§ As amended (in the Standing Committee), considered.
§ 8.45 p.m.
§ The Minister of State, Board of Trade (Mr. Roy Mason)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
551 Hon. Members may wonder why I have risen to move the Third Reading. I should explain at once that my right hon. Friend the Minister of Technology is indisposed today. He has a rather bad cold which necessitated a day in bed.
The discussion of the Bill in Committee was both constructive and very helpful, and I thank all hon. Members who took part. We are all agreed, irrespective of which side of the House we are on, that the National Research Development Corporation is doing a good job. This is shown by the fact that hon. Members have had only praise for the Corporation. Any comments they have had, and I say comments advisedly rather than criticism, have been reserved for the Bill.
Hon. Members opposite had put down certain amendments, which they described as probing amendments. These dealt entirely with questions of reporting to this House, either in the Corporation's annual report or in its accounts. My right hon. Friend and I were able to give such assurances and explanations on the points they raised that, eventually, all the Amendments were withdrawn. I shall deal broadly with some of these points later. Then, from the Government side, we were able, with the agreement of the Committee, to make several tidying-up Amendments which did not affect the principles of the Bill at all.
I should like, if I may, to deal very briefly with the more important of these Amendments which are now in the Bill as it stands before the House. The first of them, to Clause 2, has the effect of making clear that the power of the Minister to write off an advance corresponding to a development expenditure which the Corporation has to write out of its books will apply also to expenditure on research. Clause 4 has been amended to clarify the respective responsibilities of the Corporation and the Minister in regard to projects undertaken by the Corporation at the request of a Minister, and financed at least in part by the Minister. It has also been made clear that, whilst the Minister of Technology's approval is required to arrangements of this kind, it is not needed for other arrangements between the Corporation 552 and a Government Department, where no finance is provided by the latter.
I do not wish to detain hon. Members long, but I wish briefly to mention one or two points which were made particularly by hon. Members opposite in Committee. We had quite a lengthy discussion about the Corporation's annual reports, and my right hon. Friend gave an undertaking that he would see that the report was made available to the House as soon as possible each year. I should add that the Corporation's annual report and accounts have always appeared together. This makes sense; one would be quite useless without the other. After 1966, the Comptroller and Auditor-General will be laying the accounts before the House, but we shall arrange it so that the report and accounts still appear together.
In Committee, there was also considerable discussion on the content of the Corporation's reports and accounts. I agree that both must be as informative as possible, subject to the reservation that the Corporation as a commercial organisation could not operate satisfactorily if confidential details about its commercial transactions had to be published.
As regards a general description of its work in the report, the Corporation fully accepts the point made by the right hon. Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples) on Second Reading about more continuity in the report. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. J. H. Osborn) asked in Committee whether the Corporation's annual accounts should not be more informative than in the past. I am glad to say that, in consultation with the Treasury, we are now endeavouring, with the Corporation, to find a form which will present a clearer picture of the Corporation's activities.
Some anxiety was shown in Committee by the hon. Members for Hallam and Oswestry (Mr. Biffen), that each report should record details of any action taken under the two Clauses of the Bill which are designed to provide some modification of the financial conditions under which the Corporation operates. Taking first the write-off provision, the Bill provides that any application for write-off the Corporation makes to my right hon. Friend must be recorded in the report, as must be the grant of any application. 553 I can assure hon. Members that this should provide Parliament with adequate information about how this very important provision is working.
Taking now the provision under which the Minister can ease the burden of interest on advances to the Corporation, the amount of any grant he makes in reimbursement of interest will be seen not only in the Corporation's accounts, but also in the Ministry's Estimates and Appropriation Account. As my right hon. Friend said in Committee, it is the intention normally to give the Corporation a reimbursement grant for interest paid for the first eight years of an advance. Such a grant will not be given on advances used for non-investment purposes, for example to meet a deficit on current account. The Corporation will be expected to pay interest each yeare in future, and the appropriate grant will be paid to it annually, and will, of course, be shown as a separate item in the Corporation's accounts.
