HL Deb 27 May 1954 vol 187 cc1008-23

4.18 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Third Reading read.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Bill be now read a third time.

Moved, That the Bill be now read 3a.(The Marquess of Salisbury.)


My Lords, I regret to detain the House for a moment, but there is a point about Clause 4 on which I am not clear. The clause provides for finance, and I remain rather confused in my mind about how the money for this new project is to be provided and controlled. I am not going to enter into the general question of the use of atomic energy for military purposes, though that is what interests me. So far as possible, I think we should retain Parliamentary control, which is usually exercised through controlling the expenditure of money. I have looked through the Estimates to find out what references there are to this matter and I am anxious to have it make clear. I was rather surprised to hear the noble Marquess say the other day that one of the wisest things the late Government had done was to conceal expenditure on this project. That was not quite in accord with what the Prime Minister said, which certainly had my support—namely, what he called rather contemptuously" the tricks of the trade."

I believe in straightforward finance, at any rate in peace time. You may tell the House of Commons or the House of Lords that, for security reasons, you will not give them the information; but you have no right to deceive them as to the amount of money you are asking for. Looking through these things, I am in confusion. I do not make any charge whatever. I have looked at everything that can concern this matter of atomic energy. I start with Class I, Vote 5, which is quite simple. That is Privy Council fees, and simply gives the Lord President's salary and the salary of his staff. That is one place where the matter might arise. I then come to Class IX, Vote 7, of the Estimates, and there is the atomic energy estimate, which I thought covered the whole question; that is on page 60 and is for £53 million. Looking through the other Estimates, I find Class VI. That is two Votes for very large sums. The first is for Ministry of Materials strategic reserves, where there is a Vote for purchase of materials of £45 million; and the other is for Ministry of Supply (Class VI, Vote 11), where an amount of £140 million appears for research and development. In addition, there are the Air Estimates; and the Air Estimates, in all, under supplies and aircraft stores, amount to about £360 million. Those are large sums of money, and they are not all concerned with atomic energy projects. But I submit that it is a reasonable thing to ask that some clear information should be available to both Houses of Parliament, not as to the advance we are making in this science, but as to the amount of money we are spending on it. If we know that the amount is growing, it may be an occasion for complaint, or inquiry, or change of policy. But, at any rate, Parliament should have the information.

I would point out to noble Lords that the secrecy which we observe in this matter, and the confusion—in fact, the artifice—is not copied, so far as my reading of the newspapers goes, in the United States. There they have large figures—there was a figure the other day of 7,000 million dollars—for this purpose, and the project has been freely spoken about and explained, which I feel, if it is safe, is a wise thing to do. I would ask the Lord President of the Council whether he would be so kind as to tell me how he expounds Clause 4 (2) of this Bill: that any revenues shall be applied by the Authority in such manner as he may lay down, and any money he asks for is handed over to the Authority. The money that he asks Parliament for must be accounted for, and Parliament can vote; you cannot put your hand into the Consolidated Fund without telling Parliament. But it is not clear whether what he takes under Class IX, Vote 7–the £53 million—is the total, or whether, in fact, when the Air Ministry buy an atomic weapon they pay the Ministry of Supply. When the Ministry of Supply order—because they are the sole persons qualified to order—where is that figure accounted for? Must we look in all these Estimates in order to get the aggregate? It may be a difficult question to answer, but it is put from a sense of Parliamentary precision, and with no desire of general attack. I would ask the Lord President of the Council kindly to give this point his attention.

There is one further suggestion I would make, which might meet the case. In respect of the Services Estimates Command Papers are laid before Parliament. We have them in respect of the Navy, the Army and the Air Force—I am not sure about the Defence Estimates; we have a Statement. I would ask the Lord President to consider this suggestion. The atomic arm is going to become the major weapon of war—I think it is reasonable to say that at present. I remember that, in the early days of the Air Force, aircraft were considered as being something used by different arms, the Army and the Navy. We had a great fight about that some thirty years ago. I think it is right to say that the atomic arm will be the major weapon of war. In that case, would it not be as well to prepare for that day by letting Parliament have, in the form of a Command Paper similar to that laid in respect of the Services, some information annually, as a matter of form, about his Department? I put these questions with respect. I thank the noble Marquess for giving me the opportunity of making these remarks, and I hope that he will, in the interests of clear Parliamentary control, give some answers to those questions.

