HL Deb 16 February 1954 vol 185 cc921-33

4.39 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, this Bill amends the Development of Inventions Act, 1948, which set up the National Research Development Corporation. The main objects of the Bill are to extend the time during which the Corporation may finance themselves by borrowing from public funds and to widen the powers of the Corporation slightly in connection with research. The Corporation have a rather unusual and, to my way of thinking, an interesting job. They receive inventions, develop them if necessary, and pass them out again for use in industry.

Their purpose, broadly, is to help to get the results of the country's research and inventive activities applied in industry as quickly as possible. The Government are now responsible for a tremendous volume of research, mostly for defence, and that produces as a by-product many inventions of real potential importance to industry. Although most inventions of any value coming from private sources are readily taken up by industry, now and then the odd one falls by the wayside. For example, there was Perkin's discovery in the year 1856 of the aniline dye, which, unfortunately, through some neglect in this country, was allowed to go abroad and form the basis of the formidable German dyestuff industry. Again, the synthetic production of Vitamin D—I do not know whether that should be pronounced "Vit-amin" or "Vi-tamin" there seems, to be no agreement upon it—to the discovery of which British researchers largely contributed, also, unfortunately, slipped through our fingers, and became the basis of an industry in America.

The Corporation are enjoined by the parent Act to: secure, where the public interest so requires, the development and exploitation of inventions resulting from publicly financed research. For this purpose, they receive rights in non-secret Government inventions of potential commercial value. They may also develop and exploit other inventions, such as those produced by private firms or individuals, if these appear to be worth while and are in danger of neglect. They secure by negotiation the privately-owned rights of inventions brought to their notice by the inventor, or make other arrangements acceptable to the owners for development and exploitation in the public interest. The Corporation exploit the rights they hold by granting licences to firms wishing to use the inventions, and they have established wide and friendly contacts with industry in the four and a half years of their existence. Many of the Corporation's inventions can be licensed immediately. For instance, the Bailey Bridge which, after a most distinguished war career, came to them from the Ministry of Supply was taken up by a go-ahead engineer and is now bringing a substantial return to the country from exports and overseas licensing.

A few inventions, however, require heavy expenditure to bring them into an industrially useful form, and industry may not be prepared to invest money in them at this early stage. It is an important function of the Corporation, in these cases, to sponsor any experimentation, engineering design, economic studies, or large-scale trials which may be necessary to bring the inventions to the stage at which their value can be appreciated and firms are willing to manufacture the product or use the process under licence. In such cases, the Corporation's work relieves the licensee of further substantial development expenditure.

I think I ought to make it clear to your Lordships that the Corporation do not, themselves, conduct research and development. They are a managerial body of industrial, technical and patent experts, and they operate through private firms, research organisations, universities and so on, with whom they make contracts to do the research and development work. The managing director of the Corporation is a Member of your Lordships' House, the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, whom I am glad to see in his place to-day. I am certain that your Lordships would wish me, on your behalf, to congratulate him and his staff on the fine job of work which they have done. The noble Earl, as a distinguished industrial scientist, is bringing fresh lustre to a name which is already held in high repute in other fields. The chairman of the Corporation, Sir Percy Mills, and the other members give their services part-time, a number of them without remuneration. All have been appointed for some special knowledge and experience which they can contribute, and together they form, if I may say so, a most competent team.

The existing Act empowers the Board of Trade to advance to the Corporation sums up to a maximum of £5 million outstanding at any one time during the Corporation's first five years. The advances made up to the end of 1953 amounted to about £750,000. Your Lordships will appreciate that the Corporation have used so far only a fraction of the funds which it was envisaged they would need. The explanation, of course, is that five years is a short time to a body engaged in developing inventions. The early stages of development, when the invention is still in the laboratory, or on the drawing-board, are, obviously, comparatively inexpensive. It may take several years of experiment and trial before the time comes for building full-scale prototypes, and then the expenditure may increase ten or even a hundred times. The Corporation have yet to reach the stage of their heaviest expenditure on many of their projects, and more are constantly coming forward. The expenditure to date, therefore, is not a full measure of what it may ultimately be.

The Corporation's revenue comes from the royalties and other payments made by firms using their inventions. At present, they are comparatively small, but they are increasing. They have grown from £3,000 in the first year to £23,000 in the fourth, and they are likely to be about twice this amount in the current year. Royalty revenue, however, is necessarily slow in coming in, since royalties are paid only after development has been completed, licences negotiated and the goods actually made. The Corporation's revenue, therefore, cannot be expected to be very significant for some years to come, though there is good reason to hope that by the end of the period covered by this Bill—that is ten years from the Corporation's first formation—they may be approaching, if indeed they have not reached, the stage at which their income and expenditure will be in balance. Indeed, there is even a prospect that they may have entered the realms of political controversy and be making a profit. In the meantime, your Lordships will not be surprised to know that there is need for them still to be financed from public funds.

