Atomic Energy Authority Establishment, Bracknell

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 8th August 1966.

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12.56 a.m.

Photo of Mr William Van Straubenzee Mr William Van Straubenzee , Wokingham

I am obliged for the opportunity to raise a matter of some concern to many of my constituents—the proposed closure of the Atomic Energy Authority's establishment at Bracknell in my constituency and its withdrawal to the "parent" body at Harwell. I am grateful to the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Technology and my hon. Friend the Member for Eastleigh (Mr. David Price) for attending at the god-forsaken hour of one o'clock in the morning, when most apart from ourselves are properly in bed. The hon. Gentleman may take comfort from the fact that the papers which I have in my hand are not my speech but the correspondence which I have had with him and others about this subject.

This establishment employs about 150 people. It consists of an engineering unit and an electronics unit controlled from the "parent" body at Harwell. It was set up in 1956 to provide additional engineering capacity and is now carrying out £150,000-worth of charged work anually and is probably handling about £600,000-worth of electronic equipment, much of it in the 2,000 series.

The hon. Gentleman's case will probably be that, the Authority having consolidated its civil reactor programme, it has entered a phase of what he has called a "modest contraction", whatever that may mean; that, in the Authority's view, when what are described as "small out-stations" cease to be economic they should be closed, and that this is a continuing process, that it is the Authority's view that, at Bracknell, there will first of all be substantial savings in rent, rates, management, administration and so on and that the proposed integration will improve efficiency.

I am aware that the hon. Gentleman's powers in this matter are limited by the Atomic Energy Authority Act of 1954, but his Minister has general overall responsibility. On both grounds, the arguments are sufficiently faulty for him to intervene and have the matter looked at again. The Joint Parliamentary Secretary may say fairly that he is able to report that both the staff side of the National Whitley Council and the trade unions have withdrawn their objection to the proposed closure.

I have looked into this matter very carefully and in the last three days I have taken careful advice. I am assured that no one actually working at Bracknell is represented directly on these bodies. I am categorically assured that the withdrawal of those objections most emphatically does not carry with it the support of those working at Bracknell. From what I am able to ascertain, there has been a minimum of consultation between the national level and the local level at Bracknell. I therefore very much hope that the Joint Parliamentary Secretary will not rest a substantial part of his case on this, because I assure him that feelings at Bracknell are very strong indeed—and I have satisfied myself very carefully about this from both sides at the plant.

Let us take the argument which the hon. Member will attempt to put of improved efficiency. My case in reply is that since 1956 the work of particularly the electronics division has changed very remarkably indeed. They are now undertaking, for example, large-scale kitting for production contracts. They are undertaking the manufacture and design of design approval contracts. They are undertaking acceptance testing of equipment made on copy contracts. Since 1956, these have all been devloped as major procedures. All have shown a steady increase since the plant was first started in Bracknell.

If one takes the mechanical engineering workshops, in the early years it was a research group only. That was how it started about 1956. It now has major commitments from Winfrith, from Alder-maston, from the Science Research Coun-cill and so on. Thirdly, the graphite shop has a very heavy load for the Dragon project. I will be brief because of the hour of the night, but I have only to take the successful tendering for the charging of the Dragon reactor. I am advised that there are only two other places in the United Kingdom where this graphite metal machining can be undertaken. I am advised—can the Minister comment on this?—that if that particular establishment at Bracknell is closed, this important contract is likely to go abroad, which would be a very retrograde step indeed.

Finally, let me draw the hon. Member's attention, as I have in correspondence, to the remarkable 2,000 series on the electronics side. My anxiety in relation to this contract is that the project depends very substantially on skilled staff. I draw attention to the position at Harwell. For example, in the recent past there were two advertisements from Harwell on a national scale in the Daily Mirror. There were 1,400 replies to that advertisement and yet out of that large number fewer than two dozen serious recruits were obtained. Furthermore, Harwell at the moment—and for some time past—sends supporting workers from Harwell to Bracknell. Bracknell is working on a full overtime basis. Harwell is still working on a very restricted overtime basis. Harwell is still bedevilled by demarcation disputes, and there is no demarcation dispute of any kind at Bracknell. There has been no internal dispute at Bracknell since that unit started. Nobody who has dealings, as I have had, with members of the staff side, as with members of the other side, could fail to be impressed with the spirit at Bracknell and the tremendous loyalty to the plant.

However, none of this applies in anything like the same way at Harwell. I appreciate that the Minister will reply, "That is fair enough", but I hope he will also say, as I believe to be the case, that the efficiency of Bracknell has never been questioned, that it is regarded highly by all concerned and that the spirit of the establishment is very high indeed. He will probably also say, "This can surely be reproduced at Harwell because the Authority will give every help and inducement for those concerned to move". But there is a very human reason why this will not be so, a reason which should appeal to the hon. Gentleman. At Bracknell those concerned—who, incidentally, moved themselves, their wives and families—are tenants of the New Town Corporation. If they move to Harwell, they will become tenants of tied houses; and there is all the difference in the world between being a tenant of a reputable new town corporation and a tied tenant at Harwell. I assure the Joint Parliamentary Secretary that this is something about which those concerned feel very deeply, particularly against the background of the so-called "modest contraction" of which the Government have already spoken.

