§ Major Bruce
I beg to move, in page 1, line,10, to leave out the first "and."
While discussing this Amendment, I should also like to consider the next Amendment standing in my name—in page 1, line 10, after "use," to insert "and dispose of."—I have been all through this Bill, and have been at some pains to endeavour to ascertain whether there exists in it any power for the Minister to dispose of atomic energy if it is in fact produced. It is important that the Bill should give the Minister that power. In the Second Reading Debate some doubts were expressed on when the early production of atomic energy was likely to take place. I believe five years was the time mentioned. The Minister himself seems to think that early development is possible. He said:The recent report to the United Nations Atomic Energy Commission by Mr. Baruch shows that a body of American experts consider that electricity can be generated in the near future at atomic energy stations at a cost comparable with that of using coal or oil fuel"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th October, 1946; Vol. 427, c. 145.]It may well be that it will take considerably longer than this Commission thought. Scientific development, although proceeding frequently on a slow basis, very often makes fairly quick jumps. I am advised that it would be very unsafe to predict that atomic energy might not be produced in the very near future. I therefore think that it is absolutely indispensable for the Minister to take power in the Bill to dispose of it. If the produc- 498 tion of atomic energy in the reasonably near future is to become a practical proposition, it will undoubtedly have very beneficial effects within this country. It will reduce our dependence on coal and it will also ensure, if it is produced in sufficient quantity, that a far mightier means of power is available to the nation as a whole which, in the course of its development, may well increase the leisure available to the bulk of our people. It is therefore very important that the Minister should have power to dispose of it once the energy is produced. As the Minister himself said:Of one thing we can be sure, that the new discoveries have in store great things for mankind."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th October, 1946; Vol. 427, c. 146.]It is particularly important that the Minister should have the power, because the very nature of the product makes it absolutely essential that a powerful body, responsible to public opinion, shall have control of it. In view of the fact that the programme of the Government for the next few years includes a large number of measures of nationalisation, particularly in the fuel and power sector, it seems to me to be necessary for the Minister to have power to dispose of this energy through the Ministry of Fuel and Power.
There are, however, other reasons why specific power should be put into the Bill. A new process of power always, to some extent, displaces obsolete forms, and as our history in these islands has frequently shown those who produce the older forms of power frequently object to the passing of the old ways of production. To put it at its mildest, there is very often an inertia on the part of those private firms which have been producing one commodity to give way to the new. It is, therefore, very necessary that no objections by any private body of individuals, whether organised as a company or as a corporation, should be allowed in any way to retard the absolutely full development of this new power. The State, and the State alone, is capable of overcoming these obstructions which in the past, I am bound to say, have all too frequently been the characteristic of private enterprise in the years between the wars with such disastrous effects upon our country. The Amendment is not only designed to give the Minister power of disposal, it is also on the Order Paper so that we on this side of the House may 499 gather some idea as to the Minister's intentions in regard to the disposal of atomic energy in its commercial form as and when it is finally produced. We shall ask him—we shall press him—for an assurance that no private concern shall be given a monopoly of its disposal.
I have so far dealt with the powers of the Minister to dispose of atomic energy, and I have been talking of atomic energy in, if I may use the term, its popular sense: that is to say, as a new mass means of generating power for commercial use. But there is another aspect of atomic energy which must receive our attention. Atomic energy not only includes the popular definition to which I have referred, but may also be held to include certain radio-active by-products produced by an atomic pile. The House should be aware that such radioactive emanations are already in fact being produced by the atomic piles which this country now possesses. A mild form —if I may use the term in a rather unskilled sense for the moment—of atomic energy is therefore in existence, and I ask the Minister for an assurance that he will take power to dispose of this type of atomic energy which is already with us.
At the present time, in the experimental plants in this country, radioactive phosphorus and radioactive carbon are being produced, and they are of considerable value in medical research, particularly as tracer elements. I am not a scientist myself, but I am given to understand that the absorption of some of these tracer elements into the system enables the medical profession more easily to trace the whole metabolism and other processes of the body, and I am also given to understand that it may be of tremendous use in getting at the causes and progress of that dread national affliction, cancer. There are also, of course, uses for this particular mild form of energy or radiation in therapy and industrial research. I think the Minister himself made some reference to this when, in the Second Reading Debate, he said:It is certain already that atomic energy can be used to produce new radioactive materials in considerable quantities, and that with their aid new fields of research and application are opened in biology and medicine and in many branches of industry where these radioactive atoms can be used to follow reactions and other processes."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th Oct., 1946, vol. 427, c. 145.]500 What we on these benches would like to know is, how are these mild forms of atomic energy or radiation, whichever one prefers to call them for the moment—and one does require a rather firmer definition, if one could get it from the Law Officers of the Crown—how are these radioactive bye-products being disposed of at the present time? I am advised that the Minister's exclusive agency for the disposal of these radioactive elements at present is Messrs. Thorium Ltd., a private limited company which, I think it should be known, is a subsidiary of Imperial Chemical Industries. I feel that we should know, first, the financial terms on which this has been accomplished, because, after all, as was stated during the Second Reading Debate, this industry is to become nationalised, and, therefore, Parliament and the people should be able to know some of the terms on which this disposal is taking place. Secondly, we should like to know the duration of the contract, and thirdly, what rights the Minister has reserved to himself to determine the contract.