If one comes before your Lordships and asks for your support for an organisation such as this, I think it is only right to try to justify the reasons why that support is being asked. Before passing on to the actual provisions of the Bill, therefore, I think I should say something about the details of the Corporation's achievements. Figures given in their Fourth Annual Report, which lies on the Table of your Lordships' House, show that they now hold some 500 patents at home and 227 overseas, and they have filed applications for nearly 1,500 more. They have issued or have had assigned to them by Departments over 250 licences—


Will the noble Lord forgive rile? He said that we could find copies of the Corporation's Report on the Fable of the House. I should like to know where. I cannot see a copy.


I am extremely sorry. I saw the noble Lord's eye passing towards that side of the Table. Copies of the Report were there just after the House met, because I asked for them to be put there, but I am afraid noble Lords have been greedier than I expected, for the copies have all gone. However, if the noble Lord wishes for a copy I can easily get one for him.

I was saying that the Corporation have issued or have had assigned to them by Departments over 250 licences, and more, of course, are under negotiation. The fact that only 77 licences are as yet earning revenue is an indication of the increase in income which may be expected during the next few years. The Corporation's Fourth Annual Report describes a number of projects which they have on hand and illustrates strikingly, I think, the wide range of technology which they cover. The most important of them is the electronic digital computer, which is more familiarly known as, the electronic brain. This astonishing machine can be used in the determination of the action of the waves on the hull of a ship; and can do the accounting of a big commercial engineering concern in five minutes—a task that would take normally something like twelve months. It can do pretty well everything that I can understand, except make a Second Reading speech. It could be turned on to the task of securing an even and rapid flow of traffic in Oxford Street by instantaneously measuring and controlling all traffic for half a mile around. But it only requires the purchase of a twopenny bus ticket to convince any of your Lordships that this task is not yet completed. The Corporation's contribution to the development of these electronic brains has helped materially to strengthen the competitive position of the British firms who make them.

Another case is that of the light steam engine and boiler which has been developed by the Corporation in cooperation with Sir Harry Ricardo. This is a simple power unit, burning almost any low-grade fuel, and which is likely to be of great value to village communities in under-developed areas, such as India, for pumping water or driving a light corn mill or loom. Then there is the aural microscope, a microscope which can be used by a surgeon while he is operating inside the ear, which has also been developed and sold—your Lordships can believe it or not—as an instrument for determining the sex of day-old chicks. Altogether, I think your Lordships will agree that the Corporation already have some solid achievements for which they can take credit.

If there are any noble Lords who are of an inventive frame of mind, may I make this offer to them? British Railways lose 3 million cups a year through breakages. A cup costs sixpence to replace. It does not require an electronic computator to realise that 3 million cups at sixpence a time is an expensive bill for the taxpayer to meet. British Railways have tried to substitute cups made of paper. That has not met with the approval of the public, as the paper cups are not proof against the heat of any hot drink. They have tried some form of plastic cup. That has not met with public approval either, as it stains unpleasantly after about ten days' use. Here is an opening for anyone who can invent some means of saving British Railways 3 million cups a year through breakages. Perhaps the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, would be grateful to receive any suggestions.

I have already explained that although to date the Corporation have drawn on only a fraction of the funds made available to them, they will need to borrow a good deal more in the next few years, since it will be some time before their revenue reaches a significant level. The existing Act, however, permits the Corporation to borrow from public funds only during their first five years, which expire on June 28 of this year. Subsection (1) of Clause 1 of the Bill, therefore, extends this period for a further five years. Subsection (2) of Clause 1 provides for a similar extension of the period during which interest due on advances made to the Corporation may be waived. It is clear that the one provision is consequential to the other. Clause (2) concerns the powers of the Corporation in relation to research. Subsection (1) merely clarifies the existing Act. It is a declaratory statement of the powers of the Corporation to promote and assist research in connection with existing inventions, and I understand it has been inserted since discussions had revealed that some doubt was felt as to whether the Corporation possessed such powers.