We also discussed Clause 4 in Committee, in particular whether there would be any connection between any use the Ministry of Technology might make of this Clause and the fact that the Ministry sponsors several industries. The purpose of this Clause is to enable Government Departments, including the Ministry, to make use of N.R.D.C.'s expertise in placing research and development work on our behalf and at our expense, and it may well be that the Minister might want the Corporation to manage such a project in one of the industries his Ministry is sponsoring. The Clause does not, however, give my right hon. Friend any power to ask the Corporation to do anything which is not appropriate to its functions of development and exploitation of inventions and research aimed at the production of inventions; and the Corporation will have complete freedom to decide whether or not to take on a project for the Ministry of Technology or any other Department under Clause 4.
I think that that briefly but adequately covers all the points raised in Committee. The Bill has been non-contentious throughout. Hon. Members on both sides have been most co-operative and understanding.
I think that all recognise that the Corporation's work is of great importance to our industry. It makes a valuable 554 contribution to that advancement of technology on which our future as an economically strong nation depends. The Corporation has been well served by its members and its staff, and they deserve our thanks. In the future when the Bill before us has passed into law, the Corporation will be able to make an even greater contribution to our national prosperity. I hope that in giving the Bill its Third Reading the House will join me in wishing the Corporation every success in the future.
§ 8.54 p.m.
§ Sir Harry Legge-Bourke (Isle of Ely)
I would first tell the hon. Gentleman that I think we would all sympathise with his right hon. Friend in having been laid low. Some of us felt that he was not quite on the best of form yesterday at Question Time. We certainly wish the Minister a very quick recovery.
The hon. Member may not know that my name was also attached to the Amendments which were considered in Committee, although, for other reasons, I could not be a member of the Standing Committee. However, in associating myself with those Amendments, I certainly shared the view of my hon. Friends who spoke on them in Committee that what we wanted to find out was what the Minister's intentions were. We believed that they would be in accordance with what we had intended to do had the Conservative Party been returned to power. I think that the hon. Gentleman realises that the Bill is by no means the sole creation of the present Government. In fact, it is the brain child of the previous Government. This was indicated very clearly in the last Annual Report of the N.R.D.C. Certainly, as I indicated on Second Reading, I fully support the general principle of the Bill.
However, perhaps the Minister of State could give me information that I sought on Second Reading but which could not be given to me at the time. I would like to know who the two additional members of the N.R.D.C. are to be and in what capacity they will be brought in. What specialised knowledge is thought desirable to add to that of the very distinguished men who have served and are serving the N.R.D.C.?
I take this opportunity to thank the Minister, in his absence, for a letter that he sent after Second Reading about hon. 555 Members in their various party capacities being able to meet those who carry out Government research. I recognise, of course, that the right hon. Gentleman's scope here is limited, but I would say at once that I very much welcome his response in so far as he has responsibility. I only hope that other Ministers will follow his example and stand up more toughly to the Treasury, which consistently over the years has tried to prevent hon. Members doing this sort of thing, especially where civil servants are involved.
Science and technology are so utterly divorced from party politics—or should be—that the important issue is that hon. Members should be able to get at those who can give the best first-hand information that is available, regardless of whether those giving it are civil servants or not. To apply Departmental rules in such cases is absurd and to the disadvantage of Parliament and people. We all wish to be as well informed as possible on various subjects and every time we have to go through a third or fourth or even a fifth party the information tends to be less comprehensible than one would wish.
As the Minister of State has said, a great deal of the debate upstairs turned on Clause 2(7), concerning the Annual Report. I want to illustrate one of my anxieties. In the last Annual Report of the N.R.D.C. there is mention on page 19 of a new project, a granular separator. A firm in my constituency, Fairleede Engineering Limited, of the town of Chatteris, has carried out this work. The paragraph in the Report mentioning the project is typical. It says:The Corporation, in collaboration with Fairleede Engineering Ltd., is supporting the development of a half-sized shaking table of improved performance for the processing of ores. The table has been constructed and is undergoing preliminary trials at the Warren Spring Laboratory of D.S.I.R., from where the original inventions involved arose.That is all we are told about this project and that is typical of the reports on various projects by the Corporation. There is no mention of the finance involved or how long it is intended the project shall take and whether, having been examined at the Warren Spring Laboratory, it will be paid for or not by the Corporation.
