HC Deb 07 December 1965 vol 722 cc245-51
The Minister of Technology (Mr. Frank Cousins)

With permission, Mr. Speaker, I will make a statement about the establishment of a National Computing Centre.

A rapid increase in the use of computers is vital to the drive for greater efficiency on which our national prosperity depends. In order to encourage the greatest practicable use of computers, it is important to simplify and cheapen the preparatory work which the user has to perform before his job can he put on the computer. Furthermore, we must make the best possible use of systems analysts and programmers trained in this work.

It was for these reasons that I told the House on 1st March last that I was exploring the possibility of setting up a National Computer Program Centre. Following consultations with computer manufacturers, users and others I have decided to set up an organisation with a rather wider scope, to be called the National Computing Centre.

The Centre should reduce wasteful duplication of programming effort. It will achieve this in two ways; first, by providing computer users with information about programs already available in its library or elsewhere. Second, by developing and sponsoring the development of programs designed to serve users having closely similar tasks.

The Centre will also provide and encourage training in systems analysis, programming principles and computer applications. It will promote research into methods of programming and operating computers and into the influence of these methods on the design of computers.

All these objectives will be pursued in close co-operation with the computer manufacturers and with users in industry, commerce, administration, science and technology.

The Centre will be set up as an independent non-profit making Company, limited by guarantee. I know that we can count on a wide measure of support for the Centre. I shall be inviting representatives of manufacturers, users and of professional and other interested bodies to become members of the Centre and to be represented on the Council which will run it.

Professor Gordon Black who is at present Technical Manager (Computing) in the Reactor Group of the Atomic Energy Authority and part-time Professor of Automatic Data Processing in the Faculty of Technology of Manchester University, has acepted my invitation to become the first Director of the Centre. The Atomic Energy Authority have agreed to release him from his present appointment for that purpose and the University have agreed that Professor Black shall retain his professorial appointment.

The location of the Centre is a matter of importance. I hope to announce shortly that it will be built in Manchester on a site where it would be easily accessible to industry, close to the University with its traditional interest in computing science and close to the Business School.

I hope that the Centre will be built up during the course of next year and be fully in operation in 1967.

Mr. Biffen

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that there will be a widespread desire carefully, critically and dispassionately to study the statement? To assist in that study, perhaps I might put some questions to him.

First, does he envisage that the Centre will require a number of highly qualified staff? If so, with what success will he be able to recruit the staff in view of the current demand for these highly qualified people when, I imagine, he will be obliged to apply the Civil Service salary scale to them?

Secondly, can he confirm that the Centre will itself have computers? If so, will they be the full range of computers generally and popularly being used throughout British industry?

Thirdly, will he tell us whether or not it will be the purpose of the Centre to advise on the choice of computers to those who seek its advice?

Finally, since the work of the Centre will apparently be parallel to that of the existing and growing body of computer consultants, and its customers will include those in commerce, administration and industry, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the Centre will not only be non-profit making but non-loss making?

Mr. Cousins

The staff of the Centre will not be civil servants. It is likely that we shall require between 40 and 50 on the staff. They will need to be experts, and, of course, we shall need the closest possible consultation with the manufacturers, producers and users in order to get the right people. They will not all be required at first. The staff will grow as the Centre becomes fully operative.

The hon. Gentleman suggested that this might take staff away from other sources. One of the functions of the Centre, however, will be to assist in training methods, because we are well aware that this is not being done at the top level at the moment. I do not want to be offensive, but it is the case that it is easy to find low level programmers but not top level people.

It is intended that the Centre shall have a computer. The hon. Gentleman asked whether it would have the whole range of computers in general use in British industry. As I say, it is intended to have a computer in the first instance, but I do not want to go on telling the Centre what it requires. The staff will be composed of people who know what is needed and who will set out to get the instruments to do it.

The hon. Member asked for an assurance that this would be not only a nonprofit making organisation but also a non-loss making organisation. I want to make something clear. We must recognise that the country needs a computer centre. Both sides of the House and people outside have said that we do. People are not satisfied that the consultancy agencies in computer work have been altogether a proper method for training and getting the people required. If this reading of the situation is correct, then the question is not whether it will make a profit at first but whether the amount of money put in will be satisfactory to enable it to get off the ground and from then on become a self-supporting organisation. That is what we want. Self-support by the Centre will be of value both to itself and to the country.