4.27 p.m.


My Lords, I should like to say that I agree with the noble Viscount who has just spoken. I feel that I should say that, because I am, I suppose, one of the persons who ought to stand in the dock about what we, in fact, did. In the circumstances of the day, with my full knowledge, we did expend a large sum of money, as I appreciate now, looking back, disregarding the appropriate democratic machinery. I think there was strong justification for it at the time; but I believe it to be a dangerous principle, and that we should be careful about doing it again. Parliament is so sensible about these matters that I believe the right way to proceed is to go to Parliament and say, "I am proposing to spend this sum of money, and I ask you not to ask for details about it, because security is involved." I hope that in the future all Parties will try to follow that principle. That is the principle for which the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, stands, and there, I believe, he is right.

The next thing I want to say about it is this. I believe that the noble Viscount, at any rate, and some other noble Lords, too, would have been much happier if, before we had discussed this Bill, we had staged a debate on the whole question of the use of these non-conventional weapons. I do not blame the noble Marquess, the Leader of the House, any more than I blame myself for the fact that we did not have such a debate, because I am sure that, if I had asked for a debate, he would have acceded to my request, as he always does. I believe that my noble friend Lord Stansgate would have felt much happier if we had had some debate of that sort, and had obtained a statement of the Government view and Government policy before we discussed a Bill the object of which is to provide machinery which is better than the existing machinery. One of the ways in which it might show itself better would be by providing us, inter alia, with better bombs than heretofore, and also better work in civilian research. Some misunderstanding may have arisen, and I blame myself for not asking for an opportunity to debate this subject.

I am not going to say much more about this Bill, but the fact that I say no more, and that we have not attempted to take violent opposition to this Bill, must not be taken to indicate that we approve of this Bill. We do not. I think it is a bad Bill. I think it is a bad Bill for several reasons. First of all, if you take the attitude which the noble Lord, Lord Cherwell, took on one occasion, and which, I think, he generally took, that any organisation which is run by the Government is almost certainly bad (and I think he would add that any organisation run by anybody who is not the Government is generally good), there is a strong case for doing this. But I think it is just as foolish to say that every organisation run by the Government is bad, as to say that every organisation run by some body other than the Government is good. I think it depends on the nature of the organisation, the circumstances of the case, and experience.

So far as this particular organisation was concerned, from all I can hear and read, notwithstanding the somewhat Cassandra-like prophecy that was made years ago, the existing organisation has functioned with extreme efficiency. I believe that, having regard to the comparatively limited (from the point of view of American money) amount of money we have spent on it—though in all conscience the figure is large enough—we have achieved wonderful results. I think it is plain that not only have we here first-rate scientists, who have thrown themselves with complete devotion into this task, but that they have achieved very good results. Therefore, I cannot bring myself to believe that the existing organisation is all that defective. Was it not Lord Melbourne who used to say, when somebody suggested change, "Why not leave it alone?" if I am right in saying that the existing organisation has done very valuable work—and I do not think the noble Marquess ever questioned that for one moment—I would say, "Why on earth not leave it alone, for the time being, at any rate?"

I quite realise, of course, that this subject is in its infancy. We quite realise that in a few years' time it may become necessary to deal with this matter. I should not be the least surprised if, in a few years' time, it were possible to have a dichotomy here, and have one organisation dealing with the military side and another organisation dealing with the civil side. I do not say that it will be possible—I have not the necessary skill or technical knowledge to know; but such a conclusion might become possible in a few years' time. Therefore, I should have thought that there was a strong case for leaving the existing set-up, which has worked, I think, with extreme efficiency, as it is for the time being.

