HC Deb 28 April 1953 vol 514 cc1958-64
The Prime Minister

I should now like—[Interruption.]

Sir T. Moore

Be quiet.

The Prime Minister

I make every allowance for the gay and hilarious mood of the House, but this is a matter of some seriousness. I should like now to make my statement in reply to Question No. 45.

As the House knows, considerable strides have been made in the development of methods for using atomic energy for industrial purposes, and these aspects are now coming very much to the fore. In order to secure the most rapid and economical development in the field of atomic energy, both military and industrial, Her Majesty's Government have set up a Committee consisting of the noble Lord, Lord Waverley (Chairman), Sir Wallace Akers, and Sir John Woods, with the following terms of reference: To devise a plan for transferring responsibility for atomic energy from the Ministry of Supply to a non-Departmental organisation and to work out the most suitable form for the new organisation, due regard being paid to any constitutional and financial implications. It is clear that the form of non-Departmental organisation appropriate in this case will differ from any existing model: overall policy must remain firmly in the hands of the Government and the method of financial control will have to be closely studied since for some time to come almost the whole of the cost will have to be met from public funds. No further statement on the precise form of organisation can be made until Lord Waverley's Committee has proposed a plan in detail and it has been studied by the Government.

Her Majesty's Government think it right to state that, whatever changes may be decided upon, the rights and interests of the existing staff will be fully respected.. Consultation with the staff representatives will take place at the appropriate time.

Mr. G. R. Strauss

May I ask the Prime Minister two questions? First, are we to gather from his reply that a decision has been taken in principle to make this important transfer about which he spoke, without having any knowledge as to how it shall be done, what sort of inter-Departmental organisation shall take the responsibility, or what the financial consequences will be? Would it not have been very much better for the Government to have discovered what the consequences of this proposal were likely to be before deciding in principle whether such a proposal would be advantageous? As the Prime Minister is well aware, in the view of many who have studied this matter it is very doubtful indeed whether the consequences would be advantageous.

Second, why have the Government changed their views on this matter since last year? When I asked a Question last year, the Prime Minister replied in effect that the Government had decided not to proceed with the proposal, which the Paymaster-General had advocated frequently before he became a member of the Government, to make such a change? Now, presumably, the Government have taken another view. May we ask why? Surely, it is extraordinary for such an important change to be announced by the Government without giving the House any reason why such a change is desirable.

Would the Prime Minister at least tell the House why such a change is desirable? The reason is far from obvious. Will he consider issuing a White Paper setting out the reasons for this change, so that we may be able to study carefully whether the arguments which are in the minds of the Government are desirable? Unless we know the reasons, we cannot possibly say whether the Government's decision deserves the support of the House.

The Prime Minister

If there is any change between the view which I have now announced to the House and what I may have said a year ago, it is the result of further study and consideration with the object of arriving at the best conclusion. That ought to be a complete explanation of that.

As to whether a decision has been taken on a point of principle before the full examination of detail has taken place, we thought it was right to decide on the question of principle before appointing the Committee and setting it to work on its labours, because we are convinced from such surveys as we have been able to make that the result of these labours will not vitiate the principle which we have in mind and which, we think, on the broadest grounds is desirable.

Of course, if the Committee, going about the country, seeing the various establishments and collecting information, brings to us a report which indicates that the view we take of the principle is not well founded or would be in conflict with many of the detailed facts, we should, like other reasonable people might be inclined to do, not hesitate to reconsider the matter. In principle, however, we think that this proposal is right and will be of real advantage to the country. We very much doubt whether anything will result from the investigations of the Committee, armed and sustained as it is by the fact that the Government of the day wish to carry out the principle, which will lead to any change of policy on our part.

Mr. Attlee

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman if he is aware that this matter was considered for a long period and put forward very strongly by the Paymaster-General; and that it has been considered by successive Ministers of Supply who have had the matter in hand—perhaps that accounts for the absence of the Minister of Supply today? There are very great objections, which have been put constantly, from the point of view of financial control; the status of the staff and of making the best use of the scientific resources of this country. We understood a year ago that the right hon. Gentleman took the view which had been taken by, I think, everyone who had examined this in great detail, except perhaps Lord Cherwell, who looked at it from the outside.

I think the House is entitled to know what is the reason for this change. It appears to us that the very points on which decision was to come are now to be looked at by the Committee, and that the right hon. Gentleman is anticipating that decision in a very curious way, and putting the cart before the horse entirely.