Mr. Maxwell

Is my right hon. Friend aware that this very important statement will be most welcome not only to industry and computer firms but to all those firms, both nationalised and private, which are now examining the possibility of acquiring computers? Since the statement will, however, cause a certain indecision among firms as to whether they should await the advice they may be able to obtain from the new Centre, on what date does he expect that firms will be able to obtain advice from the centre?

Secondly, what preparatory work did my right hon. Friend inherit on this project from the last Administration? Finally, what has caused the delay in the announcement of this important statement?

Mr. Cousins

We did not inherit any procedures from the last Administration We had to create them ourselves from scratch. I suppose that that could be regarded as at least part of the reason for the delay. A second reason is that this is a most complicated subject which had to be carefully examined with all those who produce and use and want to use computers so that a satisfactory instrument could be created. We were not prepared to jump in without the fullest examination. I am sure that both sides of the House will welcome this announcement, even though it has been said that there will be critical analysis of the statement, which is understandable and acceptable. Bat, in principle, I am sure it is accepted that we should get on with it at an early date. We are hoping to have the Centre operative in the early part of 1967, but that is our expectation and I cannot say whether it will be fulfilled. We hone that it will.

Mr. Buchanan-Smith

I welcome the statement about the establishment of the Centre. However, will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that there will be disappointment among many people in Scotland that the Centre is not to be situated in Scotland, especially when it is of a type particularly suitable for fitting into the work of the D.S.I.R. in East Kilbride and the new developments going on there and the establishment of new development industries in Scotland.

Mr. Cousins

I hope that the hon. Gentleman's pleasure at receiving the statement is not tinged with too much disappointment about the Centre not being established in Scotland. Of course we understand that whenever there is an opportunity for establishing a project such as this, Scotland wants to have it, as do other places. However, I had to have regard to where the Centre could do the most good for British industry, and Manchester already has a good deal of computer knowledge.

Mr. Freeson

I join with other hon. Members in thanking my right hon. Friend for his statement. So far, the questions and answers have dealt with the Centre in relation to industry, naturally enough. I want to ask a question about the public services. Is it the intention after the Centre has been set up in due course to allow it to provide services to local and other public authorities, apart from the nationalised indus- tries, bearing in mind the growing need for research into planning and other social problems which will come very much to the fore, certainly for planning authorities and local government generally? Is it the intention not only to advise such departments in public services, but also to provide a direct service to local government in future years?

Mr. Cousins

Whether it will be able to provide a service to local authorities in the coming years will depend on the size of the growth of the Centre itself. As was suggested by the hon. Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen) when he put his question about a whole range of computers, if the purchase of computers were extended, one would hope to use them over a much wider range, but the Centre is to be used as a medium for training people and encouraging people in the use of computers, making it possible for people to understand how computers can be of value to them, removing some of their difficulties about installation, and avoiding duplication of preparatory work by small bodies.

Mr. Lubbock

Now that the functions of the Centre are to be expanded so as to include the provision of training in computer science, will the right hon. Gentleman make sure that there is the closest co-operation between the Centre and the University of Manchester by establishing a degree course in computer science, for example? He said that he imagined that the Centre would require only one computer, but will he be guided by the Council when it is set up and not take that decision until he has had the fullest advice from the Council? If it says that it needs more than one computer, will he ensure that the use of those computers is free to the university as well as to those consulting the Centre?

Mr. Cousins

The simple answer is that we shall certainly take the closest possible advice from Manchester University. One of the reasons for putting the Centre in Manchester is that the University has this background knowledge. It is no good establishing a Centre to give advice and not putting it in a place where such knowledge is available.

Mr. Dalyell

Does my right hon. Friend intend to recruit staff from industry on a temporary secondment basis?

Mr. Cousins

Yes. We shall be delighted if such an opportunity presents itself. There are two reasons. First, that would bring in the right kind of folk and, secondly, they would have an opportunity to maintain their contacts with industry and remain fully abreast of industry's current desires.

Several Hon. Members rose——

Mr. Speaker

Order. I must protect the business of the House. Mr. Thorpe.