HC Deb 03 August 1965 vol 717 cc1567-75

6.13 a.m.

Mr. John Wells (Maidstone)

I want to raise this morning the question of probable swallowing up of the John Innes Institute by the University of East Anglia. The John Innes Institute has been in existence for 55 years and has a superb record for practical research, theoretical research and the training of scientific manpower in horticulture. This Institute has a very great tradition and is world famous. The name John Innes, which came from the founder, whose will made it possible, is a well-known household name with everyone who has any connection with horticulture. To my mind, and to the minds of everyone concerned with horticulture, it would be a tragedy if this Institute lost its identity and were broken up.

Today the activities of the Institute are financed to about 90 per cent. by the Agricultural Research Council and to 10 per cent. by the trustees of the John Innes will. Under the terms of that will the purpose of the Institute should be to study the growth of trees and the improvement of horticulture by experiment and research. By the trust deed the Institute is also directed to provide a certain amount of direct horticultural training. It is on those twin points of direct horticultural training and the improvement of horticulture by experiment and research that I want to base my argument, because in my opinion this probable swallowing up will jeopardise the fundamental principles of John Innes' will. As recently as 1949 the Institute was moved from John Innes's home to Byfordbury in Hertfordshire and my noble Friend the Member for Hertford (Lord Balniel) has always taken a great interest in the affairs of the Institute. Indeed, it is largely due to his intervention in this matter that I am speaking on this topic now.

When the Institute went to Bayfordbury much expensive equipment was installed in new buildings and a clear assurance was given to the staff at that time, and again later, that it would remain for many years in its new home. A new laboratory block was completed only four years ago at a cost of about £100,000 and it was equipped for a further £50,000. The Institute is, therefore, admirably equipped to undertake technical work of all sorts. In particular, it is well suited for growing plants for experimental purposes on a very extensive scale. Considering the research which will need to be done for years to come, it is almost certain that it will be necessary to have some research institute somewhere in the country which is able to grow plants on this massive scale.

In the past the Institute has been well equipped for the work in hand, but if it is moved to East Anglia, all these buildings and the expensive equipment will either have to be duplicated or this source of work will be lost, which, in itself, would be a great tragedy.

If it loses its identity and if the horticultural tradition of the Institute is lost in the pure scientific direction of the new university it will also be a loss to the horticulture industry and, in my submission, a costly one for the taxpayer and ratepayer. New training establishments of a smaller and more diverse nature will inevitably have to be set up—that may take some time, but it will inevitably come—and with their coming there will be duplication of cost and this body of skilled men and their scientific equipment will be lost.

One naturally appreciates that certain benefits would result to the Institute by it being closer to a university, either physically or working closer to one. I do not wish to belittle these benefits in any way. However, I am not sure that, with its geographical position at Bayfordbury, it could not work closer with either Cambridge, with its great horticultural tradition, or London University or—not that I wish to make a constituency point—Kent, which is world famous for horticulture. We have great research establishments in Kent, including Wye College, which is associated with part of London University, and the Research Establishment at East Malling. If it is necessary to move the John Innes Institute to a new university, it might have gone to the University of Kent at Canterbury, which would have made far geater sense from the horticultural point of view. Without wishing to press this point, I might add that in Kent we have the two largest apple growers in the world. Kent has always been the heart of horticulture.

We wonder if this move partly stems from the Zuckerman Report of 5th July, 1961. It is obvious that that Report has a bearing on the matter, particularly paragraph 81 of it, which stated: … pure basic research is best carried out in the environment of a university rather in that of a Government research establishment. One accepts that for pure basic research, but I would ask the Minister to read on to subparagraphs (c) and (e) of paragraph 85. Subparagraph (c) says: Where the basic studies involve the use of extensive facilities which are already available (or largely available) at Government establishments then the establishment should be left doing the research. Sub-paragraph (e) says: Where there are special advantages in linking the basic work with related applied research projects. It may be, for example, that equipment (including, in agriculture, experimental stock and field plots) and supporting staff could be shared. Those two subparagraphs are far more relevant than paragraph 81, because the practical work and tradition of these great buildings are very important.

