HL Deb 07 November 1950 vol 169 cc148-50

2.39 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

[The Question was as follows:

To ask His Majesty's Government whether they propose to make a statement concerning the departure from this country of Professor Pontecorvo, and whether they have any further steps in mind to safeguard the country against the danger of leakages of secret information.]


My Lords, I must apologise for the length of this reply. Dr. Pontecorvo, a senior principal scientific officer in the Nuclear Physics Division at Harwell, and a naturalised British subject, was granted leave of absence on July 25 last and left this country with his family on the same day for a holiday in France and Italy. He took his car with him. Before pro-ceeding further, I must explain that, under the British Nationality and Status of Aliens Act, 1914, a naturalised British subject has to all intents and purposes the status of a natural-born British subject. Even if there had been any reason at the time to suppose that Dr. Pontecorvo might not return to this country—and there was no such indication whatever— there would have been no legal means of preventing his departure.

Dr. Pontecorvo's leave expired on August 31. On this date he had written a note to Harwell, which was received on September 4, explaining that he had had trouble with his car the fact that there had been a car accident has been confirmed through other channels—but hoped to be back in time for a conference to be held between September 7 and 13. A message had also been sent to him from Harwell asking him to visit and advise a team of scientists employed in Switzerland on cosmic ray work, on which he had specialised. It was his failure to pay this visit, or to communicate with Harwell after September 4, which gave cause for concern, and security inquiries as to his whereabouts were started on September 21. These were naturally conducted with considerable discretion, because there was little point in creating undue alarm about an absence which might have been capable of a perfectly innocent explanation, and because all the evidence at Harwell and elsewhere suggested strongly that it was Dr. Pontecorvo's intention to return to this country. He had received in June last an offer of appointment to a Professorship at Liverpool University, had written to the Vice-Chancellor accepting the offer, after discussing it with his Director, had arranged to take a University flat and had booked a return passage for his car.

Dr. Pontecorvo and his family flew to Stockholm from Rome on August 31 and on September 2 they travelled to Helsinki. Since then, there has been no definite information about Dr. Pontecorvo's movements, but His Majesty's Government have no doubt that he is in Russia. Dr. Pontecorvo, although employed in the Nuclear Physics Division at Harwell, was not engaged on secret work. For several years past his contacts with such work had been very limited, and he had no direct contact with work on atomic weapons.

With regard to the second part of the Question, His Majesty's Government have always in mind the need to safeguard the country against the danger of leakages of secret information and the security measures in force are under constant review.


My Lords, while thanking the noble Lord for his full answer to my question, I should like to ask him whether he has any knowledge about this particular professor having shown militant Communistic tendencies at the time of the last Election?


None whatsoever.


May I ask the noble Lord to look into that matter, or would he like me to tell him whence I obtained this information?


If the noble Lord will give us any in-formation and any facts at his disposal, we shall be grateful.


My Lords, do I understand from my noble friend that in actual fact this scientist has little really secret information to impart, in which case our loss does not seem to be much gain to the Russians?


My Lords, the facts are as the noble Lord has stated them to be.