556 If we are to carry on such work and if the undertakings given in Committee and tonight are to be properly fulfilled, we must have some statement about how the reports on new projects are to vary. I accept that, where commercial risks and, still more, risks possibly involving State security are concerned, obviously the reports must to some extent be restricted. But we are entitled, representing our constituents, to know whether the N.R.D.C. is spending money in our constituencies and to what end, the sort of amount likely to be involved and how long the work is likely to last, and so on. Such things greatly concern our constituents.
I hope that when the Minister discusses the matter of the annual report with the N.R.D.C. he will again consider what financial information could reasonably be expected to be made available and which it would do nothing but good to have publicly aired in connection with each project.
Reading through the details of these many projects, some new, some continuing, some old and some abandoned, it is practically impossible in any financial sense to measure what is involved for the public purse. The spirit with which the right hon. Gentleman answered the various debates on Amendments in the Standing Committee showed that he had some sympathy with this point of view. Without in any way undermining the self-confidence which is essential to N.R.D.C., I hope that nevertheless it will be possible to provide hon. Members with more information than they have had in the past.
A considerable amount of money is involved. Even going through the report is deceptive, because the project which I have mentioned, for example, has been passed back to Warren Spring which has hitherto been covered by the D.S.I.R. annual report which comes out at a completely different date from that of the N.R.D.C.
Another suggestion which the hon. Gentleman might pass on to his right hon. Friend is that now that we have the Ministry of Technology and D.S.I.R. has been broken up, the N.R.D.C. annual report might incorporate details of all those activities hitherto covered by D.S.I.R. We would then get a much more complete picture of each project 557 from start to finish. As it is, the N.R.D.C. report tends to cover only part of a project. I would like the process to be complete so that we could assess each project far more fully than is now possible. Even delving into all reports which have been published in the past it is not possible to get a complete picture, but if the N.R.D.C. report were presented as I have suggested, these faults would be avoided.
The N.R.D.C. report mentions a joint development committee of N.R.D.C. and D.S.I.R. This appears in part 4, on page 9 of the report, under the heading, "The year's work". That committee was set up in 1958 to examine development problems of common interest and to advise D.S.I.R. and the N.R.D.C. on ways in which proposals for particular development contracts should be handled. Presurnably, that committee will now have to be considerably altered, if continued at all. At the end of the last annual report of N.R.D.C. we are told that the committee is continuing its work and dealing with more than 25 potential development projects. I do not know what the new set up is to be. Is there to be a sort of gleaning of the people in D.S.I.R. linking them up with N.R.D.C. so that the work can continue? It would not be a bad thing if there were some continuity to ensure that a committee which had done useful work could continue to do more useful work, and it would be a pity if the work were interrupted merely because the Ministry of Technology had been created.
I hope that I shall get some answers to these points. If the Minister of State to the Board of Trade, who has had to take the debate at short notice, cannot answer them all tonight, perhaps correspondence can take place after the debate. In general, I welcome the Bill very much. I feel sure that the appointment to the Atomic Energy Authority of Mr. Duckworth will greatly enhance the immense enthusiasm and strength which he has brought to the N.R.D.C.
§ 9.5 p.m.
§ Mr. John H. Osborn (Sheffield, Hallam)
It is customary for an hon. Member, on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box, to crave the indulgence of the House. I am quite sure that the 558 Minister of Technology would have been sympathetic in this matter as he is new to the House. We regret that he is ill and is indisposed. My hon. Friends and I wish him a speedy recovery.
