HC Deb 13 March 1958 vol 584 cc638-45

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a sum, not exceeding £17,099,000, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the expense of scientific services, including a grant in aid to the National Institute of Oceanography, and a subscription to the International Hydro-graphic Bureau, which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1959.

4.51 p.m.

Mr. Willis

I have one or two questions to ask on this Vote. The first two are on smaller items and one concerns the Isaac Newton telescope. Could the hon. Gentleman say something about that? I would have thought it wasteful to start projects and then to stop work on them. There must be some waste involved in that process, no matter what the job. Also, it seems curious to stop the work at a time when people are becoming increasingly interested in outer space, so may we know why the work has stopped?

My second point concerns the International Hydrographic Bureau. There is a reduction in the personnel there and I would like to know whether this is due to more efficient organisation or to some other reason. I ask that because this Bureau produces a good income, which has been increasing to an astonishing extent in the past three or four years. In the same period, the number of charts sold has increased by 350,000, and there has also been a substantial increase in the income of almost 45 per cent. Therefore, we would like to know what is happening in the Bureau and what has brought about the decrease in the number of personnel.

I have some questions to put on items under Subheads N and O, which cover the bulk of the expenditure for scientific services. The interesting thing about them is that a number of scientific and experimental personnel employed there, and in ancillary grades, has fallen substantially for two successive years. On the face of it that is good, because if we can have scientists working in industry instead of in the Services it is much better for the country. Has this been brought about by reorganisation of the research Departments of the Admiralty?

There has also been a general decrease for two years now in research and development contracts under subhead O. What appears to be strange is that the emphasis is on scientific research and development, and here we are dealing with a Service in which new ideas are being worked out and in which an enormous amount of research and development is required. One would have expected it to remain at the same level instead of decreasing. And, even if it had done that, there would have been a decrease in the actual volume of work because of increased costs.

If this has come about as the result of reorganisation taking place, obviously it is desirable. One would not like to think that the saving is being brought about by delaying work on important matters such as nuclear propulsion. We had some guarantees about this from the Civil Lord during the debate on Vote A, so perhaps the hon. Gentleman could say something more about it.

4.54 p.m.

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

I want to add one or two remarks to the observations made by the hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis). Unlike him, I am concerned that there has not been a reduction in this total Vote. I would have expected to see a much bigger reduction, since the Service is being run down and a certain number of research and development projects are being abandoned, as we were told in the defence debate. It is particularly disturbing that Subhead O should have decreased to a great extent, whereas the amount spent on salaries, wages and allowances has increased.

Mr. Willis

With slightly fewer numbers employed.

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

Yes. I do not subscribe to the view that research and development can be increased merely by voting more money for it. The raw material of research and development is provided by scientists of the right kind, with the imagination and brains to produce the answers. It is possible to spend, as the Americans do, 20 or 30 times as much as we do and still get only two or three times greater results.

This is a difficult Vote to criticise, because we are rightly not let into the secrets of where the money is going, but I want to ask two questions. The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East referred to the importance of going on with the nuclear submarine and other projects connected with nuclear propulsion. It would be much more economical if, in the main, those projects were handled by the Atomic Energy Authority, which handles our nuclear research for peaceful purposes generally. It would also be more economical to second the necessary personnel as application officers to the Authority.

My second question is whether we are right, now that the need for economy has become so urgent, to continue to have a separate naval radar research establishment. As I understand, the general principle is that equipment which is more or less common to all Services is taken care of by the Ministry of Supply because it is uneconomical for each Service to be autonomous. I am no friend of the principle of having a Civil Ministry of Supply, and I spoke about this in the debate on the Air Estimates. As long as we have a separate Ministry of Supply, however, and without prejudice as to whether we believe in having these common Departments in a civilian Ministry or removing them to the Ministry of Defence, I still take leave to doubt whether it is economical for the Admiralty to continue to run an independent directorate of radar equipment, with its associated research establishment, which is one of the more costly of the establishments borne on this Vote.

5.0 p.m.

Mr. Paul Williams (Sunderland, South)

I wish to follow up some remarks made by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East (Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett) about nuclear propulsion. This is a matter which came out very fully in the Navy Estimates debate, and I think that the House and the country are extremely grateful to the Civil Lord for the work he is doing on the Galbraith Committee. There are certain questions relevant to this Vote which come within the problem of nuclear power which I should like to ask.

Are we, in fact, as a result of the way in which this money is spent, having to carry out much of the research and development which might have been carried out already by the United States, or are we, as a consequence of the declaration of interdependence, getting all—and I mean all—the information which we want and need? Are there still certain hesitations on the other side of the Atlantic due to the McMahon Act?

Is the declaration of interdependence working, or is the McMahon Act holding back information which we require, causing us to spend more money on research and development on this Vote, on which, if that declaration means what it was intended to mean, there should now be certain savings?

On the question of commercial nuclear propulsion, I should like to ask the Civil Lord whether he can enlarge slightly on what he said in his widing-up speech on the Navy Estimates in columns 1117–18 of 4th March. He was then referring to the possibility of this country having a commercial nuclear-powered ship in the water by about 1964. I realise the hesitations which he put around that phrase, and, obviously, no one could hold him to it, but when that is measured against the quotation which I gave in my own speech to the effect that the Americans are attempting to have this by 1965, it would appear that this country, as a result of the money spent on this Vote, may well be years ahead of the United States.

