HC Deb 06 April 1981 vol 2 cc759-88 8.47 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Industry (Mr. Michael Marshall)

I beg to move, That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 4460/80 on Biomolecular Engineering Research and of the explanatory memoranda dated 19 February 1980 and 8 December 1980; supports the Government's intention to ensure that Community research in this area should be beneficial in terms of the policy priorities of both the Community and the United Kingdom; and supports the intention to ensure that there is no duplication of effort in this area. The debate this evening is held on the recommendation of the Select Committee on European Legislation, &c. and is for the purpose of considering the European Commission document on a proposed research programme on biomolecular engineering. This proposal is still being considered in Brussels at official level by the appropriate Council working group.

To put the proposal into context, I should like to deal briefly with biotechnology, the subject of the proposed research. Biotechnology is the industrial application of biological processes or systems. It is not new. Processes such as brewing and cheesemaking have been used for centuries. But recent developments have extended the range of products and processes that can be based on this technology. Advances in the understanding of enzymes, in methods of growing cells and in the understanding of cell structures have enabled many new processes to be developed. New organisms have led to methods of manufacturing insulin synthetically and great strides are being made in other areas of pharmaceutical processing. There is great potential for further applications in agriculture and medicine in particular, for the manufacture of food and animal feeds and for the production of non-fossil fuels.

It is recognised as an area of science and technology likely to assume a key importance to the world economy in the next century and will clearly demonstrate its potential in the next decade.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

The Minister is right to say that in agriculture there is great potential for future applications. Why has the Ministry, of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food chosen this moment to get rid of the post of chief scientist and to retire prematurely the man who occupied that post? I am not being unreasonable. I do not expect the Minister to answer immediately, but perhaps later he will explain how assessment is made in the Ministry.

Mr. Marshall

I am not responsible for that Ministry, and it is difficult for me to give the answer which the hon. Gentleman seeks. I take note of what he says and I shall ensure that his comments are made to the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

Many companies have long been aware of the opportunities offered by biotechnology and have readily exploited them. However, we recognise that a Government role exists in encouraging research and development in this field. In total we are already helping research in this area by a Government spend of some £5 million per annum. Recently the National Enterprise Board and four companies joined together to set up a new company, Celltech. That will bridge the gap between the scientific and commercial worlds of biotechnology.

The United Kingdom is aware of the benefits of sharing the cost of research, where the economies of scale can be seen to be greater than the inevitable costs and delays inherent in European procedures, and it is therefore bound to give careful and sympathetic consideration to the concept of a European programme and the benefits that might occur from such collaborative research. In space research, where my responsibilities cover the work of the European Space Agency, I have had ample evidence of the way in which that collaborative research can work to the benefit of our industry. An increase in the total European effort in biotechnology would be one of these advantages, but in this respect let me first put the proposed biomolecular engineering programme into some sort of perspective.

It is estimated that in the six areas of activity described in the proposal the United Kingdom is currently spending upwards of £3½ million of public funds and it is probable that that is matched by the private sector. Under the Community programme as originally proposed the annual expenditure would have been about £3 million—5.2 million European units of account. However, the supplementary explanatory memorandum submitted by my noble Friend on 8 December shows that it is now proposed by the Commission that Community expenditure should be limited to between £1½ and £1¾ million—2½-3 million EUA—per year of which only half would be spent on research work. Our contribution to Community research in this area would thus come to a small percentage of our national research effort.

Discussions on a possible Community research programme have been taking place for a long time, including early consideration prior to the Commission's proposals to the Council last January. That time scale is somewhat inevitable when the programme being formulated must avoid impinging on known commercial activities on the one hand and being too academic on the other.

Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)

I apologise if I misunderstand the Minister. I think that he said that the programme would cost £1½ million. The document of 8 December mentions £7 million. Have I got the figures wrong?

Mr. Marshall

I think that the hon. Gentleman is referring to the original proposal, which related to £3 million of public funds. I now refer to the latest, revised proposal. Our contribution to Community research would thus come from a small—

Mr. Hooley

Will the Minister give way?

Mr. Marshall

I shall have a chance to reply in the winding-up. Perhaps I shall return to the point. I would appreciate it if the hon. Gentleman would allow me to continue, as other hon. Members would like to speak.

Mr. Hooley

I thought that the Minister referred explicitly to the document of 8 December 1980. I was quoting from that document when I referred to £7 million. The Minister said £11½ million. They may be two different figures, but I am confused.

Mr. Marshall

The difference arises because I spoke of £1½ million per annum. The other figure refers to a fourand-a-half-year period.

Mr. Hooley

I understand now.

Mr. Marshall

I am glad that we are at one.

Discussions on a possible Community research programme have been taking place for a long time. I shall concentrate on three areas where Community effort could be valuable.

The first is the area of health and safety. All member States will want to pursue highly responsible policies in that regard, so the area of safety is one which we think could feature in common research. That should lead to the establishment of international standards to which we can all subscribe, thus avoiding the need for much of waste and frustration in protracted and separate negotiations.

Secondly, there is the area of agriculture, where common research into the application of biotechnology to the development of appropriate technology can lead to good new agricultural practices which would be encouraged to spread rapidly to common benefit. The value of quickly grown new types of crops which can be shown to be tested in a wide range of climatic conditions can be readily identified.

Lastly, there is the less easily quantifiable benefit of sharing experience in some of the research in the industrial sphere. A balanced European programme of reasonable scale could best provide an added stimulus to Community scientists whilst not conflicting with existing national work.

We were amongst the countries to consider the original proposal to be over-ambitious in both scope and expenditure—at least as the Community's first venture into this field. We suggested that it should be cut and concentrated so that it conformed with the objectives I have just described.

The revised proposal, while meeting our requirement for a cut in expenditure, involves a shift of emphasis away from research and towards training. This shift is of an extent not hitherto contemplated. We do not share the view of at least one other country that there is a significant lack of training opportunities, particularly when one considers what is available within the context of the European Molecular Biology Organisation or the Community's own scientific and technical training programme, and we do not believe that the extent of the training element is thus justifiable.

I emphasise that the Government are still considering whether the programme as recommended is worthy of European support. We shall, however, continue to discuss it further in a spirit of co-operation to see whether a programme that we can accept as suitable for such support can be produced. In reaching our final position, I look forward to hearing the views of my parliamentary colleagues.

8.55 pm
Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

The Select Committee on European Legislation &c., chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Erdington (Mr. Silverman) and including my hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing), was absolutely right to recognise the importance of this subject and suggest that it should be debated on the Floor of the House.

What is not at issue in this debate is the central importance of biomolecular engineering to the future of our country. I have just returned today from a conference to which I was invited long before we knew of this debate. It was held at Eastbourne and was sponsored by the Society of the Chemical Industry and the European Federation of Biotechology. There were over 1,000 delegates. That is some indication of the importance that is now attached throughout Europe to this important subject. Indeed, judging by the number of Japanese faces, it is attached to it throughout the world.

Micro-organisms can be used to enhance the recovery of materials from low grade ores and from effluents containing undesirable quantities of metals or other toxins. It is especially important at a time when ore deposits are becoming scarcer and more expensive to recover from the earth's crust. Biological processes can be and are being applied to a range of effluents from all types of industry in an effort to recover otherwise wasted resources and to reduce the pollution burden. Anyone who talks about pollution must clearly understand that biotechnological processes offer a very important avenue in overcoming pollution problems, through biotechnical treatment of waste.

A cheap, plentiful supply of enzymes, together with new immobilisation techniques, could lead to a reduction in energy requirements, by the analysis of chemical conversions in industry which currently require high pressures and temperatures to operate at an economic level. Just think what that can do for potential energy saving.