I wonder whether the Government are really going to reap any benefit whatever from this change. This Bill now sets up an organisation or a corporation (I am not sure which) which is under the control of one man. That man is the Lord President of the Council—at present the noble Marquess, Lord Salisbury. I say at once that I should be delighted to put any important organisation under the noble Marquess, but I do not like putting active organisations under the Lord President of the Council. My experience in years past has been that the Lord President is an officer of extreme value, simply because he does not come in as a competitor in the ordinary day-to-day trading activities, as so many other Ministers do. He stands, if you like, a little aloof from the battle. He presides over a Committee and, by reason of his position—because he is always a very senior Minister—and the fact that he is not a competitor, he is able to carry great weight.

I say at once that I am sorry that the effect of this Bill is to take this organisation away from the Minister of Supply and to put it under the Lord President. I believe (the point was made earlier, and the Leader of the House gave us some assurance, so far as he could) that it is bad that the Minister of Supply should have to deal with this corporation at secondhand, and should no longer be their master, because if he is to do his job properly he must know what sort of goods to order; and he can do that only if he himself is concerned with the research about these goods. At the present time, he has that great advantage. In future, he is to be, as it were, an outsider, and although I have no doubt that the noble Marquess will take him into consultation in every way he can, and show him all the relevant considerations, yet it is not quite the same thing as having this research organisation under his own control. Therefore, I say at once that, so far as I understand this Bill, I think there is nothing to be said for it.

It is the fact, however, that this Bill has been supported by noble Lords in this House who have far greater knowledge of this subject than I have or, indeed, any other Member, and I cannot help feeling that there must be some reason for this Bill which has not really been put to us. I am wondering whether it is either, on the one hand, that there is some doctrinal reason behind it to which noble Lords are shy to admit, or whether there is some security reason which, naturally enough, they are anxious not to reveal to us. I am bound to say that, in my experience, I have never known a change advocated which seems to me to be supported by less reason than this. The Government are breaking up an existing organisation which I believe has done extraordinarily good work. They are taking responsibility away from the Minister of Supply and giving it to the Lord President of the Council; and in my view there is nothing whatever to be gained by this procedure.

I wanted to say that, because I did not want a mere silence to let your Lordships think that we were convinced, or that we agreed to this Bill. Following our traditional practice, we never obstruct and never try to be unreasonable. The Bill, of course, is going to pass, and I wish the Authority all possible luck in their endeavours and activities, and I wish the noble Marquess, the Lord President of the Council, all possible luck in his work. On the other hand, if your Lordships will forgive me for these few moments, I am, as I say, not convinced. I regret the course which the Government have taken. I wish they had waited a few more years, when it might have been apparent to us that some wholly different development on wholly different lines was the right way of approaching this matter.

4.36 p.m


My Lords, I am distressed that, after what I thought was an extremely clear explanation I gave on the Committee stage, the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, still has doubts as to the extent of Parliamentary control which exists over Government expenditure under this Bill. I assure the noble Viscount that I do not in the least complain that he asked for further clarification. That, no doubt, is his duty in this House, and it is my duty to give him that information, so far as I can. Indeed, perhaps I was to blame. At any rate, I will do what I can to relieve his anxieties.

I would assure the noble Viscount, first, that there really is nothing new, nothing novel, in the general provisions of Clause 4, which deals with the question of finance. Subsections (1) and (2), to which he has referred, follow the wording of Section 3 of the Overseas Resources Development Act, 1951, and the procedure proposed under the clause is one with which I think Parliament is already very familiar in the case of bodies financed out of grants, such as the Overseas Development Corporation, and other bodies which are financed by the Government. The procedure will be as follows. The Lord President will, like any other Departmental Minister, ask Parliament each year for a Vote to provide for the activities for which he is responsible. For this purpose an Estimate will be submitted to Parliament in the normal way. This Estimate will be in two parts. The first part will cover quite a small amount—a few thousand pounds—for the expenses of the small office which will assist the Lord President to discharge his atomic energy function. I can say, in passing, that it will be my object to make that office as small as I can, because I do not believe in the re-duplication which can conceivably occur by having a Board and a great Government Department running the same business. Such things have been known in the past, but I hope they will not happen in this particular case. The statutory sanction for this office is not in the Bill but in Section 16 of the Atomic Energy Act, 1946, as modified by the Transfer of Functions Order.