But it is quite clear that the Corporation cannot at present promote or assist research except in the furtherance of an existing invention, and this leads me on to subsections (2) to (5). In July of last year, the Advisory Council on Scientific Policy published a report in which they recommended that the Government should consider assisting the modernisation of civilian industry and its exploitation of scientific discoveries by placing research and development contracts. The Council mentioned the Corporation as a body which might help in this way, but pointed out that their powers did not enable them to seek applications for scientific discoveries or to initiate research. It has been agreed, therefore, that the Corporation could be more useful in implementing the Advisory Council's report if they were given powers provided by subsections (2) and (3). In the circumstances of which the Advisory Council were thinking, it may be well known that a particular need of an industry—for example, for a new process or a piece of machinery or plant—could be satisfied if some research were done. Or research already carried out may have resulted in a discovery which could be put to good account in industry if more research on its applications were carried out. In both cases, until the research has been completed there will be no invention, and therefore at present, under existing powers, the Corporation are powerless to help. Subsections (2) and (3) have accordingly been included in the Bill to give the Corporation powers to promote or assist research in these circumstances.

It is not intended that the Corporation shall themselves undertake research. Extensive facilities for this exist already within the Government organisation and in industry, and in most cases one of the existing bodies will be able to do the necessary work. But there may be occasional cases in which the Corporation could more conveniently serve, either as manager or paymaster, in connection with a proposed research—for example, when the subject does not fall wholly within the province of a single research association or where the field of technology concerned is one in which the Corporation already have considerable experience. To avoid overlapping in function between the Corporation and Government and industrial research bodies, subsections (4) and (5) provide that the powers given to the Corporation by subsections (2) and (3) shall be exercised only with the specific or general approval of the Lord President of the Council and of the President of the Board of Trade.

This is a small Bill, and I hope it will be as welcome as was its predecessor five years ago. I am sure we are all agreed that this country cannot survive unless every resource of wit, ingenuity and intelligence is used to the utmost. The Corporation are already making a real contribution to the achievement of that aim. Without this Bill their work will finish in June. None of us would wish this venture, so hopefully started and so bright with promise for the future, to come to so untimely an end. I hope the House will smile upon this Bill more favourably than it did on me when we last discussed the topic of inventions: and, with confidence. I beg to move that the Bill be read a second time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 2ª.—(Lord Mancroft.)

4.58 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, may rest assured that noble Lords on this side welcome this Bill and will do everything they can to expedite its passage through your Lordships' House. The one criticism which I can find is that it does not go far enouch. The noble Lord has said that the Bill is to assist the translation into practice of the results of scientific research and invention. I regret that the noble Marquess the Leader of the House, who is so intimately connected with this, is not in the House. I make no complaint, because the noble Marquess is meticulous in the courtesy he shows to your Lordships, and it would be churlish for me to say that his absence is due to anything other than more important business. But I hope that my noble friend Lord Mancroft will convey the purport of my remarks to the noble Marquess.

When the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, said that it was one of the functions of this Bill to shorten the dreadful time-lag between theory and practice, he put his finger upon one of the major faults of British industry. It is not a new fault. Many of your Lordships have been as surprised as I am at the amount of thought, time and money that is spent upon research, in all spheres of the industrial and economic life of this country. We wait and wait for the practical application to the economic life of the country of the results of that research. But we wait in vain. There never was such a time as the present when it was necessary for us to seek new prod acts and new industries, to supplement and take the place of those that we are fast losing. I was hoping, when I read this Bill, that Clause 2 would enable us to make rapid strides. My complaint is that, as the noble Lord has said, this is a very modest Bill. I was reading the Sixth Annual Report of the Advisory Council on Scientific Policy. There is an amazing statement in this Report. Dealing with the year 1952, attention is drawn to the need for an increase in the practical application of research and technology. The Report states: Last year only £34 million, out of a total of £2,500 million of overseas exports, represented goods which were unknown before the war. That is a striking fact. I sometimes wonder whether a great deal of the thought and money that is being expended on some of the industries of this country, whose optimum contribution to our exports will never reach what it was in the past, might not be directed to this specific purpose. I do not think it would be an exaggeration to say that herein lies the salvation of Lancashire.

I was talking only the other day to an industrial friend of mine, who is head of one of the largest engineering concerns in this country. He told me that about twelve months ago he had a visit from a Japanese manufacturer, who brought with him not only his sons, who were graduates of American universities, but also four eminent scientists, to see and study everything they could in this country so as to equip themselves better for the competitive nature of the world of the future. After they had gone through this country, they were going on to America. We have sent study groups, quite a number of working parties and industrial teams to America. But when they come back we spend our time in disproving what they say, on the ground that conditions in this country are totally different from those in America. I join with the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, in paying my tribute to the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, and his colleagues for the work they have done. But to conceive is one thing and to deliver is another. That is where we fail in our industry to-day. I feel that if this Bill goes only one small stop in the direction we desire, it will be a useful measure that should commend itself to all your Lordships. It commends itself to noble Lords on this side of the House; we agree to its Second Reading, and we shall do everything we can to expedite its passage through your Lordships' House.