I do not think that the whole Committee is completely seized of the importance of what the Civil Lord said the other night. If what he said is accurate, then all this money spent on this Vote is not only money well spent, but it must continue to be spent so that we do establish our civil position. Can we have an assurance from the Civil Lord that that statement from him was not one provoked by an intervention in the debate, but was carefully thought out? Can he define the meaning of his statement that we might have a nuclear ship in the water by 1964. Does it mean that, as a result of the money spent on this Vote, we shall be ahead of the United States?

The Civil Lord of the Admiralty (Mr. T. G. D. Galbraith)

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East (Mr. Willis) asked me a question about the Isaac Newton telescope. He wondered why this work had been halted. He is correct in saying that it is of the greatest importance to the nation, but it really has nothing to do with Sputniks, as he seemed to suggest. The purpose of the telescope is to permit the extension of astronomical and astrophysical research beyond the limits of our existing equipment.

In view of the importance of this to the nation, the cost of this work, it was intended, should be borne between the Admiralty and the Treasury. Unfortunately, in the light of the present financial stringency, it was reluctantly decided that the project would have to be suspended, and news was given of this to the Royal Society on 28th January.

One thing I should emphasise is that the work has only been suspended, and that we hope to start it again. No waste will have occurred because all that has been done so far is that £28,000 has been spent on primary design and study work. Nothing at all has been spent on buildings; that can be held in suspense.

Mr. Willis

This is rather interesting. The Civil Lord says the sum spent is £28,000, but is it not the case that the year before last the amount was £51,000 and last year it was £30,000?

Mr. Galbraith

The figures I have show that £28,000 has been spent, of which the Admiralty have paid £14,000. It certainly seems to be peculiar, in view of what the hon. Gentleman says, and I will take an opportunity afterwards of checking the figures.

Mr. Willis

Does not that give point to the criticism of the Public Accounts Committee about the Admiralty Estimates?

Mr. Galbraith

The hon. Member for Edinburgh, East raised a second point, when he suggested that instead of wasting money we were, in fact, making it in the hydrographers' department. He wondered whether there was any connection between the reductions in staff and the greater amount of money we were making. I wish there was some connection but, in fact, in selling these charts, we have had to adjust our prices upwards to cover the cost of production. At the same time, curiously enough, in spite of the increased cost, the sales are still expected to increase, and that explains the credit side of the Vote.

As to the reduction in staff, this has been imposed upon us because of the general need to economise and not to make the services perhaps quite as "ritzy" as we would like, but I assure the hon. Gentleman that we intend to maintain the tradition for accurate work which has earned the hydrographer of the Navy such a reputation that today when he issues a new chart, the rates of insurance of shipping companies go down.

Mr. Willis

On that point, is not this a curious form of economy imposed upon the Department—to cut down the number of printers and engravers, the people producing the charts, while the sale of those charts is increasing enormously? Is there not some contradiction here?

Mr. Galbraith

I am sorry if I have not explained myself quite clearly. It is not so much that sales have gone up as that the prices which we are asking for the charts have gone up. There has been a slight increase in the volume, but the main increase has been due to the increase in price of the article we are offering for sale.

Let me now turn to the cuts in research and development, about which the hon. Gentleman asked me some questions. He seemed to think that we were cutting too much whereas my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East (Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett), on the other hand, seemed to think that we were not cutting enough. That encourages me to think that we have struck the right balance between the two opposing views. The hon. Gentleman wanted to be assured that these cuts were not affecting important work such as the development of nuclear propulsion. I can give him that assurance. It is only the less important kind of work which we have to delay and slow down. The kind of work like nuclear propulsion, which we regard as being of the very highest importance, is going ahead.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Croydon, North-East asked why we should not leave all this to the Atomic Energy Authority. In this matter, we are working in the closest association with the Authority, and I should have thought that my hon. and gallant Friend would have been the last person to suggest that we could leave the mechanism going into a floating platform to an authority such as that. We really must, as far as we can, keep control of this in our own hands, while working in very close association with the Atomic Energy Authority.

Vice-Admiral Hughes Hallett

I did not suggest that. What I said was that the main thing should be organised by the Atomic Energy Authority and the naval contribution should be the supply of the application officers, and so forth. Perhaps I could put a specific question to my hon. Friend? Is the Navy setting up a special research establishment to deal with this, or is it making use of the facilities which have been developed for the peaceful uses of atomic energy as well?

Mr. Galbraith

No, it is not setting up a special department.

My hon. Friend the Member for Sunderland, South (Mr. P. Williams) also asked some questions about the development of nuclear propulsion for ships. I can assure him that we are working in the closest possible co-operation with the Americans on warships and that there is no duplication in the work for civil ships and for warships.

My hon. Friend asked me to be a little more specific about the date 1964, by which time, I said, if all went well, we hoped to have a ship in the water. I can go no further than what I said in the earlier debate, but I can assure him that I was speaking not "off the cuff", but with due consideration. I do not want to be tied down to that date. It depends how technical developments go in the next year or two.

Mr. P. Williams

I am grateful to my hon. Friend and I understand the escape clause which he would naturally attach to what he said. However, does what he said mean that we expect to put a ship in the water a year ahead of the present American plan?

Mr. Galbraith

If the American plan is what my hon. Friend says it is, then I suppose it means that it does.

I think that that covers all the issues raised by this Vote.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That a sum, not exceeding £17,099,000, be granted to Her Majesty, to defray the expense of scientific services, including a grant in aid to the National Institute of Oceanography, and a subscription to the International Hydro-graphic Bureau, which will come in course of payment during the year ending on the 31st day of March, 1959.