HC Deb 18 March 1963 vol 674 cc153-65

Motion made, and Question proposed, That a sum, not exceeding £25,895,000, 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 1964.

9.30 p.m.

Mr. Reynolds

This Vote—and it has quite a long title—refers to a comparatively smaller part of the expenditure with which we are concerned. It compares with the large items in Subhead B of about £18 million, particularly the large item of £15 million on research and development contracts. This is the Vote under which one of my hon. Friends may wish to bring up the Comptroller and Auditor-General's Report, which he endeavoured to do a short while ago. This Report, of which we were able to get copies on Friday, refers to past years but, looking at it, we must ask for assurances from the Civil Lord that some of the points made in it have been remedied by the Admiralty before we can approve the expenditure for the coming financial year.

It is pointed out by the Comptroller and Auditor-General in the 1961–62 accounts that as long ago as October, 1958, proposals had been made to keep a closer check on expenditure, but that not until May, 1960 was a special committee set up by the Admiralty to look into proposals made about eighteen months before. According to the Comptroller and Auditor-General, it took eighteen months to set up that Committee. The working party set up in 1960 has now completed its survey of the proposals of 1958, and its report is now being studied within the Admiralty. Those proposals were made in October, 1958, yet we have still only reached the stage of the report being considered by the Admiralty.

The Comptroller and Auditor-General mentions a number of cases in 1961–62, but I shall not weary the Committee with the details at this late hour. He draws attention to estimates of £20 million for various aspects of research and development that have now gone up to £35 million. Of course, I know that in this work the original estimates generally have to be considerably varied—unfortunately, we have got used to that in almost all work of this kind in recent years—but, in reading the Comptroller and Auditor-General's Report, we have to express some surprise at the way in which these things appear to have been dealt with in 1961–62.

We must have information about the comments of the Comptroller and Auditor-General, and we also need to know a little more about what is included in the £25 million or more that we are here discussing. The Memorandum to the Navy Estimates in the Statement on Defence mentions Dounreay—the construction is completed there—and we are told that work is being done on action data, automation and oceanography, but that does not appear to account for the main item of £15,681,900 on research and development contracts under Subhead B (2). I hope that the Civil Lord will give us some information about the nature of the contracts, and of the work being done under them.

9.33 p.m.

Commander Courtney

We are being asked to vote nearly £26 million for research and development, and this is probably the moment to draw the Civil Lord's attention to a point of which I have given him notice—a serious gap in the Navy's research and development programme. In my view, this may amount to a rather serious error of judgment. I have spoken in the Committee before—perhaps wearied it—about my ideas of the evolution of weapons. Suffice it now to say that I believe that for purely naval purposes the era of the gun is virtually over and that it is already succeeded—having had a transitional stage in which man flew in his own projectile—by the guided missile.

Under its research and development programme, the Royal Navy has developed some excellent guided missiles. We know of Seacat, the short-range surface-to-air weapon, and there is Seaslug, of which the Mark H will soon come into service, which, from all information available to the Committee, is also an excellent surface-to-air anti-aircraft weapon. But whereas the Russians, the Americans, the Swedes and the French have developed in service, or are developing, a surface-to-surface guided missile to take the place of the old-fashioned naval gun, no mention of such a development appears in our research and development programme.

From what information is available to me, I believe that we have, as a deliberate stroke of policy some years ago, omitted to follow this line of development. The result is that in our fine "County" class of so-called guided missile destroyers—and many hon. Members have drawn attention to the irrelevancy, to put it mildly, of that description of these fine ships—we have Seacat and Seaslug for our surface-to-air weapons. These are anti-aircraft weapons—defensive, in fact. They are, in fact, anti-aircraft defences. But the surface-to-surface-weapons with which the "Devonshire" class are supposed to fight a day or night action are of an old design though, admittedly, they are rapid-firing 4.5 inch guns.