Again, for many years the conversion of cellulose to sugar has presented a challenge to chemists, but until recently this was not a matter of pressing commercial interest. Now we are in a different ball game. The very possibility of converting the enormous quantities of cellulosic material into a sugar-based feedstock for fermentation to alcohol or protein has a renewed appeal as energy costs rise.

I have seen some of the elegant research being undertaken to elucidate the requirements for biological enzymatic-hydrolysis for such materials as straw and wood to a carbohydrate in an accessible form for use as a substrate in fermentation.

Until 1980 one might have been forgiven for thinking that this research was rather way out. With the chilling prospect of yet another lurch forward in hydrocarbon feedstock prices, few will smirk at way-out research in this area. Even the production of artificial leaves to fix solar energy may be seen as a sort of biologists' answer to the solar panel.

Even more mind-boggling could be the effects of biomolecular engineering on the resources available to health. Last month my hon. Friend the Member for Whitehaven (Dr. Cunningham) and I visited Professor Donald Boulter at Durham university. We saw work of a type that could lead to much cheaper human insulin and interferon. Indeed, developments have already taken place in Switzerland and in the United States of America. Sir Ewart Jones, professor of chemistry at Oxford, guesses that interferon that would today be valued at £2,000 might—depending on which of the various 30 types is deemed relevant for use—cost as little as 50p in five to 10 years' time. I am told by Professor Ken Murray, from Edinburgh, that with biotechnological developments and techniques that could be true in two or three years. I leave it to hon. Members to guess what price drug companies may charge for 50p-worth of interferon.

The reduction in real costs as the result of biotechnological techniques could be dramatic. But—it is a jumbe-sized "but"—the Opposition are a bit puzzled about the proposal before us. Let us not pretend that it is anything like the original proposal, which I understood was once the Government's preferred solution. Like anybody else, the Government are entitled to change their mind. However, we are entitled to refer to the original proposal. In the original proposal the Government—like the Commission—seemed to want to spend 26 million units of account, or about £17 million, plus 23 million units of account from member States. We are now faced with a proposals that involve 11.8 million units of account over four years.

In the original proposal the emphasis was on research on a Community basis. The present proposals are geared not to research but to training. Why has this change taken place? A shorthand answer might be that, at the highest level of the French State, the brilliant elite of the Ecole Nationale d' Administration and of the Ecole Polytechnique have come to the correct conclusion that biotechnology is one of the key growth areas. They may have decided that it behoves the Government of France to get an agreement that hardly deviates from the French national interest.

Whether that is right, half-right or wrong it remains fairly certain that the documents before us, by pooling training, hand over British expertise to the French for little or no return. That is the net effect. It is for the Government to convince us that they have not been taken for a ride by the French negotiators. Has Paris calculated that this is the best way of scuppering a programme for which, on a European basis, it has little enthusiasm? After all, £9 million of French Government investment has gone into biological energy production that is specifically geared to alcohol as a dilutant to petrol. Indeed, Mr. Kourilsky and others made that clear at the Institut Pasteur.

Mr. Dykes

Will the hon. Gentleman clarify that point? On the one hand he has argued that the French want a small programme because they want to operate on a national basis, and on the other he has implied that they want a programme that will involve handing over British expertise. That needs to be explained. Can the hon. Gentleman have it both ways?

Mr. Dalyell

I am not trying to have it both ways. the explanation is simple. The French did not like the original proposal. I am putting this in question form. Do they like the proposal before us, which would give them the training? Alternatively, they might want to scupper the programme and have nothing. It may be equal for them between those two options. I suggest that someone must explain why they did not want the original package honourably put forward by the Commission. The Commission and Dr. Schuster, who is known to the hon. Gentleman and me, and Crest put forward an honourable proposal. We must have an answer to the question: why did the original package prove to be unacceptable?

Alternatively—because this is complex—Professor Hartley, of Imperial College, sees some hope that the programme may compensate for the pallid response of the White Paper on biotechnology. New university posts in this area are desperately needed to maintain the slight advantage that the United Kingdom retains. If the EEC initiative succeeds, it could provide something. A direct response to this key concern of the Spinks report would have been better.

The suspicion is that the French reaction was to scupper the programme by changing it and putting it forward in a form that was less than acceptable to us. My reply to the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) is that there were these two alternatives, and I understand that they did not mind very much, between the two, as long as it was changed from the original package.

We can understand why the original project 2—the development of bioreactors for industrial and human detoxification—was dropped. That may be a rational change in view of detoxification being put into the EEC environment programme. I should like to hear why, in the Government's view, proposal 2 was dropped.

The House will forgive an uncharitable aside. One wonders whether this proposal may not have been acceptable to France since the new emphasis on the agricultural element may channel money to the French work on seed development, giving money to French research which they were going to carry out anyway. That is one view. We have no means of knowing the motivation, but those interested in the subject would like to pursue it and would welcome any comments by the Minister.

Why was proposal 4 dropped? That relates to the development of cloning vehicles. Cloning is the selection of a line of individual organisms with genetic composition identical to a particular parent. Of all the projects, project 4 covers an area which may lead to patentable discoveries directly.

Was proposal 4 dropped because it had the potential to create commercial problems? We constantly run into the conundrum whether to carry out research on a European basis in areas where individual firms can reap significant commercial advantage.

Was proposal 4 dropped because the patent law is confused? The Government will be aware of the test case involving General Electric and Cherabsky in the patentability of a patent application. How far one can patent living organisms and improvements on living organisms is a tricky question. The British Patent Office does not claim to have all the answers. In this area it may not be much use taking out patents because in such a fast-moving development patents can be overtaken by events.

It is clear that patents in France, the United States and Japan—I do not say that they are turning a blind eye maliciously to patents—are not hindering the impetus and forward thrust of research. Therefore, any comment by the Government on biotechnology and patents might he useful either in reply to the debate or when we discuss the White Paper.

Alternatively, was proposal 4 dropped because we had had an intelligent assessment and so much work had been done on cloning vehicles that it was, in effect, already in progress? Of all the projects from 1 to 6, project 4 comes into an area which may lead to patentable discoveries directly—that is, the new cloning vehicles.

I couple with that an issue that, in the view of Sir Michael Stoker and others, is an important one. What is being done to help research into monoclonal antibodies? Those are the purification techniques which may reduce costs by changing the ways of measuring drugs and using molecules as a targeting system. What support is being given to monoclonal antibodies? What is the Government's view about patents in this sphere? Some of those who did the original work in Britain see patents being established in the United States. They are sick about it. They wonder why we have been so slow off the mark and are inclined to blame the NRDC. Again will the Minister comment?

I offer a rather more detailed scenario of the birth and childhood of some of the documents. Conception took place in the minds of people such as Dr. Schuster, the agreeable director of research. Those of us who were on the committee of the indirectly elected European Parliament know that around him he had some very talented people. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Osborn) knows that that group was determined to make good developments on a European basis without advantage to an individual company or country for the sake of the progress of European science. I do not doubt that that was done in good faith.

Why has the Department of Industry, under both Labour and Conservative Governments, said time and again to the Commission that it must wait for the Spinks report? Was it necessary, in such a fast progressing area of work, to say "We must wait for a Government report"? Far too often the Government of the day have given either the excuse or the rationalisation that they must wait for an expert report before taking action. That does not happen to the same extent in France, the United States, Japan or Germany. We may be at a disadvantage to our competitors in fast-moving areas if we for ever take refuge in waiting for this or that committee, however prestigious and distinguished, to report.