I hope that the Minister will not tell us, "Oh, well, they dropped the word 'horticultural' from their title a few years ago." We know that they did. The fact remains that the John Innes Institute, whether or not it calls itself a horticultural institute, is a great practical institute and has this great practical tradition. Many people involved in the industry have been trained there, and it is the only place where such training exists. I hope that those two subparagraphs of the Zuckerman Report will be looked at closely.

The argument has been raised that the trustees have taken a wise step in getting in on the ground floor of the new university. I wonder if breaking up the institute is getting in on the ground floor. If it is virtually destroyed, one cannot call that getting in on the ground floor.

No doubt great savings can be and have already been made in cash. I understand that there is talk of pruning the expenditure from something of the order of £1 million to £400,000. If that is the order of the saving that can be achieved, surely some other method could have been found than virtually murdering the Institute.

I should like, therefore, to ask the Ministers to answer five specific points, and I shall be grateful if he can give us some assurance on them. If he cannot give it to the House this morning, perhaps he can write to me or let it be known at some convenient date, I hope not too far into the Recess and not when the decision has been taken irrevocably.

The first point is that something must be said clearly about the jobs of the technical staff. Naturally, the staff have been very anxious. They have had reassurances, but they are not very happy about the reassurances they have had. I am aware that there has been a drastic rundown of staff, but I should like an assurance about the jobs of all the technical staff that will be assimilated or not into the university.

Secondly, I hope that we can have a clear and irrevocable statement that the Institute will not lose its identity. That is vital. Thirdly, I hope that the expensive equipment and buildings at Bayfordbury will not be wasted. After all, they are very modern. I know that there has been an argument bandied about that they are out of date, but that is absolute rubbish. The buildings and glasshouses are first-rate by modern British standards. They are as good as almost anything else in the country. I hope that we will not hear any argument put forward that they are out of date, because it is not true. May we have a clear assurance that the buildings will not be wasted?

Fourthly, I hope that the practical character of the work of the Institute will be maintained, whatever happens to it, because that is of the essence of its tradition. My last specific point is, in a way, the most important, and it is that the spirit of the will of John Innes, the founder of the Institute, should not be violated.

We are in grave danger as a nation when the Government gobble up bequestes from public-minded people and, a few years after they have gobbled up a bequest, they completely pervert the original purpose of it. That happens far too frequently. I hope that the lifelong ambition and then the very generous bequest of the late John Innes will be honoured for many years to come, and that I will have clear answers to my five points.

6.25 a.m.

The Minister of State, Department of Education and Science (Mr. R. E. Prentice)

By leave of the House, I should first like to thank the hon. Member for Maidstone (Mr. John Wells) for raising this question. I agree at once with what he said about the achievements of the John Innes Institute and the reputation it has in this country and in other parts of the world for the work it has done during the last 55 years. I accept that completely. Nevertheless, I shall argue for the move into the University of East Anglia.

The hon. Member has anticipated a number of my arguments. Indeed, he has referred to the merits of some of them, as he sees them, but takes a view of the balance of argument rather different from that of the Government. He said that I might refer to the dropping of the word "horticultural" from the title of the Institute, but that is not the case. The Institute has done, and is still doing, tremendous work for horticulture, and I hope that it will continue to do so in the new setting. The matter has aroused the anxiety of a lot of friends of the Institute, and particularly of the staff, which made representations about it.

The whole question really resolves itself into where, and in what setting do we consider that the work of the Institute can best be carried out in the future, and in what setting can it make the maximum contribution to agriculture and horticulture. I emphasise the word "future", because we have to recognise that the scientific background of the work has been changing, and will change even more in the future. To say that is not in any way to cast any doubt on the past achievements of the Institute but, as I understand it, as the work has developed, it is now closely connected not only with various branches of plant biology but also with new and developing sciences such as radiation biology, molecular biology, and cellular biology which require a number of sophisticated techniques and also require expensive equipment. In other words, it is work which, by its very nature, can beneficially be carried out not merely in touch with a university but within the university, so that there is on the spot the equipment which is being used for other purposes, and so that there may be the frequent contact of staff with joint research projects, and everything that goes with it.

