HL Deb 13 May 1965 vol 266 cc261-8

7.25 p.m.

Order of the Day for the Second Reading read.


My Lords, I come to a singular anti-climax after the recent excitement. I shall speak for not more than five minutes: I have taken a self-denying ordinance to that effect. The Bill is strictly non-controversial, relating to the use which we propose to make of the National Research Development Corporation.

The Corporation has, in fact, been supported by successive Administrations. It was started in 1948, when the present

again, the impracticability, indeed, the impossibility and the folly, of accepting a suggestion of this character. Therefore, I hope that in the interests of the House—indeed, in the interests of all—this House will support my Amendment.

7.12 p.m.

On Question, Whether the said Amendment shall be agreed to?

Their Lordships divided: Contents, 43; Not-Contents, 34.

Addison, V. Gardiner, L. (L. Chancellor.) Royle, L.
Attlee, E. Granville-West, L. Sainsbury, L.
Beswick, L. Henderson, L. Segal, L.
Blyton, L. Hobson, L. Shackleton, L.
Bowden, L. Latham, L. Shepherd, L.
Bowles, L. Leatherland, L. [Teller.] Silkin, L.
Brockway, L. Lilford, L. Snow, L.
Brown, L. Lindgren, L. Sorensen, L.
Chalfont, L. Longford, E. (L. Privy Seal.) Stonham, L.
Champion, L. Mitchison, L. Strang, L.
Chorley, L. Peddie, L. Taylor, L.
Colwyn, L. Phillips, Bs. [Teller.] Walston, L.
Dinevor, L. Reay, L. Williamson, L.
Francis-Williams, L. Rhodes, L. Willis, L.
Gaitskell, Bs.
Allerton, L. Forster of Harraby, L. Milverton, L.
Arran, E. Goschen, V. Montagu of Beaulieu, L.
Barrington, V. Gosford, E. Mottistone, L.
Carrington, L. Greenway, L. Rea, L.
Chesham, L. Grenfell, L. St. Aldwyn, E.
Colville of Culross, V. [Teller.] Grimston of Westbury, L. St. Helens, L.
Daventry, V. Horsbrugh, Bs. St. Oswald, L.
Drumalbyn, L. Howard of Glossop, L. Somers, L.
Elliot of Harwood, Bs. Inglewood, L. Strange of Knokin, Bs.
Emmet of Amberley, Bs. Jellicoe, E. Swansea, L.
Falkland, V. Killearn, L. Wade, L. [Teller.]
Ferrers, E.

Prime Minister was President of the Board of Trade. It was supported by two subsequent Conservative Administrations which produced amending Acts in 1954 and 1958—one of them by a President of the Board of Trade who later became a Member of this House, the noble Viscount, Lord Eccles. The substance of the Bill before your Lordships is, in fact, substantially similar to proposals which were being drafted by Mr. Edward Heath, and which would no doubt have been put into action by him if events had not gone in a somewhat different direction.

I can tick off on the fingers of one hand the purposes of the Bill. The N.R.D.C. has been a success. It has been a successful instrument for the technological innovations which all of us wish to see. I need give only three examples. One is the electronic computer industry which, without the help of the Corporation, would not have got anything like so far as it now has. Second is the hovercraft which, despite one misadventure in San Francisco Bay, is going to be a valuable machine all over the world. The third relates to certain new kinds of antibiotics. There are many other examples which I could reel off, but those noble Lords who are still present will not wish the list to go on for very long.

To put the matter simply, we want to increase the funds at the disposal of the National Research Development Corporation from £10 million—the figure to which it was advanced by the last Conservative Administration, in 1958—to £25 million. This is unlikely to be the end. In fact, the rate at which business is going suggests that my right honourable friend will need to go to the House of Commons for more money at a later stage. It is money well spent. Very few comparatively small sums of money have, in the judgment of people who are interested in technological innovations, ever been so well spent.

The second part of the Bill deals largely with problems of internal accountancy. I shall be happy to explicate them or answer questions about them, but I think it would waste time unnecessarily. They were passed without dissension in another place, and the only points raised were points of explanation. This was true throughout the whole progress of the Bill.

