Lieutenant-Colonel Miller

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Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath 12:58 pm, 21st October 1998

Although this case concerns my constituent, Lieutenant-Colonel Miller, I shall be urging the Minister to regard it as a matter that goes much wider than one individual case. I believe that the case raises points of general principle.

The history of the matter is somewhat complex—it is certainly a long-running saga. Nevertheless, it is important to realise that, in taking up Lieutenant-Colonel Miller's case, both I and my predecessor, Sir Michael Grylls, have believed in the strength of Lieutenant-Colonel Miller's case for recognition of the significance of his work in developing the most important and pioneering bomb disposal equipment that the tragedies of Northern Ireland have seen.

The general principle is that those who are serving officers who invent equipment that is well beyond the scope of their normal duties should be recognised for that work. I have mentioned in the title of this debate, which appears on today's Order Paper, the "Committee on Awards to Inventors". Today, I should like specifically to deal with the judgment of that committee and of current Ministers on the principles under which that committee operates.

I start by praying in aid the correspondence that I have seen from those, other than Lieutenant-Colonel Miller himself writing about his case, who have personal experience of the importance of the development of Wheelbarrow. I am delighted that my hon. Friends who have extensive experience in Ulster—as a serving officer, in the case of my hon. Friend the Member for Reigate (Mr. Blunt), and as a Minister, in the case of my right hon. Friend the Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley)—have come into the Chamber to give their support.

I should like first to mention a gentleman whom I shall not name, because of sensitivity about the names of those who served in Ulster in defusing terrorist bombs. It is sufficient to say that not only is he a Member of the Order of the British Empire, he has won the George medal once and then a bar to that George medal.

In a letter to my predecessor, Sir Michael Grylls, that gentleman states: My credentials for writing in support of Col. Miller's application to the Committee on Awards to Inventors (COATI) are 23 years in the Royal Army Ordnance Corps (now the Royal Logistics Corps) working solely in the field of explosives and munitions. I joined the Metropolitan Police Explosives Officers in 1973 and became head of that department in 1985 until my retirement in December 1991. I was awarded a George Medal for my bomb disposal work in Northern Ireland, an MBE for gallantry for defusing car bombs in London and a Bar to the George Medal for making safe a device in Oxford Street in 1981. He is clearly a gentleman who speaks from extensive experience. Moreover, he continues to work on explosives ordnance disposal in retirement.

The gentleman goes on to say: I first met Col. Miller in 1972 during my tour of duty as an EOD"— explosives ordnance disposal— Officer in Belfast. As you may know, 1972 was a particularly conspicuous year so far as terrorist bombs were concerned and, during that year, the EOD teams in Northern Ireland dealt with 4,295 incidents involving the use of explosives or suspected explosives.Between January 1971 and August 1972, eight EOD operators were killed while attempting to defuse bombs in Northern Ireland. Wheelbarrow"— the piece of equipment invented by my constituent— was first brought into use in late August 1972 and, in the period September 1972-December 1973, only three operators died. This downward trend in mortality of EOD Officers has continued to the present day and, despite the relatively high level of terrorist bombing, only one operator has been killed in the last seven years. Although it is impossible to state categorically that the dramatic reduction in loss of lives and casualties is solely due to the introduction of Wheelbarrow, there is no doubt the machine played—and continues to play—a major role. In my opinion these figures alone bear testimony to the exceptional and life-saving nature of Col. Miller's invention. It has also led to radical changes in bomb disposal methods which, in turn, have resulted in terrorists changing their tactics.The difficulties being experienced by the troops on the ground in Northern Ireland during 1972 was mentioned 'in passing' by the Chief Ammunition Technical Officer (CATO) to Col. Miller. Col. Miller went away, put on his thinking cap and, largely in his own spare time, developed Wheelbarrow and produced several prototypes. I should say that the genesis of the concept of Wheelbarrow occurred well before any conversation about the need for a new device in Northern Ireland. In 1970, my constituent had invented a technique for mowing the lawn at his own house by remote control. He attached a Suffolk Punch petrol-driven lawn mower by a long lanyard to a central post of such a diameter that the 14 in lawn mower would generate a 12 in cut in the lawn. He was also able to steer the machine by hand at the end of the lanyard.