I would draw the Committee's attention to the fact, which the Civil Lord should know well, that the Russians, in their new type of guided missile destroyer, have probably perfected and have certainly fitted in a numerous class of ships what I believe to be an effective surface- to-surface guided missile. Furthermore, they have mounted this weapon in a small 40-knot armoured motor gunboat which, in the narrow waters where the Russians excel, might have a serious impact on our own forces.

I have a personal feeling about this, because by a mere chance I was not appointed flag lieutenant and squadron signal officer to Vice-Admiral L. E. Holland on H.M.S. "Hood". I have studied the shortcomings of naval gunnery and I realise that but for the accident of not having that appointment I should not be addressing this Committee today. I feel, as a signals man, and I hope that other hon. and gallant Members will not take my comments amiss, that, as was the case in the past, the First World War not excepted, naval gunnery may again have slipped back a little. I should like the Civil Lord's emphatic assurance that these developments will go ahead and that in the light of Russian developments we shall not lag behind with Royal Navy surface-to-surface guided missiles.

9.38 p.m.

Mr. Emrys Hughes

I hope that we shall have some reply to the debate in the light of the criticisms made in the Report of the Comptroller and Auditor-General. Searching criticisms are made of research expenditure, which started with comparatively small sums which have very considerably increased. This has caused a good deal of criticism and disquiet.

I have previously drawn the attention of the Committee to an article in the Guardian headed "Admiralty criticised for £15 million overspending on seven projects". If there were only one project it could be blurred over, but here are seven different projects which started in a comparatively small way and grew snowball-like to a considerable expenditure, with the result that the Comptroller and Auditor-General has made severe criticisms which have been taken up and noted at great length by some of the most influential newspapers.

Mr. Fan

The Daily Worker?

Mr. Hughes

If the hon. Member does not know the difference between the Daily Worker and the Guardian his political education is not as good as his naval education.

Mr. Willis

The hon. Gentleman has had no naval education either.

Mr. Hughes

I do not read the Daily Worker but I read the Guardian and the quotation to which I am about to refer is from the Guardian. If the hon. Member for Harborough (Mr. Farr) reads the Daily Worker perhaps that accounts for some of the subversive thoughts which he expresses in debate.

Mr. Farr

On a point of order. Is it in order for the hon. Gentleman to continue to read to us these long and laborious reports from newspapers?

The Deputy-Chairman (Sir R. Grimston)

I have heard nothing out of order.

Mr. Sydney Silverman (Nelson and Colne)

Further to that point of order. Is it in order for an hon. Member opposite—sitting down—to invite my hon. Friend to embark on long quotations from other newspapers?

The Deputy-Chairman

It is not in order for hon. Members to make remarks while sitting down.

Mr. Hughes

I had not the slightest idea that I was being politically controversial. I only want some kind of answer to the very objective criticisms which have been made by a responsible auditor.

Mr. Willis

The Auditor-General.

Mr. Hughes

Yes, the Auditor-General. I once knew a county clerk who said that he was not afraid of anyone except the auditor. I do not know whether the Admiralty is afraid of auditors, but we certainly should have a reply to some of these criticisms.

My hon. Friend has made one criticism, but there are other projects. He dealt with one, but there are six others. The situation is summarised in the following paragraph: Another project which it was originally thought would cost about £450,000 has ended up by costing some £2.5 millions. Between June, 1961, and June, 1962 alone, the estimated cost rose by some £1 million. We are embarking upon a new ocean of astronomical expenditure. We are embarking upon Polaris expenditure which has so alarmed the hon. Gentleman who interrupted me that he wants a separate Vote. I suggest that we should examine the causes of this increase in expenditure before this very large sum of Polaris expenditure is embarked upon. This is what the Comptroller and Auditor-General is inviting us to do.

