HL Deb 05 August 1971 vol 323 cc1267-72

12.25 p.m.


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I should like to make a Statement about the future of 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 Department will take the lead in preparing and handling the legislation, and dealing with all questions that relate to the actual transfer. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Trade and Industry will of course continue to deal with matters affecting the rest of the Authority.

During the next few months my Department will consult the A.E.A. and the appropriate staff and trade 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 changes 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 Limited and to 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 research and development work.

12.29 p.m.


My Lords, we are grateful to the noble Lord for making that Statement. I should like to congratulate him as Secretary of State for Defence on winning a victory which the Secretary of State for Defence in the previous Government was, rightly, unable to win; namely, the transfer of the development of weapons to the Ministry of Defence. May I ask the noble Lord whether we alone of the three Western countries which have the capability of producing nuclear weapons will now have this within the control of the Ministry of Defence rather than of the purely civil establishment? I acknowledge the logic within the terms of the Government's policy. The noble Lord is always extremely logical and clear, but I should like to ask him whether in this respect we shall be different from the French and the Americans. May I also ask him how far—though perhaps he may not be able to say—consideration was given to the very sensitive nature of this particular change?

Not having realised that the work on fast breeder reactor and other nuclear work was done at A.W.R.E., may I ask how much of the A.W.R.E. work concerns the civil side and how far there will be a split in the Authority regarding this matter? May I also ask him whether, under the Government procurement organisation, the work on weapons and defence will come within the purview of the ministerial Aerospace Board, or will it only be the civil work? This is not unimportant, because whereas nobody would doubt or distrust the Secretary of State himself, one of the protections in this area has been that another Minister has been concerned in it. I should like to ask how far the Atomic Energy Authority welcome and approve of this proposal. It is clear that what the Rayner Report recommended was very logical. I would not criticise that, but there are important policy angles which are outside the purview of that Report.

Finally, may I ask the noble Lord how many people who have not been civil servants for some while are again about to become so, thus swelling the ever-growing number of civil servants for which the Government, when they were in Opposition, criticised the then Administration?


My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Lord for congratulating me on winning a victory which he thinks I ought not to have won. I think I should have won it, and that this is the right place for the Atomic Weapons Research Establishment. About 19 per cent. of the work done there is civilian work and all the rest is military work. Of that 19 per cent., 10 per cent. is on nuclear work. The vast proportion of the work done there is military and I am quite certain that it should come to the Ministry of Defence and within the scope of the Procurement Executive with the other research establishments, because I believe that a rationalisation and a saving is possible; and it makes a great deal more sense. I know that the Americans do it differently; I am not entirely sure about the French. But I do not think that we always need to do what every- body else does, and perhaps when the Americans and the French have seen how successfully we are operating under this new scheme they may follow us.

The working of the A.W.R.E. will not come under the Aerospace Board; I do not think there would be any advantage in that. But of course anything which is done in my Department not only comes under my direction but under the direction of the Defence and Overseas Policies Committee and also under the Cabinet. Of course there will be some people who will not agree with this decision, and some of them may work in the Atomic Energy Authority; but I am quite convinced that the decision is right, that it is logical and will save money.


My Lords, in view of the Rayner Committee's recommendation it would seem, certainly at first sight, that this would be a logical step to take. May I ask the noble Lord about one point. The A.E.A. in its relatively brief life has already had a number of changes, as the noble Lord recognised in his statement. I wonder whether he may be in a position in the near future to give some indication as to when a decision will be taken on the next round of changes, so that people may have some warning?


My Lords, I agree that this should be borne very much in mind: it is extremely unsettling and the only solution I can offer, if it does not seem too lugubrious, is that at any rate the staff of the A.W.R.E. have come to their last resting place.

I forgot to answer one of the questions put by the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition. He and I have for years played the numbers game, whether it be in relation to the size of the Army, the Navy, or whatever it might be, and he is now playing the numbers game about civil servants. I think that, even on this last day of term, it is really rather an empty question to ask me since whatever the people are called, whether they are called civil servants or workers for the Atomic Energy Authority, they are still there.


Could the noble Lord find a more felicitous phrase than the one he used—" their last resting place "?


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord, whose masterly display at the Box I have enjoyed during the short time I have been in this House, whether in future, in conjunction with the Leader of the House, he will draw up a formula by means of which the rest of us may know when a vital Statement like this is going to be made to your Lordships' House? It would be very valuable for Members who, like myself, have been interested in these problems for many years. Finally, in this world so full of anachronisms and neologisms and abbreviated phraseology, at the beginning of a Statement might we be told what the terms and the letters mean? This would help us all very much.


My Lords, I very carefully did that, as a matter of fact. I had hoped that the noble Lord would have recognised that that was precisely what I have done. We do announce in advance that Statements are going to be made. But I never worry about the noble Lord because he is always in his place and is an assiduous attender.


My Lords, I do not want to play the numbers game with the noble Lord. It has always been the Party opposite who have played a numbers game. I will not add to the problems of the noble Earl, Lord Jellicoe—he will just have to tot this up—so I make no further point on that. May I just say two things to the noble Lord? The first is that I fully accept the logic of his proposal. There may be a good case—and if he says there is I believe him—on administrative grounds, but there are rather profound policy issues which certainly caused us some concern when we were in Government with regard to these particular establishments. It is not a question of our doing the same as the French or the Americans. For some interesting reason they have also chosen not to put this responsibility directly under the military. I do not want to press this point further because there will be legislation, and we shall have an opportunity to talk about it later.

The noble Earl the Leader of the House always co-operates very well in trying to get information on Statements, but I think that, perhaps because it is the end of term, we were all caught on this one. Perhaps he would give a little consideration as to whether some notice could go into newspapers, or something of that kind. I was told late last night and came down specially for it, but I do not know how any of my noble friends knew about it.


My Lords, I absolutely refuse to let the noble Lord the Leader of the Opposition have the last word. Of course, I apologise to him if this Statement comes inconveniently. On the substance of this issue, I really do not think it makes sense for an establishment which works to the extent of over 80 per cent. for the Ministry of Defence to be under the control of someone else.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord whether this change will reduce or increase the power of Parliament over the manufacture of nuclear weapons?


It will have no effect at all, my Lords.

Forward to