5.5 p.m.


My Lords, in rising to speak on the Motion before your Lordships this afternoon, I am fully mindful of the wise tradition which inhibits members of public corporations who are also Members of your Lordships' House from speaking upon controversial matters which may arise from time to time. There are, however, two topics upon which I Feel I may speak, with your Lordships' approval, notwithstanding my personal connection with the Corporation whose future is being provided for this afternoon. In the first place, I should like to express my gratitude for the pleasing terms in which the work upon which my colleagues and I have been engaged for the last four years has been referred to in your Lordships' House today. This recognition was most graciously expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, and also by the President of the Board of Trade in another place. I need hardly say that I am grateful to both of them for their kindness.

Secondly, I am sure your Lordships would wish me to take this opportunity to pay my tribute to the large number of helpers, without whose assistance—quite often, voluntary assistancez—it would not be possible to direct the affairs of the Corporation. I should begin by referring to the army of inventors, whose ingenious ideas it is the function of the Corporation to develop and exploit. Some of these are members of the general public, and they approach the Corporation in a spirit of self-interest; others are public servants whose service contracts require them to assign their inventions to the Crown. Many, however, are neither public servants, on the one hand, nor members of the public, on the other, though they operate in part, at any rate, and indirectly, with public funds. I refer to the distinguished men of science who are engaged on teaching and research in our centres of learning throughout the country. Very often, their pursuit of knowledge, for its own sake, results in valuable ideas which can be applied to industry; and too often in the past these ideas have passed unnoticed and unprotected. It is to the willingness of these men to cooperate with the Corporation that we owe the possibility of turning some of their inventive output into valuable public assets for the future.

Apart from the inventors, there are a number of other people to whom I should like to pay an appropriate need of tribute. Among these are the large number of experts employed in academic establishments, or in the public service, or in the industrial research associations, or in industry, who act as our assessors and give us the benefit of their expert opinion. Without this we should often be floundering in unfamiliar and highly specialised fields. The greater number of them do their work voluntarily, and for nothing, and I am sure that your Lordships' would wish me to express the gratitude which we feel to them. I am also reminded of the many patent agents employed in the public service, whose endless task it is to screen the large output of Government scientists, for patentable subject matter, and to reduce to the precise and formal English of a patent specification the often nebulous terms in which scientists describe their subjects. It has been truly said that it is the patent agent who makes the invention—the inventor, only thinks of it.

Last, but certainly not least, I should like to express thanks to the staff of the Corporation for their enthusiasm and hard work during the course of the last four or five years. However hard I and my colleagues tried to gain the approval of your Lordships' House, it is obvious that we should not succeed in doing so unless the decisions that we were asked to take were prepared for us in a form that we could assimilate, and were then acted upon by an intelligent and skilful staff. So far as my colleagues are concerned—and I think I may include among them the officials in our sponsoring Ministry, The Board of Trade—I am sure that all find the work on which we are engaged extremely interesting. I much look forward to a continued period of association with them during the second five-year period for which provision is being made in this Bill. No doubt in five years' time your Lordships will once more be sitting in judgment upon the Corporation's activities, and I should be a bold man if I attempted to forecast what you will have to say upon that occasion. As the noble Lord, Lord Mancroft, has told you, we have developed a machine which enables us to determine the sex of a chicken before it is reared. But we have not yet heard of an invention which enables us to count the chickens before they have been hatched. Your Lordships will therefore excuse me from making any further predictions upon this matter, though you may rely on us to do our best to continue to merit your approval.

5.12 p.m.


My Lords, I do not propose to intervene in this debate, first because I think this is a Bill which is entirely non-controversial, and the work which is done by the Corporation is universally valued and recognised, and also because my noble friend Lord Mancroft has, I know, described to the House fully and adequately the purposes for which the Bill is framed. I should, however, as I am the Minister who is directly responsible for the affairs of the Corporation, like to take this opportunity of adding my thanks to those which I am sure have been expressed in all parts of the House, for the admirable work which is done by the Corporation. As noble Lords will have seen from what has been said by the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, it fulfils a most valuable function, one which would not be performed at all if it did not exist. I might almost call it an invention itself which has already proved its value. I have no doubt that it has not been actually patented, but it is still an extremely valuable invention. To no one do we owe a more direct debt of gratitude than to the noble Earl himself, who pilots its activities with such skill and charm. That is all I wish to say this afternoon, but I thought it only right that, as I am the Minister directly responsible for the affairs of the Corporation, I should say, this word in support of the Bill.

On Question, Bid read 2ª, and committed to a Committee of the Whole House.