Therefore, I hope that the Minister will not lightly brush away these criticisms on the ground that he has not had time to examine them. I believe that the Admiralty knows all about these things, and knew about them before they were published in the Comptroller and Auditor-General's Report. I hope we can be assured that we shall have a full-dress debate upon the Report, which is a very severe and drastic criticism of Admiralty expenditure by the Comptroller and Auditor-General.

9.42 p.m.

Mr. Wingfield Digby

I think that few will disagree with the importance of the research work that we are discussing. The difficulty is in putting it into practice.

Some reference has been made to the difficulty of choosing the right project, and that applies to all Service Departments. But there is something more than the money involved in voting an extra £1½ million this year, and that is whether we have the scientists to carry out the work. There is great competition for scientists from industry, and I think that it would be a good thing to hear from the Civil Lord how far he is satisfied that the difficulty in getting the right scientists to carry out these projects is being overcome.

I should like to make a short point on Subhead F, relating to the work of the National Institute of Oceanography. understand from an answer given to my hon. Friend the Member for Plymouth, Devonport (Miss Vickers) that the reason the Vote has been reduced considerably compared with last year is that a new research ship has now been built and is commissioned. Up to now it has been rather difficult—I do not know why—to get people to take an interest in the problems of oceanography, but I have noticed that during the past year many more people are realising the tremendous importance, not only to the Navy but to the economy of the country as a whole, of what goes on under the sea.

I wonder whether it would be possible to give more publicity to the work which is carried out in this research ship. Some of the projects in which she is engaged may be purely of a naval and secret nature, but much of the work must be of a general scientific nature and it would be a good thing if an attempt could be made to interest the public in what this ship is doing and where she is doing it. I hope, therefore, that we shall be told that some effort will be made to publicise the work of this new ship. I am glad that at last we have a thoroughly up-to-date research ship in place of the old one.

9.45 p.m.

Dr. Bennett

As one of the very few hon. Members who have been able to visit and inspect fairly fully this new research ship "Discovery", I have been profoundly impressed not only by the ship, which as yet is rather unfurnished with scientific gear—she has only the gear taken out of her predecessor and is looking for more—but by her capacity for future expansion, modification and addition. I was even more impressed by the immense devotion of the scientists and the "boffins" who man her and who do general scientific work on the fauna, the soundings and even the geology of the ocean—the bottom of the ocean, I mean, of course; I should not like anybody to think that I suppose the ocean to be solid. I feel that the ship is a magnificent investment and well worth the money voted by the House towards her.

There was only one point which I should like my hon. Friend to elucidate. It is out of order on a Supplementary Estimate to discuss a reduction, but in the Supplementary Estimate we have a reduction of £1,100,000 in expenditure on scientific projects. Presumably it is in order to discuss this in the Vote because the money will be paid this year instead, owing to the delays. Can my hon. Friend give any further enlightenment on the particular projects which are involved? It is an extremely big error to have been made in the forecast.

Captain Litchfield

May I refer to Subhead F? In the interests of accuracy, and for the purpose of the record, and because the Institute is on the borders of my constituency, may I ask my hon. Friend whether the words "National History Museum" should be "Natural History Museum"?

Mr. Godman Irvine (Rye)

For rather similar reasons, may I ask my hon. Friend to look at Subhead C? Note 2 states that £80,000 is included for expenses and maintenance costs of the Isaac Newton telescope. Can my hon. Friend tell us what is the position about the telescope and what progress is being made?

Mr. Farr

One of the items doubtless included in the Vote concerns the expense of the hydrographic surveys in the year ahead. No doubt I may refer to the recent hydrographic survey by H.M.S. "Cook". Can my hon. Friend tell me whether H.M.S. "Cook" or possibly H.M.S. "Discovery" are likely to return to the Mindanao depths to measure the correct depths and possibly to make a report?

9.48 p.m.

