HL Deb 12 December 1972 vol 337 cc472-86

2.58 p.m.


My Lords, I beg to move that this Report be now received. During the Committee stage I said that I would look again at what the noble Lords, Lord Winterbottom, Lord Avebury and Lord Wynne-Jones, had said in suport of the proposal to include in Clause 2 of the Bill the assurances I had given about the terms and conditions of service of employees who come into the Civil Service, and I think your Lordships would wish me to say something about that at this stage before we go on to the Amendments which have been tabled to other clauses.

I said that I would see how inappropriate an Amendment on the lines that had been proposed would be, and I have to tell your Lordships that I have concluded that it would be so inappropriate that I must decline to adopt it. Apart from the objections of principle to the terms and conditions of civil servants being governed by Statute, there are other practical objections. In the Government's view, as has been said on other occasions and in other places, the right way to conduct industrial relations is by collective agreements freely negotiated between employer and employees. In the present case, the terms and conditions of people coming into the Civil Service from the Authority will be set out in such agreements, which take as their starting point the assurance that terms and conditions, taken as a whole, will be no less favourable than those in existing contracts.

As regards the non-industrial staff, it is not the case, as was suggested, I think, by the noble Lord, Lord Winterbottom, that the discussions we have had with the representatives are recorded only in minutes of meetings. They are now enshrined in a detailed document which is nearing finality and which will be a formal, signed agreement dealing with specific points where differences in conditions of service occur. It will clearly and specifically indicate the rights of individuals in these matters and will provide that any point of detail still under discussion and any matters that may have been overlooked in the negotiations will similarly be settled in the light of the assurances I have given. On the side of the industrial staff, an agreement has already been entered into with the trade unions, and the assurance given to them will equally apply to any points that might not have been covered.

The agreements to which I have referred can, under the Industrial Relations Act, be legally enforceable, and this will provide for the "justiciability" about which the noble Lord, Lord Ave-bury, was so concerned. I think it would be more difficult for an individual who thought he was being unfairly treated to make a case to a civil court on the basis of a general provision in this Bill, the interpretation of which would be in the hands of the court, than to do so on the basis of a detailed agreement on which he could take his case to the National Industrial Relations Court. I therefore feel that it is in the best interests of the staff to rely on these detailed agreements and I really think that the present position is satisfactory. I beg to move that the Report be now received.

Moved, That the Report be now received.—(Lord Carrington.)


My Lords, as the noble Lord has chosen to raise this point on the Question that the Report be now received, perhaps I should comment that the assurances which he has given are certainly an advance on those which he was able to give to my noble friend in Committee, and I think that most noble Lords on this side will be content to rest by them. We should, however, draw attention to the difference between the conditions that Parliament feels fit to impose on private companies and those it feels fit to impose on the Government. I have in mind the precedent quoted by my noble friend Lord Winterbottom—the Atomic Energy Authority Act 1971—which passed certain staff from the Authority to ordinary company employment. That Act says that when they enter company employment in the private sector they shall be no worse treated than they were treated when in the employment of the Authority. The present Bill passes certain staff from the Authority directly into the Civil Service and it does not say that they shall be no worse treated when they are in the Civil Service, under the care of the Secretary of State, than they were when in the employment of the Authority. If this were to become a regular trend, namely, that Parliament binds the private sector by Statute to do certain things but that Whitehall rejects binding of the same sort when applied to the Government, it might be a pity. I hope that the Secretary of State will tell us that it is not an emerging trend in labour legislation which is going to be followed by the present Government.


My Lords, if I may speak again by the leave of the House, I can certainly tell the noble Lord that if I thought that the effect of putting the words suggested on the Committee stage into this Bill would be that those people who were being transferred to the Civil Service and the Ministry of Defence would be better off, I would certainly have put them in; but I am convinced, in point of fact, that it will be better to leave things as they are.

On Question, Motion agreed to.

Clause 1 [Transfer of Atomic Energy Authority Weapons Group to Secretary of State]:

3.2 p.m.

LORD WYNNE-JONES moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1, line 9, after ("Group") insert (",except that portion of the work which is concerned with the production of radio- and other isotopes and with such other activities as are primarily for civil purposes;").

