HC Deb 30 April 1958 vol 587 cc519-23

As amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.

10.50 p.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade (Mr. F. J. Erroll)

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

Under the Bill the Government give up certain emergency powers, first, in respect of patented inventions and registered designs, and, secondly, in respect of technical information which is not the subject of or related to a patented invention or registered design. The Bill provides, however, for the Government to have certain more limited permanent powers.

If I may, I will try to outline briefly the two groups of powers. As to patented inventions and registered designs, Sections 46 to 49 of the Patents Act, 1949, and the First Schedule to the Registered Designs Act, 1949, not only enable the Government to use or authorise the use of the inventions and designs covered by the Acts for "services of the Crown", but also enable the Government to use them, or to authorise their use, for a wide variety of other purposes during a period of emergency.

The Bill revokes the Order under which the emergency has been continued, so that such inventions and designs can only be used by the Government under the permanent powers in the 1949 Acts—that is to say, for "services of the Crown", including the supply of equipment to other countries for their own defence. In the Bill, however, these services are extended to include purchases of equipment by one ally for the defence of another—that is to say "offshore" purchases—and the supply of equipment to armed forces acting under the authority of the United Nations.

Turning to the Second aspect of the Bill, in respect of technical information which is not subject to the 1949 Acts, the Bill revokes the Defence (Patents, Trade Marks, &c.) Regulations, but provides, in Clauses 2 to 4, that the Government can authorise a manufacturer in possession of such information to use it for defence contracts, notwithstanding the terms of any agreement under which he obtained it, subject to compensation and a number of safeguards suggested by the Howitt Committee.

The Government believe that this Bill strikes the right balance. It enables us to go on using the powers which we have found necessary to continue to exercise under the regulations which I referred to, but has provided the safeguards necessary to prevent the existence of such permanent powers discouraging either the development and exchange of technical information in this country, or its flow into Britain from overseas. The Bill will thus meet the need for powers in respect of equipment for defence purposes without discouraging the technical progress in industry upon which our economic strength and prosperity will increasingly depend.

The language of the Bill, involving, as it does, certain amendments to other complicated legislation, cannot, unfortunately, be simple. In Standing Committee, certain drafting Amendments intended to remove obscurities and doubts were accepted. The opportunity was also taken in Standing Committee of seeking to remove some doubts and perhaps misapprehensions about the nature of the Bill which were expressed on Second Reading and were not fully resolved in the debate which took place then. The Government appreciate the full and friendly exchanges which took place in Standing Committee and the expeditious way in which the Bill was dealt with there.

I hope that my brief explanation of the Bill as it now stands will be acceptable to the House.

10.55 p.m.

Sir Frank Soskice (Newport)

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Board of Trade has had a very hard day and has covered a great deal of ground in his penultimate speech. In the circumstances, it seems almost churlish to press him further on the Bill which, although it has four times as many Clauses as the previous Bill, is about one quarter as important, if as much as that, as was the previous Bill.

I do not think that it would greatly advantage the House if I re-expressed on this Third Reading those anxieties which were voiced from this side of the House at various stages of the Bill, but I would remind the Minister of the feeling that we have that the Government are not making adequate endeavours to secure that there is reciprocity from other nations in exchange for the advantages which we are making available to them in the way of patents, know-how and secret information.

In the course of the Committee discussion I pressed the Minister of Supply, who dealt with the matter, to say whether there were reciprocal arrangements with other countries which would confer similar benefits on this country to those which we are making available to those other countries. The Minister said frankly that he agreed that it was desirable that other countries should introduce similar legislation. When I pressed him to say whether they had done so, his answer was singularly inconclusive. He said: Similar legislation exists in Canada. The United States, as I understand it, utilises patents for defence purposes in very much the same way. I do not know about other countries." (OFFICIAL REPORT, Standing Committee E, 16th April, 1958; c. 6.] The completeness of that answer is open to question. In the present debate I can do no more than re-emphasise to the Minister of Supply that we consider that he should have bent his mind to this problem earlier and with more effect, and should not now leave it out of account. We cannot make it conditional upon other nations introducing legislation which we would like to see introduced, that we should make these facilities available in the Bill, but at the same time, the Government should continue their endeavours to see that the interests of this country are not unduly disadvantaged. I leave the topic there.

A further feeling of disappointment that the Government have left with us is that the Bill is narrow in scope. The Parliamentary Secretary gave a most dextrous and agile answer in the Committee, which sounded extremely good when it was listened to, but when I examined it afterwards I was a little more doubtful about its quality. I wondered whether I should allow the Parliamentary Secretary to get away with it as easily as he did. I will not press him again on it, but I very much hope that he was right in saying that the patents which are covered by the Bill will be available for the various purposes relating to National Health Service which I and other hon. Members enumerated in our debates. His answer, when one analyses it, is that he thought it was almost certain that the Health Service purposes to which I referred were within the scope of the Bill; he was not quite sure about it, and that in the ultimate resort it was for the courts to determine.

As was pointed out, there was an earlier edition of the Bill introduced in another place in 1953, and the noble Lord who introduced it on behalf of the Government made it clear that one of its objects was to remove any doubt about the inclusion of the National Health Service within the scope of the Bill. We always found it rather puzzling that the Minister should purposively desire to go back to a situation of doubt, whereas his own Government had previously taken steps to remove doubt.

However, we are back again in the area of doubt, and we can only hope that the Minister's case will turn out to be well-founded. He gave a hint in his speech that if it should turn out that the National Health Service purposes were not within the scope of the Bill he would take appropriate steps to bring them in by changing the law. I hope that he meant to be understood in that way and that he really means to implement that promise should it turn out to be necessary to do so.

What I have said about the scope of the Bill as far as it deals with patents is true, even perhaps more true, in regard to the part which deals with "know-how." We on this side of the House would like to think that when "know-how" is made available for public purposes those public purposes should not be limited to defence purposes, but will also include civil needs to which I have referred, such as the National Health Service and the Fire Brigade Service.

The Minister of Supply dealt with that matter and gave a similar adroit reply. I do not mean that it was an insincere reply, but I hope that if it should turn out to be that the Bill is too narrow in its provisions dealing with "know-how" appropriate legislation will be introduced to make sure that "know-how" can be made available also for the purposes of the National Health Service.

I am sure that the House will agree that these purposes, civilian though they be, are of equal importance to the welfare of the community as purely defence and warlike purposes. Therefore, I am sure that the House will be in sympathy with the desire I have voiced on behalf of my hon. Friends. We on this side of the House have considerable reservations on whether the provisions with regard to "know-how" will operate at all without there being any sanction. That matter has already been fully discussed. We have done all that we could to assist the Government, but the Government have rejected our overtures. We feel that we can do no more.

At the time when we saw the Bill and had its purpose explained to us in the course of the Minister's Second Reading speech, we considered the Bill a useful one as far as it goes and we would not oppose it. It goes some way to making private skills and knowledge available, subject to suitable safeguards for the general public interest. That is a purpose we approve and, that being the purpose consistently maintained by the Bill and not departed from, we are certainly ready to give it a Third Reading.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.