So much for the efficiency argument. Coming to the financial implications, it is said, first, that in money terms, the saving will be about £50,000 a year. With respect, this amount is open to question. For example, it includes a figure of £12,000 a year for depreciation. But equipment transferred from Bracknell to Harwell will continue to depreciate and one therefore cannot adduce an argument, however good it may be, which seeks to bring in depreciation on one side of the balance sheet and then takes no notice of it on the other.

It is then said that the cost of the move would be £70,000. However, I am advised that the original estimate for the conversion of the building for the electronics section at Harwell was itself £70,000. Admittedly that has been reduced, as a result of local protests, to £50,000, but the figures I have so far been given include no estimate of the work of extraction and washing facilities for graphite which will be necessary. I hope I have shown that there are enough questions raised—on the efficiency and financial arguments—for the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to say that this is a matter which he should take urgently into account, despite the restrictions on his right hon. Friend's powers as originally imposed by Parliament.

Although not directly concerned with the Minister of Technology, I have given notice that I would raise a question concerning the new town as such. This is a matter for the Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government, who is particularly associated with, and responsible for, new towns and whose work in that respect is much regarded. It must be made quite clear that for a Government Department or a Government unit to be withdrawn from a Government overspill new town introduces a new and very serious element into the administration of new towns, and I would ask directly: has the Joint Parliamentary Secretary been able to find any other example of any Government or quasi-Government unit being withdrawn from an overspill new town?

These new towns are very delicate plants, and one Government Department has a duty to another before withdrawal of this kind takes place. I know that "only" 150 people are involved, and I know that this does not approach some of the crises through which Bracknell has recently passed and which are not germane to this debate, but the principle is important, and we should look at it with some care.

That is my case. The two legs of the Minister's argument are efficiency and economy. I genuinely believe that the Authority is making a faulty judgment on both the efficiency and the financial sides. I hope that I have said enough to convince the hon. Gentleman that both his arguments may be weak. I hope that as a result of this short debate, which is of great importance to those concerned, and which will be transmitted there first thing in the morning, the hon. Gentleman will feel that enough has been said for him to intervene in a ministerial capacity.

I have great hopes of his Minister. It so happens that a longer time ago than I now like to remember the Minister of Technology and I were at school together, and I was well aware of his persuasive powers when, at the age of 13, he converted me to being a pledged member of the Labour Party. Happily, maturity came to me earlier than it did to him. By a curious twist of fate we used to go to meetings at his distinguished father's home, on the site of which the graceful building of the Ministry of Technology now stands. Little did we then think of the heights to which the Minister of Technology would rise, both ministerially and achitecturally.

I hope that as a result of lengthy discussions, during which he has shown his typical forebearing courtesy, the hon. Gentleman will accept the argument that in this case a wrong decision has been taken.

1.13 a.m.

The Joint Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Technology (Mr. EdmundDell):

I would first like to thank the hon. Member for Wokingham (Mr. van Straubenzee) for his courtesy in giving me forewarning of certain points he has raised, and also for the very moderate and persuasive way in which he has put his case. The Ministry of Technology and, I am sure, the Atomic Energy Authority are well aware of the importance of this decision to those concerned at Bracknell, and I must start, as he did, by emphasising the position of the Minister in this matter.

Under the Atomic Energy Authority Act, 1954, the Minister cannot intervene in matters of detail unless there is an over-riding national interest, so that it is necessary before asking the Minister to intervene to show that there is an overriding national interest. It would then be necessary to persuade the Minister, if that were the case, that the Atomic Energy Authority's decision was wrong. Otherwise, it would obviously be entirely wrong for the Minister by detailed interference to deprive the Authority of its appropriate responsibility for the economic running of the Authority. As a result of the hon. Member's letters and discussions, I have examined the case over a considerable period, and I must say at once that I believe that there is no case to be made against the Authority's judgment in the matter and that, consequently, there is certainly no case of over-riding national interest.

I told the hon. Member in a letter which I wrote to him on, I believe, 6th May—he referred to it in passing tonight —that the Atomic Energy Authority is now in a phase of contraction because its civil reactor programme has been consolidated. This contraction is likely to go on and this particular closure is not the only closure which has taken place. Other closures have taken place for similar reasons of economy.

What are the reasons which have operated at Bracknell? I say, first, in response to what the hon. Member said perfectly correctly, that no one questions the excellent spirit which has been shown at Bracknell. No one questions the efficiency of the people working at Bracknell, and it is the desire of the Atomic Energy Authority that people working at Bracknell shall go to Harwell. Nevertheless, there seem substantial reasons for the action which the Atomic Energy Authority has taken. First, the savings. The hon. Member referred to the figures which the Atomic Energy Authority says will be saved. On the estimate of the A.E.A. they certainly will be in excess of £40,000.

