Orders of the Day — Oceanographic Programme

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 31st May 1967.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Gourlay.]

9.28 p.m.

Photo of Mr Hugh Fraser Mr Hugh Fraser , Stafford and Stone

I rise to call attention to the need for a national programme of marine science and technology. For a maritime country without raw materials to have one ex-Minister and one Minister—I do not know where he is at the moment; I am sure that he will arrive immediately-discussing this matter for half an hour scarcely describes the level of urgency which faces us in these matters. During the next 50 years these matters will have to be faced, with the world's population trebling, for we are in danger, to use the words of Aneurin Bevan, of watching ourselves starve to death through our television sets.

With the extraction and extinction of more and more land-based materials, we are faced with a problem to which there is as yet no satisfactory answer. In debating the exploitation of the oceans, I trust that this is a subject which one day will merit a full debate of the House rather than a short exchange at the end of a long and interesting day's work. I warn the Government that this is my first shot in this matter; that I will return and that I will go on pressing until we have a national programme which is worthy of our needs.

The contentions I put forward are simple. They are, first, that there is no evident Ministerial direction of our oceanic, scientific and technological programme. In the United States one knows precisely who to address politically. It would be Vice-President Humphries, and with him on his council would be five senior Cabinet Ministers directly respon- sible for the United States' exploitation of the sea.

With great respect to the hon. Gentleman the Minister of State, Department of Education and Science, for whom I have a great personal regard, I do not believe that anyone in the country knows that he is responsible for these matters.

Secondly, although in our oceanographical research—

It being half-past Nine o'clock, the Motion for the Adjournment of the House lapsed, without Question put.

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Goronwy Roberts.]

Mr. Fraser:

Secondly, although in our oceanographical research individual British scientists and establishments are pre-eminent, and world pre-eminent, there is simply not enough money to meet requirements. Thirdly, lacking these resources, whatever their individual excellence our maritime scientific programmes lack coherent pattern. Fourthly, even if priorities and resources were to be available, the machine and system of committees set up by this and previous Governments would be inadequate to the modern task.

Fifthly, the present set up is neither powerful enough to resist depredations on the world's ecology which, alas, are too often swiftly accepted by national and international bodies nor widely enough based to initiate major acts of international association in the marine sciences. Sixthly, the present bias of our research is too scientific and academic and not sufficiently technologically orientated.

Seventhly, there are no guide lines, and there cannot be, without a national programme which industry can understand and along which it can make its own potential involvement in research and activity. Eighthly—and I apologise to the Minister for this long list—it is only in a publicised national programme that our people can feel involved and associated in a vital and exciting exploitation of national resources, and be made eager to contribute by hand, by brain and by personal investment.

Considering the immediate and main potential of the sea for protein production —the whole range of amino-acids; considering its possibilities as an area of mineral extraction, whether by mechanical or chemical means; considering its obvious use for fresh water manufacture through desalination processes; and considering the new era in weather prediction made possible by the measurement of the ocean currents, our present set-up and the funds available are simply inadequate—and grossly so.

Already, we are seeing the first fruits of the new technologies: oil from four continental shelves, gas from our own North Sea, gravel from our own eastern sea shelf, sulphur off the American coasts, the possibilities of tin off the coast of Cornwall, the exploitation of diamonds off South-West Africa, Japan's hundredfold increase in mollusc production. These are but the beginnings of the application of this new scientific research and these new technologies. Yet, as a nation, we are singularly little involved, and this is what should worry the House and the country tonight.

It is disconcerting to find that in spite of our own Middle East and Far Eastern oil experience, the pipe lines, rigs and lines, inspections in the North Sea are largely in the hands of North American operating companies. It is even more disturbing to find that some of the inventions of our own excellent Institute of Oceanography are not marketed in this country, but are manufactured and sold in the United States of America. Who is to blame? Is it the timid industrialist? It is sad that Royal Dutch Shell should have concentrated its submarine division work in Italy. Or is it that the Government are unwilling to finance research technology and education and to spearhead what is amounting to, or could amount to, a new industrial revolution?

It is proper to make some comparisons between what the United States Government and our Government are doing in marine science and technology. At the most, including £5 million on work for the Admiralty, we are spending £10 million a year. The United States Government, in 1968, will be spending the best part of £200 million. That is including their civil and military development. As my hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles) will know, civil work and work for the Admiralty are difficult to separate. Many advantages in the marine warfare field have their application in civil engineering.

