Skip to main content

Ministry Of Supply

Volume 478: debated on Monday 18 September 1950

The text on this page has been created from Hansard archive content, it may contain typographical errors.

Atomic Energy Documents (Theft)

27.

asked the Minister of Supply whether he has any statement to make as to the loss of documents relating to atomic energy by an officer of his Department at Euston Station on 8th August.

30.

asked the Minister of Supply what action he has taken with regard to the loss on 8th August of secret papers by an official of his Department; why such papers were left unattended in a railway train; and why several hours elapsed between the loss at Euston Station and the first information to Scotland Yard.

A suitcase belonging to an official of my Department and containing, besides personal effects, a few documents on atomic energy was stolen from a railway carriage at Euston Station on 8th August. The official at once reported the loss to the station staff and to the railway police. The suitcase was recovered within two days; the documents, none of which contained any information of value to a potential enemy, were undisturbed. The railway police carried out their investigations promptly and efficiently and the matter was reported to Scotland Yard as soon as it was known that they had failed to recover the case.

Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether he has any information to show in whose hands these documents were during the two days concerned?

Yes. The suitcase was taken by the thief to a hotel bedroom. When he opened the case and saw some documents dealing with atomic energy apparently he took fright and disappeared, leaving the documents and the case behind.

As the official missed the suitcase at Euston, why did he not report the loss of the secret papers until he arrived at Warrington?

He reported it immediately to the police at Euston and it was hoped that the case would be found in the train. When it was not found the loss was reported when the train arrived at Warrington. The station police were informed immediately, however, but they did not think it necessary at that moment, particularly in view of the fact that the documents were not of a really secret nature, to inform Scotland Yard.

Is it not a fact that no report was made by the official of the loss of the secret papers to the police at Euston and that nothing was said to the police about the loss of the secret papers until he reached Warrington?

The station police were informed but they were told that the papers were not of a very secret nature.

Could the Minister say whether any disciplinary action has been taken against this official?

Royal Ordnance Factories (Civilian Work)

28.

asked the Minister of Supply how far the Royal ordnance factories are still manufacturing articles for sale for civilian use.

Civil work at the Royal ordnance factories is now at an annual rate of about £2 million.

Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether steps have been taken to reduce it?

It has gradually been reduced during the last two years, but we still desire to do a certain amount of civil work to keep going and active certain Royal ordnance factories for which we have no orders at the moment.

Should there be any slackness at Royal ordnance factories in view of the necessity of rearmament?

There are certain Royal ordnance factories which have not sufficient armament orders at the moment to keep them going fully. It may be that orders will come later.

Factories (Russian Representatives' Visits)

29.

asked the Minister of Supply to which factories Russian agents have had access during 1950.

32.

asked the Minister of Supply how many factories, where Government contracts of a secret nature are being carried out, are authorised to admit technical representatives of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics.

Several thousand industrial firms hold contracts for defence work for my Ministry. Of these, a very large proportion undertake, in addition, work with which my Department has no concern. I cannot say which of them have been visited by Russian representatives in connection with this side of their work. I can, however, say that no visits involving access to information of defence significance have been made by Russian purchasing agents or technical representatives to any of our contractors.

How can the Minister give that assurance when he knows very well the names of the firms which have been involved?

I have just said that I know of no case, and I am perfectly certain that no Russian representative or agent has been to any firm which is carrying out for us any work of a secret nature.

Does not the right hon. Gentleman think that in the present circumstances his Department should keep a very careful check on the movements, visits and activities of Russian members of their alleged trade delegations?

I can assure the hon. and gallant Member that the arrangements for defending the secrecy of any secret contract which we give to industrial firms are very tight indeed.

Would it not be better to restrict these activities until reciprocal facilities are granted by Russia?

The arrangements for inspection have been made with the Russian purchasers by private firms and have nothing to do with us.

Is it not a fact that certain of the firms engaged on contract work for the Soviet Union, and whose plants are open to inspection by Russian agents, have made representations to the Ministry of Supply about the security angle; that these representations were made long before the disclosures by my right hon. Friend the Leader of the Opposition; and that they have been ignored?

If the hon. Member is referring to the allegations made on behalf of Craven Brothers, I would point out that that company has no secret contracts from us at all.