The D-G XII motives were wholly honourable, believing that the Community had to concern itself with finite resources and that that should be done on a Community basis. As an example of what has happened in delay I quote Professor Malcolm Lilley, of the University College team in London. He says that non-aqueous enzymes or multiphase environments are an area in which the United Kingdom has the most expertise. The work at University College London is now being supported by the Science Research Council. Professor Lilley says: Unfortunately the delay in the EEC programme has held back the work and the group at UCL are in danger of being overtaken by a group of Japanese workers, one of whom visited UCL for a period several years ago. Here again is the old story of Britain doing so much of the original work and others taking advantage of it.

That leads me to ask, what does the training programme amount to? It is claimed that it will provide an opportunity for postgraduate and post-doctorate studies and promote mobility in the scientific community. What is special about that?

I was a member of the energy committee of the indirectly elected European Parliament. Is it not a fact that any scientist who is a national of one of the member States has a right to apply to D-G XII in Brussels, provided that his work falls within an existing EEC research and development programme? Therefore, what is different about the special training grants, and who will administer the money that comes to the United Kingdom? Will it be done from Brussels, through D-G XII, or by the Department of Industry? Who will make the allocation between university departments and research groups?

We understand that if a biomolecular engineering programme were approved some training opportunities would follow, but a training programme by itself will not greatly help in attacking the bottlenecks in the biomolecular engineering programme that have been identified by experts.

Whether we like it or not, training is the transfer of technology. Are we not in danger of setting up a programme to train post-doctoral graduates who may eventually gain employment in the United States or with Japanese companies in Europe? Is that not a possibility, in the light of the fact that our industry is not as advanced, certainly in the financial sense, as those of many of our competitors?

The Under-Secretary referred to Celltech. We applaud its work, but some hon. Members know that, so far, that work is on a small scale and the scope for post-doctoral employment is limited. It is certainly beyond argument that the training programme does not solve the problems that the original plan set out to solve; nor does the Government's response in the form of a somewhat disembowelled White Paper, whose ideas, I gather, were changed from the ideas of those who originally drafted it.

The basic difficulties have soon emerged. First, is fundamental science best done, and ought it to be done, on a Community basis? With that, we have to ask whether biotechnology is a fundamental science, because the borderline between applied science and fundamental science is grey at this stage.

Secondly, since the lead and lag times between basic science and commercial exploitation are perhaps uniquely short in biotechnology, and certainly different from those of physics, it was wondered whether work on biotechnology should be done on a Euro-basis. As with many other industrial processes, the time from conception to commercial exploitation of biological processes is usually between five and 10 years. Thus, any delays in supporting vital basic studies put us at a further disadvantage against our competitors—for example, the United States and Japan—especially in view of the response to the excellent ACARD report that is encapsulated in the White Paper.

There are difficulties and not conclusive objections to the proposals before us, but on the other side of the coin something had to be done about pre-development work following the Spinks report and if the European effort on biotechnology was to keep abreast of the United States and Japan. The Government must ensure that Britain has a strong representation on the advisory committee on programme management, which will consist of the Commission and representatives of member States. At what level are we to be represented on that committee?

Paragraph 3.29 of the ACARD report states: As an example, we would cite the development in the United Kingdom of an efficient immobilised enzyme process for converting maize starch into a sweet syrup … that competes effectively with sugar for many processes. Although this process promises new markets for maize farmers in the EEC, levies on the new product designed to protect sugar beet farmers have resulted in one firm in the United Kingdom going out of this business, and the development and use of an alternative sweetener and preservative being inhibited. The business remains profitable in the United States where the technology will doubtless be further developed. 3.30 If EEC policies continue to obstruct developments such as isoglucose, our ability in Europe to replace petrochemicals by producing basic chemicals from carbohydrates will be hamstrung. We are therefore concerned that all Member States in the EEC, and the Commission, should consider the value of biotechnology in transforming agricultural surpluses, and should seek to amend Common Agricultural Policy legislation that threatens this end. That was the view of the ACARD report. The White Paper did not really respond to that point. As we are discussing EEC aspects, tonight may be an occasion for the Government to respond.

At this stage a fearfully awkward question must be introduced. What do we mean by "European industry"? Nippon Electric is coming to Livingston, in my constituency. It will not be part of European industry. No one doubts that it will report back to Japan anything that it can learn—and understandably so.

Japanese firms in Wales are members of the CBI, and quite properly so. Does anyone in his right mind suppose that they will not report back to Tokyo developments at the frontiers of knowledge and their scientific discoveries from what they learn in Europe? Of course they will.

The present SEARLE at High Wycombe is locked in legal combat with Celltech. Does anyone propose that it should not report back to the United States? This question is rhetorical. However, what is to be the difference, for our purposes, between European industry and industry in Europe? I fear that this is not a clever-clever question. It is a dauntingly substantial issue for anyone who wants to promote biotechnology nationally or internationally rather than on an international company basis. We must clarify our minds when considering what we mean in this context by "European industry".

As Dr. Spinks said this afternoon at Eastbourne, we should not encourage regulatory agencies as an excuse for yet more regulatory delay. There is the grave problem of how many regulations, causing delay, one introduces in the name of promoting a European industry which in this area might be chimerical.

The Opposition will swallow their reservations and not take them into the "No" lobby in the belief that some stimulation must be given now to biotechnology in Europe and that half a loaf is better than no loaf at all. It may be peanuts, but as Professor Brian Hartley put it, British researchers and industry in biotechnology want their peanuts soon. That is because they urgently need financial help in the present academic climate. It is on those grounds that we swallow our reservations. We shall not oppose this measure.

9.23 pm
Mr. John H. Osborn (Sheffield, Hallam)

First, I congratulate the Committee on European Legislation, &c. on referring this matter to the House for debate. I thank my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Industry for introducing the debate. As the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) said, he and I were on the Energy and Research Committee for a number of years in the European Parliament. We worked not only with Dr. Guido Brunner but with Dr. Schuster. The issue that we are discussing has been discussed by the directly elected Members of the European Parliament. Of course, the problem, whether national or international, is of immense complexity and to resolve it in one evening's debate in the House of Commons is almost impossible.

I intervene tonight because the Chairman of the Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts—the hon. Member for Lewisham, West (Mr. Price)—asked me to state categorically that the Committee has had in mind the report of the Select Committee on Science and Technology published in April 1979. It has had it on the agenda, and it will find this debate a useful start to its deliberations on biotechnology and biomolecular engineering, which will take place before the end of this year.

Biotechnology, biomolecular engineering—however we may describe it—could be a tremendous force for the survival and benefit of mankind, whether by making better use of resources, developing new products, improving health or feeding mankind. It has immense commercial potential, which perhaps, as various reports suggest, we in this country have not yet appreciated. The chemical industry, the pharmaceutical industry and a variety of others will be affected.

Internationally and nationally there is the problem of health, safety and security. If there are opportunities for mankind there are also opportunities for there to be abuse and accident. The patent position also enters into the matter.

The hon. Member for West Lothian brought out the whole question whether we should embark on more collective Community research to make the best use of resources. When he and I were nominated Members of the European Parliament, the first item to be cut when the budget was cut was not the common agricultural policy but research, whether in this or other fields. I suspect that the same pressure has faced the Commission, the Council and present Members of the European Parliament.

The whole question of industrial opportunities has been raised. Dr. Spinks addressed the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee on this matter only a few months ago. The report by ACARD, which he chaired, shows that in the United States the application of what is already known has immense commercial opportunities. To what extent are commercial opportunities handicapped by collective research, whether national or international? These are complex questions that cannot be readily answered.

The Select Committee on Science and Technology submitted the excellent interim report "Recombinant DNA Research", on 3 April 1979. One or two members of that Committee are present, so I shall not go into its report, which unearthed a number of problems, including in vitro fertilisation and experiments involving cell fusion. The Committee had the benefit of a great deal of evidence and a visit to the United States.