That is the first part of the Estimate. The second part will contain the great bulk—I believe well over 99 per cent.—of the total money which is to be spent. This will represent the money which the Lord President will pay over to the Authority. It will be broken down under a number of headings, either on the face of the Estimate or in an Appendix. While I am giving this explanation as clearly as I can, the House will realise that this is a machinery which is being developed; this is what we intend to do, rather than something which has already been done. Having regard both to security, which is vital on this particular issue, and to the main object of setting up the Authority—that is, to create a body with freedom to run its own day-to-day affairs—this information is bound to be rather less detailed than is usual in an ordinary departmental Vote. But the main headings, such as capital expenditure, current expenditure, salaries and wages, together with appropriations-in-aid, will be shown. The exact form of the presentation is still being discussed between the Treasury and the Department of Atomic Energy.

That is as much as I can give your Lordships to-day. This breakdown of the Estimates will not, however, enable a distinction to be drawn between expenditure for civil purposes and expenditure for defence. This is due not only to the need for security but also to the impossibility of distinguishing one type of expenditure entirely from the other. Much of the work has value for both civil and military purposes. The Estimate can be selected for debate in another place like any other Estimate, and it can be examined by the Select Committee on Estimates.

In addition to the Lord President's Estimate, the Ministry of Supply's Vote, to which the noble Viscount referred, includes provision for some payments to the Authority for work on atomic weapons. Part of this expenditure will be recoverable from the Service Departments whose Votes will, accordingly, include provision for such payment. For security reasons, the sums included in the Ministry of Supply and Service Department Votes will not be shown separately. At the end of the financial year the Lord President will submit for audit by the Comptroller and Auditor General an Appropriation Account in the usual form. In addition, the Authority will prepare accounts in such form as the Treasury may direct. That is a quotation from the Bill.

These accounts also will be examined and certified by the Comptroller and Auditor General, who will lay them, together with his Report thereon, before each House of Parliament, and they will be examined like an Appropriation Account by the Public Accounts Committee. The degree of Parliamentary control for which Clause 4 provides is, therefore, I would suggest, substantially greater than that which has obtained in practice in the past, when no indication was given even of the total expenditure on atomic energy, which was all wrapped up in the general Estimates of the Ministry of Supply. That is all I want to say on that particular question. There are, however, one or two other things that I should like to say.


I should not like to interrupt the noble Marquess except with his leave. I am very much obliged to him. It is clear from what he has said that the research work goes in one body, and he tells us that it is impossible to say whether the research is to do with the civil or the military side. There may be something in that, but it is not the most important question. I wanted an assurance from the noble Marquess that the ordinary Member, of either House, will be able, by examining the Estimates, to ascertain whether there is a growth and, if so, roughly what the order of the growth of expenditure is on atomic weapons.


I do not think he will be able to find that out—I must be quite frank with the noble Viscount. If he looks at page 63 of the Civil Estimates, Class IX, 1954–55, he will there see an item— C.1—Stores, materials and services for establishment, and that is marked "net." Then there is a footnote which says— Net of receipts not disclosed for security reasons. There is a certain amount that will be balanced off, and the net expenditure, which is what Parliament will be concerned with, will be put in. I cannot give more than that, to be quite frank, any more than the late Government could. There are things in this realm of atomic energy which simply cannot be exposed without giving information of inestimable value to other countries, which may be potentially hostile. Therefore, it is not possible to give more than we are giving; we are giving all that we possibly can. I do not believe that the good sense of the House would require anything else.