Can my right hon. Friend say whether there is anything in the slightest degree unusual or in the slightest degree sinister in a contractual arrangement which enables the purchaser of a complicated machine to inspect it before he takes delivery?

Does the right hon. Gentleman realise that certain secret equipment which is being made for his Department is of such a character that it is impossible to keep it secret from the works, which are accessible to members of the Russian delegation?

If the hon. and gallant Member has some specific case in mind I will willingly look into it. I do not know what it is.

Defence Work (Factory Staffs)

31.

asked the Minister of Supply whether security precautions taken in atomic and other factories of defence importance include a check on the background of all employees; and how this check is made in the case of men who lived previously in Ireland.

Investigations are made into the reliability of all staff employed on secret work for my Department, including atomic energy research. It would be against the public interest for me to go into more detail.

Without imputing the loyalty of these Irishmen, may I ask whether the Minister is quite satisfied that he is able to obtain enough information about the background of the employees coming from Ireland, who have been in this country for only a very short time previously?

We are very careful in looking into the past record and the reliability of people going into secret defence work and unless we are quite sure about it, we do not employ them.

Copper (Price)

33.

asked the Minister of Supply for what reason his Department increased the price of copper by £16 per ton on Tuesday, 22nd August, and reduced it by the same amount on Thursday, 24th August; and if he is aware that these sudden changes created great industrial dislocation.

The United States export price, on which our buying prices are based, went up by 2 cents on 21st August. In accordance with the policy of keeping United Kingdom selling prices in line with those in the American market the Ministry of Supply selling price was increased from 22nd August by the sterling equivalent of £16 a ton. The American price went down again on 23rd August, and the Ministry of Supply price was reduced accordingly the following morning. If the Exchequer is to be adequately protected, it is not possible to give prior notice of changes of this kind.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that enormous inconvenience was caused to many firms who had to print notices indicating the effect on the prices of their commodities, as the change back to the original price was made in many cases before they could post them?

I appreciate that these rapid fluctuations in price are very inconvenient, but industry has said that they are fully satisfied with the policy of keeping our price in conformity with American price. If that changes rapidly we have to change ours.

34.

asked the Minister of Supply what proposals he has to compensate exporters of heavy electrical equipment, who need to cover their requirements many months ahead, for having to pay the premium on their forward purchases of copper, which he has imposed in order to prevent speculation.

The premium was imposed to protect the Exchequer from the results of heavy forward buying at a time of great uncertainty about future buying prices. The matter is under discussion with industry to see whether an alternative method can be found which would be more acceptable to the trade while providing the necessary protection to the Exchequer.

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that this fine on forward purchases of metal is no deterrent whatever to the speculator but is a serious burden on productive industry, on which the export trade depends?

It is inevitable, if it is likely, or almost certain, that the price is going to rise rapidly the next day, that the purchaser should pay a premium to cover the Exchequer against a very substantial loss which would otherwise be imposed upon it by substantial buying on that day.

It would have been exceedingly awkward for the trade because if, after consultation, someone, perhaps perfectly properly and innocently, bought large quantities, it might be suggested that it was as a result of the prior information given by us.

Does not the discount in other world markets in metal impose an extra burden on the manufacturer here if he has to pay a premium?

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate that this facility of buying considerably ahead is confined to purchasers in this country. American consumers have not that facility at all.

Does the right hon. Gentleman's answer mean that he is considering imposing this forward buying premium only from day to day and not, as it is at the moment, permanently?

I am considering the whole problem, which is a very real one, with the industry to see whether we can find a solution which is satisfactory to all of us.

Sheet Steel (Allocation)

35.

asked the Minister of Supply on what ground the quota of sheet steel to Briggs Motor Bodies has recently been reduced, with consequent laying-off of workers.

My Department makes only a small allocation of sheet steel to this company for the maintenance of plant. This allocation has not been reduced.

Is there anything further it is possible for my right hon. Friend to do, because this is a very serious problem in the area of my hon. Friend the Member for Dagenham (Mr. Parker), who asked the Question, and in my area?

I am informed that out of a total labour force of about 9,000 people, 100 have been stood off, and the company does not expect to stand off any more; but, anyhow, the standing off has nothing to do with any action or inaction of my Department.