The noble Lord said: My Lords, I wish to move this Amendment to Clause 1(1) of the Bill. In this clause the object of the Bill is clearly set out, namely, to transfer from the Atomic Energy Authority to the Ministry of Defence the administration and management of Aldermaston and certain other parts of the present Atomic Energy Authority's domain which are concerned with weapons. We discussed many of the details at Second Reading and at Committee stage and it became clear that there was one compelling reason which made the Minister come before this House with this Bill. That reason, if I may use his own words, was the desire to have control and, as he said: I start from the standpoint of the Minister who has to run a Defence Budget of some £3,000 million a year and get value for money. A very large part of the money—not perhaps such a large part as we should like—is spent on research and development and production. I do not believe it is possible to use economically the resources which I have at my disposal at the Ministry of Defence unless I am actually managing all the establishments where there is research and development and production for the Armed Services."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 16/11/72, col. 839.] And that is the justification for this Bill.

We could argue about this particular thesis. I personally am not prepared to accept it. But that is not really the point. We have got beyond the Second Reading and we are now at the stage where we are trying to see that the Bill is clear and is able to work properly. When the Minister tells the House that his justification for the Bill is that he, as Minister of Defence, must have under his control and management all the research establishments which are concerned with defence, then he has immediately conceded the important point that the research done for a Ministry should be under the control of that Ministry. If he concedes that point (and that it seems to me is the only purpose of the Bill) then he must surely concede that any research which is done in his establishments which is not for his Ministry should be taken away from those establishments. Because if it is logical to take the work on weapons away from the Atomic Energy Authority and give it to the Ministry of Defence, then equally one should remove from the Weapons Department that work which is not concerned with weapons but which is there purely for civil purposes. That concerns not a minute fraction of the work. If it were possible to say that it was just an odd piece of work here and there; if it were reasonable to state that there were simply one or two people employed in this way, one might say that it is not worthwhile splitting hairs about one or two people. But the Minister himself stated both on Second Reading and in the discussions that we had on the Committee stage, that at least 20 per cent, of the work at Aldermaston is not for defence purposes at all, but is work concerned with radio and other isotopes. Indeed, it is concerned also with work relating to the breeder reactor and with various aspects, which are discussed in another Amendment, which have nothing directly to do with weapons development.

Therefore, my Lords, on the very argument that the Minister himself uses, this portion of the work should surely remain with the Atomic Energy Authority, otherwise the whole Bill makes no sense. As I have said, I am prepared to argue with the Minister on whether it makes sense in any case, but that is a totally different issue. The point is that on his own argument this particular work should not remain with the Ministry of Defence. It could be stated that work can be done just as well in one establishment as in another. Indeed, I would not for a moment deny that, but if we have an establishment which is a weapons establishment it is necessarily, and rightly, going to be governed by strict rules with regard to secrecy. It is inevitable that information is not allowed to pet out from a weapons department. Yet the whole essence of doing civil work is that the knowledge does get out and gets out quickly. Therefore there is an incompatibility between running work in a defence establishment and running work which is primarily meant for civil purposes.

The work on radio-isotopes is very well known. Aldermaston has been well known for that work, and it is work which has been of great benefit for medical and industrial purposes and for research purposes in universities and elsewhere. There is a great future for that work. It is interesting to notice that the originator of the atom bomb himself said that he thought that the real future for atomic fission lay not in energy but rather in the beneficial results of radio-isotopes. Whether he was right or wrong, there is no question but that the radio-isotope work is immensely important, and important in its own right, which has nothing to do with weapons. Therefore, I move this Amendment which would allow the retention of the whole of the work which is concerned simply with radio and other isotopes—I put it in this form because one has both radioactive and non-radioactive isotopes and both may be made in a place like Aldermaston—and such other activities as are primarily for civil purposes, I beg to move.

3.10 p.m.


My Lords, after the Second Reading and the Committee stage of this Bill, I understand perfectly well what the noble Lord is trying to do, but I hope that I can satisfy him and explain to him why what he is suggesting is not possible. The activities of the Weapons Group are primarily for defence purposes, and that is why it is right and proper, in my view, even if it not in his view, that the Weapons Group should come to the Ministry of Defence. But where, from time to time, there may be any spare effort or facilities not fully employed for defence purposes, or where there are some special skills which have been built up for defence and which are particularly needed to help in the solution of a civil problem, then the group undertakes civil work.

I must make it clear, however, that there is no separate organisation inside the Weapons Group to do this. Civil work may be done anywhere within the Group, using any effort or any facilities which are appropriate for a particular civil task, and it is my intention that civil work should continue in this way. But it would not be possible, as I hope the noble Lord will understand from what I have just said, to isolate a defined part of the Weapons Group and to exclude it from the transfer to the Ministry of Defence. The civilian tasks at the A.W.R.E. will be undertaken on a customer-contractor basis; that is to say, the A.E.A. or other civil departments—because it is not only the A.E.A.—will place contracts with the Ministry of Defence, and the customer will be in control both of the purpose and of the ambit of the work.