I hope that it is not out of order to mention that by coincidence the last time that I was in this position was at 8 o'clock one morning in July last year when Conservative Members were the only people in the Chamber. The hon. Member for Barnsley (Mr. Mason) came across the Bar of the House and discovered that I had taken the position that I recently occupied—I was not addressing the House—and with very little difficulty he persuaded me to leave. I little realised that the next time I would be here—on the Opposition Front Bench—I would find the hon. Member for Barnsley—now Minister of State at the Board of Trade—opposite me and that we should be debating an important but, fortunately, non-controversial Bill.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey (Mr. Marples) and my hon. Friend the Member for Oswestry (Mr. Biffen) have asked me to express their regrets that they are unable to be here tonight. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey has pointed out that the Bill resulted from a statement last July by my right hon. Friend the Member for Bexley (Mr. Heath), who was then in the Government, which my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) mentioned. This statement referred to the last Report of the N.R.D.C. in which it was said:It is significant that a need for expansion of the Corporation's activities appears to be generally acceptable and politically uncontroversial.On Second Reading, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey said that we on this sideshall give a blessing to this Bill and see that its provisions are put into effect in an efficient and speedy way."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 18th Feb., 1965; Vol. 706, c. 1411.]I believe that that promise has been implemented.
Certain points were stressed on Second Reading and in Standing Committee. The first concerned public relations. Not enough people in industry are aware of the N.R.D.C. or of the work which it does. During the Second Reading debate the need to give ore publicity to the 559 Corporation and its work was stressed. This problem is not new. It has faced most of the research associations. What steps is the Corporation taking to publicise the fact that it will have more funds at its disposal when the Bill becomes an Act?
Secondly, suggestions were made on Second Reading that use should be made of media such as television to publicise the work done by the Corporation. Has any progress been made here? The Hovercraft is but one example of publicity which could enhance the work of the Corporation.
Thirdly, my hon. Friend the Member for Horncastle (Sir J. Maitland) raised the question of the Institute of Patentees and Inventors. What contact has been made with the Institute? Can the facilities of the Corporation be harnessed to help the small inventor?
On Second Reading tribute was paid to the work of Mr. Duckworth in the Corporation, and I should like to add my tribute.
My hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely referred to correspondence which has made it possible for us to make contact with the civil servants. My right hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey, my hon. Friend the Member for Oswestry and others of my hon. Friends have asked me to thank the Minister for the arrangements which he made for us after Second Reading to visit the N.R.D.C. and to take up the various issues that were raised on Second Reading. We had frank discussions with Mr. Duckworth, Mr. Hennessey and other members of the N.R.D.C. and we believe that the suggestions that were raised from this side of the House were welcomed by them. We are convinced that the measures in the Bill, when implemented, will help the N.R.D.C. to be much more effective.
On Second Reading, however, my right hon. Friend the Member for Wallasey referred to the need, which my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely has emphasised, for a more complete and adequate annual report now that funds of£25 million are available to the N.R.D.C. In Standing Committee, the Minister stressed the need for continuity. We welcome the assurances that future reports will not allow projects to dis- 560 appear. I endorse the remarks of my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely about the granular separator.
In Standing Committee, we had considerable debate on Clauses 2 and 3, the relief of interest and the question of writing off. We on this side prepared Amendments in support of our view that it would be reasonable to know when applications were being made to use the powers in those two Clauses, but the Minister emphasised that applications were a matter between himself and the N.R.D.C. and we on this side ultimately conceded the point. On the other hand, we in this House must know when the relief which is applied for has been granted and we welcome the assurances that this will be clearly stated in the annual report.
In the Standing Committee debate on Clause 4, I stressed the need for a clear distinction between, firstly, projects undertaken by the N.R.D.C. and the public sector; secondly, projects undertaken by the N.R.D.C. and the private sector, and thirdly, part hybrid or joint projects concerning all three. We had assurances in Standing Committee that this would be looked into and I shall welcome any further comments that the Minister of State can make.
It is essential that if the N.R.D.C. is to increase its activities, a fact which we on this side would certainly welcome, and has more money to spend, both this House and the public—the taxpayer—should have detailed accounts of how the money is being utilised. The assurance which we have been given and any further comment which may be forthcoming from the Minister should underline that the debates in this House have had the result of going a long way towards meeting these points.
