HC Deb 05 August 1971 vol 822 cc1859-66
The Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. John Davies)

With permission, I shall make a statement on the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment.

The Rayner Report on "Government Organisation for Defence Procurement and Civil Aerospace"—published in Cmnd. 4641 in April—recommended that responsibility for the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment should be transferred from the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority to the Ministry of Defence.

The White Paper announced that the Government would examine, in consultation with the Authority, how best A.W.R.E.'s functions could be rationalised with those of the other defence research establishments. The Government have consulted the representatives of both the management and the staff of the Authority and have decided that the substantial rationalisation required can be effected only if the A.W.R.E. and the other establishments concerned are brought under the same management. Subject to the passage of the necessary legislation the A.W.R.E. will therefore be transferred to the Ministry of Defence.

The future arrangements for the civil work now done in the establishment will be discussed with the Atomic Energy Authority: the continuity of the civil nuclear work and in particular that of the important work on the fast breeder reactor will be ensured.

The Government intend to introduce a Bill in the next Session, so that the transfer can be implemented in the summer of 1972. My noble Friend the Secretary of State for Defence will take the lead in preparing and handling the legislation, and dealing with all questions that relate to the actual transfer. I and my right hon. Friend the Minister for Aerospace will of course continue to deal with matters affecting the rest of the Authority.

During the next few months the Ministry of Defence will consult the A.E.A. and the appropriate staff and trades union representatives about the terms and conditions on which staff will be transferred. Some adjustments will probably be inescapable. But the general aim will be that the terms and conditions taken as a whole shall be no less favourable than those provided for in existing contracts.

I realise that successive changes have been unsettling for the staff of the Authority. I cannot rule out the possibility of further change at some time—the Government are considering how best the electricity supply industry and the nuclear industry could be more closely involved in reactor research and development. But if a change in the Authority's statutory functions and organisation should be decided on, resulting in further transfers of Authority staff into some new structure, such transfers would be on a comparable basis to that for staff transferred to British Nuclear Fuels Ltd. and the Ministry of Defence. Meanwhile, although some continuing reduction in Authority staff is envisaged, the Government foresee the need for a substantial long term programme of important civil R. & D. work.

Mr. Benn

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the statement which he has made concerns not just an administrative change, since it embodies changes of national policy of the very highest importance? For the first time in this country and, I believe, in any western country, we are marshalling nuclear weapons research and production with and under a Defence Minister who will be responsible for the strategy and possible use of those weapons. Even in the United States the Atomic Energy Commission is separate from the Pentagon, and in France at Pierrelatte there is a separate Minister other than the Defence Minister. This means that the Cabinet receives its advice on nuclear matters from one Minister only and not from two, one responsible for scientists and one for military strategy.

I should, therefore, like to ask the following questions. First, will he consider again the full implications of putting nuclear scientists under the military alone in any Western country and contrary to our whole experience since 1955? Secondly, will he consider again whether it is sensible that the trend in diversifying military research into civil research should be reversed? Thirdly, will he consider the implications of bringing a lot of Atomic Energy Authority civil servants back into the Government, and particularly the staff implications? Fourthly, will he tell the House when we may know about the future of the Atomic Energy Authority which, with the disappearance of Aldermaston, is clearly a major change of its position?

Finally, whether the proposals are right or wrong—they have been keenly debated in Whitehall—does the Minister agree that there should be a White Paper and a full debate on the principles before the legislation is prepared so that the matters which I have raised, and many others, can be considered in full by the House in view of their major national importance?

Mr. Davies

I am conscious of the very important policy nature of the decision now made. I should make one small correction to what the right hon. Gentleman said. It is nuclear weapons matters which are being transferred to the Ministry of Defence. There is obviously a continuing and important nuclear activity within the Atomic Energy Authority.

The right hon. Gentleman considered that there was some risk of not maintaining the trend from military into civil research in this sphere. I do not see any risk of this. The intention is for there to be full discussion between the two bodies of research in this sphere with a view to ascertaining the complementary features between the two and to maintain them.

On the staff implications, I think that I gave satisfaction in the broad assurance which I gave that it would be our aim to see that the general terms of service, despite the change in status of the people concerned, are maintained.

The right hon. Gentleman's final question concerned the desirability of placing before the House a White Paper and instituting a debate on the matter when more definite plans regarding the Atomic Energy Authority are available. I shall certainly give consideration to that point, though I must tell the right hon. Gentleman that the examination into the future rôle and organisation of the Atomic Energy Authority, to which I have referred, may not be ready for some time.

Mr. Benn

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for giving consideration to some of the points which I have raised. May I underline that, to put scientists working on nuclear weapons under the Minister responsible for their possible use, is a major reversal of British policy over a long period? With growing worldwide anxiety about the control of military and civil technology and with the development in the scientific community of new movements for social responsibility, he has touched on a central political question which the House will want to debate very fully. Will the right hon. Gentleman assure the House that there will not be a final closing of minds on this matter by the Government until the House, the scientific community, and the public generally have had an opportunity to take on board the significance of what has been stated today?

Mr. Davies

It is important to stress that, within the sphere of vital policymaking to which the right hon. Gentleman refers, although those with responsibilities in this area answer directly to the Minister of Defence, it is clear that the Government as a whole are involved in the policy-making considerations. Therefore, I think that the narrow aspect of the problem, as he outlines it, in terms of a single Minister being solely responsible for this enormously important area of activity, is not entirely in accordance with the normal practices of the Government.