I realise, because the noble Lord ended his remarks with this point, that he is particularly concerned about production of radioactive isotopes. This is, of course, primarily the responsibility of the Radiochemical Centre at Amersham, which was set up as a commercial organisation for this purpose by the Atomic Energy Authority Act in 1971. Some isotope production is undertaken by the Authority on behalf of the Radiochemical Centre at various of the Authority's research establishments. However, no isotope production is currently being done within the Weapons Group. I hope that this will help to allay the noble Lord's fears that the transfer of the group's activities will in any way impede the progress of this important area of work.

On Question, Amendment negatived.

Clause 6 [Powers of Authority in relation to atomic weapons development, etc.]:

3.13 p.m.

LORD KENNET moved Amendment No. 4:

Page 6, line 8, at end insert— ( ) Nothing in subsection (1) above shall prohibit the Authority from engaging in any work, as specified in that subsection, for other than war-like applications in respect of explosive nuclear devices of up to 100 Kilogram TNT equivalent.

The noble Lord said: This is the same Amendment as I put down on Committee stage, and I would explain at once that this Amendment and Amendment No. 5, which is a definition Amendment, are in my mind alternatives; I seek to achieve the same effects by either one of these Amendments. In the event that the Secretary of State was willing to accept one or the other, then I would not move the other or the one.

May I remind the House, since we had a rather small attendance on Committee, what this is all about? My noble friend Lord Wynne-Jones was anxious to keep civil isotope production out of the hands of the Secretary of State. I do not know about my noble friend, but for my part I was convinced that the Bill would not put it into the hands of the Secretary of State, or at any rate not in a measure requiring correction in this House. My purpose is to keep research and development into the generation of electricity by thermo-nuclear fusion out of the veto of the Secretary of State, not, as I said at an earlier stage, because I believed the Secretary of State would veto anything worth while, but because it seems that in any case it should not be anything to do with the Ministry of Defence. To cut a long story short, the development of civil thermo-nuclear fusion is the greatest, and apparently at the moment possibly the only, hope of mankind in dealing with the crisis of energy and resources with which we are faced over the next 30 to 50 years. It will be clean; supplies are limitless; it will be a great deal safer than fission as a source of electricity.

It appears that the most fruitful approach to this subject—I am sorry to bore the Secretary of State all over again with this, but there are other noble Lords who would like to know what it is about—is by devising and controlling a series of very small nuclear explosions. So my purpose is to say that though research and development into nuclear explosions in general will pass under the control of the Secretary of State, because they are bombs or things like bombs, yet research and development into very small nuclear explosions—which I define here by a certain physical level—should not pass under the control of the Secretary of State, because this is civil research which ought to be as open as possible. It has to do with the future of the electricity generating industry in this country, and it has nothing to do with defence.

At the last time round, the Secretary of State said that he was aware of what we on this side were after in moving this Amendment, and that he believed that the Bill as drafted would not put him in control of this civil fusion research. I asked him how that could be, and he said that he would look into the matter and see whether he could find any form of words which would put it beyond doubt that his veto did not extend over this form of research. I deduce from the absence of a Government Amendment that he has been unable to find that form of words; therefore I put down my own Amendment again in the same words as before. The Secretary of State says that the Bill as drafted does not give him control over this research, although it does give him control over research and development into all explosive nuclear devices. At the earlier stage I asked the Secretary of State whether the fusion reactor which is being researched into would be not explosive or not nuclear or not a device. At that moment he was not quite ready to answer which of these things it would not be; but it must not be one of those things if it is to escape his veto. I beg to move.


My Lords, may I ask the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, how this proposal would affect Dounreay, in which we take great pride in Scotland?


My Lords, I do not think that anything at Dounreay could be described as explosion. It is an extraordinary fission reaction, which is, of its nature, continuous; it does not go "pop, pop, pop", like the fusion reactor that I am talking about.


My Lords, the great difficulty is that in this subject almost everything goes "pop, pop, pop"; this is the difficulty of definition. If it were possible to devise an Amendment which did what the noble Lords seeks to do I should be very happy to accept it, because he and I are at one about what we are seeking to do; there is no dispute between us. But the difficulty is to find a way of doing it, and this has baffled everybody. Perhaps I might, with the noble Lord's permission, talk about the difficulties of both his Amendments, since he really moved them as one.

