Orders of the Day — Army Supplementary Estimate, 1961–62

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 15th March 1962.

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Photo of Mr Emrys Hughes Mr Emrys Hughes , South Ayrshire 12:00 am, 15th March 1962

In recent years, the Government have got into the habit of issuing many of these Supplementary Estimates. When the discussions of the Army Estimates are over, the House is in such a state of exhaustion that it does not have the opportunity of examining the Supplementary Estimates with the care that they deserve.

Five million pounds is a quite substantial sum and the fact that this Supplementary Estimate is issued, as it were, as a footnote, as a supplement, to the other Estimates shows the weakness of this Committee system. I shall not enter into the argument for the extension of Committee administration, but this is an example of £5 million being rushed through at the tag end of a tiring week when the House does not have the opportunity to examine it with the care and meticulous attention that it deserves.

In a few weeks' time, the benches opposite will be crowded with hon. Members asking about the financial crisis and the heavy burden of Government expenditure. Today, however, is one of the opportunities to examine one of the Supplementary Estimates. When all the Supplementary Estimates from the different Departments are added up, they amount to a considerable sum.

I should like to examine the Army Supplementary Estimate in detail, but I turn to ask an important question on Vote 4, Subhead E, "Research and Experimental Establishments". We find that the original estimate of £6,035,000 has gone up to £6,435,000, an increase of £400,000 in one year. I should be much obliged if the Under-Secretary of State would tell us something about this mysterious and rather innocuous looking item. Six and a half million pounds is a substantial sum. Can the Under-Secretary break it down a little? Can he tell us, for example, whether it includes the research and experimental establishments at Porton, near Salisbury Plain? If so, what is the reason for the additional expenditure of £400,000?

I ask this question because when these establishments were under the Ministry of Supply, I was a member of a deputation of Members, from both sides, of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee which visited the Porton Microbiological Station, near Salisbury. The purpose of that experimental and research station was to carry out research into biological and microbiological war. We found it an extensive and expensive establishment, costing a considerable amount of money. We were told there that it dealt with all the possibilities of manufacturing the different kinds of viruses and toxins which might be used in the event of biological warfare in the future.

I remember being alarmed at the time that there were 160 scientists employed in this branch of research and thinking that they would be far better employed doing something which might be of greater advantage to humanity. The Committee will recall that there was a considerable number of Questions following the investigations by that deputation, and that the Government's defence was that it was necessary to do research into biological warfare so that we could defend ourselves against possible biological attack by somebody else.

I do not want to go into a great deal of descriptive detail now, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will say whether the Porton Establishment is included under this mysterious heading, "Research and Experimental Establishments". It used to be under the Ministry of Supply and it was transferred to the War Office. Does it come under this subhead, the Estimate for which has gone up by £400,000 during the year? If so, what is the explanation of the rise?