Now I will go on, in conclusion, to say this. I cannot help suspecting that in the noble Viscount's mind, and perhaps in the noble and learned Earl's mind, and in the minds certainly of other people who have been worried about this procedure, there is an uneasy feeling that somehow, somewhere, this Bill gives someone a power which he had not got before to manufacture new and ever more powerful weapons of war. I cannot help feeling that in the case of a number of people it is this suspected new power which is really worrying them. If that is the case, I do assure them that this Bill does no such thing. If there had been no Bill at all, if the situation had remained exactly as it was when the Party of the noble Lords opposite was in power, the position in that respect would have been, I believe, exactly the same as it is now. Any decision with regard to these new weapons—and these are broad decisions—must, of course, be a decision for the Government as a whole; they must take the responsibility for it. Then, when a decision has been taken, the Ministry of Defence must be responsible for giving instructions to the Ministry of Supply; and the Ministry of Supply will see that that policy is carried through, with the co-operation, so far as necessary, of the Atomic Energy Authority.

The chain of responsibility is exactly what it has always been, from the top downwards. The control of Parliament, so far as security considerations allow—I make that proviso quite deliberately—is, I believe, greater than under the earlier system when, as I say, no information at all was made available on atomic energy as such. The noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, said that I had said that the late Government were wise to conceal this fact. I may have said that. If so, I rather regret it, because it is not what I intended. What I do think is that they were wise to decide to make the bomb—I think they were absolutely right to do that. The question of how far it was necessary to conceal the fact that they had taken that decision is, of course, a matter for them and not for me. The actual decision at the time it was taken was, I believe, the right decision, and I do not criticise it in any way.

I have tried to explain, so far as I can, the machinery which is being devised to give Parliament such control as is practicable over this matter.


Before the noble Marquess leaves that and goes to the general ending of his speech, may I return to this question of finance. We have been very much helped by the explanation so far given as to the form it will take—the breaking down into two main parts. I accept entirely what the noble Marquess says about the reasons for security, which is especially important in regard to both fundamental and applied research. But I am concerned about this change at a time when we are just beginning to go into the possibility of commercial usage and production. I should like to know how that is going to be dealt with, because there is in the public mind always a grave suspicion about Government grant-aided institutions of this kind.


I was just coming to that point, because that was, very largely, the subject of the noble and learned Earl's speech.


I was going to ask the noble Marquess another question, though I do not want to interrupt him. I am much obliged to him. It appears to me that a question which I put yesterday in the debate, as to whether we were formally committed to proceding along the hydrogen bomb road, is answered in the affirmative.


No; I certainly have not said that. It is not something which I would be in a position to say. As I think the Prime Minister or the Minister of Works said in another place, it would be quite contrary to the national interest to make any declaration on that subject at the present time. I certainly hope that nothing that I have said in my speech would give that impression.


There is no obstacle to proceeding on that road.


The machinery exists for proceeding on that road if we wish to proceed along it.


That is the answer.


Now I come to the point made by the noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt, to which reference has been made by the noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough: why make this change at all? Why make it now? The noble and learned Earl, Lord Jowitt, asked: what are the arguments in favour of making it? I should be grateful if he would read my speech on the Second Reading of the Bill, and also my speech at the end of the debate, which was entirely devoted to that special point. The brief answer is this. The change is being made because times have changed. At the time when the late Government made their decision, about which I do not complain, to put the Minister of Supply in control, the only aspect of atomic energy which was of the slightest interest to the Government or to the country was the military aspect—it was the question of the bomb. It is only in the last two years, I think, that this civil aspect has come to the fore at all, and the civil aspect has now become of immense importance. I hope that it will ultimately prove to be much more important than the other aspect—I think we all do. At any rate it is coming very much to the fore now. That is the reason why we could not leave things alone. I was interested to hear the noble and learned Earl quote Lord Melbourne. I do not know whether it means that the Socialist Party are adopting Whig principles, but it was agreeable to hear from those Benches a very old-fashioned, indeed, an almost anachronistic, view. I hope, though, that it does not mean that they are moving entirely into the past. However, it does indicate some faint change of heart on their part. I would suggest as an alternative rule of conduct, taking time by the forelock. That, I think, would be more applicable to the Conservative Party—and that is why we are adopting the present policy.