The purpose of the Bill is that all activities concerned with research, development and production related to nuclear warheads, whether for warlike application or otherwise, should come under the direct management control of the Ministry of Defence, and that the Atomic Energy Authority should cease to have powers to engage in such activities. It is for this reason that his first Amendment will not do, because it is incompatible with the objectives that I have just stated. The point simply is that military interests extend below the threshold limit quoted in the Amendment, and it is not practicable to identify a finite boundary between military and civilian work in such terms.

Having said that, perhaps I might for one moment say something (because this happened on the Committee stage and I think that I owe the noble Lord, Lord Stow Hill, an answer) about the doubts expressed both by him and by the noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones, who suggested that imprecision in the drafting and terminology of the Bill opened the way to misunderstandings about what exactly is being transferred from the Atomic Energy Authority and what is left to them as a result of the operation of Clause 6. In the first place, Clause 6(2) of the Bill repeals the Authority's power under the Atomic Energy Authority Act 1954 to, conduct experimental work which may lead to improved types of explosive nuclear assemblies for atomic weapons. The prohibition in the Act that the Authority shall not develop or produce any weapon, or part of a weapon. remains unchanged. Then under Clause 6(1), the prohibition on the Authority is extended first to embrace research, experiment, development or production on any explosive nuclear devices (which is what we are talking about under this Amendment), and, secondly, to include warlike applications or otherwise in the prohibition. This last phrase is necessary because devices similar to those used in nuclear weapons are capable of use in massive civil engineering projects—the so-called peaceful nuclear explosions. The technology is fundamentally the same, as are the security and international sensitivities and obligations, and this makes it essential that devices for these purposes, are brought within the management control of my Department, which is responsible for the whole.

Before dealing with the second Amendment of the noble Lord, perhaps I could return to a point which was made at the Committee stage when I was asked why we had introduced in the Bill the term "device" when the Atomic Energy Authority Act 1954 has no such reference, and the term used was "explosive nuclear assemblies for atomic weapons". I can only say that since 1954 nuclear weapons technology has made great strides, and with the increase in complexity the term "explosive nuclear assembly" is no longer regarded as aptly covering the variety of techniques involved. More recently, in drawing up the treaty on the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons in 1968, there was international agreement that it was necessary to introduce the word "devices" in order to establish an effective net to catch all the activities which were, or might become, related to or concerned with the proliferation of nuclear weapons know-how. "Device", therefore, is an accepted term of art in the nuclear weapons business, internationally as well as nationally.

With regard to the noble Lord's second Amendment he has, if I may be allowed to say so, made an extremely ingenious attempt to get round the difficulty. When I first saw it, being a layman, I thought, "That is fine. That has got over all our difficulties, and we shall not have any trouble on the Report stage." However, I am afraid that it does not work like that, because we are dealing with the fundamentals of matter. It is difficult to find a definition clearly distinguishing the release of nuclear energy in fission or fusion reactions for civil power generation from those capable of application in nuclear weapon technology. I must tell the noble Lord, since I have learnt this, that his Amendment does not do this, and that the definition that he has produced in this Amendment can in fact be held to encompass the fusion work at Culham, about which he is so anxious, and about which I agree with him. The pellets of light elements and their method of introduction, which are subjected to fusion reactions by use of lasers, can be regarded as a "device" in the Oxford English Dictionary meaning of the word. It is capable of exploding and of being exploded, since an explosive release of nuclear energy is the end result of the laser-induced reaction, and it then no longer exists, as such, since the elements are transmuted. The noble Lord shakes his head and appears to doubt the definition of the word "device" in the Oxford English Dictionary.


My Lords, I agree with that.


My Lords, the noble Lord agrees with it (and I do not know whether he has looked it up), but perhaps I may remind him of the definition of "device". It is: The action, or faculty, of devising; invention, ingenuity…an arrangement, plan, contrivance…stratagem. Having said that, I think that the noble Lord will see that, much though I should like to accept his Amendment and, if I possibly could, to accommodate him in this case, we have not been able to find a definition which is satisfactory, and have had to rely upon the definition in the non-proliferation treaty.

3.25 p.m.


My Lords, the noble Lord has given us a definition which he himself recognises does not lead us very far. Earlier in his speech he said that the word "device" was used because it was wider than the word "assembly". I find this a little odd, because I should have thought that whereas one might have an "assembly of devices" it would be difficult to have a "device of assemblies". It seems to me fairly clear that the word "assembly" is the wider word, and covers much more than does "device". "Device" is a much narrower and more restrictive word than the word "assembly". I should have thought that it would be very much better if the noble Lord were to stand on that ground, and not attempt to make out that the word "device" was the wider word, because if he does I think that he is giving his case away.