I do not want to go into the question why we no longer have a Select Committee on Science and Technology. There is an equivalent Committee in another place which would take up the subject if this House were not to pursue it through the Select Committee on Education, Science and Arts, the successor to the Select Committee on Science and Technology. It has dealt with higher education and with libraries, at present it is dealing with the curriculum for 14 to 16-year-olds, and it is making a full study of the arts. The Committee has to decide its order of priorities. Certainly, this subject has been considered and will be the subject of a full study later this year.

The excellent report produced by a joint working party on biotechnology under the chairmanship of Dr. Spinks, chairman of the Advisory Council for Applied Research and Development, published in March 1980, shows us that there are many lessons for us nationally. The report referred to a number of bodies, including the National Enterprise Board and the National Research Development Corporation. I regret that the commercial opportunities are not being better exploited, and perhaps this should now be through licences from other countries.

The working party said in its conclusions and recommendations: Some of our competitors—West Germany, Japan, the United States—are already investing substantially more than this country in the development of biotechnology. It identified some reasons for the lack of response and a number of constraints on the growth of biotechnology in this country. It referred to the work of research councils, and made several recommendations in that connection. In last year's report of the Science Research Council, in the section on biological sciences, on pages 51 and 52, there is little reference to the opportunities that lie ahead.

We as Members of Parliament are dependent on the work done by experts. The work of trying to find out what can be done internationally and what can be done on our own is not confined to the European Parliament. In June, the fifth parliamentary and scientific conference, run by the Council of Europe, will take place in Helsinki, the first conference having been held in the early 1960s in London. A paper will be presented by a Mr. Mark Cantley, based on the FAST sub-programme bio-society Research activities, of which I have a copy. In Helsinki he will lead the discussion on this subject, as one of many other subjects. The Council of Europe already has reports on the subject, but the emphasis is on caution and safeguards, because of the opportunities for abuse.

This debate concerns how much should be spent nationally and how much should be spent through the Community. As the Under-Secretary said about the settlement, our contribution to Community research would be small compared to that spent on national research. Although we have a fund of information at our disposal in the House, it is difficult to judge whether the compromise reached by the Council of Ministers is right.

I am sorry that the Chamber is so sparsely attended on this occasion, but I am glad that this matter has been brought to its attention. I regret that many hon. Members do not realise the importance of this subject to the future of our country, Europe and mankind. I hope that the House in future will give it the attention that it deserves.

9.34 pm
Mr. Frank Hooley (Sheffield, Heeley)

The debate demonstrates the weakness of the House and its procedures in dealing with subjects of this nature. I believe that such a matter and any recommendations about it should be dealt with by a Select Committee and not on the Floor of the House, though no doubt that would be necessary at some stage.

I was sorry that the work of the Select Committee on Science and Technology on genetic engineering was chopped by the 1979 election. It is possible that a new committee on education and science will take up the subject. I hope that that committee will turn its attention to matters of fundamental scientific importance, though I recognise the importance of the matters dealt with so far.

That raises the nice argument again about whether we need a science and technology Committee over and above the basic departmental structure of Committees that we have at the moment. As a fervent advocate of the departmental structure, I cannot press the argument too far. Once the departmental Select Committee system has settled down—and it is settling down very well, I think—we might look again at the need for some cross-subject Select Committees which could deal with matters of the kind that we are trying to discuss in this debate.

Biotechnology, genetic engineering, biomolecular engineering, or whatever we call it, is a subject which terrifies me. I find the capacity to manipulate the basic structure of life even more terrifying than nuclear physics and, goodness knows, they pose us enough political, economic and social problems. It is a subject to which the House will have to give a great deal more attention in the years to come.

I have no intention of trying to compete with the knowledge which my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) obviously has of the subject. It is clear that he has given it very careful study, and I cannot claim to have done that. But it has enormous possibilities, repercussions or consequences for agriculture, medicine, animal breeding and energy matters, and a range of scientific and technological possibilities that as yet we have scarcely begun to exploit.

We have the usual irony that it was British scientists who, some years ago, were in the forefront of molecular biology not only in Europe but in the world. It was at Cambridge that the double helix was unravelled which gave us the key to DNA and was the basis of this genetic engineering process.

The Government's document dated 19 February refers to the joint working party on biotechnology set up by ACARD, but it does not say very much about it. At that time I think that it was waiting for the report to be considered, or perhaps it was about then that the report was published. Certainly it was published after that document. Although I tabled a number of questions arising from it, I did not get much response from the Government.

The major response to suggestions for scientific and other work in this area has been the Government's attempt to clobber university finance, which will make it more difficult for biology departments, like all other university departments, to extend and develop this work and to provide the young men and women to carry on the outstanding work of men such as Brenner and Kendrew. It would be interesting to know, if the Minister had time, what became of the joint working party recommendations, what, practically, if anything, the Government have done about them, and to what extent picking up those recommendations, using them and doing something about them would be a sensible substitute for getting mixed up in this European exercise.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian touched upon the aspect of patents. This is an extremely complex and very tricky subject, but it could have implications if we launched into a joint European enterprise. Let us suppose that the European programme threw up something quite fundamental. Who would patent it? Who would have the right to enjoy the patent, the profits, and so forth that arose from it? Who would have the right to set up the industrial or productive capacity based on that patent? Would every member State do so, or only one of them? Would it be sold to private industry? Would public enterprise be allowed to use it? Whether one can patent living matter is a problem that wanders almost into the field of ethics and philosophy. It is certainly a formidable legal problem. I do not think that it has yet been resolved in the United States, although important cases are pending.

I should like the Minister to comment on the question of safety. The recommendations of the genetic manipulation advisory group are wide-ranging and, I believe, reasonably observed. There has, however, been a rather disquieting tendency, in my opinion, to downgrade safety requirements. It is unfortunate that members of the scientifc community seem to be accomplices. That is rather disturbing. As a layman, I am not competent to say whether the change in attitude is justified. There seems to be a slightly indecent haste to reduce the regulations and the safety requirements which I thought were properly introduced when the first implications of this new technlogy were beginning to be realised.

I should like to refer to an article by Sir John Kendrew about the European Molecular Biology Laboratory. He said: One final example of our service is that we have a containment facility where it is possible to carry out recombinant DNA research—the so-called genetic engineering—at the highest levels of containment (P4 of the American system, or L4 of the German system)". That is the most rigorous safety system. Sir John adds: We built this at the request of scientists in our member states who had not got these facilities at home. In the event things have turned out a little differently from expectation. What has happened now all over Europe, as well as in America, is that the guidelines for recombinant DNA research are being revised and are now less stringent: consequently, fewer people require this high level facility. But the facilities are not being wasted because meanwhile we have built up our own research in this field. Recombinant DNA research is one of our strongest research activities in the Laboratory here. The laboratory is at Heidelberg. I have read out a statement of fact. As a layman, I am not enthusiastic that within a short time the very stringent and exacting safety requirements of four main categories of experiment have been relaxed to the extent that an important international laboratory that had developed, as Kendrew says, the highest level of containment required should find this virtually unnecessary for its work because the safety rules have been downgraded.

My hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian referred, I considered fairly, to the narrow line in this field between what is basic science and what is technology—in other words, the application of it. The transfer from the fundamental discovery and fundamental analysis of the structure and work of living cells into using the knowledge to create new industries was extremely rapid.

The line between what the fundamental scientist was doing and what the engineer was doing became increasingly fine. It is difficult to know why what is envisaged in the European Community's plan could not have been, or is not being, carried out by the European Molecular Biology Organisation itself. My hon. Friend was right in saying that the exchange of scientific knowledge and expertise through EMBO, its conference and its laboratory was equivalent to international training in this field. It is not self-evident to me that one needs to superimpose on that some sort of European scheme. That is even more so, since EMBO goes beyond Europe and includes Israel and countries such as Austria, the work of whose scientists is equal to and in some respects in advance of our own.

