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Microbiological Research Establishment, Porton

Volume 828: debated on Tuesday 21 December 1971

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asked the Prime Minister whether, in view of the public statement, a copy of which has been sent to him, by the director-designate of the Microbiological Research Establishment, Porton, that in the long run the establishment might appropriately be transferred from the Ministry of Defence to the Department of Health and Social Services, he will take steps to co-ordinate the activities of the two Departments to implement the transfer.

I have been asked to reply.

No, Sir. The Government, like our predecessors, are keeping the question of departmental responsibility for the establishment under review. This was the gist of the Director's statement.

If the Americans can transfer their biological warfare capability to their Department of Health, why cannot we begin to do the same?

Because the administration of Government in this country should be based on what suits us and not on what suits other people.

Will the Government, in their review of this matter, keep very carefully in mind the fact that the Select Committee on Science and Technology visited Porton and reported to the House on this issue in March, 1969, that in view of the enormous vulnerability of the United Kingdom from this type of warfare, it was essential to keep our defence interests uppermost?

That was a very important report indeed. This matter has been considered many times and the considerations involved have to be balanced. The time may come when it will be desirable to make a change, but we do not believe that that time has yet arrived.

Will the Home Secretary ask the Prime Minister to consider this question again, particularly as there has been a considerable change since the report and the point made in it to which the hon. Member for the Isle of Ely (Sir H. Legge-Bourke) referred? Will he urge his right hon. Friend to look at the whole issue again with a view to taking an urgent decision, for is it not the case that this type of warfare has been so widely outlawed that we should recognise this fact by making the change which my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) suggests?

I do not think there is any doubt about the view of Her Majesty's Government on the question of biological warfare. The main point is whether this institution should be managed as part of the defence or as part of the non-defence sector of government. We look at this matter from time to time, as previous Administrations have done. If at any time it appeared that on balance it would be wise to make a change, it would be made.