These questions are to be asked for two principal reasons. The first reason is, of course, an international reason, and here I desire to measure my words very carefully because in this House one must be conscious that one's words, on occasion, may be capable of misinterpretation in countries other than our own. But, if I can put it mildly, the reputation of Imperial Chemical Industries in the years between the wars, in the armaments field, makes it very necessary indeed for the Minister to explain exactly the present relationship with that company. We know that before the war Imperial Chemical Industries supplied both sides in the Japanese-Chinese war, and we know that that was done, as Lord McGowan said at the time, without any particular delicacy of feeling.
I do not wish to attack this particular private company in this House, although experience has always shown that it has never lacked its supporters on the other side of the House if it has ever come to a question of argument. In fact I should be the first to hope that there has been a very considerable change of heart in the minds of armaments manufacturers since the last catastrophe through which we have but lately come, but it should be remembered that radioactive dust as 501 such is a weapon of war. My hon. Friend the Member for King's Norton (Mr. Blackburn), during the Second Reading Debate, asked:Can they produce radio active dust next year, which may be almost as terrible a weapon?"—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 8th October, 1946; Vol. 427, c. 79.]In other words, he made a statement that radio dust was a terrible weapon. That statement was not challenged by the Front Bench. I am unskilled myself in matters of science, but if radio dust is a very lethal weapon, and if Imperial Chemical Industries or one of their subsidiary companies is being granted a monopoly for its disposal, then, at its lowest, it makes it very necessary that this House and the country, and our Allies in the East with whom we have a 20-year Treaty, and our Allies in the West with whom we have so much in common in terms of language, should know precisely what is the connection at the present time, and how the Minister intends in the future to carry on this relationship.
It is also necessary that this question should be asked for domestic reasons. With the enormous potential behind these radioactive substances—and I gather that they can be derived from the majority of elements at the present time—they should be under the control of the Minister, this House and the nation. The value to humanity of these radioactive substances is so great that the danger of any private enterprise restrictions forcing up prices in a scarcity market could not be possibly tolerated. No one can say that such restrictions for the purpose of raising prices have not operated in the past, even in the armaments field. It is very necessary that the Minister has full powers to be able to dispose of them, as these substances have such value in medicine and in industrial research. It may well be that in discussing radioactive by-products under the heading of atomic energy I have not been accurate, but I would ask the indulgence of the Committee, because a definition of atomic energy is a very difficult thing to express in legal terms. If radioactive by-products are not legally included within the term "atomic energy", then we shall require an assurance from the Minister that he will take powers under the Bill, by the introduction of a suitable Amendment on the Report stage, which will enable him 502 to dispose of radioactive by-products. Finally, we should like some indication of the Minister's plan for the future dis-tribution of radioactive materials.
§ The Chairman
The hon. and gallant Member who moved this Amendment has dealt very widely with this subject. It is clear that we cannot have another full discussion on these lines, on the Motion "That the Clause stand part of the Bill."
§ Mr. Blackburn (Birmingham, King's Norton)
I wish to speak for only a few moments in support of my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for North Portsmouth (Major Bruce), and to put three specific points. Firstly, it is quite obvious that radioactive by-products come under Subsection (1, b)—to dispose of any articles manufactured, produced, bought or acquired by him;Radioactive by-products are obviously such articles. The second point I wish to make is in connection with my hon. and gallant Friend's reference to Thorium Ltd. being a subsidiary of I.C.I. I am sure that no one is trying to suggest anything improper has been done. We are merely trying to elicit information. The Minister has stated in the House on many occasions, and it is a recognised fact, that radioactive by-products are the first and greatest immediate benefits to be derived from nuclear physics. They are in fact available on a colossal scale. Elaborate machinery has been devised in the United States to see that these radioactive byproducts are allocated in accordance with need. If I.C.I. are given exclusive management, as I understand they have been, of the sales and disposal of these radioactive by-products, I hope that the Minister will indicate on what terms I.C.I. have these exclusive rights. I hope that he will indicate that no profit is being made out of it, and that appropriate machinery has been devised to allocate these substances in accordance with need. I hope that liaison has already been obtained with the Medical Research Council, and that as a result, a proper plan has been devised to see that research into the metabolism of the human body is to proceed at the greatest possible speed.