Why is it necessary to spend even a modest £1½ million on a new research scheme or programme when we already have a 10-year-old organisation of the highest prestige? Few men are more prestigious than Professor Kendrew, the director of EMBO. The organisation does valuable work. It has the new laboratory at Heidelberg, and a regular apparatus for consultation, exchange and fellowship, so why duplicate the work with an EEC scheme?

There is an alarming possibility that biological research could be used in warfare. The problem concerns the conference reviewing the convention on the non-use of biological weapons, which last met in March 1980. It considers scientific developments that could be used for biological warfare, and it devoted some time to recombinant DNA. On balance, the findings were not terrifying, The secretariat states: From a technical standpoint, recombinant DNA techniques could be used in an attempt to develop micro-organisms or toxins as warfare agents. However, it states that as we already have a wide range of deadly organisms there is not a great incentive to develop others by genetic engineering techniques. I suppose that that is some comfort. It continues: recombinant DNA techniques might be used to modify the characteristics of an existing organism to increase its potential as a biological warfare agent or its ability to produce a toxin. For example, efforts might be made to: (a) convert a non-pathogenic micro-organism into a pathogenic one by giving it the ability to produce a highly lethal toxin; (b) change the antigenic structure of a highly pathogenic micro-organism, thus allowing, it to overcome human immunity; (c) make a micro-organism resistant to the antibiotics normally used against it; or (d) make a microorganism easier to produce or store. In the past, such efforts would have used the techniques of classical genetics alone. There are therefore possibilities for use in biological warfare. I hope that the arrangements reached under the European scheme will be fully covered by the convention on the prohibition of biological warfare, and that they are no way seen as a let-out.

The secretariat also states: None the less, developments in the ability to manipulate genetic material intentionally should be followed closely and periodically re-evaluated. That is a useful warning.

This subject might more profitably have been examined by a Select Committee. It is of fundamental importance, and we shall hear more of it. I am not sure that we should embark even on this modest venture without knowing a great deal more.

9.49 pm
Mr. Anthony Nelson (Chichester)

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley), with whom I had the pleasure of serving on the Select Committee on Science and Technology in the previous Parliament. His incisive questions raised even in those days caution us about the need for and desirability of messing about with genes and the dangers of biological and genetic engineering. He raised again today the same fascinating and basic question, which I am sure many hon. Members have asked themselves. He pointed to the health hazards, the defence implications and perhaps even the moral justification of gene splicing and genetic manipulation.

Having considered the matter to the best of my ability, I am strongly of the opinion that this area of science must be progressed and must succeed, for two reasons. First, as many other hon. Members have said, it has major implications for the cost base and variety of products in the future. Secondly, and more importantly, the process of scientific discovery cannot be reversed. If science has one characteristic above all others it is that one cannot "de-invent" something. Once progress has been made, one can only advance from that new position. If we took such a restrictive step, unilaterally or even on a European basis, we could not prevent other countries from developing the new technology and eventually undercutting us in competition with some of our major industries.

I am therefore convinced, not only because of the inevitability of scientific progress but because of the immense benefits that these new disciplines can bring to mankind, that we should be involved in them, and indeed try to recapture the lead that we had in the early days.

I, too, welcome the document, as far as it goes. But I am disappointed. I suspect, like many other hon. Members, that the amount of money being allocated for this research has been so substantially cut. Even 10 times the proposed sum would probably still not begin to make the kind of contribution that is needed. A figure 50 times as great might just begin to make some impact and to turn the tide of laggardness in our research on a European and a national basis. Immense progress has been made by companies such as Cetus Corporation and even more by a number of Japanese companies in recent years, as evidenced by their prolific applications for patents. This demonstrates how far the innovators in this science have fallen behind and how in the future we shall be worse off industrially and economically through being unable to employ this new technology for the benefit of our peoples.

It is paradoxical that on an evening when we have approved financing of up to £200 million for ICL we should question whether 11.8 million European units of account is marginally too low or too high an amount in this context. Far too often we pump huge sums into historic loss-makers but deprive the industries of the future of funds that they desperately need at the embryonic stage. One of the most influential occasions for me since I have been in Parliament was when I had the privilege of visiting Japan as a member of the Select Committee on Science and Technology. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley was a member of the delegation) as was the hon. Member for Havant and Waterloo (Mr. Lloyd), who is also present tonight. We visited 21 companies in the high technology sector. The experience left a lasting impression on me in terms of the direction of Government assistance that we should be considering for British and European industry, the advantages that we retain and the deficiencies that are sadly prevalent.

Above all, I brought back three impressions from Japan. First, this country cannot begin to compete in the future simply by improving the productivity of our labour force.

It was, is and will be vitally important to automate at an increasing pace. It is clear that development capital in Japan, and to a large extent in America, is available on a scale that is not evident in Britain. The funds in terms of venture capital from private investment, in terms of debt capital from major banking organisations, and organically derived sources from the companies themselves enable companies to invest such a high proportion of turnover in research and development that great strides have been made.

In addition, I came back with the conviction that many people abroad still respect the innovative abilities of British scientists and that it is not too late to try to make up some of the ground that we have lost.

The documents that we are discussing give us the opportunity to express our keen desire that the Secretary of State should be made aware that the political pressures are not always for major expenditures on historic industries that are in decline. There is also strong pressure—pressure that will continue—for larger sums to be made available on a national and European scale for the industries of the future, whether they are involved in electronic, genetic or biological engineering.

The applications of enzyme and genetic engineering will be wholly beneficial. Enzyme engineering can be used, as the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) said, to produce a number of important products such as amino acids, high fructose syrups and synthetic penicillin. It has important future possibilities for petrochemicals, pesticide removal and antibiotics.

Genetic engineering involving recombinant DNA technology can be used to produce new antibiotics. Many of the problems of cloning foreign DNA into unrelated host mechanisms can be overcome if sufficient resources are made available for some of the projects which were proposed, even though that programme has been cut. The applications of genetic engineering progress include the mass production of insulin—which is the best known—and other products such as prolactin and antibodies.

The Community has a particular role in facilitating progress to be made on an international basis. On a national basis there are neither the resources nor the laboratory infrastructure to facilitate such progress.

Members of the Select Committee are aware that if we are to guard against one of the potential hazards of research in this area, all those involved should work together and should be closely aware of all the ventures and problems. As the hon. Member for Heeley said, the genetic manipulation advisory group gradually declassified some of the hazardous categories of work. I think that it was right and that there was an over-classification to begin with. It is evident that even with that de-control there are anomalies between European countries and countries outside Europe in the classification of hazardous materials, and between the requirements placed on certain types of research work in genetic engineering.

It would be valuable if as much research as possible were conducted on a European basis rather than on a national basis.

Mr. Dalyell

Nobody in his right mind would want to underplay the safety considerations. Hazards that were thought to exist five years ago have been found not to exist, or ways have been found to overcome them.

Mr. Nelson

I agree with the hon. Member. That is why I said that I felt that the process of de-control by GMAG was justified. However, public affairs and, perhaps, ignorance remain. There is also a difference of practice between various countries. Some have higher standards. As far as possible, the process of research and development projects should encourage the harmonisation of classification of hazardous research. That would be to the benefit of those who seek to advance those new forms of technology.

Over 1,000 firms in the world now specialise in genetic engineering, most of which are in Japan and the United States. That blossoming of new industries is evidence of the commercial future of that technology and the contribution that it can make towards satisfying the health, food, clothing and many other demands of a huge and growing world population.

Whenever I hear the phrase "biological revolution" it sounds like a detergent. However, we are discussing a biological revolution. Unlike the hon. Member for Heeley, I believe that the right place to discuss that matter is the Floor of the House where we can promote a little more awareness of the potential of that science than we would be able to do in a Select Committee.