That concept comes up in the Report of the Zuckerman Committee on the Management and Control of Research and Development which was published in 1961. The hon. Member will agree that, even taking into account the paragraphs that he read out, the general tenor of that Report was that it was beneficial for research institutes to be working more closely with the universities; that this could often best be achieved by close physical proximity to the universities, and being within their framework, and that there was some danger of institutes that are too small or too isolated becoming remote in the future from the main streams of relevant scientific work. There is no doubt that this is a small institute. At the moment, the establishment is 24 scientific officers. The Agricultural Institute at Rothamsted has 120—

Mr. John Wells

The Minister says that at the moment it has an establishment of 24 scientific officers, but there were many more a few months ago. There has been a drastic and deliberate rundown.

Mr. Prentice

Yes. I am taking the position as it is now and considering its future work in that context. Even so, I think that the figure of a few months ago is relatively small compared with other independent institutes operating, as it were, on their own. The Agricultural Research Institute at Rothamsted has a complement of 120 scientific officers and even that is a good deal smaller than that of many other independent institutes, including the National Physical Laboratory.

The John Innes Institute had a link with the University of London. There was a joint staffing arrangement and a number of the Institute's staff taught at the University. This link no longer exists. If there had not been a scientific revolution in the work, one would have had to replace that link with some other development.

The new University of East Anglia fits the need of the Institute. It is developing a strong School of Biological Science. It is a happy relationship that is proposed and which is being negotiated between the trustees of the Institute and the University—particularly happy because the Agricultural Research Council's new Food Research Institute is also to be in Norwich and a link will be available with the work we have in mind.

I cannot give any precise assurance about the agreement between the Institute and the University because it is still being negotiated, but I am assured that both parties share a great many of the objectives the hon. Gentleman mentioned. The University is keen that the Institute should keep its identity and not be swallowed up. It is concerned that the Institute should be able to carry on its scientific and research work and training in a new setting. It is not proposed to take anything away from what the Institute has been doing.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the money that was invested in the existing buildings. I am informed that, over 20 years, some £220,000 in all has been invested in capital grants but, meanwhile, the Institute is costing £200,000 a year to run. Therefore, I think that, if one looked purely at the economics of this, one would have to ask whether that sum is the right sort of expenditure for the results which one would get in future if the Institute were not to develop in a university setting. Although I agree that the previous investment is a factor, I do not think it is as big a factor as the running costs in this respect.

I am assured that the transfer to Norwich can be financed by the trustees. Their resources are adequate for the task and, of course, the sale of the Bayfordbury property will help. I understand that they have already purchased 160 acres of land near Norwich as a horticultural field station for that side of the work and will be able to provide the laboratories and other facilities needed there out of their own funds.

Mr. John Wells

Is this 160 acres of land about 20 miles from Norwich or nearer to the city?

Mr. Prentice

I am sorry, I have not that information but I will find out and write to the hon. Gentleman.

The hon. Gentleman raised five questions which I have partially answered already. He asked about jobs for the staff and here I can assure him that there are jobs for all the existing staff at Norwich. It is appreciated that many of the staff are reluctant to move, as would be anyone else, for it involves some upheaval and some problems. I understand that the Institute is anxious when the move comes to give some help with the problems of transition.

The second question the hon. Gentleman asked was whether the Institute would lose its identity. I have dealt with that. His third question was about the buildings at Bayfordbury. I understand that they are being sold, but I do not have any information about what use is to be made of them. I will see whether I can find out and I will write to the hon. Gentleman. His fourth question was whether the practical work would be maintained. I have had an assurance about that and I have conveyed it to the hon. Gentleman.

In his fifth question he asked that the will of John Innes should not be violated in any way. In the terms which I have set out to the House I cannot see that there is any violation of the will. The work in pure and applied research and teaching which has been associated with the Institute over the years in accordance with the terms of the will will certainly be carried on and, I hope, in the context of developing scientific work, will be carried on better in the new setting than it would have been in the old.

For those reasons, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept that this matter has been weighed up by the trustees, the Agricultural Research Department and my Department and that on balance we consider that there is much to be said for this move. I hope that I have allayed some of the hon. Gentleman's doubts.

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