The other matter that I should mention is that it has consistently been suggested by Ministry of Defence officials that my constituent, Lieutenant-Colonel Miller, was "paid to invent", and that therefore the development of Wheelbarrow was part of his "normal duties". That aspect of the matter is the one that most irritates and annoys Lieutenant-Colonel Miller, as his work was as a gunnery trials officer. He did much distinguished work developing gunnery equipment. However, by no stretch of the imagination could a gunnery trials officer have had it regarded as part of his normal duties to develop a bomb disposal vehicle equipment. I shall, later in my speech, provide supporting testimony on that matter.

The gentleman went on to say: I understand that one of COATI's objections to granting an award to Col. Miller is that inventing was part of his job. That is certainly not my experience of Trials Officers. In fact, I cannot think of another Trials Officer at MVEE (now Test and Evaluation Establishment) Chertsey who has invented anything, either then or since, let alone an invention as ground-breaking as Wheelbarrow. Wheelbarrow was—and still is—a pioneering piece of equipment. It has contributed greatly to British exports over the years in that numerous foreign governments and organisations, recognising Wheelbarrow's use and technical achievement, have purchased many hundreds of the machines. I believe this is further evidence of the fact that Col. Miller 'got it right'."

Photo of John Stanley John Stanley Conservative, Tonbridge and Malling

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend for giving way. Is he aware that I believe, certainly from my time both as Minister for the Armed Forces and in Northern Ireland, that Lieutenant-Colonel Miller's Wheelbarrow invention is the single most important breakthrough in bomb disposal technology that has been achieved anywhere in the world since the second world war? It has been of the most profound benefit to our own country in securing the removal of bombs in a manner that does not endanger life.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

I am most grateful to my right hon. Friend, who speaks from his extensive experience as a former Northern Ireland Minister. I know that my constituent will be delighted to hear his words. I am sure that the Minister and the Opposition spokesman, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson), will take his comments very seriously.

The gentleman went on to say: It is of great personal regret that Wheelbarrow has not been acknowledged as an invention of singular brilliance. Several friends of mine died in Northern Ireland as a result of terrorist bombs prior to the invention of Wheelbarrow. Obviously, I cannot say for certain that these friends would have lived if Wheelbarrow had been around, but I can assuredly say they would have stood a far better chance.Prior to 1972, terrorist devices could be made safe only by dismantling them by hand. This was recognised as a very dangerous practice but there was no other reliable method. Then, in the early part of 1972, a new method of terrorist bomb disposal was introduced. In basic terms, this relied on disrupting the circuitry of a bomb by means of an explosively-propelled jet of water. The technique is known as 'disruption' and the first British disruptor was codenamed Pigstick'. It was highly successful and gave the EOD operator a very good chance of defeating a bomb no matter how complex the fusing system or how many anti-handling devices it incorporated.Unfortunately, the Pigstick is an extremely short-range weapon and, to be effective, the muzzle must be placed within 3 ins of the bomb. This meant, of course, that the EOD operators still had to approach the bomb to place the Pigstick. The gentleman states that terrorists soon recognised—and exploited—this weakness and changed their tactics in two ways:

  1. 1. Hand-delivered bombs were fitted with time fuses which were set to expire around the time of arrival of the EOD operator on the scene.
  2. 2. The use of car bombs increased dramatically as"
terrorists realised that the Pigstick was virtually useless against such bombs.The danger from the hand-delivered bomb was largely overcome by regulation insisting on long soak times. This reduced the risk to operators but it meant that virtually all hand-delivered bombs exploded and hoax calls caused huge disruption.The major problem, however, was that of car bombs. These normally contain very large charges of explosive and are capable of causing death, injuries and damage over considerable areas. Moreover, as the car bombs of that period could not be disrupted by Pigstick", terrorists continued to fit the cars with anti-handling devices.Although there was no clear idea of how to tackle a car bomb it was realised that the ability to safely move a suspect vehicle would be a great advantage. Blast overpressure resulting from a detonation of a charge of explosive falls off very rapidly as the distance from the seat of the explosion increases and moving a car bomb just 10 metres could make the difference between major structural damage and nothing more than broken windows. Various agencies were approached for help and although the problem was addressed with enthusiasm the early results were disappointing … although the machines came in a great variety of shapes and sizes, they all had one common failing—they were totally impractical for use outside a workshop and were often of hindrance rather than help to EOD officers.Col. Miller put his mind to the matter and the first Wheelbarrow was conceived and delivered in a remarkably short time. This machine was eminently practical, very reliable and cheap and it dramatically reduced the odds against the EOD man. It may well be viewed now that the early machines were simple but … in 1972, on the streets of Northern Ireland, the invention was definitely considered to be of exceptional brilliance and utility.With a reliable, easy-to-use robot vehicle available, it became possible for EOD operators to attach tow ropes to suspect cars in relative safety. Once a tow rope had been attached it was a simple matter to pull the suspect vehicle to a position where, should the car bomb explode, it would be less likely to cause injuries or major damage to property. Towing the suspect vehicle away from the target was undoubtedly a great help but it still left the EOD operator with the problem of making the vehicle safe. Having been told of the problem, Col Miller designed and developed a range of attachments which enabled Wheelbarrow to carry and position various disruptive EOD weapons. In use, the Wheelbarrow carried the selected weapon to the vehicle, placed the weapon in the optimum attack position before withdrawing to a safe area.Judged by today's standards, the methods of delivery and the weapons might be thought crude but they were surprisingly successful and, for the first time, it became possible to render safe a car bomb without endangering the life of an EOD operator.Having done much to help reduce the dangers presented by car bombs, Col Miller then devised a method of attaching Pigstick to Wheelbarrow. This too was a success and it became possible to safely attack a hand-delivered bomb within minutes of the EOD operator arriving on the scene of an incident. There is no doubt the ability to render-safe time bombs using the Wheelbarrow/Pigstick combination was a huge step forward compared to the previous practice of 'soak times' which allowed the majority of the devices to detonate.As will be seen from above, the introduction of Wheelbarrow had profound effects on both terrorist tactics and the safety of bomb disposal operators. It is impossible to give hard and fast statistics regarding just how many lives Col Miller's machines have saved but, in the period 1972–1978, and taking into account machines which had been exported, over 400 Wheelbarrows were destroyed while dealing with terrorist devices. In many of these cases, it can be assumed that the loss of a machine represented the saving of an EOD man's life. Having heard that, Mr. Deputy Speaker, you will understand why I feel very strongly that my constituent deserves the recognition that he has been denied.

Very belatedly—in 1996—officials finally acknowledged in writing to my predecessor that there was no question but that Lieutenant Colonel Miller's invention was of enormous use. Unfortunately, despite that acknowledgement, it was still not regarded as being outside the scope of his normal duties. Before I ask the Minister to respond to this serious issue, I shall provide other supporting testimony which shows that the invention was outside his normal duties.