The third component of the Bill is that we feel that this Corporation is one of the most valuable instruments open to Government, and we wish to expand its use, in the sense that we should like other Ministers, not only the Minister of Technology, to be able, at their own expense, to lay contracts with the N.R.D.C. We feel that this is by far the best advice we have at present at our disposal to develop innovations, to go into contracts and joint ventures with firms and the like.

Nothing of this detracts in any way from the independence of the Corporation. This, to us, is cardinal. Though my right honourable friend the Minister of Technology can suggest to the N.R.D.C. that one of his colleagues has a project which he would like to finance and would like the N.R.D.C. to exploit, it is perfectly open to the N.R.D.C. to say, "No". Unless this is true, then a most valuable feature of the Corporation disappears at once. It must be independent; it must be run by people outside Government, people who are not politicians but businessmen; and we have been very lucky in the persons whom we have attracted. I think that is almost all I need say.

I should like to end by making two acknowledgments The first is that we claim no credit for what the N.R.D.C. has developed into so far. My right honourable friend went to great trouble in another place to say that we realise that this is a bipartisan activity, and we have taken resolve to claim no credit until we have earned it. The second acknowledgment is that we wish to express gratitude to the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, who was Managing Director of the N.R.D.C. and who gave it some of his characteristic sparkle, élan and judgment. The same tribute is due to his successor, Mr. Duckworth, who, as is acknowledged on all hands, particularly in industry, is doing a remarkably good job and, I am glad to say, has just consented to take another term of office. We should also like to thank the Chairman and members of the Board of the N.R.D.C. They have done a great deal of work for the State, using hard-headed, practical, business and technological judgment, and have given us an institution which is curious, para-Governmental, and characteristically British.

7.30 p.m.


My Lords, on behalf of this side of this House I should like to welcome this Bill. I would never describe the noble Lord as an anticlimax in any circumstances. I think he has set out the purpose of this Bill extremely clearly and in a very short time. I join with him in the tributes that he has paid to the noble Earl, Lord Halsbury, and Mr. Duckworth, and in congratulating the Corporation on its activities as a whole. I should like to draw attention to two or three points, but I should prefer to leave actual questionings regarding the write-offs and accountancy matters of that kind to the Committee stage.

It it not, of course, enough for an organisation to be a success, as indeed this is, for it to come along and claim an increase in its drawing rights of advances, so to speak, of from £10 million to £25 million simply because it is doing well. It is true that my right honourable friend Mr. Heath made the announcement, I think on July 28 last in another place, that it was the intention of the Government at that time to increase the drawing rights of maximum advances to £25 million. It is also true that net advances up to June 30 last were of the order of £6 million. What I think is interesting simply to note is that, as the amount of drawing stood at that time there appeared to be no immediate reason to increase the drawing capacity.

What is making this so much more important, I think, is the very much greater stress that is being laid upon the joint ventures, upon the developments of inventions in conjunction with industry, and also, as the noble Lord has mentioned—although this does not need extra drawing rights—in conjunction with other Government Departments. In the last Report I noted these words: It is significant that the need for expansion of the Corporation's activities appears to be generally acceptable and politically uncontroversial. I also noted the significance of the increase in new development projects, which was the highest ever, with thirty in a year, with 100 potential projects still under consideration at the end of the year.

That was very encouraging, but perhaps the most encouraging feature of the Report was that the doubts that had previously been expressed, year after year, as to whether industry was sufficiently aware of the functions of the Corporation and the extent to which it could assist, had gradually begun to dissipate. I noted the words: Industry's awareness of the Corporation and its role has shown an improvement over the year. I should particularly like to add congratulations to the Corporation on the active steps it has been taking in the last two or three years to stimulate that awareness; for example, by the meetings it had in Scotland in the years 1963 and 1964 in collaboration with the Scottish Council, and also in Northern Ireland in, I think, 1963, and in the North-East in 1964. I am sure that this is going to be of the very greatest advantage to the country.