In the United Kingdom, at the most we have 40 industrial firms involved to some extent in the exploitation of the oceans and so far as I know not one has received any major grant from the Ministry of Technology. In the United States at present at least 2,000 firms are active, many of them with their own research programmes. In this country, apart from one submersible being built for the British company, Underwater Marine Group, no publicised British marine vehicle is available either for Government or industry.

Photo of Sir Harmar Nicholls Sir Harmar Nicholls , Peterborough

Does the amount mentioned by my hon. Friend include money spent by the 40 industrial firms to which he referred?

Photo of Mr Hugh Fraser Mr Hugh Fraser , Stafford and Stone

No this is Government expenditure through various Departments. In France, Japan, and, above all, in the United States of America, a large range of scientific and industrial underwate craft are built or being built. Although there has been a welcome increase in the number of small British oceanograph-ical surface vessels, we have no capacity to compete with the United States or the U.S.S.R. in sub-polar projects. Academically, although there has been some progress in recruitment—a scholarship here and there—clearly our cadres of marine scientists and technologists are inadequate.

In 1966, special American legislation was passed to double the contribution of America's academic institutions to the science of the seas. It is not the fault of our institutions, or our marine laboratories, or of their academic standards—these are among the highest in the world—but it is a question of money, priority and direction.

My first proposal is an extremely simple one. If the Government are unable to find funds to make this critical and crucial investment, I believe that with the development of the North Sea, from which the Government will derive royalties, I am informed, of at least between £100 million and £150 million a year, at least 10 per cent. of those royalties should be put into scientific and technological marine research. This is the absolutely minimum type of investment which the Government should make. I suggest that that should be a minimum.

Next, I come to the question of the Government machine. Frankly ever since the present Government abandoned the concept of a Ministry of Land and Natural Resources there has been confusion in the setting out of a national programme. It may be that the oceanographic policy of the United States is too high-powered; it may be that it is not a good thing to have too many vice-presidents of one's country or too many Cabinet Ministers around. That may well be. It may be that the French system is over-centralised, as is the German system.

This may well be true, but here we have a situation which is palpably absurd—a Ministry and a Minister weighed down by the daily considerations of administering a vast educational system, permanently short of money, and yet having put upon them this responsibility for our national protection and for the development of these national resources. I really think—I am sure that the hon. Gentleman must agree—that this is the wrong place for this responsibility to be.

Let us just look at the system which he has now. He is advised on these matters by a central scientific committee; and there are scores of other problems right across the field. Of course, he has devolved many of these powers and some of the scarce money which is available to him to two sub-committees of the National Environmental Research Council, that is to say, the sub-committees dealing with oceanography and geology. Very good work is done by both those committees. Excellent men sit upon them. but if we compare this sort of organisation with the sort of organisation for these projects in the United States and the Soviet Union, or even in France, then it is a pitiable piece of organisation.

At the head of these institutions are men like Professor Lighthill and Dr. Deacon, of the International Institute of Oceanography. They are men of the very highest calibre, but it is impossible for these people without the finance and the necessary bridging operations, involving so many other Ministries and so many other departments, to have the necessary weight of authority.

I really believe, therefore, that the Government having had a look at it themselves, and having, after two and a half years, found only this type of system which today is totally inadequate, should now allow someone else to have a look. I would suggest—it is my second suggestion—as a matter of urgent and vital importance, that the Prime Minister should set up a joint Government and industrial committee to report back to him and to this House the outlines and parameters of a national programme for the exploitation of the seas, with suitable authorities, agencies, and finance for its implementation.

I would suggest further that this task should be undertaken by someone outside the present Government, with all the burdens of their individual jobs. I myself believe that it should be undertaken by someone who has had a major connection with the naval forces of this country. I can think of many names. I can think of Admiral of the Fleet Earl Mountbatten. I can think of other names, too. I can think of other names, like Admiral Sir Peter Gretton, both a brilliant sailor, and now Bursar of University College. I can think of Admiral Sir Edmund Irving, ex-Hydrographer to the Navy, and of Earl Jellicoe, men of great intellectual capacity.

I believe that men of this type, aided by the Chief Scientific Adviser to the Government himself, backed by the C.B.I., and by the resources of men like Professor Lighthill and Dr. Deacon, should be entrusted with this work of adjudging the problems, and the necessary responses, which the Government should then undertake and push through. These men could attempt such an action. I believe that they should be asked to do so.

