation made of what documents the scientist took with him, since such an investigation would have been within the law?

Mr. Strauss

No, Sir, so far as I am aware no such investigation took place.

Air Commodore Harvey

Does not all this suggest that the present method of screening is completely ineffective? Will the right hon. Gentleman go into it with his colleagues and overhaul the methods of screening?

Mr. Strauss

I do not agree that it is ineffective, but we are always looking for ways to improve the system.

Wing Commander Hulbert

Can the right hon. Gentleman say if, in view of the recent incidents, he is satisfied with the present security and screening arrangements at Harwell, and how many pseudo-Communists are still there?

Mr. Strauss

I am satisfied that the screening arrangements are very good. It is never possible to be absolutely certain that anybody who may have had any connection, either himself or through his friends or his relatives, with any Communist or Fascist organisation, is working in a research establishment. We cannot be absolutely certain about that, but we believe that the screening arrangements are as good as they can possibly be devised, unless we go to limits which this House would not tolerate.

Mr. Thurtle

Can my right hon. Friend say whether the security officers have still complete faith in the loyalty of this gentleman to the British nation?

Mr. Strauss

I would like to wait a few days longer to see what happens.


Lord John Hope

On a point of order. I beg to ask leave to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely, the disappearance of Professor Pontecorvo and the failure of the Government to take adequate precautions to prevent it.

Mr. Speaker

The noble Lord has asked leave to move the Adjournment of the House for the purpose of discussing a definite matter of urgent public importance, namely the disappearance of Professor Pontecorvo and the failure of the Government to take adequate precautions to prevent it.

The noble Lord's Motion fails on the ground of urgency in regard to this particular case. Professor Pontecorvo is not in this country, there was no particular reason for stopping him when he left the country, and the Government have no power now to get him back or deal with him.

If the remedy sought by the hon. Gentleman is to impose some kind of exit permit on any persons employed on atomic research who wish to leave this country, then the matter fails to qualify as definite. I cannot therefore allow the noble Lord's Motion.

Lord John Hope

Further to that—

Mr. Speaker

The matter cannot be argued. I have given a Ruling and that must stand.