HC Deb 26 January 1959 vol 598 cc693-5
38. Mr. Emrys Hughes

asked the Minister of Supply what personnel he now employs at the Microbiological Research Centre and Chemical Defence Experimental Establishment at Salisbury Plain; and for what purpose.

Mr. Aubrey Jones

It would not be in the public interest to give the figures asked for.

The Ministry of Supply Establishments at Porton are mainly engaged in carrying out research on defensive problems of microbiological and chemical warfare. The researches are essentially directed towards assessing the threat and providing defences against it. The large majority of the results obtained are published in open scientific literature.

The threats include the botulinus toxin referred to in recent newspaper statements. This substance has been well known for many years and the threat posed is grossly exaggerated, since the toxin cannot be easily disseminated and is not self-propagating. A number of useful defensive measures are in fact known against it.

It is possible that other bacteria or viruses spell a greater danger and the purpose of my Establishments at Porton is to determine and reduce these risks, a task in which in some respects they have been notably successful.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

Has the Minister's attention been directed to the speech made last week by Sir Robert Watson-Watt in Montreal in which he said that this establishment has invented a substance, 1 lb. of which could wipe out the whole world? Does he not expect a little public interest in this? Can he tell us if any of these scientists are employed in the manufacture of typhus, cholera and polio germs, and if this is purely defensive why is it not handed over to the Minister of Health?

Mr. Jones

I think that my Answer indicated some acquaintance with the speech made in Montreal the other day by Sir Robert Watson-Watt. As a matter of fact, his statement is clearly akin to the one made as long ago as 1946. It is included in a book published in 1950—I had intended to bring it with me, but I think that I have left it in my room downstairs—to exactly the same effect. As to the purpose of the establishments, I can only repeat—and it has always been the policy of this country—that their purpose is almost entirely defensive.

Mr. P. Noel-Baker

Has the right hon. Gentleman seen the observations of Major-General Brock Chisholm of Canada about the great dangers of the policy of secrecy concerning biological warfare, and will he consider whether he cannot give the public more information about this most dangerous development in the means of war?

Mr. Jones

First of all, it is not a new development; it is quite an old development. I have seen the remarks made by Dr. Chisholm and, as I said in my main Answer, most of the results deduced from researches made at Porton are, in fact, published in open scientific literature. Indeed, the present director at the Porton establishment is in India giving a lecture on means of combating plague.

Dr. Summerskill

How can the right hon. Gentleman reconcile his first statement with what Dr. Chisholm has only recently stated?

Mr. Jones

Because I do not accept everything that Dr. Chisholm says. Indeed, as I think was apparent in my first main Answer, I think that most of what has been said both by Dr. Chisholm and Sir Robert Watson-Watt has been grossly, indeed ludicrously, exaggerated.

Mr. Shinwell

Will the right hon. Gentleman, in order to clarify the minds of hon. Members on this matter and to indicate at the same time that some of these experiments are intended for defence purposes, invite a number of hon. Members to visit these establishments to see for themselves what is going on?

Mr. Jones

I will sympathetically consider that suggestion.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

In view of the unsatisfactory nature of the reply, I beg to give notice that I will raise the matter on the Adjournment.