The Prime Minister

I did not gather that the Leader of the Opposition suggested that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Supply had absented himself on this occasion with the deliberate intention of avoiding being present when such an announcement as this was being made—[HON. MEMBERS: "Where is he?"] He is not here, I am sure, only because Questions came to an unusually early end. I suppose accidents like that do sometimes happen. It is quite clear that if I had made my answer in the ordinary way, neither the absence of the Minister nor the imputation which the right hon. Gentleman has chosen to throw upon it would have had any foundation, or lacked the fullest possible explanation. [HON. MEMBERS: "Get on with it."] I quite agree, but this is a difficult and serious matter. I think it should be argued out in Parliament, and I am very glad it should be. But let us get all the facts ready. After all, surely it is not a party matter. It is a question of doing the best thing we can for our country in a matter on which great sums of money have been spent.

I certainly think it would be easy to find at a later date some opportunity of discussing it, and the Opposition, with their rights over Supply Days—[HON. MEMBERS: "Oh."]—can certainly count on having a wide discretion as to when that can take place. I hope this matter can be considered, but I am quite sure we should be following the example of several other countries, especially the United States, in the matter of making sure that this difficult matter is not gripped unduly by departmentalism.

No doubt strict departmental control of the matter was very important in the days of the right hon. Gentleman, because he was spending hundreds of millions of pounds or thereabouts—he and his party —while keeping it strictly secret from the House of Commons.

Mr. Strauss

May I press this one point? Of course we agree that this matter must be considered objectively. So far as I am aware, there is no party controversy. But we are still without any reason for the proposed change and I suggest to the Prime Minister, in fairness to the House and so that we may consider it objectively, that he should publish a White Paper setting out the reasons which have convinced the Government about this important change they propose. Will he consider issuing a White Paper setting out the arguments which have convinced the Government?

The Prime Minister

I think that now we are going to send the Committee on their tour of inspection, to give us their advice on detail, it would be well to await the result of that before producing a White Paper—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."] I did not expect you to agree with me. The White Paper could be produced—as I think it should be produced—before right hon. Gentlemen opposite select this subject as one to be debated on a Supply Day.

Mr. H. Morrison

We gather that the Government have made a decision in principle already that this should be transferred from a Department—the Minister not being here—to some non-Departmental authority. That is a very important decision. Then they have appointed a committee to find reasons why the Government are right. The Prime Minister admits the Committee may find reasons why the Government arc wrong, but I do not see how they can, because they are appointed on the basis that the Government are right.

Surely my right hon. Friend is right that now the Government should table a White Paper and should provide time themselves—[HON. MEMBERS: "No."]— certainly they should, to discuss why they have decided this question of principle. It is not fair to expect the Opposition to provide time in order that the Government may justify the policy now announced.

The Prime Minister

If the Government were laggard in providing time, and the matter were one of the highest urgency and importance upon which great differences of opinion prevailed, the difference between the Government providing time and the Opposition providing time is really not one which raises any grave constitutional issues.

Mr. Gaitskell

Is not the absence of the Minister of Supply on this occasion very extraordinary? Not only did he fail to answer Question No. 55, but one would have expected him to be in attendance on the Prime Minister in making this statement. Is the Prime Minister quite sure that the Minister of Supply has not gone on strike in protest at this arbitrary decision to remove atomic energy from his control?

The Prime Minister

I do not know how things were arranged in the late Administration, but nothing is easier in this Administration than for a Minister to tender his resignation if he does not agree with the policy of the Government.

Mr. Albu

As very large sums of money will still be required for financing this research, is it the intention of the Government to finance it by grants in aid which hon. Members will not be able to discuss in this House?

The Prime Minister

All this will be fully discussed. The financial machinery of the House is such that it enables this matter to be discussed—unless the kind of special measures adopted by the Leader of the Opposition were put into force.

Mr. de Freitas

The Prime Minister referred to the American organisation in this matter. Are we to understand that American experience in this field has influenced the Government in their decision?

The Prime Minister

A study of the experience of other countries in this and other fields is always taken into account by Her Majesty's Government when considering a matter.

Several Hon. Members rose

Mr. Speaker

We cannot carry this matter further.

Mr. Lee

On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. May I ask you whether, during the period that this Committee is sitting, it will still be competent for hon. Members to put down Questions to the Minister of Supply and expect to be answered; and further, in the event of the whole control of atomic energy passing out of the jurisdiction of the Minister of Supply, what course will be open to hon. Members to question the Minister as to future conduct on this issue?

Mr. Paget

Further to that point of order. Now the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply is present in the Chamber, can he tell us why his Minister was not here, either to answer Question No. 55, or for this important statement?

Mr. Speaker

In reply to the points of order, I have heard nothing said about any alteration in Questions on this subject and so I presume that, until we hear to the contrary, the old arrangement will stand. As regards the second point about what would happen if the whole control were taken out of the jurisdiction of the Minister, I think that is a hypothetical question in present circumstances and one which we should deal with when it arises.