Time is pressing. The world is moving industrially at a fantastic pace. This country has the men of skill. We have the resources, because, after all, this is not like a space programme costing £2,000 million a year. This is a programme which could be limited to scores, rather than thousands, of millions of pounds. Above all, this is an exciting and an essential area of national activity.

It is even more than this. Such a programme would not only be in our best maritime tradition. With the skills here available, we have the possibility of making further contributions to the well-being of all mankind; for, looking ahead, it is only through man's mastery of his environment that mankind will continue, if a little precariously, to inherit the earth.

9.46 p.m.

Photo of Rear-Admiral Morgan Morgan-Giles Rear-Admiral Morgan Morgan-Giles , Winchester

With no prepared speech, I should like in about two minutes to support what my right hon. Friend the Member for Stafford and Stone (Mr. Hugh Fraser) has said in raising this vitally important subject. There are two distinct aspects of it. There is the defence aspect. There is also the aspect of peaceful purposes, for which further research in oceanography is most desperately needed.

We must always remember a basic fact about these islands. In peacetime we import about 2½ million tons every week of the year. Therefore, from the defence point of view the greatest possible danger to our existence in war lies in the possibility of U-boat attack on our trade.

It is not generally known that the word "Asdic", which means a great deal to anybody who has been connected with the Royal Navy, comes from "Allied Submarine Detection Investigation Committee". It dates from 1923, since when it has been a top priority project, in so far as money was available, for the Royal Navy.

Again, anybody who has been concerned with the problem of detecting submarines knows what an intensely frustrating job it is and how little we know about sea conditions, which vary with temperature, with weather, with the time of the year, and even with the time of day. Extraordinarily little is known about these conditions. However much we spend upon immensely sophisticated equipment to seek out and be ready to destroy U-boats which are such a threat to us, we are constantly defeated by our lack of knowledge of what actually goes on beneath the surface of the sea.

Another point on the defence side is that even the British Admiralty charts, which have been famous through the centuries, are inadequate for the high-performance nuclear submarines with which the navies of the world are arming themselves today.

As regards the peacetime application of this knowledge, my right hon. Friend has mentioned fish farming, food and minerals, and the extent to which these can solve the problems of the world.

I would end by urging, on much the same lines as my right hon. Friend did, that this country should take a conscious decision not to enter into the first league with a space programme, because many of us doubt how far we can get in the way of an outer space programme with our existing resources, but that we should, instead, go along with a programme for which our history so well fits us—a programme of oceanographic investigation, in which we could, and should, lead the world.

9.48 p.m

Photo of Mr Goronwy Roberts Mr Goronwy Roberts , Caernarvon

May I first apologise to the right hon. Member for Stafford and Stone (Mr. Hugh Fraser). As he saw, I mistimed the precise point at which the House would propose the Adjournment, and the right hon. Gentleman has had, I am very glad to say, a few extra minutes in which to deploy his argument. He has made his points in the very responsible and substantial manner that I, and I am sure the whole House, expect of him. He has asked a number of very important questions about a scientific field which is of growing importance. If I have insufficient time to address myself to every point which the right hon. Gentleman raised, he may rest assured that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I will most carefully examine what he said when his speech is reported in HANSARD tomorrow.

The right hon. Gentleman wishes to see established what can only be an entirely new body responsible for the co-ordination of effort in marine science, and this view was echoed by his hon. and gallant Friend the Member for Winchester (Rear-Admiral Morgan Giles). It is not necessary for me to remind the right hon. Gentleman that the Natural Environment Research Council already has a very strong Committee, the Oceanography and Fisheries Committee, under the chairmanship of Professor Lighthill, a distinguished scientist in this field and the type of independent chairman which the right hon. Gentleman and I would wish to see presiding over this important Committee.

The Committee comprises a wide range of scientists of the highest repute, together with representatives of such activities as the fishing industry, the oil industry and the British Ship Research Association. It includes in its membership the research directors of the marine laboratories of both fisheries Departments and the Council. It includes, also, the Hydrographer of the Navy, a member of the office of the Chief Scientist (Navy Department) and the former chief geologist of British Petroleum.

In this way, there is full consultation and increasing co-ordination of effort in this most important field. Moreover, through being in the N.E.R.C., the Committee maintains the closest links with its sister Committee on Geology and Geophysics, such links being essential if the proper development of the resources of the sea floor and sea bed is to be achieved.

So far, the Oceanography and Fisheries Committee has been particularly involved in assessing the economic potential of the marine environment and its resources. It endeavours to co-ordinate research and to select growing points in relation to the possible economic benefits which could accrue.