We willingly assent to the Bill in the context of the need to accelerate development in this country, and to get as many industries interested in it as possible—not just the computer industry, the hovercraft industry, and not even just the fuel oil industry, but many others as well. I am sure that to increase the drawing rights is correct at this time. I would only express the hope, which is an unusual hope to express from the Opposition, that these advances will be made and that they will prove fruitful.

7.34 p.m.


My Lords, in speaking in favour of the Bill I should like to stress the enormous importance it has for the export market. At the moment we have several species of invention which are getting rather old, like the motor car, and there is a constant need for new gadgets and things to be added to them so that we compete with the foreign manufacturers, who are always adding various gadgets and other improvements, to keep them going and keep them up to date.

I was very glad to hear the noble Lord talk about the new species of inventions required, because it really is important to-day to have new species. If we cannot produce new species of machines, we cannot export and compete with the rest of the world. Your Lordships will remember what a great event the steam engine was and how it altered our whole country. We have got to get new things to-day, and I think that this Bill will help a great deal in bringing forward new ideas which will create new species. It is a very vital point that I am making.

When it comes to getting new species it comes round to people like myself and my friends. I know that my noble friend understands me, because we are both writers and we have what we call "creative genius", although other people have a different name for it. What I want to stress is that we must have somewhere to which these people who write to me, the inventors, can come; where we can treat them humanely and get the ideas out of them, because it is from these men and from their little germs of ideas that all inventions come. This is my reason for speaking to-day. I am talking about the man who is not commercial, but who makes inventions. He may be walking around London with something like a nuclear mousetrap, and he goes to the largest building he can find, possibly Bowater House, because he thinks that they have a lot of money and he tries to sell them his invention. He is in many ways a pathetic creature, but he is an intelligent man. I should like to think that there is some place which is human and kind and not some box concrete place, where an inventor can go and be listened to by sympathetic people. When he gets there he may say that he has some extraordinary thing like a clothes and foot washing machine. Let him take off his shoes and socks and show his things and paddle his feet and peddle his ideas—because it is from these tiny little things that the big inventions come and produce the species which make our country. If your Lordships remember, it was the rattle of a kettle that brought in the Steam Age.

7.37 p.m.


My Lords, I am grateful for those two speeches. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Strange, will be glad to hear that we are trying to make special arrangements for small inventors—by "small" I mean small in terms of financial status and not small either physically or intellectually. As he knows, the problem with inventions, as with un-published books and unproduced plays, is that they are extremely expensive to sift. There must be some good novels and unproduced plays floating around this country. In just the same way, I am quite sure that some good inventions are. The trouble is that the number that really became viable in practical terms is perhaps one in a thousand, or something of that kind.

On the other hand, I think the noble Lord, Lord Strange, will trust me when I say that we are very sympathetic. We have encouraged the N.R.D.C. to add extra staff for this special purpose, and we are producing a booklet to give some help to those persons—not strange but often eccentric—who are not very good at the practical affairs of this world. It is a very touchy and difficult business. Throughout modern Russian fiction one finds a strange invention which is valuable and which is somehow being done down by the bureaucracy. But we have devoted quite a lot of thought to this very problem, and I can assure the noble Lord that in a small way at least we are doing something.

I should next like to thank the noble Lord, Lord Drumalbyn. I think we are fortunate to have someone who can speak so sympathetically and so knowledgeably about matters which are genuinely of considerable technical application, as he knows better than most of us. The increase of drawing power, I can assure the noble Lord, was not decided at random. We knew, before this was proposed, that considerable sums were already pledged if in fact this Bill were to become law. It sounds a coincidence, but it was a real coincidence—it was not a matter of deep design in the Ministry of Technology—that the very day we announced some plans for the computer industry the N.R.D.C. announced that they proposed to invest a substantial sum, £5 million, in a large computer firm. This was just coincidence, but a very good coincidence. This is what we want to see. I entirely agree with the noble Lord in this respect. This is one of the few cases of which I know when Members on both sides of the House will be pleased if we have to ask for more money to accelerate and develop this co-operation with industry on which we must live.

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