The hon. Member referred to one figure which went to make up the £50,000, of which he was at one time told. This was the figure of £12,000 for depreciation. This figure, if removed from the calculation, would still leave savings of the order of £40,000. The A.E.A., as a result of certain decisions regarding removal of equipment from Bracknell to Harwell in its current estimates, has reduced the £12,000 to £5,000, and this will still leave savings in excess of £40,000. Then there is the cost of the move. The hon. Member mentioned the correct figure, £70,000 which is the A.E.A. estimate, but it must be remembered that in calculating the cost the A.E.A. is taking credit for certain equipment which will be saved and this is part of the £70,000.

I have not been able to fault the figures which the A.E.A. has given to me, I therefore have to accept that there is likely to be savings of £40,000 as against the cost of moving, £70,000. The move will begin to show savings in the second year. The hon. Member very properly dwelt on the question of efficiency of operation. It is certainly the A.E.A. case that there will be increased efficiency as a result of this move because of the integration of the Bracknell workshops and electronic sections into the parent organisation at Harwell. It will reduce problems of communcation which carry with them certain costs.

The problem of efficiency is important in relation to a matter which the hon. Member mentioned—the 2,000 series of advanced electronic instruments. The A.E.A. and the Harwell Electronic Division are launching these instruments on the international market. It is of the highest importance that the Authority should be able to do so competitively and that it should not have to accept unnecessary costs in the operation of this activity.

Another reason for this move is that the conditions which led to the establishment at Bracknell in the first place no longer apply. When the factory was established at Bracknell there was no space available at Harwell; now there is. When it was established, there was great difficulty in recruiting people for Harwell and Bracknell gave an opportunity to recruit them. Now the A.E.A. is finding that the problems at Bracknell are no less than those at Harwell. It says that the problem of recruitment will in no way be worsened by this move.

I should like to emphasise a point which I hope will be of importance to those working in this factory, that concerning the Atomic Energy Authority there need be no redundancy. Everyone working at Bracknell has been offered a job at Harwell if they wish to take it. If they do not wish to take it I am advised that there should be no difficulty in their obtaining suitable alternative employment at Bracknell.

In the course of correspondence, the hon. Gentleman raised points regarding the 2,000 series of advanced electronic instruments and about work which was being placed with Premier Precision Ltd. He did not raise the latter point this morning, but as he has raised it in correspondence perhaps I can say that no work that can be placed with the Bracknell workshops is going to Premier Precision Ltd., which is a highly specialised firm engaged on the production of high-precision mechanical components. It holds certain contracts from the Authority, not from Harwell, but these are not of a kind which could be undertaken at Bracknell.

With regard to the other point about the 2,000 series, and the rôle of Bracknell here in the procurement of specialist components and technical advice and assistance, it is the view of the A.E.A. that the development of this important work will in no way be harmed but in the long run will benefit by the consolidation of this work at Harwell.

There is a further important point which the hon. Gentleman raised towards the end of his speech, and that is what will the effect be on Bracknell? He asked me the direct question whether there was any other case of a Government establishment moving from a London new town. I have asked my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Housing and Local Government and he has told me that he knows of no other case.

Nevertheless, this is not a reason for not taking this action if the action is justified in itself. I must say that this is a relatively small thing as compared, for example, with another case which the hon. Gentleman raised some few months ago on which he had assistance from the Government, who took very vigorous action which has, I believe, produced a very satisfactory solution. There we were dealing with a company with 1,000 employees in Bracknell. In this case it is 150. Although it is important it is a consideration which has to be put against another, that of economy of operation of the A.E.A.

Moreover, I am now able to say with regard to the factory itself that the Bracknell Development Corporation has decided not to object to an application by the Ministry of Public Building and Works on behalf of the Meteorological Office; in other words, the Meteorological Office is going to take over the factory from the A.E.A.

The hon. Gentleman referred also to negotiations with the staff, and he said that in his view these negotiations were inadequate. The fact of the matter as reported to me, and I have here the particular statement, is that the A.E.A. issued notice to the staff on 25th January this year of a move which it is planned should take place by mid-1967, so I do not think it could be said that adequate notice was not given. There has been joint consultation and both the staff side of the Whitley Council and the General Purposes Committee of the National Joint Industrial Council have informed the Authority that so far as they are concerned the move can go ahead.

The hon. Gentleman said that no one working at Bracknell was directly represented on these bodies, and that the people at Bracknell did not accept the judgment the staff side and the General Purposes Committee made about this issue. But I put it to him that it is of some consequence that these bodies which do represent the people of Bracknell—even though they have no direct representatives on them—have come to this decision in the light of the arguments which have been presented to them.

As I said to start with, we in the Ministry of Technology have not taken this matter lightly, although from the beginning we have been confronted with the fact that our powers were limited and we could intervene only if there was a clear overriding national interest and if we were persuaded by the case made by the hon. Member. After devoting time to the matter, after examining the figures and listening to the case both of the Atomic Energy Authority and of the hon. Member, I have been persuaded that there is no reason which would justify the Minister to intervene and that the arguments presented by the Authority are well founded. This being the case, my right hon. Friend has decided that he cannot intervene.