HC Deb 01 March 1965 vol 707 cc924-30
The Minister of Technology (Mr. Frank Cousins)

With permission, I should like to make a statement about the computer industry.

The Government consider that it is essential that there should be a rapid increase in the use of computers and computer techniques in industry and commerce and that there should be a flourishing British computer industry. Plans have been prepared to serve these ends.

First, I am forming a Computer Advisory Unit within the Ministry of Technology to advise on computer requirements over the whole public sector. All proposals for computers required by Government Departments for civil purpose will be referred to this unit for objective technical appraisal before procurement is authorised. A similar procedure will apply to computers purchased with public moneys by universities, colleges of advanced technology and research councils.

The advice of the unit will also be available to local authorities, nationalised industries and other users in the public sector. With its accumulating knowledge of the needs of users, it will work closely with the computer industry in planning new developments. The unit will be based on the Technical Support Unit of the Treasury, which will be transferred to the Ministry of Technology and built up to roughly double its present size as rapidly as possible.

Secondly, the Government have initiated a full scale review of the computer requirements of universities, colleges of advanced technology and research councils. The University Grants Committee and the Council for Scientific Policy is at work jointly assessing the new facilities needed. This review will lead to a new five-year programme of procurement which should greatly reinforce the capabilities, of the universities and research councils in this vital area and provide an important stimulus to the industry. Equipment to satisfy the needs established will be procured after consultation with the Ministry of Technology. Details of this programme cannot be settled until the assessment is completed in a few months' time. The Government propose to start this five-year programme at a rate of £2 million a year.

Thirdly, we shall initiate further programmes of research into computer techniques and the development of new equipment. These programmes will proceed in industry, the universities and in Government research establishments and in the Post Office. In addition, the National Research Development Corporation will be greatly expanding its work in this field.

I have, for example, just approved in principle—subject, of course, to the passage of the Development of Inventions Bill—proposals it has put to me for assisting computer development on a substantial scale. Research into computer development techniques for the 1970s is already being sponsored in partnership with industry under the Advanced Computer Techniques Project—which the Ministry of Technology will be taking over from the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research.

The sum of £1 million has already been earmarked for this work. Further developments under this project are now being discussed and, if industry is willing to contribute a share of the cost of enlarging these programmes, we hope to place contracts in 1965–66 involving additional commitments by the Government of the order of £500,000. The Ministry hopes to place contracts with the universities in 1965–66 for industry orientated research to the value of about £500,000. Other work at universities will be financed through the Science Research Council.

Fourthly, I am exploring with the industry and with users the possibilities of establishing a National Computer Programme Centre in which they would be partners with the Government. Such a centre would acquire programmes from the computer makers and users and form a library. It would have funds to buy existing programmes for the library and to commission new programmes required for use with British computers. I believe that such a centre would help us to make better use of our programming resources.

The Government believe that these plans, which will be developed and extended in the light of experience, will encourage the healthy development of modern computer techniques and of a sector of industry vital to the economy of the country.

Mr. Biffen

The right hon. Gentleman has said that all proposals for computers required by Government Departments for civil purposes will be referred to a Computer Advisory Unit. I should be very grateful if he would confirm that it will be only objective technical appraisals which will be made by such a body.

Secondly, will the right hon. Gentleman confirm that, although the advice of such a unit will be available to local authorities and nationalised industries the decision on purchasing will none the less remain with the local authorities and nationalised industries?

Finally, will the right hon. Gentleman appreciate that it is the market as well as the development of the computer industry which is of vital concern, and that there will be some disappointment that his statement contains no indication that the right hon. Gentleman may be thinking of wider European contacts in this context?

Mr. Cousins

I said in my statement that the purpose of the unit was to make an objective survey, and that is exactly what we mean by the words we use. It will be an objective survey and the procurement will still be where it now is. Of course, other authorities will have the right to purchase, but we hope that the use of the unit will show them the value of British computers and will encourage them into the use of British computers.

We hope that foreign associations will eventually develop, but in the first instance we believe that we ought to deal with the British computer industry.

Dr. Bray

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on his very wide-ranging and imaginative measures to improve the health of the computer industry. Does he not agree that the parlous state into which the industry was allowed to sink by the previous Government is shown by the fact that so many measures, widely agreed in the computer industry, should be undertaken straight away? Is he aware that we on this side of the House are very glad that the study in his Ministry is to include the software of the systems side, since it is generally acknowledged that there are a number of possibilities in this respect?

