HC Deb 23 June 1953 vol 516 cc1861-72

Motion made, and Question proposed, "That this House do now adjourn."— [Mr. Studholme.]

12.43 a.m.

Mr. George Wigg (Dudley)

Last November the Central Council of the National Union of Conservative and Unionist Associations met in London, and at that meeting a resolution was proposed by a Conservative councillor from the constituency which I represent in this House. Among the reasons advanced in support of this resolution was an assertion, in the words of the councillor concerned, Councillor Virr: I was told that when a modification"— he is referring to modifications to jet engines— is done in a factory on these engines it is within a month on engines in Russia, and in a very little longer time is also on the engines of MiG fighters in Korea. That was an astonishing statement. When I talked about it to engineers of high reputation they were quite frank and described it as arrant nonsense; saying that even if drawings of improvements to jet aircraft had been supplied to Russian agents, or the Russian Ambassador, it would have been impossible, from an engineering point of view, for the improvements to be included in any engine in the Soviet Union before a considerable period had elapsed, perhaps years. But that did not dissuade the conference from accepting the resolution which Councillor Virr moved. It is important to note that among those present was the Prime Minister himself and that these wild allegations were accepted unanimously by the Conservative Party Conference and they proceeded to adopt a resolution which would have done credit to Senator McCarthy himself. The resolution was in the following terms: This Council calls attention to the growing infiltration of Communist agents in industry and public services and expresses its determination to resist such infiltration at all levels. There may or may not be any substantial evidence to support that particular resolution, but what is clear is that the reasons given by Councillor Virr and some of his friends have no validity in fact at all.

When my attention was first drawn to the resolution and the allegations made, as I am not an engineer and do not know how much truth was in them, I took the course open to me and put down a Question. They were assertions accepted by the Conservative Party Conference and the Prime Minister and, no doubt, many right hon. Gentlemen opposite who ought to know the facts, but none of them denied the allegations or drew attention to the arrant nonsense, on which they were based. I put down a Question to ascertain whether the statements were true and, if so, what steps the Minister was taking to stop such incidents happening in the future. Unfortunately, the rules of the House made it necessary for me to frame the Question in such a form that it was not absolutely clear on what evidence I relied.

In order that the Minister should know the facts, I wrote to him explaining what it was all about. But, instead of getting a responsible answer from the Minister and receiving the same sort of courtesy as I had extended to him all I got from the Minister was a straight "No" on the question of whether the statement was true.

The Minister went on to repeat a sneer —a disgraceful, untrue and irresponsible sneer which has been made many times from the opposite side of the House in the last few years. It goes back to an event which occurred in 1946 when 55 jet engines, 25 Nenes and 30 Derwents, were sold to Russia. It is said now, in the light of knowledge we now have of the worsening of relations between Russia and the West that perhaps the steps taken in 1946 which led to the sale of these aircraft engines in 1947 should not have been taken. It is a piece of historical nonsense and political dishonesty to try to apply the test of what one would do in 1946 by applying the complete knowledge of 1953.

I am prepared to agree that the late Sir Stafford Cripps and those responsible for the decisions in 1946 did not foresee, and could not foresee, the implications involved in the supply of these jet engines. It was within a year of the end of the war and the world was full of hopes of a peaceful settling down. The engines were off the secret list; they were on the open list.

It is true that they could not be sold without an export licence, but the Government in their wisdom decided to do so. I think that even now it is possible to see that there were considerable arguments in support of the course that was taken. We know now, of course, if we apply the test of knowledge of 1953, that at the end of the war the Russians had overrun the Messerschmidt prototypes. If we had not supplied these engines it is just possible that they might have gone on and developed the Messerschmidt prototypes, and we do not know what the results might have been.

Mr. Julian Snow (Lichfield and Tamworth)

Is the hon. Gentleman aware that it was made abundantly clear by the representatives of the aircraft industry to a particular sub-committee of the Estimates Committee, of which the Parliamentary Secretary was a member, that there were no losses of technical secrets by the sale of these engines? It is a thing which has been virtually suppressed by the Press of this country, and in view of the headline in a national newspaper recently which read something like "The cost of selling our jet engines" that fact should be put on record.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply (Mr. A. R. W. Low)

Could the hon. Gentleman quote the passage in the Report of the Select Committee which refers to this?