The following testimony comes from a gentleman who held the rank of brigadier—again, I shall not mention his name for obvious reasons—and who was a deputy director and head of the Trials Division. He states: No formal order was ever given to Lieutenant Colonel Miller but, after failing to find an answer to the problem using existing equipment and techniques he turned, relying on his own initiative and imagination, to outside sources and came up with an electrically powered garden instrument produced by a local firm. This he took and adapted, uniquely and ingeniously, to become the prototype of the anti-terrorist weapon known as `Wheelbarrow' which has been so successfully and spectacularly used in Northern Ireland.Fortunate in having at his disposal in the Military Vehicles and Engineering Establishment, the facilities to develop and test his ideas, the whole concept nevertheless, starting from an imprecise requirement, culminated in an ingeniously practical machine which was undoubtedly the fruit of Lieutenant Colonel Miller's fertile imagination and determination to succeed. I now cite another gentleman who was greatly involved. He was a chartered engineer and a member of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers. He states: During our discussion, I mentioned the fact that had we"— those in his division— been told in March of 1972 that Weapons Trials"— the department for which Lieutenant-Colonel Miller worked— was about to develop a wheeled or tracked vehicle to meet a specific IS requirement under the terms of the GSOR, we would certainly have objected, through the proper channels, to that action. It would certainly not have been within the scope of Weapons Trials objectives to embark on such a course of action. The divisions of responsibility between the various Branches as they were then called, were quite clearly defined; and no doubt they still are to-day albeit since becoming a Defence Research Agency". Writing to Lieutenant-Colonel Miller, this senior gentleman said: As I have said before, there is absolutely no doubt in my mind as to the true origin of 'Wheelbarrow'; that was clearly and unequivocally to your credit and yours alone. All the correspondence that I have seen says the same.

Another retired officer states: I can confirm that, prior to and during the initial development work on Wheelbarrow, while I was Superintendent, Weapon Trials, there was no duty placed upon the Section to design or develop any form of wheeled or tracked vehicle, for EOD or any other purpose, and I cannot recall such activities being written into the Job Descriptions of any member of my staff.I well remember at the time you telling me that the idea for Wheelbarrow had arisen from your private efforts to produce a labour saving method for mowing your extensive lawn.If it had been within the jurisdiction of Weapon Trials to design and develop such a vehicle, I would have expected that the work on Wheelbarrow would have remained the responsibility of the Section … instead of being passed over to VE(L) … just at a time when the initial concept had been fully vindicated". Referring to officials' suggestion that Lieutenant-Colonel Miller was paid to invent the Wheelbarrow, another senior person stated: There was no scope for invention by a Trials Design Officer (`TDO') within the TS"— or trials specification. He continued: neither is there reference in the job description for a TDO `to invent'. Hence the comment that Col Miller was 'paid to invent' is, in my opinion, erroneous. I could say far more. Given that we are talking about a vital piece of bomb disposal equipment that has saved hundreds of lives, not only in the Province but around the world, proper recognition for the gentleman who invented it is long overdue. After the long saga of the issue having been raised by my predecessor and now by me, it is time, for the sake of other officers who may come up with life-saving or otherwise helpful equipment, for the Committee on Awards to Inventors to recognise my constituent's claim.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence) 1:16 pm, 21st October 1998

Let me make it clear at the outset that while there is clearly no case for a monetary award to Lieutenant-Colonel Miller, his work, that of his team—the Motor Vehicles and Engineering Establishment—and of others who contributed to the success of the Wheelbarrow bomb disposal vehicle is fully recognised and appreciated by the Ministry of Defence. That work has without question saved many lives and the destruction of much property, as was well described by the hon. Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins). However, we are today dealing with the question whether the hon. Gentleman's constituent qualifies for an award from the Committee on Awards to Inventors.

As has been made clear, this case relates to events which took place more than 25 years ago. In 1973, the Department's Committee on Awards to Inventors, known as COATI, a body that was set up many years before to make discretionary awards for inventions produced by civilian and military personnel, received an application for an award from Lieutenant-Colonel Miller for Wheelbarrow.