Of course, experience and time alone will show whether we are right in taking this step. We believe that it is right, and we believe that it is right to put in charge, I do not say myself, but the Lord President of the Council, and for this reason. As I said just now, when the late Government took their original decision, the military aspect was the only thing which was important. Now there are these two conflicting interests: there is the military interest, the interest of new weapons; and there is the interest of the civil use of atomic energy, and, above all, its use for electric power. That is becoming, and, I think, will surely become, vital. I think I explained in an earlier debate to the House that the experts on this subject, amongst whom I certainly do not include myself, anticipate that in fifty years' time the whole of the electric power for industrial and domestic purposes in this country will be derived from atomic energy. Therefore it is extremely important that there should be a proper balance of the use of this extremely rare material between military and civil purposes.

If the total control is left in the hands of the Minister of Supply, he is in charge of a Ministry which is entirely concerned with the military aspect. The purpose of the Ministry of Supply is to supply the Service Departments with the weapons they desire. Therefore there is bound to be a certain bias on the part of the Minister in favour of the Department with which he personally is connected and the Service Departments which that Department is supposed to serve; and there might be a violent conflict of opinion between him and those who are to have charge of the use of atomic energy for civil purposes—notably the Electricity Authority. I think this has a bearing on what the noble Viscount, Lord Alexander of Hillsborough, said. He was worried, I think, because the large sums of money which have been voted by Parliament might be used for the boosting of some particular private enterprise or individual private firm. At present none of the energy which will be created will be allocated to private industry. All this electric power will be in the hands of the Electricity Authority, which is, of course, another publicly owned corporation, and it is they who will ultimately transmit the power to industry. Therefore industrial firms will not be creating atomic energy—they will be the consumers rather than the producers.

What is, of course, true is that we hope that British industry, in this as in other respects, will be in the forefront of the production of machines for the use of atomic energy. These, we hope, will be sold abroad and will be of great value to this country. Therefore, in this Bill we have a particular provision which encourages in every way we can the training of people for that purpose, and we hope that that provision will be used. The idea that atomic energy will be produced by private enterprise for private enterprise may come in due course—I do not know—but at present it is certainly not in accordance with the fact.


My Lords, I must say that I feel very well satisfied with that part of the noble Marquess's answer. I see the point with regard to the production of this energy by the publicly-owned electrical industries, and it is quite sound. But we have already, for instance, the other great nationalised industry for the production of coal and its by-products. Only by obtaining some more information as to how the finance is being administered on the training side can we get some idea of what is the ultimate day-to-day policy of the Government in dealing with other great nationalised industries.


My Lords, for the moment the only purpose is to produce electric power, except, of course, for isotopes, and that sort of thing. That is the only purpose for which this atomic energy will be used in the civil field. At present even that has not reached the stage when it really is a factor in the production of power in this country; but that will come. In that case, the actual production will be in the hands of, I anticipate, the Electricity Authority and not of any private body. But I do emphasise that we welcome in every way we can the co-operation of industry where they can be of use in this field, in producing machines and in other ways, and in the use of isotopes, and in all the ways in which private industry can be of use without involving danger to security. I am sure that that would be the view of noble Lords opposite.

Therefore, in conclusion I would say that the reason why this Bill has been brought in is, first, to create this Authority, and, secondly, to put in charge of it, for instance so far as the Government are concerned, a Minister who is, and we hope will be, unbiased as between the military and civil uses of the power which is being created. If we can do that, I believe that in the long run we shall have done the right thing. I am not going to pontificate to your Lordships, because this is a new field—we are all feeling our way. Noble Lords may say to me afterwards that I was wrong, and perhaps I shall be wrong; but we have thought this over very carefully. It is what has been done by every other producer of atomic energy, and I feel certain that if we follow the lines which are indicated in this Bill we shall be doing something to the ultimate advantage of the country.

On Question, Bill read 3a, with the Amendments, and passed, and returned to the Commons.