Mr. Wigg

I have only half an hour, and I have made several efforts to get the Adjournment. I think I should be allowed to continue my speech. My hon. Friend has anticipated something I wanted to say.

In considering whether one is running a risk in making information available there are two considerations to take into account, and there are differences of opinion on these points. Does one give away too much by allowing plans to be available, or can one take the risk of allowing photographs and handbooks, and so on, to be available, and rely on the fact that the real secret which must be safeguarded at all costs is the "know-how"?

I am not an engineer, but I have gone to people with reputations to lose and they are unanimous that the real secret is the "know-how." It is a fact that the Nene was an obsolete engine. It was on the open list, and it was possible for photographs to be supplied. All the external evidence was open to any air attache in London. What they could not get was the "know-how" and they could not get that even if they got the engine.

If the Government are right in lambasting Labour Ministers we have to probe the argument further. I put some Questions to the Minister of Supply on 18th May asking him the dates upon which certain Nene and Derwent engines were released. On two material facts the Minister gave me false information. He said, for example, that the Derwent IX, which had been released by the present Government in April, 1952, is still on the restricted list, and he also denied the existence of the Derwent X. I have the list which was published by the present Government on 29th January last and which gives particulars of aircraft and engines and shows how they are graded.

On the open list for 29th January. 1953, there is the Derwent IX, which the Minister of Supply inaccurately—and, as I assert, falsely—said was on the restricted list. It is on the open list and the Derwent X, the engine which was so secret it was not mentioned in the list of 29th January, 1952, is shown on the open list on 29th January, 1953. The covering letter I had with this list, which I will make available to the Minister, contains this sentence: On the open list everything is free for publication except secret military equipment. So the fact that the Derwent IX and the Derwent X—two of the most secret of engines—are now put on the open list shows conclusively just what there is in the protest of the Minister and some of his friends when they protest about the sale of these engines.

If one accepts, as I am inclined to accept, that the Labour Government and their advisers did not see the full implications and consequences of their action in 1946, what is one to say to the present Minister and his Parliamentary Secretary, and, indeed, to the Prime Minister and the Government, when they carry on in 1953 the same policy which they condemn in 1946? It may be true that to prohibit the sale of the Derwent IX, to put it and the later Nene on the same footing as the Derwent X, would be rather like locking the stable after the horse had been stolen, but at least it would prevent the stealing of the bridle and stirrups and the rest of the equipment.

There is the additional fact that the Government are being forced, as a result of their own policy, to go wholeheartedly into the sale of military equipment. They are laying themselves wide open in the future to the same kind of charges being made against them as they have made, for political reasons, against some of my right hon. Friends. The fact is, as I see it, that even now it is not too late to put these engines back on the restricted list.

If the Parliamentary Secretary, replying on behalf of the Minister of Supply, sincerely believes that the Labour Government were wrong in 1946 I wonder how he has the impudence and audacity to come to the Box tonight and defend the fact that the Derwent IX and the Derwent X and the latter Nenes are on the open list at the present time, particularly the later Derwent, because the knowledge that is available would enable the Russians or anyone else to make a considerable improvement in the aircraft engines they have.

The latter Derwent has developed a 5,000 lb. thrust, and the method by which that is obtained is secret—the most secret of secret information. But, again, let me confess quite frankly, let me be fair to the hon. Gentleman—much fairer than he has been to my right hon. Friends: the fact that we are selling Nene jets to Pakistan, the fact that much of this information would be available through France and many other countries, is a calculated risk which has to be taken if this country is to continue the armaments industry.

I wish I had more time. I have asked this one simple thing of the Government. I agree that they are in a very difficult position, because to keep the armaments industry going they have to be prepared to sell equipment, some of it secret, some of it near secret, and all that entails a risk. The action of the Minister of Supply, who ought to know better, and of some of his hon. Friends, who simply do not know the truth, is reprehensible; but that is not the point which concerns me. If the Minister of Supply is right and any measure of fault lies with my right hon. Friends, then that fault is a hundred times, a thousand times, a million times greater in the present Government, because at the present time they are continuing exactly the same policy.