I cannot deal with matters of defence, as, no doubt, the right hon. Gentleman will understand. That aspect of the matter ought to be dealt with separately by the Minister directly concerned. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman, nevertheless, that on the Oceanography and Fisheries Committee the Defence point of view and the effort which that Department contributes are made known, as appropriate, and there are exchanges and comparisons of the various Departmental and other efforts, so that the Committee does co-ordinate civil and, to some extent, defence research in this field.

The Committee has decided that the question of winning sand and gravel from the sea is a matter worthy of more consideration, and it has, therefore, recommended that surveying for new marine resources of sand and gravel should be undertaken and further knowledge gained of the effects on the marine environment of extracting these materials.

It has also assessed the possible benefit that research on currents and waves might have in improving ship design and ship routing and has seen to it that such basic work as is essential to our understanding of waves and currents is in no way hampered through having insufficient resources for its successful prosecution. I shall return to that matter in a moment, as the right hon. Gentleman made a point of what he deemed to be inadequacy of financial resources.

The Council has already commissioned one new research ship, the "John Murray", primarily for the use of university scientists studying the sea floor, and it has plans for further research ships well advanced. It is fair to say—and I emphasise this—that so far, no major project which the Oceanography and Fisheries Committee has recommended to the Natural Environment Research Council as worthy of support on the grounds of scientific opportunity and economic benefit has been hampered through lack of funds. In fact, the body set up to oversee oceanographic research, the N.E.R.C, has given priority to oceanography over many of its other interests.

I hope that what I have said so far has indicated that the machinery is as wide and as comprehensive as possible. If any hon. Member has suggestions to make as to how we might strengthen it, possibly by increased representation from industry, although industrial representation is already very strong, he is most welcome to do so and we will give such suggestions the closest attention. I must repeat, however, that the present system has only been in being for some two years. So far it has worked very well, coordination is increasing and it would be ill-advised to effect any radical change at the present time.

Photo of Sir Harmar Nicholls Sir Harmar Nicholls , Peterborough

How often does it meet?

Photo of Mr Goronwy Roberts Mr Goronwy Roberts , Caernarvon

I cannot say without notice but it has continuously met over the last two years.

If there is any truth in the suggestion that we have not been pursuing the development of oceanographic research as fast as we might, it can only be justified on the basis that we have not made the fullest use of our resources of manpower —that is, skilled technicians and highly-trained physical scientists. But the programme being pursued is resulting in the recruitment of this kind of research worker as fast as is possible.

There has lately been considerable and increasing general interest in the exploitation of the sea and the sea bed, although it has not so far proved easy to identify specific projects which appear to be technologically possible and economically encouraging. Accordingly, in 1966, the Ministry of Technology asked the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority at Harwell, as its agent, to begin a review of current activities in this field and possible new initiatives. As part of this review, Harwell suggested holding a conference as a convenient way of providing a forum at which representatives of industry, the universities, Government bodies and other organisations could discuss their ideas.

This conference, which took place early in April, has proved valuable in this respect and is to be regarded as one of the steps in the review of this subject and future possibilities which the Ministry of Technology has in hand. The part to be played ultimately by Harwell—and I know that the right hon. Gentleman is interested in this point—as agents of the Ministry of Technology in continuing economic and technical assessments as a preliminary to the establishment of a national technological programme is under continuous consideration.

The right hon. Gentleman referred to the American system, suggesting that it has produced perhaps a more coherent national programme than exists here. I ask him to examine carefully the procedures that exist in the United States, where a much greater number of private, federal and state organisations conduct programmes of research into various aspects of oceanography. There is no one organisation that has as much effective responsibility over the whole field of oceanography as has our own N.E.R.C. The Inter-agency Committee on Oceanography in the United States has no budget of its own for support of oceanography. Funds are disposed of by the various agencies, whose control of programmes remains with them and who can accept or reject the programmes approved by the Inter-agency Committee.

The right hon. Gentleman suggested that we might create a new oceanographic organisation. This would, of course, involve dismantling the existing one. It would break up N.E.R.C. and lose all the benefits gained from having oceanography as an integral part of the environmental sciences. I also suggest to him that it would confuse and complicate Departmental responsibilities, including, possibly, defence. Should we not rather build upon the structure already existing in N.E.R.C, encourage it to expand—

The Question having been proposed at half-past Nine o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at Ten o'clock.