I shall mention one small example which I have seen during the last few weeks, which demonstrated some of the practical benefits of encouraging and utilising biological agents. I visited the Badische Anilin Soda Fabriken A.G. which is a major German chemical company at Ludwigshafen. It has about 200 square kilometres of industrial chemical complex. Unlike ICI and other chemical companies which are diversified, that company is concentrated in one location.

All the industrial effluent from the various factories which make up that complex is channelled into an effluent treatment plant where it is mixed up with a biological microbe. Gradually, the sedimentary layers are deposited, scrapped off plates, caked together and recycled by burning them into a form of fuel. In that way, the company will not only conserve energy but has already been able to make a major contribution towards environmental safety and to reducing the level of pollution in inland waterways. That has enabled an expansion of the activities of the company, which otherwise would not have been undertaken. It was a marked and most impressive example of the benefits which biological developments can have for some existing industries.

I have great hopes for biological and genetic engineering. I hope that we shall return to that subject in the future. While I regard the amounts of money which we are discussing as niggardly, I take confidence from the fact that the Under-Secretary not only has a deep and long experience of industry but has on many occasions been a champion of new industries. Many of us will look to him to champion the cause of research and development in those exciting new areas, which will be of benefit to this country and to the world at large.

10.4 pm

Mr. Nigel Spearing (Newham, South)

The hon. Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) mentioned exciting new areas. He emphasised that much of the development was taking place in Japan and in the United States. If discoveries there reduce much of our activity in industry and make many of our workers redundant, I suggest that we need not so much European co-operation as world cooperation.

As scientific knowledge and technology appear to develop in geometric progression, I would have thought that their impact on societies, old and new, should be, if not controlled, at least dealt with on a worldwide scale. That is perhaps one of the reasons why I would prefer to see those matters being dealt with on that scale rather than that of the Community. I am not worried that the small sums mentioned in the document will go to the Community, because substantial sums are still being expended in this country, as the documents state, although those sums are not as great as those in the United States or Japan.

I should like to question the Minister about the competence of the Community in this area. I believe that, technically, the proposal is a communication and that perhaps, after it is agreed, it will become a decision. But I assume that there is no absolute compulsion in this area. It is an optional extra to our membership of the Community and it could have been carried on whether or not the Community existed, either through some specific treaty or intergovernmental organisation or in the institutions that have been mentioned by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley). Therefore, if this is cited as one of the constructive and cooperative facets of the Community, I suggest that it might be carried on extra-treaty and, therefore, does not rely upon the Treaty of Rome. Perhaps the Minister will clarify that matter.

Tonight we have had a number of very important West Lothian questions. My hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) never fails to surprise us with his assiduity and his knowledge in these scientific matters. He is almost a walking Select Committee on Science and Technology. I am sorry that he is not present to hear that praise. But, in that respect, I join him and other hon. Members in saying that we need a Select Committee to digest this sort of material. I am not suggesting to the hon. Member for Chichester that that would debar the House from debating it, but the absence of such a Committee, and its combination with that for education, is an unhappy Whitehall accident.

I support departmentally related Committees, particularly in their watchdog, inspectorial, spot-check function. However, I have said previously, and I repeat, that the chances of history and the organisation of Whitehall often put different areas of human endeavour under certain Ministeries quite arbitrarily, and, where those are unhappily chosen or where there are important subjects which transcend those departmental divisions, the House of Commons should not be bound by the errors, mistakes or practices of Whitehall. I believe that this is a case very much in point.

Mr. Nelson

Just for the record, I should like to make it clear that at the beginning of this Parliament I was a signatory to an amendment which sought to retain the Select Committee on Science and Technology. I would not wish my remarks to be taken as being opposed to that.

Mr. Spearing

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. I am glad that he has made that clear. I was not suggesting otherwise. The exchanges today will give food for further thought to the Leader of House. If I recall correctly, the Select Committee on Procedure did not rule out further ad hoc Committees, as they might have been called, and I believe that this debate makes a case for them. Being very much a layman, and perhaps the least knowledgeable of our speakers in this debate, I seem to ascertain that we are talking about the frontiers of scientific knowledge which could turn out to be of enormous and fundamental significance. Perhaps other hon. Members will correct me if I am wrong, but, as I read it, we are talking about new techniques of joining together genetic chains that otherwise would not be joined in nature.

The results of that can be startling. We have seen such results in crop yields, in new types of plant and in plant breeding as we have it today. I understand that these techniques could develop those results very considerably. I understand that it might even be possible with these techniques to make mineral oils as digestible by human beings as some vegetable oils. A new source of protein might magically appear overnight. That is within the realms of possibility in this virtually new science. If that were to happen, the opportunities for mankind would be mind-boggling. Therefore, control over discoveries, and the skills that make the use of such discoveries possible are of fundamental international significance.

I was interested when my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian referred to training. Alas, we all know that discoveries depend on skills and on the ability to put them into use. If our abilities are to be transferred to others who may not always have shown the greatest spirit of international understanding, we should be told about it. Who will license processes that are discovered as a result of research? Will the DG XII of the Commission or the advisory committee license them? The use of the word "advisory" suggests that the committee does not make decisions. If it does not, who does?

Risks to safety have been mentioned. Will the codes covering laboratories in the programme be harmonised? I am not saying that they should not be, but, if they are, will they be harmonised on an EEC, or on a worldwide, basis? Obviously, the latter is preferable. Will the Minister elaborate on the type of laboratories that may be eligible for grants?

Paragraph 17 of the sixty-sixth report of the Select Committee on the European Communities states: Going back in time to 1967–71 when much of the 'prior art' of today's activities was developing, some 35 per cent."— that is a reference to patents— came from the United Kingdom, yet by 1975 not one of the patents recorded came from the United Kingdom. The Committee was informed that other countries have capitalised on the earlier research done in the United Kingdom which has been slow to move from discovery to development. Will laboratories that make important discoveries be eligible for these grants? Will they be regarded as less eligible because they are already ahead?

The Minister should explain. The words of the motion are somewhat tentative. The motion states: research in this area should be beneficial in terms of the policy priorities of both the Community and the United Kingdom; and supports the intention to ensure that there is no duplication of effort in this area. The question of control is raised. Who is to decide policy priorities? We have got three programmes out of six, but who will choose where the work goes? My hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian referred to a privately funded organisation—namely, the EMBO. If it is well set up, will that not pre-empt—I am not saying that it should not—much of the research money available?

Mr. Hooley

Initially the organisation was privately funded, but it now receives Government finance.

Mr. Spearing

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for that information. By "Government finance" does he mean finance from the German Government in Heidelberg?

Mr. Hooley

indicated assent.

Mr. Spearing

It seems a pity that that organisation could not spread its wings and become the organisation. Perhaps it was set up privately in the hope that the European Community might subsequently come to its aid. Perhaps the Minister will tell us whether that is so. If not, it may be a happy accident that it is ready.

The House is right to be cautious about this matter. The material has not yet been thoroughly digested by hon. Members who are skilled and capable of understanding the technical terms and translating them into language which the generality of Members, let alone the public, can understand. For that reason, I am not happy with the programme, limited though it is, that is to be approved. I understand that the Government have many reservations because of the terms of the motion.

The final reason for approving the motion given by my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian is unworthy. My hon. Friend deplores the niggardly approach of the Government to scientific research. He hinted that the only reason why we should not oppose the motion was that funds might be made available—we do not know whether they will be—for some of our research institutions. Otherwise, he would think differently about this proposal.

The approval that is sought, even in the limited terms of the motion, is a little premature, but I shall not seek to divide the House on this issue because the debate has been worth while. If nothing else, if it has shown that the House would like to know more not only about the EEC proposal but about the worldwide implications of this mind-boggling scientific industry which has been displayed tonight.