Mr. Speaker

Mr. Low.

Mr. Snow

On a point of order. I was challenged by the Minister about the source of my information on evidence to the Select Committee. Am I not to have the opportunity of replying to him. Sir.

Mr. Speaker

There is no point of order in that.

1.0 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Supply (Mr. A. R. W. Low)

I think it would be to the benefit of the House if I tried to reply to the very full and very concise statement which the hon. Member for Dudley (Mr. Wigg) has just made, and I congratulate him on that point. I wish at the outset to thank him for giving me notice in advance of the general line of his speech, but that, I am afraid, will be the end of my thanks.

The hon. Gentleman started by reminding us that he put a Question to my right hon. Friend in April arising out of a statement made by a councillor in his constituency at a meeting of the National Union of Conservative Associations held, not in November as he said, but in March.

Mr. Wigg

I thought I said March.

Mr. Low

I am just trying to get the record right. The councillor did not move the resolution; he spoke to it. I say that to get the record quite correct.

As the hon. Gentleman said, my right hon. Friend's answer to his Question was a categorical denial of the statement that improvements in jet aircraft carried out in British factories are known and applied in Russia within a month, and, in a little longer time, are also applied to the engines of MiG fighters in Korea. My right hon. Friend categorically denied that, and I should have thought that the denial was exactly what the hon. Gentleman wanted to hear.

The hon. Member put further supplementary questions on that point after my right hon. Friend's categorical denial, and it appeared from those questions that the hon. Gentleman did not really believe the statement from the report which, as he said, he sent to my right hon. Friend. But he did not add that at the end of the report—in fact, at the end of the councillor's statement—the councillor made it quite clear that he was only stating what he had been told, and that he added, at the end of his statement, "This is hearsay." The hon. Gentleman, in his Question to my right hon. Friend, made himself responsible for what was really no more than a hearsay statement.

In his speech just now the hon. Gentleman passed on to the incident of the sale of Nene engines to Russia in 1946. He said that some of my right hon. and hon. Friends were responsible for an irresponsible smear upon the last Government. I will state the position as we now know it, and will then state the facts as they were at the time that the decision was made.

My right hon. Friend told the House on 27th April: In my opinion, the sale of these engines undoubtedly had the effect of reducing by about two years the technical lead in the development of these engines which we then had over the Russians."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 27th April, 1953; Vol. 514, c. 1766.] I confirm that opinion again today. It was estimated that in 1946 we had a lead of about five years over the Russians in the development of jet engines. As a result of this sale of 25 Nenes and 30 Derwents to Russia between December, 1946, and January, 1948, that position was very much changed. We know that in July, 1948, the Russians had a proto- type of the MiG 15 using the Rolls-Royce Nene engine. By October, 1949, the MiG 15 had reached Russian fighter squadrons, and an almost exact copy of the Rolls-Royce Nene engine was being produced in quantity.

In 1951, the MiG 15, powered with this Nene engine, was in operation in Korea against British Forces and their Allies, and still is. Those are the facts as we know them, and the five-year lead which we had in 1946 had shrunk in 1949 to three years or less in this type of engine. In the meantime, of course, we had developed aero engines along other lines.

I will now refer to events of about that time in 1946. In the spring of 1946, the Russians asked for the sale to them of some Nene and Derwent engines, and also asked for the sale of their manufacturing rights. It was decided that the manufacturing rights should be graded as secret, and should not be sold to the Russians. That, indeed, would have been the greatest folly of all, and there, I think. I have the hon. Gentleman with me.

The issue under discussion today is the sale of the engines themselves, and, of course, from that sale valuable information can be obtained. For a number of months, the necessary export licence was withheld by the Labour Government on security grounds. However, after pressure from the Soviet Government, it was decided in the autumn to authorise the licence. Further licences, bringing the total to 25 Nenes and 30 Derwents, were authorised in the course of 1947. It was not until March, 1948, that the Labour Government saw the full madness of their action, and prevented the further export of aero engines to Russia.