Mr. C. Ian Orr-Ewing

May I deal with the various points which have been made? I was asked a question about the Comptroller and Auditor-General's Report. I am sorry to disappoint the hon. Member for South Ayrshire (Mr. Emrys Hughes), but this report came out only last Friday and the procedure is that the Permanent Secretary will no doubt be closely questioned by the Public Accounts Committee about it. I believe that he has already appeared before the Committee and that he is due to appear again and to be questioned about the details here.

I hope hon. Members understand that it is a little difficult at short notice to try to produce a sensible answer to some fundamental criticisms on a problem which every Government, whatever its complexion, has found extremely difficult. I hope that hon. Members opposite will not think that I am making a party point if I say that they will concede that it is difficult. We recollect that they had these responsibilities with the Princess flying boat and the Brabazon, and there was a decision not to go ahead with supersonic flight because it was thought to be too expensive and beyond the bounds of this country's resources. These decisions were taken on the best scientific advice at the time, and they turned out not to be very wise decisions. I have no doubt that, although our decisions are taken on good scientific advice, we also occasionally make similar errors.

Mr. Willis

What happened about the Zuckerman Committee's Report, which mentioned this matter?

Mr. Orr-Ewing

I have done my "prep" correctly. I spent the weekend reading that Report and I have a copy of it here. Perhaps I can write to the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Willis

It was published in July, 1961.

Mr. Orr-Ewing

That is so, but we have been going into the matter. It is extremely difficult and is not a question on which we can arrive at an easy, succinct and accurate conclusion. I should prefer to write to the hon. Member and give him a considered reply.

I should now like to deal with the main point, appearing under B (2). This was raised by the hon. Member for Islington, North (Mr. Reynolds) and by some of my hon. Friends. I concede, of course, that this is the biggest lump sum under this Vote—£15,681,900. However, it does cover one reduction. There is some reduction in research and development on nuclear propulsion because we have passed over the hump at Dounreay and now that "Dreadnought" is at sea. There is an increase in the amount for surveillance and target illuminating radars for the next generation of guided missiles. That, of course, is a long way off but we must start putting money into research and development on it now.

Money is also being spent on action data automation, particularly for small ships, while a good deal of extra money is being spent on under-water weapons and under-water research. With the trend towards nuclear submarines and Polaris submarines, that is fundamental to the survival of this country, which depends so much on food and raw materials from abroad. In two world wars we have been challenged on this front, and it is right to devote a lot of our money to research into this aspect of sea warfare. For the same reason, we are spending more money on more powerful sonars, which were called asdics at one time.

I have tried to pick out the main headings. One of the points made in the Zuckerman Report was that we should divert more money to university research under this Vote, In the last five years we have stepped up the amount of research and development under this heading from £100,000 a year to £200,000 a year. This tendency will, I believe, continue and I believe that it is healthy not only for the universities but for the liaison between the universities and the Services.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dorset, West (Mr. Wingfield Digby) asked whether recruiting for the naval scientific service was going well, and I can assure him that it is. The whole question of the scientific service is under consideration. A committee is considering it at the moment because, of course, we want cross-pollination and chances of promotion, and it is difficult to achieve this unless we have a fairly well-grounded scientific service.

My hon. Friend also asked about the expansion of oceanography. There has been a tremendous growth of interest in this, and rightly so since 71 per cent. of the world's surface is covered by sea, and we are deeply dependent on the sea, not only for our food but for our defence. We have expanded our grants for this to £360,000, but the figure has gone clown this time because last year we subscribed £450,000 to R.R.S. "Discovery". We claim back £185,000 of the £360,000.

I was glad to have the approbation of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Gosport and Fareham (Dr. Bennett). We brought the "Discovery" up to the Pool of London at the end of the Christmas Recess, which was probably not a very suitable time for visitors this year. The National Council of Oceanography held a meeting on board. The Civil Lord of the day is Chairman of the Council, and he said that we were pleased with the ship and were quite sure that we shall get value for our money. I agree.

My hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Chelsea (Captain Litchfield) made the shortest, most succinct and accurate speech that I have heard in this Chamber in 12 years. I only wish that some other speeches were as short, accurate and pithy as his contribution. My hon. Friend the Member for Rye (Mr. Godman Irvine) raised the question of the Isaac Newton telescope. Progress here has not been quite as fast as we anticipated last year, but I should like to write to my hon. Friend on that matter. Perhaps I could expand on it and explain what has been going on. We still believe that it has a very considerable future, and we are investing money and effort in it. I will tell my hon. Friend what progress has been made, as I know that the telescope is close to or in his constituency.

I think that that has dealt with all the points.

Mr. Farr

Before my hon. Friend sits down, will he say whether R.R.S. "Discovery" or H.M.S. "Cook" is returning to the Mindanao depths?

Mr. On-Ewing

I think that H.M.S. "Cook" is busy on the Indian Ocean international survey. She was certainly in Singapore when I was there last autumn, and I believe that she is still on that survey. R.R.S. "Discovery" is going out to take part in that survey. It may not be possible to return her to make the measurements which my hon. Friend suggested, but I will look into that.

9.57 p.m.

Mr. Reynolds

The Civil Lord cannot skate round the Comptroller and Auditor-General's Report in the way that he did. We must admit that some of the matters about which we are concerned will be going in the Report in due course, but the main thing with which I am concerned is not the three specific projects that are given, which, obviously, will have to be looked into in very much greater detail by the Public Accounts Committee, but the general method of control of the expenditure under this subhead which I do not think we can allow the hon. Gentleman to push aside, saying that it will be looked into. We are being asked to approve a sum of £25,895,000 tonight.

Paragraph 7 on page iv of the Comptroller and Auditor-General's Report states: In 1958. the Department of Research Programmes and Planning made proposals with the object of finding ways of maintaining a better financial control of expenditure and estimated costs of work done under research and development contracts. It goes on to say, in paragraph 8: The proposals made"— and one or two other proposals are involved in this as well— which involved alterations to an Admiralty claim form and increasing by one the number of copies of the form which should be rendered by a contractor were notified to the Admiralty departments concerned in October, 1958, but no changes appear then to have been made. In May, 1960,"— there was an interval between October, 1958, and May, 1960, before this happened— the Admiralty appointed a Working Party to review the financial and contractual procedures in relation to research and development expenditure… The Working Party has apparently finished its work, although the Comptroller and Auditor-General does not give any indication of that, and its report is being considered by the Admiralty.

We then come to the instances of expenditure. What we are concerned about is what the Admiralty is doing to make sure that this sort of thing does not happen again. I do not want to go into individual items. This is a difficult matter because we want this type of research and development to be carried out as quickly as possible. This work often takes too long and then it has to be speeded up, and the financial control is likely to be less detailed than we would wish. Suggestions about this matter were made in 1958 and we should have an opportunity of finding out why nothing has been done about them.

9.59 p.m.

Mr. C. Ian Orr-Ewing

It is not quite true to say that nothing has been done since 1958. This dates back to the Gibb-Zuckerman Report, which dealt fundamentally with this problem. As a result of that Report and possibly the earlier matter, we have tightened up our control procedure very considerably. The advance survey has been undertaken and we have kept a much tighter financial control on the different processes. The matter must first be assessed. We have to plan the development and then go into production.

As I say, we have kept much tighter control over these matters, but I do not pretend that we have found the solution to the problem. I think that things are better than they were, but they are far from perfect. Having spent most of my working life being concerned with scientific matters in industry, I can say that there is exactly the same problem of controlling finance for research and development there. This is not a problem easy of solution. I think that we have made considerable improvements in the modern techniques which we are now using.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That a sum, not exceeding £25,895,000, 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, 1964.

It being Ten o'clock, The CHAIRMAN left the Chair to report Progress and ask leave to sit again.

Report of Resolutions to be received Tomorrow.

Committee also report Progress; to sit again Tomorrow.