10.17 pm
Mr. Richard Page (Hertfordshire, South-West)

Looking at the opportunities offered by biomolecular engineering, I am irressistibly drawn to the American space programme and the development of the silicon chip. No one at that time envisaged the opportunities that would come from that invention. While there may be a few devotees of biomolecular engineering, not many of us appreciate the potential opportunities which can flow from this exciting development or, as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) pointed out, the dangers.

I can appreciate my hon. Friend's difficulty in reaching agreement with our EEC partners on a co-ordinated programme. Nevertheless, in view of the time that has gone by—the time that has almost been wasted—I am disappointed. The hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) has already made that point. I hope that progress will be made and that this proposal will be put into operation as soon as possible.

I am disappointed at the time loss for two reasons. One is the huge advances made by the Americans and the Japanese. They can be typified by the numbers of patents that have been taken out during the past 12 years or so. Those two countries together have taken out about 85 per cent. of the patents compared with 15 per cent. within the EEC. The comment was made that patents in this area are not as watertight as in other areas of engineering. Nevertheless, they indicate the level of activity taking place in America and Japan compared with the EEC.

The second reason for my disappointment at the time loss is that within this area are solutions to many of our national and international problems of pharmaceutical supply and harmful waste products. I hope that my hon. Friend will push the proposal into operation as soon as possible.

Before I say a few words about the various research projects, I want to re-emphasise some of the comments that have been made on safety and training. I appreciate that the original worries and dangers have, to a large extent, been mitigated, but we should be wise to take the new technology slowly. Let us not move away from any form of development into commercial production until we have thoroughly satisfied ourselves that what we are doing will be safe for the country and for the world. I know that it is not directly technologically applicable, but the lesson of thalidomide must remain with us for all time.

Mr. Dalyell

I have sympathy with the hon. Gentleman's sentiment, but developments are taking place so quickly in Japan and elsewhere that if we are over-careful we may be disadvantaged commercially.

Mr. Page

I agree, but because other countries are reckless that does not behove us to follow willingly down the same path.

Our debate has covered two main areas of the proposals. I shall mention an example from both as they typify our goals and aims. The first goal for which we should aim is that of the production of insulin. If we can take an insulin gene and splice it to a bacterium, then teach that bacterium to multiply, we can produce commercial insulin. That would be a tremendous advantage to anyone suffering from diabetes. It would avoid grubbing around in abattoirs for pancreas tissue, which is our present source of supply. The hon. Member for West Lothian mentioned other aspects, especially that of feron and the way that that type of advance can bring relief to the suffering of many people. That should be encouraged.

My second example is that of enzyme reaction. If we can use those as biological catalysts, we can detoxify vast amounts of industrial waste. The original document mentioned the conversion of sucrose to fructose The system is extremely simple. One immobilises the enzyme into a tube and passes liquid through it. It changes as it goes through. I hope that the House will grasp the tremendous opportunities and advantages to be brought to our society if we can develop this form of engineering.

I shall resist the impulse to give further examples and advancements, because I know that at least one hon. Gentleman has been waiting patiently to speak. I am extremely disappointed that the five-year programme will be provided with only £7 million from the EEC. I shall not follow the route of my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson) and his £350 million programme, because in these days of stringency that is a little excessive.

With this vast area of biomolecular engineering it is ridiculous to be debating a grant of only £7 million that we shall share with other countries of the EEC. We are missing a golden opportunity to keep our country in the forefront of a brand-new technological revolution.

I hope that my hon. Friend will be prepared to discuss how he sees the money being channelled into the research establishments in the United Kingdom and how that will link with the Celltech company. How are we to deal with commercial discoveries? Will patents apply to the whole EEC or only to the countries in which discoveries are made? We must pinpoint that matter now in order to save a great deal of embarrassment and trouble later.

We have had the advantage of debates in the House and Select Committee reports, but the subject of the motion is so important that it should come up regularly on the Floor of the House. I hope that as the programme develops we shall have regular reports to the House and that, as it is proved to be advantageous, we shall vote more money so that it can expand.

Mr. Spearing

The hon. Gentleman may be right in wishing more public money to be devoted to the programme, but is he advocating that it should come through the EEC or, as he said earlier, that Britain should be at the forefront, in which case should not public funds be devoted to research in universities and institutions in this country, which is not the Government's present policy?

Mr. Page

I regard genetic engineering and biomolecular technology and engineering as so important that I do not care where the money goes in, as long as it goes in. I see enormous advantages for mankind resulting from it and party bickering on the issue will only hold back the programme.

We have only peeped under the cover of a brand-new world which could provide many solutions to human and environmental problems. I urge the Government and the EEC to get on with the proposal as soon as possible.

10.27 pm
Mr. Tim Rathbone (Lewes)

It has been suggested that this subject should be dealt with in a Select Committee rather than on the Floor of the House, but I join my hon. Friends who advocate debates such as this, partly because of the importance of the subject and partly because it is only through debates on the Floor of the House that we can look behind the technical details and discover the Government's attitude towards development in this area and help for that development.

I fear that the somewhat tentative approach of some Labour Members towards Government support in this sector is influenced not by their appreciation of the importance of the subject but by their innate qualms about any aspect of British co-operation with our EEC partners. That is a great pity, because in this area, as in so many others, it is impossible for us to do everything that we want to do, or should do, without co-operation from EEC partners.

I have some qualms about the motion. It is admirable in every detail, but, taken as a whole, is it indicative of less than enthusiastic support for Government subvention and support for this activity through industry in this country and in The EEC? Of course, research and development must be, as the motion says: beneficial in terms of the policy priorities of both the Community and the United Kingdom". I would add that it should be beneficial not only to the nations but to industries in those nations and beneficial to the developing world. That aspect has not been mentioned so far, but I shall mention it more than once.

I question whether the adherence to non-duplication is quite so clear. On the face of it, we all want to eliminate wasteful duplication between nations and between institutions. However, where does the positive benefit of competitive development give way to wasteful duplication? When we put that in the context of time loss, which leads in turn to competitive loss, that is an area of the motion that the Government should be wary of applying with too draconian an attitude.

The central importance of the debate lies in biomolecular engineering. It is a new and immensely exciting growth area which is deserving of national support, national encouragement, European development and national development. There is nothing that I can think of where Government support can be so directly beneficial towards energy saving, the diminution of pollution, scientific innovation, cost reductions and beneficial developments in not only the developed world but the developing world.

It seems to me, as to my hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson), that we have had a somewhat sorry contribution from the Government. We have seen a massive application of Government funds to ICL and in recent months we have witnessed equally massive applications of funds to declining historical industries. Is this not an area of endeavour where seed corn can be encouraged by seed corn finance from the national Government?

My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State accented the fact that the motion advocates a shift from research into training. We have been too reticent about training, and I cannot but endorse the need for greater funding for training. When the resources become available, it should be a question not of a switch of funding from research into training but of an addition of training to a substantial and well-established basis of research. If we do not give that type of lead to this scientific innovation and encourage it within the European Economic Community, we shall be doing no service to ourselves, the Community or the world. With that proviso—namely, more funds more quickly for all aspects of this science—I suggest that the Government are deserving of our support for the motion.

10.33 pm
Mr. Dalyell

It is more than a dutiful comment to say that this has been an extremely interesting debate. However, with the leave of the House I wish to address myself to the comment of the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. Page) when he said that he did not mind very much where the money came from as long as it went into biomolecular engineering. That is a crucial phrase and one that bothers me greatly. This is why I rise for the second time to put it to the Minister.

We welcome contact and relations between industry, the universities and the research laboratories that are doing the work. That is common ground. However, there comes a point where, if the work becomes dependent for its very existence on industrial money, we are in a different situation.