Thirdly, I should like to support my hon. and gallant Friend in his statement that these radioactive by-products also have an extremely dangerous angle. It is true that the Germans were not working 503 on the atomic bomb but on the use of radioactive poisons, and upon the problem of distributing these radioactive by-products in the form of dust—that is in the Smythe Report. I hope that the Minister will explain what security provisions there are to see that these substances are not used for the wrong purpose.
§ Mr. Beswick (Uxbridge)
As I understand it, the purpose of the Amendment is to give the Minister power to utilise or dispose of such power as is produced in the course of the development of atomic energy. A number of by-products have been mentioned, some of which may be available in the near future, and some of which may be available in the not-too-near future. There is one point on which I should like to touch and which may be of practical importance. The largest separation and production plant in the United States was built on the banks of the Colorado River, so that they could use the waters of the river for cooling purposes. I understand a doubt was raised in the minds of some people about what would happen to the fish in the river if radioactive particles were discharged into it after the water had done its job of cooling. I am glad to be able to say that the latest reports show that the salmon in the Colorado River were bigger and more numerous than ever.
The point I am making is that the heat of the water which had been used in the pile could very well have been used for industrial purposes. It seems to me that this is a possible line for the Minister to take to reduce his overhead charges. It was not an important point during the war in the States, because costs were no object. Has the Minister power, if he so wishes, to utilise this power generated by the pile for industrial purposes? Some loose talk is used about deriving electrical power from atomic energy. It may in future be possible, but what is possible now is the use of water, in the ordinary course of engineering processes, to drive a generator which would deliver the electricity. As I say, it may well be that the Minister could utilise this in order to reduce the overhead costs of producing this fissionable material. I would like to know whether my right hon. Friend had power to do that. If he has not, this Amendment would give him that power.
§ 12 noon.
§ Mr. Mikardo (Reading)
I would like to refer for a moment to the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for King's Norton (Mr. Blackburn) about the connection between the Minister and Messrs. Thorium, Ltd. My hon. Friend suggested that the company were acting as managers of an establishment on behalf of the Minister, an arrangement with which we became familiar in the build-up of industry during the war and in certain types of industry two or three years before the war. If what my hon. Friend said is correct it seems a pity that we should perpetuate into peace years, almost as a matter of permanence, this rather unscientific arrangement of private companies managing establishments on behalf of the Government.
It is easy to understand how this arrangement came about. In the early years of the war we had a large scale job of reconversion to do, at very short notice. There was the creation of shadow factories, because one was faced with the difficulty of building up a war industry among firms which were engaged on peacetime products, and it had to be done without drawing too much public attention to the fact. But as a matter of general practice, this arrangement of a private firm acting as a manager for a Government Department has all the disadvantages of both private enterprise and State ownership, without any of the advantages. It gets the worst of both worlds. In peacetime, when the Government have time to make plans—I will not say at leisure, but with more deliberation open to them than in 1940—on a large scale, and to operate them in successive stages in accordance with their original ideas, I refuse to believe that it is impossible for the Minister to create, within his own purview, an organisation capable of managing such an establishment.
There is reason to believe that the continuation of this practice of a private company managing a Government enterprise is partly the result of laziness, or perhaps a disinclination on the part of Government Departments to go to the admittedly additional and considerable trouble of building up their own organisation. There is a lot of loose thinking which takes for granted that we ought to perpetuate a practice which was built up for a special purpose. If the Minister is incapable of running a by-products establishment let him be frank 505 about it, and say so. But if he is not, why should he pass over to a private company the job of managing what ought to be his establishment, thereby incurring, as a result, the disadvantages, in some measure, both of private company operation and public ownership?
§ Mr. Wilmot
The main Amendment which we have been discussing seeks to insert the words "dispose of", and as it is quite likely that, in time, developments of power and distribution may arise I think it would be wise to accept the suggestion which has been made by my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for North Portsmouth (Major Bruce). It gives the Minister complete power to dispose of any energy which, in time, may be manufactured and disposed of. I accept the Amendment, in case there should be any doubt on the matter, because it may be that the energy would not be held to be an article. I have power, under Subsection (1, b) of Clause 2, to dispose of any articles manufactured, produced, bought or required by the Minister. That would certainly cover radioactive substances. It would cover hot water, or even hot air if it were available. These would be articles, but if we were to arrive at a discovery whereby it is possible to distribute energy without some vehicle which could be described as an article, then my hon. and gallant Friend's Amendment covers that point.
With regard to the question of radioactive substances, and the method by which the Government propose to handle them, I say at once that the fears of Members on these matters are entirely without foundation. The Government have no intention whatever of granting a monopoly to any private firm; in fact, the process is exactly the other way round. We have decided to establish a Government Radio Chemical Centre for the handling of radium and artificial radioactive substances which are being produced. For a long time, there has been a need for a centre specialising in the manipulation of radium and radon, work which has so far been carried on with inadequate and temporary facilities. There are not at present in this country any facilities for packaging and distributing the new artificial active substances which will be by-products of the atomic energy power. So we have to take steps at once 506 to deal with this matter, and provide them.
