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Dr Pontecorvo

Volume 480: debated on Monday 6 November 1950

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asked the Minister of Supply when Professor Bruno Pontecorvo entered the employ of his Department; what was the nature of his work; and if he has any further information as to where this gentleman now is.


asked the Minister of Supply how many days elapsed between the date on which Professor Pontecorvo was due back from leave and the date on which his Department notified the security departments, on a high level, of his disappearance.

Dr. Pontecorvo entered Government service in January, 1943, and joined my Department in January, 1946. He took up duty at Harwell in January, 1949, where he was employed in the Nuclear Physics Division. Dr. Pontecorvo's leave expired on 31st August. On this date he had written a note to Harwell, received on 4th September, saying that he had trouble with his car but hoped to be back in time for a conference to be held between 7th and 13th September. A message was sent to him from Harwell asking him to visit and advise a team of scientists employed in Switzerland on cosmic ray work on which he had specialised. It was his failure to pay this visit or to communicate further with Harwell after the date of the conference which first gave cause for concern. Inquiries as to his whereabouts were started on 21st September. I have no conclusive evidence of his present whereabouts, but I have no doubt that he is in Russia.

Can the right hon. Gentleman say whether, at the time this gentleman's employment at Harwell began, it was known to his Department that he was closely connected with a well-known Italian Communist; and can he also say if he has any information as to whether, on his recent trip abroad, Professor Pontecorvo took with him any documents of a secret nature?

No, Sir, it was not known at the time Professor Pontecorvo was first employed at Harwell that he had a relative abroad who was connected with the Communist Party. As to the second part of the hon. Gentleman's question, so far as is known he took no documents abroad with him.

May I ask the Minister, although I see the difficulty in this case, whether it would be possible to extend to Harwell the system used in the Services, namely, that if anybody is absent and over-stays his leave, machinery is set in motion immediately to find out where he is?

Yes, Sir, but the reasons for this man overstaying his leave seemed quite normal. He had a motor car breakdown, and was asked to visit some people in Switzerland, and it was, naturally, only about a week afterwards that those at Harwell became worried about him.

In answer to a previous Question I understood the Minister to say that foreigners were carefully screened before they got these jobs. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that we ought to have found out that Professor Pontecorvo had a Communist connection in Italy?

One finds out a great deal by screening, but it so happens that the fact that he had a Communist relative abroad was not in the possession of the security officers.

Can the Minister say whether the three defections which have taken place in the last four years—Dr. Nunn May in 1946, Professor Fuchs in 1949 and now Professor Pontecorvo in 1950—arise from the fact that these three gentlemen were working in conjunction with one another in the Harwell atomic establishment?

It is true that Dr. Fuchs and Professor Pontecorvo were working in the same major establishment, the one research establishment in this country. But they were not particular friends, and I do not think that the fact that they were working in a centre where research takes place is really a significant fact.

Would not almost the first series of questions asked in any process of screening be about Communist connections, either relations or friends, of the person who is being screened?

I do not think so, particularly in this case. The man had not been abroad for a long time. He had left Europe in 1940. The fact that he had relatives abroad who were members of the Communist Party was not suggested to the security officers, and they were not aware of that fact.

If these people are not asked about their friends and relations, what are they asked about?

It must be remembered that the major screening of this man took place in 1943, when he joined the atomic energy organisation in Canada and the security services made the necessary inquiries. Similar inquiries were made at a later date and, as I have informed the House, this fact was not known when the man joined the Harwell organisation at the beginning of 1949. It was known later, but by that time he had made arrangements to leave Harwell anyhow and go to Liverpool.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that a "star turn" at the recent Conservative Party Conference was a former Communist? What screening would be appropriate in that case?

We cannot debate this matter further. We have had at least five minutes on it already.