By that time, COATI had considered and made awards for inventions ranging from gas turbines to electronics and covering chemical, electrical and mechanical inventions. COATI was staffed by experienced people including patent agents and by others with scientific, engineering or legal backgrounds. There is no doubt that COATI was a well-run and properly staffed committee which had the right expertise and the right qualifications. It had to make difficult decisions within the terms of reference that it had been set. It had been given, and had to maintain, standards to help it to determine whether an award should be made and, if so, the right and proper amount of that award.

All COATI awards were and, indeed, are made on an ex gratia basis at the absolute discretion of the Department. There is no formal entitlement to an award, and it is exceptional to have a case reconsidered by COATI.

Lieutenant-Colonel Miller's first application to COATI was made in 1973 through his establishment at Chertsey, the Military Vehicles and Engineering Establishment, known as the MVEE. The application for an award for the Wheelbarrow invention was made by Lieutenant-Colonel Miller and members of MVEE workshop staff, and considered on three different occasions by COATI. As I said, that was fairly unprecedented.

The committee was strongly of the view that the work on Wheelbarrow appeared to be in response to an official requirement and was no more than might have been expected by the individuals concerned. Lieutenant-Colonel Miller was status-barred by reason of his positions at MVEE from receiving any financial award as he was carrying out work that he was paid to do, and the invention, although useful, and vital, as the hon. Member for Surrey Heath aptly described it in introducing the debate, was not considered to be of exceptional utility and exceptional brilliance. In other words, it had to meet both those criteria.

The applications by the workshop staff were referred back to a local committee for consideration of local awards which were made. Undoubtedly, the work that was done by Lieutenant-Colonel Miller and his team at the time was important and was to have a significant effect on bomb disposal, particularly in Northern Ireland.

The application was considered further by COATI in April 1975 and it was decided that, as a member of the professional and scientific class who could well have been expected to make inventions in his field of work, Lieutenant-Colonel Miller was not eligible for an award. I repeat that further consideration is unusual.

The matter was considered a third time on 24 July 1975, when COATI had the benefit of advice from one of the deputy controllers of establishments and research and the director of MVEE, who were of the view that no award was appropriate because of Lieutenant-Colonel Miller's position at the time and the duties that he was being paid to carry out. On that basis, once again, COATI concluded that no award should be made.

Photo of Crispin Blunt Crispin Blunt Conservative, Reigate

Having heard the account by my hon. Friend the Member for Surrey Heath (Mr. Hawkins) and having read his brief, the Minister clearly must have reached a personal judgment about the merits of the case. Perhaps we could hear his personal judgment as to whether an invention that has saved so many lives is worth an award.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence)

We charge those on the committee with the relevant technical expertise with making those decisions, which should not be overridden by ministerial judgment. I am not technically qualified to make a judgment as to whether an invention is of exceptional utility and of exceptional brilliance. That is a matter for professional judgment.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence)

We sometimes hear some interesting interventions from the hon. Gentleman. As he should know, having been on the payroll of the Ministry of Defence, we have proper committees to deal with such matters, and this case has been reconsidered. It has also been considered by a number of Ministers, as I shall explain in a moment. I do not remember whether Churchill dealt with the case of Lieutenant-Colonel Miller, but I bow to the knowledge of the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson). [Interruption.]

Photo of Alan Haselhurst Alan Haselhurst Deputy Speaker and Chairman of Ways and Means

Order. The sedentary comments by the hon. Member for Mid-Norfolk (Mr. Simpson) are now becoming disruptive.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence)

A few years later, Lieutenant-Colonel Miller decided to make a direct application to COATI for an award. His words at the time were: As far as I am aware the fully story was not revealed. I feel therefore, in justice to myself, that I should submit the whole story as I saw it. The second application gave further details of Wheelbarrow and ran to some 31 pages with accompanying photographs of various marks of Wheelbarrow. It represented a complete description of his work, and the whole text was considered by the committee in the light of his previous application.