Far from granting a monopoly to I.C.I. or Thorium Limited, or anybody else, the Government on the contrary are acquiring the business of Thorium Limited, whose premises are at Amersham, for the purpose of acquiring the plant that exists for doing the job. This company is owned as to 50 per cent. by Imperial Chemical Industries Limited, and as to 50 per cent. by the firm of Messrs. Howards, who are fine chemical manufacturers. The main business of the plant is the extraction, from the monosite, of the Thorium nitrate which is used in a manufacture of gas mantles. The firm has for some time been engaged at Amersham in the refining of radium, and has specialised in the study of the medical precautions necessary for the handling of radium and other radioactive substances. The terms of the acquisition provide for the purchase of the freehold property, furniture, and stock-in-trade at an agreed valuation, together with the acquisition by His Majesty's Government of the good will of that part of the company's business which we are now completely taking over.
Having acquired all this, the question is, how do we organise it and operate it? I am bound to tell the Committee, as hon. Members would expect, that the number of people with knowledge and experience of these highly complicated, and in certain circumstances, dangerous, processes is very limited; and for the time being, at any rate, since speed is necessary, I think the best way of getting this work well and efficiently done will be to appoint the company, who have been doing it for their own account, to be the agents for the Government in running the establishment which we are now taking over. I have chosen them because they have a unique experience in the handling of radioactive substances, and I believe we shall get quicker and more efficient operation by this means than by any other. There is no question of profit involved. The firm will be paid a management fee. It will be a fixed management fee, and a small fee. The whole property in the business will be the property of the Government, and there will be no profits accruing to anybody, except if there be profits to His Majesty's Government.
§ Mr. Harold Davies (Leek)
I am trying to follow the Minister's argument, I understand that gradually all the plant will 507 become the property of the State. I brought up this matter the other day when we were discussing the industrial development of atomic energy and its by-products. Some of us would like to see this concern nationalised, but according to the Minister's statement there could be a kind of managerial organisation which would manage it in perpetuity for the State. Some of us are anxious that this should be taken over by the State as a nationalised concern.
§ Mr. Henry Usborne (Birmingham, Acock's Green)
I think the Minister said that for the time being he had asked the people who had done this in the past to continue. Is it quite clearly understood by them that it is for the time being, and not in perpetuity?
§ Mr. Wilmot
Nothing is in perpetuity. The property is not passing gradually; it is passing all at once. We are buying outright the property, business goodwill, plant, and everything else. There is a team of people who have been doing this work, who have acquired experience and knowledge in working together, and nobody else has got that experience. Therefore, I am hiring that experience for the purpose of managing this new business which we have bought. I disagree with my hon. Friend the Member for Reading (Mr. Mikardo) on this matter. I do not regard the employment of efficient managing agents of a publicly-owned undertaking as necessarily giving us the worst of both worlds. It may indeed give us the best of both worlds, because we buy the best technical experience that exists, we use it for the purposes which the Government determine, we take all the profit out of the operation, and we have a well run and efficiently managed publicly-owned undertaking—and publicly-owned undertakings can only be justified if they are efficiently managed. The important thing here is to get on with the job at once and have the most efficient management available.
§ 12.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Usborne
Since the Minister says he is hiring the experience of these people, I take it he means there are some individuals who will be for the time being spending all their time on this project. That being so, is there any real reason why they should not be employed by this corporation? If they are spending all 508 their time on this job, where is the sense in having them on loan? Why not employ them?
§ Mr. Wilmot
We are taking the thing collectively instead of individually for the time being. This arrangement is on six months' notice We are feeling our way and seeing how we go. I think hon. Members can be well satisfied that what we wish to achieve will be done.
§ Mr. Blackburn
Will the Minister deal with the main point that I put to him? I was aware since the Minister has published the facts, that Thorium, Ltd., have an exclusive management right. I asked the Minister whether he would do what has been done in America—that is to say, indicate that there will be proper machinery for the allocation of radioactive by-products in accordance with need, so that professors in universities, doctors, and so on, can apply to a particular body and know that it will exercise a semi-judicial function in allocating substances in accordance with need.
§ Mr. Wilmot
Certainly, we shall see to-that. It is most important. One other question which my hon. Friend the Member for King's Norton (Mr. Blackburn) asked, and to which I did not reply, was whether we had proper consultations with the General Medical Research Council. We have.
§ Amendment agreed to.
§ Further Amendment made: In page 1, line 10, after "use," insert "and dispose of."—[Major Bruce.]
§ Clause, as amended, ordered to stand part of the Bill.
§ Clauses 3 and 4 ordered to stand part of the Bill.