There are, then, to sum up, three chapters to this story. The first chapter starts in the summer of 1946, when sense prevailed and security considerations prevented export licences. The second chapter covers the 18 months from the autumn of 1946 to the spring of 1948, when, I would say, madness supervened and engines were delivered to Russia under export licences. The third chapter, starting in March, 1948, shows that sense had returned and a firm ban was placed on the export of aero engines to Russia.

I know that various explanations of the second chapter have been made by Members of the Labour Government, by the hon. Gentleman and by the hon. Member for Lichfield and Tamworth (Mr. Snow), who intervened just now. I think it was the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Easington (Mr. Shinwell), who was Minister of Fuel and Power at the time of the sale, who argued in the House on 27th July, 1950, that, if we had not provided the Russians with these engines, could it be doubted that they would have been able to obtain all the information they required from sources under their control? But the fact is that they did not. They obtained the information from the Nenes, and produced an almost exact copy of them.

Then, the hon. Gentleman argued— and this has been argued before—that, in the light of our relations with Russia in 1946, it was reasonable to let the engines go and let our development lead be reduced by that amount. The argument was that 1946 was part of the honeymoon period, and that what happened afterwards could not have been foreseen. I profoundly disagree with that argument, and I need only remind the House of the famous Fulton speech which my right hon. Friend the present Prime Minister made in March, 1946. He certainly foresaw the future— [Interruption]. The hon. Gentleman says that that started the trouble, but that was not the view of the late Mr. Ernest Bevin, who was Foreign Secretary of the Labour Government at the time. In addressing this House on 15th September, 1948, he pointed out that the Russians had been pursuing a policy of stirring up civil war as an instrument of policy ever since the end of the war, and that, I think, disposes of the point that has just been made.

Then the hon. Gentleman founded an argument on the fact that these Nene engines were on the open list, but the effect of placing an operational jet aero engine on the open list is that full details of the engine's characteristics and performance may be published, as far as the Government are concerned, but the manufacturing licence aspect of engine manufacture—the drawings, data and "know-how "—would normally remain on the secret list, and I have already referred to the decision taken by the former Government in July, 1946, that all jet engine manufacturing rights should be classified as secret.

As far as the sales of manufacturing rights are concerned, at present there is not one British jet aero engine designed for operational use of which the manufacturing rights are on the open list. Drawings, manufacturing data and the "know-how" cannot be released by the manufacturers except by permission of the Government. They are, of course, released from time to time to daughter firms and sub-contractors. Nor, as the hon. Gentleman has said himself, does the placing of an aero engine on the open list mean that that engine may be exported to any country.

Mr. Wigg rose

Mr. Low

I have one or two more points to make and if I have time at the end I will give way.

The hon. Gentleman went on to make an argument I have seen deployed before in the Press somewhere, that the Nenes diverted the Russians from developing axial flow engines they had got from Germany. So far as I have been able to discover there is no justification at all for that argument that the Russians reduced their efforts on the axial flow engines to concentrate on the Nene. The Russians had an airframe ready for a high-speed engine. They found that engine in a copy of the Rolls-Royce Nene which was superior to any other engine they had. Otherwise, why did they use it?

So far as I can discover there is no justification for arguing that in 1946 our technical experts urged the export of the Nenes and Derwents to Russia to divert the Russians from the German axial flow engines. I have seen no such opinion expressed. The implication of the hon. Gentleman's argument was that the Labour Government would have followed such advice had it been given to them. In my wildest moments I have never accused that Government of such a degree of madness.

The hon. Gentleman charged my right hon. Friend with misleading the House. He has made a mistake. The D notice for the open list, of which I know he has been given a copy, shows he is referring to the experimental numbers whereas my right hon. Friend was referring to the mark numbers. It was really quite reasonable for us to assume he was referring to the mark numbers. Indeed, it is the general practice because in the very same question that my right hon. Friend was answering, the hon. Gentleman had referred to the Nenes III, IV, V and VI and to the Nene 102, which must have been the mark numbers because the experimental numbers are R.N.I and R.N.2.

Then the hon. Gentleman made his point about the Derwent R.D.10. His argument was that it was such a revolutionary advance in development over the original Derwent that it should not be—

The Question having been proposed after 10 o'clock on Tuesday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Thirteen Minutes past One o'Clock a.m.