If, on the other hand, he were to say that he means the word "device" as being a narrower expression than the word "assembly", then I think (and I say this without having spoken to my noble friend Lord Kennet on this matter) that if he would state clearly that the word "device" was the narrower expression, and was not meant to be as wide as "assembly", we could go a long way towards agreeing. After all, the important point—and it is a serious matter—is that the Atomic Energy Authority must have quite clearly defined the right to investigate all nuclear explosive assemblies; but I would quite agree that, under the Bill, it might be restricted in its investigation of devices. The word "devices" is meant, presumably, for weapons. Those are the narrower things.

I would agree that if he wishes to separate off a portion (as I have said already I do not agree with his idea of separating them off), then surely the sensible thing to do is to separate along the lines of having the narrowly defined "device", and not having the "assembly" at all as being what is being taken over by his Ministry, the Ministry of Defence. In other words, it is quite vital, if we are to continue to have investigation and research into the fundamentals of nuclear energy, that this research should be done not in a defence establishment but by the Atomic Energy Authority, and there should be no restrictions on the Atomic Energy Authority to investigate the principles, whereas, according to this Bill, the Atomic Energy Authority will be restricted in its investigation of the principles. It would be as ludicrous, as I mentioned earlier, to say that because you had an explosion in order to fire a shell, therefore nobody other than the Ministry of Defence should be allowed to study explosives. Had that been the situation there would have been precious few explosives, because most of the work has been done outside Government Ministries. It has been done mainly in the big research establishments of the great companies. I am quite convinced that this Bill, if it is to be effective, has to be interpreted in a narrow way and not in the inclusive way that the noble Lord is trying to persuade us it should be interpreted.


My Lords, when I hear the Secretary of State read out the dictionary definition of a "device" which includes the word "ingenuity", and if I then translate and think of an explosive nuclear ingenuity, I am reminded of, for instance, the noble Lord, Lord Penney, and other persons engaged in nuclear work who are extremely ingenious and whose temperament appears to be explosive. The dictionary definition would leave the Secretary of State, within reason, to take charge of all the nuclear scientists displaying more than a certain degree of explosive energy or having a certain temperament. In other words, I do not attach too much importance to the dictionary definition to which the Secretary of State has treated us. On the other hand, I think he makes his point, and I have to give way on both of these Amendments, when he says that military interests extend below the limit which I named in the Amendment. In other words, if there is an overlap in size, in the explosive force or in the TNT equivalent between civil fusion research and research of military interest, then it is clear that I should not press my Amendment, because it would leave work of military interest, which ought to be covered by security, without that cover. I should just like to put this fairly and squarely to the Secretary of State. Is there an overlap in the size of explosion concerned, on the one hand, with civil fusion research and, on the other hand, with, shall we say, military applications? If there is such an overlap, I shall withdraw my Amendment; if not, I am not quite sure that I shall.


My Lords, if I may speak again with the leave of the House, may I just say to the noble Lord, Lord Wynne-Jones, that if he is saying that the word "device" is less all-embracing than the word "assembly", he is pitting himself against all the experts who drafted the Non-Proliferation Treaty, who felt that the word "assembly" was not a wide enough word. So I am afraid that I cannot comfort the noble Lord by saying that the word "device" has a narrower meaning than the word "assembly", because it was put in precisely for the opposite reason.

With regard to the noble Lord, Lord Kennet, I think the answer to his question, is, Yes, I think there is an overlap; and this is precisely the difficulty. But if I may add one more word, which I should perhaps have said in my original remarks, although we are talking about the difficulties of definition, the solutions to which have eluded all of us, there is absolutely no difficulty between my Department or the Atomic Energy Authority or the civil Departments about what we mean by this. All the Departments are quite happy that the intention of the Bill, which is that nuclear explosions and so on should be the business of the Ministry of Defence and that civilian development should be the business of the A.E.A., will in point of fact be carried out, quite regardless of the difficulty of defining this point in the Bill. I hope that with that assurance the noble Lord will withdraw the Amendment.


My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that the Director at Culham did not even know, until I told him, that his work would be affected by this Bill?


My Lords, it will not be.


Then, my Lords, we come back to the original question. Is it not explosive, not nuclear or not a device?


My Lords, this is not a Committee stage and I feel extremely diffident in answering the noble Lord. But the point is that, because we have not defined it as the noble Lord seeks to define it, Culham will remain untouched.


My Lords, I must digest the noble Lord's words at leisure when I read them in Hansard, and use some log tables and some computers to put statement against statement. In the meantime, I beg leave to withdraw my Amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

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