Mr. David Mitchell

Has my right hon. Friend taken into account the advantages which have arisen in the past from the close association of those working on both civil and defence research projects side-by-side under the same roof? In practice, there seem to have been considerable advantages from close association and being able to discuss problems which arise similarly in both defence and civil advanced research in this area. It seems that there might be a considerable loss in the physical separation involved in the Government's proposals.

Mr. Davies

I do not think so, because the civil and defence research will continue to function shoulder to shoulder within the framework of the A.W.R.E. It is not intended that there should be a cessation of the civil research activity. I do not think that there is any risk of that.

The other side of the question posed by my hon. Friend concerns whether the total integration of the atomic issue in a single entity is more desirable than the potential rationalisation to be achieved by identifying those parts of it concerned purely with defence and seeking to improve rationalisation in that sphere, which is the conclusion at which the Government have arrived.

Mr. Maclennan

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that the House will not accept his characterisation of my right hon. Friend's view about the seriousness of the decision which he has taken as a narrow consideration or concept? This is a matter of profound importance, and we should have not a White Paper but, in my view, a Green Paper setting out the alternative possibilities which the House can debate fully before the Government come to a final conclusion on this vitally important matter.

Mr. Davies

The hon. Gentleman has misunderstood me. I said that the narrow concept was in formulating the thought that a single Minister within this area, albeit the Secretary of State for Defence, had sole disposal of the total policies involved in this naturally important strategic sphere.

Mr. Adley

Will my right hon. Friend take particular note of one point touched upon by the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) about the problem of looking after the interests, at Cabinet level, of those who find themselves transferred from civil to defence responsibility?

Mr. Davies

Yes. I hope that I have given the kind of assurances which are wanted in that respect. The matter is clearly very much in the Government's mind. The considerations put forward by my hon. Friend will be strictly borne in mind.

Mr. Booth

Under the new system of administration for A.W.R.E. which the Government are to propose in legislation, will there still be common use of research and development facilities for both military and civil purposes? If so, how will decisions be made whether priority is given to their use for civil or military purposes? Will decisions on this issue be subject to the control of this House?

Mr. Davies

It is right, as the hon. Gentleman says, that at the moment there is a common effort in both civil and defence research and development within the framework of the organisation concerned. That will continue. The control of that operation is clearly a matter in which the relative interests of the two Departments concerned will have to confront each other in determining the effort devoted within the A.W.R.E. to the respective interests of those Departments. This will continue under arrangements which the Government have already made.

Mr. Frank Allaun

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that many hon. Members, and far more scientists, will regard this proposal as both reactionary and dangerous? Will it not mean the subordinating of research for peaceful nuclear purposes to the military rather than vice versa, as many of us would wish? Will he tell us what is to be the future of Aldermaston? We understood, years ago, that it was to be transferred almost entirely to peaceful purposes. I wonder whether this is now the case. Lastly, is not this a breach of the non-proliferation agreement in which it was implicit that those who had nuclear power should at least restrain rather than encourage others to enter this sphere?

Mr. Davies

There will not be any subordination of the civil research interest by the military. That will not take place. The civil research interest will still be strongly defended by my Department in consultation with the Ministry of Defence.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the broad use of Aldermaston. At the moment, Aldermaston is used to something less than a fifth in terms of civil effort and, therefore, slightly more than four-fifths in terms of military effort. It is impossible at this moment to say how these proportions will evolve. This is the situation now. It is far from a situation where the research establishment was moving more and more into a military section. I must equally point out that there is no risk of breach of any non-proliferation agreement.

Mr. David Stoddart

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the staff at the A.W.R.E., or many of them, have expressed fears about this type of reorganisation? Is he further aware that fears have been expressed about large-scale redundancies, both at the A.W.R.E. and at the A.E.A.? Will he give an assurance that if there are to be redundancies consultations will take place before the event, rather than after? I hope, of course, that there will be no redundancies at all.

Mr. Davies

The future of the establishment is clearly a matter for the Ministry of Defence, and not for me, but I am sure that I can, on its behalf, give the House the assurance that where there are redundancies there will be proper and previous consultation before any such decision is taken.

Several Hon. Members rose——

Mr. Deputy-Speaker (Sir Robert Grant-Ferris)

Order. We must pass on to the other business.

Mr. Benn rose——

Mr. Deputy Speaker

Perhaps the right hon. Gentleman will confine himself to just one more question.

Mr. Benn

May I ask the right hon. Gentleman to accept from me that, in the judgment of the Opposition, the reversal of a policy which has been pursued by all Governments since nuclear weapons were first developed in this country, which al-way put their control either directly under the Prime Minister, or under a separate Minister to whom the scientists involved could go without feeling that they were going to someone who might wish to, or be in a position to, use them, is a major constitutional question, and one which, without prejudice to the merits of the argument, ought to be publicly debated and understood, and not slipped through as simply a management decision?

I ask the right hon. Gentleman to take that in the spirit in which I make the point, and to put it to members of the Cabinet and to the right hon. Gentleman the Leader of the House that there should be a statement, a White Paper or a Green Paper, in which the merits of both sides of the argument are clearly argued so that we do not stumble into another decision in the guise of technology when it is really a major political decision.

Mr. Davies

I take note of the right hon. Gentleman's apprehensions but I feel that all these points can, and no doubt will, be expressed in the debate dealing with the legislation when it is produced.