Finally, in view of the extremely comprehensive range of my right hon. Friend's statement, can we look forward to an early debate on the subject?

Mr. Cousins

I will try to follow the suggestion of an hon. Member opposite and keep politics out of this matter, as far as I can, because of its technical nature, but it must be recognised that the computer industry has been allowed to get into a parlous state during the last few years.

We are very well aware that the industry needs all the assistance it can get. We shall press forward with software development, which is a vital part of the industry. Industrial users are having difficulty applying computer techniques because software is not up to the required standard. We shall be happy to take the opportunity to have a debate if one is offered.

Mr. Ridsdale

Does not the right hon. Gentleman think that the cut-back in investment in the aircraft industry will affect the computer industry? For that reason, will he say whether consideration is being given to investment in a communications satellite project?

Mr. Cousins

I do not think that the cut-back in the amount of money in the aircraft industry will hit the computer industry. One of the things which has hindered us has been the specific nature of the work done which has not had much industrial content. We hope that this situation will alter and that we shall get some money into the industry at those points where it will be of value. The answer to the hon. Gentleman's final question is "No, Sir".

Mr. Snow

Will my right hon. Friend bear in mind the importance, in the long run, of the application of this technology to commerce and industry at large, particularly to medium and small industries, for instance, in distribution? Will he bear in mind that, so far, there has been a rather unhappy history of at least one American company which manufactures this equipment being far in advance of British companies in the provision of the necessary supporting training, both for executives and the clerical grade staff needed to operate the equipment?

Mr. Cousins

Yes, I am well aware of this difficulty. One of the problems we have to face is the inadequacy of trained staff, but we are taking the necessary steps jointly to examine this with the Department of Education and Science. A great deal of attention must be paid to the training of skilled programmers.

Mr. Patrick Jenkin

Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that one requirement for the advancement of the computer industry is the standardisation of computer languages? Does he agree that the proliferation of these languages, which go by these extraordinary names, Fortran, Cobol, Cleo, and the rest, is a real obstacle to the advancement of this industry?

Mr. Cousins

Certainly I do. There have been attempts to regularise and standardise it and to provide compilers for standardising where this has not been possible. I think that a standard language would be of great value.

Mr. Sheldon

While welcoming the encouragement that the Minister has given to this very important industry, and the programme of development which he has laid down, may I ask him whether he would not agree that one of the most important aspects of this is the way in which computers are introduced into general industry and that, although this may be the next part of his programme, this will be the way in which the effect of the computer industry will be felt within the context of the field in which my right hon. Friend is working?

Mr. Cousins

Yes, that is certainly so.

Mr. Lubbock

Has the right hon. Gentleman had any discussions with his opposite numbers in Europe about coordination of the Government's programme for computers in various European countries? Secondly, could he say whether the five-year procurement programme at the rate of £2 million a year is in addition to the public money being spent at present, and whether the same applies to the £500,000 for industry orientated research in universities? Thirdly, could the right hon. Gentleman explain how the co-ordination will work between the Computer Advisory Unit and the National Research and Development Corporation?

Mr. Cousins

The whole question of the policies in Europe is not a subject appropriate to my Ministry. The discussions will at some time, I hope, involve us. But the discussions which have taken place on projects up to now have been in other Ministers' Departments, and the hon. Gentleman would need to ask them questions on that.

The £2 million will be in addition. There will be other spending apart from that, including the spending which will take place by the N.R.D.C. on projects.

Mr. Lubbock

What is the relationship between the Computer Advisory Unit and the National Research and Development Corporation?

Mr. Cousins

I have just answered that in my statement. The N.R.D.C. will be considering projects in relation to other development.

Mr. Maxwell

I warmly welcome my right hon. Friend's statement. However, the funds which he is proposing to allocate to the computer industry are paltry, but in relation to our national resources they are substantially more than the former Administration were willing to allocate. In the final analysis the computer industry—[HON MEMBERS: "Question."] The computer industry requires orders—[HON. MEMBERS: "Question."] Will the Minister use Government purchasing power to get British industry at large to place orders for computers on a sufficient scale to enable our computer industry to compete with our American friends?

Mr. Cousins

The question of getting British industry to order computers is not the responsibility of the Minister of Technology. It is the responsibility of British industry. Our policy is designed to make the greatest use of our resources to bring a thriving British computer industry into being so that there shall be an increase of orders from British industry. Also, we want to make British industry conscious of the advantages of using a thriving British computer industry.

Several Hon. Members


Mr. Speaker

We cannot debate this now without a Question being before the House.