It remains for me to congratulate the Minister of Technology on piloting his first Bill through the House. It has been a non-controversial Bill. As my hon. Friend the Member for the Isle of Ely reminded us, it is as much a Conservative Measure as one from the present Government. We regret that the Minister of Technology has not been here to finish off the job in the House of Commons. When implemented, however, the Bill will guarantee that new ideas can be tried out and developed to 561 a much greater extent than hitherto. It will be another means of harnessing technology to industry and ultimately raising the standard of living of our people.
We on this side gladly give the Bill its Third reading.
§ 9.14 p.m.
§ Mr. Mason
I should like first to rectify what seemed to me to be a mistake on the part of the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. J. H. Osborn), that the Bill was the brainchild of the Conservative Party. The hon. Member should know that a Development of Inventions Bill first came to the House in 1948, that the Act which it became was assisted and pushed forward a little by the Conservative Administration in 1954 and that it has now been strengthened by the present Administration, embodying a great deal of what the previous Administration had in mind prior to leaving office.
I was touched by the kind remarks of the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) and the hon. Member for Hallam. I appreciated their praise of my right hon. Friend the Minister of Technology for his uprightness and his stand against the Treasury, their wishes for his good health and thanks for facilitating the visit of hon. Members opposite to the National Research and Development Corporation. No doubt my right hon. Friend will be pleased to read these comments in the OFFICIAL REPORT.
The hon. Member for the Isle of Ely referred to the question of extra members of the Board. It is suggested in the: Bill that two extra members should be allowed if necessary. It is understandable that an expansion in the work of the Corporation should call for provision to be made for extra members. I am sorry to say that it is not yet possible to announce who will go on to the Board, mainly because the Chairman would in any case have to wait until this Bill becomes an Act, so no decision can yet be taken on that matter. As I said in my first speech, regarding the annual report there will be more continuity and an attempt made to give more information and a clearer picture of the activities of the Corporation. The hon. Member for the Isle of Ely made an interesting point about D.S.I.R. and 562 N.R.D.C., which I will draw to the attention of my right hon. Friend, together with the extent to which in the next annual report, there may be mention of where the activities of the two organisations might be married.
I must congratulate the hon. Member for Hallam on making his first appearance at the Dispatch Box. It is rather a pleasing duty when the matter under discussion is not contentious. The hon. Member referred to small inventors and mentioned the Institute of Patentees and Inventors. It has been pressing the Government for more support for some time and, this was referred to during the Second Reading debate. Since then my right hon. Friend the Minister of Technology has met a delegation from the Institute which, I think, included the hon. Member for Horncastle (Sir J. Maitland). I understand that, following that meeting, my right hon. Friend has advised the Institute to meet the N.R.D.C. and that a meeting will take place soon. I can inform the House that the Corporation has already appointed extra staff to deal exclusively with submissions from small inventors. If the Corporation does not propose to take up any invention, it will give assistance and advice so far as is possible. I am pleased to say that because of the representations which have been made by the Institute of Patentees and Inventors the Corporation is preparing an informative booklet designed to help private inventors.
On the question of publicity the Corporation has appointed a public relations officer and is examining the whole question of publicity, including publicity on television and the wider circulation of the N.R.D.C. Bulletin. I think that I have covered the points which were raised during this debate. If I have missed any, no doubt my right hon. Friend will write to the hon. Gentleman, as he so sensibly suggested.
The history of the Corporation has now gone through two phases and we are entering a very important third phase by this Bill. Originally, the aims were to secure the development and exploitation of inventions where required in the public interest. In the second phase there was added to its responsibilities research which was likely to produce inventions and an increase from£5 million to£10 million was made in the moneys allowed.
563 We are are now witnessing the gradual enactment of the third phase, which involves first of all the transfer of functions to the Minister of Technology; second, an increase of moneys still further from£10 million to£25 million, third, the complete removal to the time limit placed on its operations; fourth, the new power of the Minister of Technology to write off certain losses, this being in recognition of the Corporation's speculative type of work, and fifth, the provision in the Bill whereby Government Departments, as well as the Ministry of Technology, will have direct links with the Corporation in financing research and development which is designed to lead to inventions.
In all, this is a very encouraging growth of a public Corporation, unanimously backed by all parties in the House. No doubt we will all watch its future growth and its successes with the same unanimous appreciation.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.