The committee once again concluded that no award should be made because he was status-barred at the time he carried out his work on Wheelbarrow. The committee, which had great experience in such matters, concluded that his work on Wheelbarrow was work that would have been expected by an officer at that level and in the circumstances that prevailed at the time. That is not to say that the committee disagreed with Lieutenant-Colonel Miller's version of events, but considered that his status was a bar to an award.

In between the two applications for an award for Wheelbarrow, Lieutenant-Colonel Miller discussed his application with his Member of Parliament at the time, Michael Grylls, who wrote on his behalf to the then Minister of State for Defence, Dr. John Gilbert. His reply was that Lieutenant-Colonel Miller's case had been considered with great care by COATI, and that a Crown servant employed and paid to carry out research and development work is not eligible for an award unless his invention displays exceptional brilliance and exceptional utility.

Photo of Mr Nick Hawkins Mr Nick Hawkins Conservative, Surrey Heath

Does the Minister recognise the intense frustration on the part of my constituent? It appears to me that the basic misunderstanding that the invention was part of his normal work led to all the subsequent rejections. What is happening again today as the Minister reads out his prepared brief is a repeat of the same answer which the independent testimony of the officers involved completely undermines. That is what is so frustrating for my constituent. It is a factual error.

Photo of John Spellar John Spellar Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Ministry of Defence)

Many of our constituents are frustrated. Sometimes they are right and sometimes they are wrong. In this instance, the Department believes that the committee is right and the individual constituent is wrong.

As hon. Members will remember, COATI awards are made on an ex gratia basis at the absolute discretion of the Department. However, Lieutenant-Colonel Miller persisted and wrote again to his Member of Parliament, Mr. Michael Grylls, who wrote to the Department. The then Minister of State for Defence, Lord Strathcona, replied that the claim had been considered long and hard at the time and a judgment made that it did not meet the stringent criteria laid down. It is understood that, by 1980, Mr. Grylls was satisfied that the matter had been fully considered.

I would add that the exchange of correspondence and the detailed consideration by Ministers of both parties and by officials over the past 20 years was unprecedented. I find it slightly surprising that the right hon. Member for Tonbridge and Malling (Sir J. Stanley), who served as a Minister in the Department at the time, and other hon. Members who were on the payroll of the Department should appear in the Chamber today. The case has been fully considered, and exceptionally so. No other COATI case has been given such detailed consideration by so many individuals, including COATI members, the director and other staff of MOD's directorate of intellectual property rights and the director-general of contracts.

In 1996, Lieutenant-Colonel Miller again asked his Member of Parliament, by then Sir Michael Grylls, to take up the matter with the then Minister of State for Defence Procurement, the right hon. Member for North-East Hampshire (Mr. Arbuthnot). A meeting was arranged, and it was concluded that no new information of significance had come to light that would warrant reopening the case. We believe that still to be the position today. However, the 1997 election brought a new Member for Surrey Heath, and, as hon. Members realise, this often leads to a temporary burst of old cases. Indeed, the hon. Gentleman was approached by Lieutenant-Colonel Miller and has been in correspondence with my right hon. Friend Lord Gilbert, who has been reincarnated as Minister of State for Defence Procurement.

It is important to note that, at the time the applications for an award were made by Lieutenant-Colonel Miller, the COATI rules required that, if the inventor was status-barred, as was the case with Lieutenant-Colonel Miller, an award could be made only if the invention was of exceptional utility and exceptional brilliance. The committee looked carefully at the invention on several occasions and, in the light of its experience, decided that it did not qualify. It did not meet the criteria by which other inventions were judged.

The Department has dealt with Lieutenant-Colonel Miller's claims for an award with great patience and forbearance over a long period. We are satisfied that the matter has been dealt with properly and fairly. There is no evidence that leads us to believe otherwise. We cannot arbitrarily and retrospectively change the rules. That would be unfair to all the other applicants over the years who have not qualified for a COATI award. That has been made clear to Lieutenant-Colonel Miller and to his current and previous Members of Parliament. We believe that the case should be laid to rest.