Those who put forward the industrial money naturally want something in return. That something may not even be in the form of the words "You must not publish papers." It may be in the form of "We want something of a moratorium so that we can get the benefits of your research work before anybody else." But it raises a crucial question, one that bothered Sir John Kendrew and many others very much: at what point does dependence on industrial money interfere with those tenets of academic freedom and the freedom of publication that we have paid lip service to for a long time? All that I do tonight is to put down a marker that there is a problem and that it behoves us to pay attention to it. I do not even ask the Minister for an off-the-cuff comment.

Time and again in high-technology research there arises the question of the exact point at which the level of industrial money challenges academic freedom. It is no good the hon. Member for Lewes (Mr. Rathbone) shaking his head. If researchers become over-dependent on industrial money, the freedom of information that hitherto those in the universities have always taken for granted is put in jeopardy.

In Japan and Germany there are strict rules. No one suggests that the great research centre at Braunschweig Stockheim or the Max Planck institutes will make all their results freely available to industry throughout Europe. If there is doubt about Braunschweig Stockheim, there is even more doubt about the findings of the Institut Pasteur in Paris and the university of Compiegne, or whosoever is doing the research in France.

If we are to make available all the research that we have done in this country—[Interruption.] It is no good the hon. Member for Harrow, East (Mr. Dykes) tut-tutting. The truth is that the French in this whole sphere have put the interests of the French State before the interests of Europe as a whole. If it were not so, they would have accepted this package in toto as it was put forward by the Commission.

Other people base themselves far more on national interest than we British have been. Therefore, I am entitled to ask this general question: what do the Government think about the point at which the industrial money dictates the very nature of the research? Once industrial money dictates the nature of the research, there are major questions for British universities to answer.

It may be that in such a field national policy and national requirements should go along with this kind of inhibition. If so, it is a new departure, and there should be a ministerial statement on any change of policy. That is why the question of the hon. Member for Hertfordshire, South-West is very pertinent and important.

10.38 pm
Mr. Michael Marshall

This has been an interesting debate. The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Mr. Hooley) suggested that it might be better if the matter went before a Select Committee. I quarrel with that suggestion, because we have had a constructive debate. It has been almost a reunion of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, and that has been very agreeable. A number of hon. Members have spoken with great knowledge and interest. It is no bad thing if from time to time we have on the Floor of the House constructive debates of this kind, which perhaps rather offset the kind of criticism that we hear expressed outside of some of the late-night activities for which we are perhaps becoming rather more notorious than some of us might wish.

I take this early opportunity of greeting the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell), who spoke first for the Opposition. I know that he has been on the Front Bench for some time now, but he has, as it were, returned in an industrial sense. We felt a little easier a-night when he went on to other things, but here he is back again, and I congratulate him on a thorough and constructive speech. I appreciate the spirit in which he has approached this subject, recognising, as I think he does and as I made plain at the outset, that we have not reached a final decision here. We are still considering whether the Commission's proposal, in effect, is worthy of our support. To that extent, as I said, I was anxious to have the views of colleagues on both sides of the House. I have had the chance to hear them, and I am grateful for it.

I shall now do my best to reply to some of the points which have been raised. Obviously, they have covered so vast a range that it is impossible to cover them all now, but we shall, no doubt, return to these matters from time to time. I take, first, the specific question posed by the hon. Member for West Lothian about why there has been a change from the initial proposals to those before us now. The hon. Gentleman asked, in particular, why research area 2 had been dropped. The answer is that reduced funds could be spent on, in effect, only a reduced number of areas, and the other research areas were considered to be of higher priority. I think that this concentration of funds makes sense.

I was asked about research area 4. This, in a sense, suffered similarly, but the Community is also trying to avoid areas where there might be a problem of ownership of patent rights—we have heard reference to that tonight—and it is realised also that there are problems in Community work in sectors close to market exploitation.

Mr. Dalyell

I think it reasonable to ask the Minister to write to me about the vexed question of monoclonal antibodies and the difficulties of patents arising from it. Will he kindly do that?

Mr. Marshall

Since I am unable to give the hon. Gentleman much of an answer now, I readily undertake to write to him about it.

The hon. Gentleman made a point also about waiting for Spinks. It ought to be said that this is not true of our national effort. A good deal has gone on, and I shall return to that.

On the question of training, I think that the hon. Gentleman and the Government are very close in their thinking. We agree that training need not be provided specifically for this subject. As I said, we think that there are already ample opportunities under the existing Community science and technology training programme administered by the director-general DG XII. We also agree on the importance of the role of the advisory committee on programme management. The precise level of representation will, of course, depend on the form of the programme.

The hon. Member for West Lothian, his hon. Friend the Member for Newham, South (Mr. Spearing) and my hon. Friend the Member for Hertfordshire, South-West (Mr. Page) spoke about the way in which this programme would work through to laboratories in this country. I think that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Osborn) was right to emphasise that the total contribution of the Commission's programme to what is already going on in this country is very small. We should look at it in that light. The way that matters will work in practice is that in reaching decisions the Council of Ministers will, as it were, set the broad policy framework, beyond which it will be up to the Commission to put forward proposals.

The Community programme will provide finance for projects to be carried out in research laboratories in member States. The laboratories must bid for funds, in response to invitation to tender issued by the Commission, to carry out specific projects which will fall within the broad ambit of whatever programme might be decided. Typically, the Commission pays 50 per cent. of the expenses.

Mr. Hooley

If a university laboratory bids for funds and gets them, will the Government lop them off that university's grant, or will it be able to get the money in addition to its existing pool?

Mr. Marshall

The hon. Gentleman raises questions which go beyond my departmental brief.

Mr. Spearing


Mr. Marshall

I need to consider the point but, on the face of it, I imagine that that would be a pretty surprising reaction. However, that would be a decision to be taken outside my sphere of responsibility.

There have been several references to the question of patents. Part of the thinking which has influenced the Government in these matters is that university workers in the United Kingdom have not always had enough of an eye for the commercial potentialities of their work. The trend is, I believe, improving. That is an encouraging sign for the future of this important subject.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hallam raised a number of important points. I agree that we need to take full account of the discussions in all multinational fora on such issues. We seek to profit where possible. We consider that the reference to the Community FAST programme is appropriate and timely. We are playing our full part in its work.

The hon. Member for Heeley referred to the development gap. I remind the hon. Gentleman that the Government's interest and involvement through the NEB in setting up Celltech is designed to counter the effects of the tendency he warned against. The hon. Gentleman also referred to safety matters. The Government consider GMAG to be a highly useful and successful body. Careful scrutiny of developments is maintained. No relaxation of safeguards is entertained unless we are satisfied that they are justified by experience.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chichester (Mr. Nelson), in an interesting speech, spoke of his experience in examining Japanese opportunities and development. His remarks in many respects were valid. It does not seem, however, that there is much major injection of public money by the Japanese Government in research and development in biomolecular engineering. I believe that MITI makes a small contribution.

The hon. Member for Newham, South is a familiar figure at this hour of the evening when the House discusses Community matters. The hon. Gentleman had some pertinent question to raise. I have given the broad parameters under which we are discussing this decision. It is an issue for the Council of Ministers on which the Government have not reached a final view.

The European Community research and development programmes derive from Article 235 of the Treaty of Rome and the relevant provisions of the Treaty of Paris and Euratom and are an integral part of the co-operation between member States. The hon. Gentleman is at liberty to argue that this matter might have been set up outside the Commission. If he reflects on his proposal, he will perhaps realise that it would be a cumbrous process. The mechanism that exists helps in moving towards agreement in a difficult area over what I agree is a long time scale. The hon. Gentleman will perhaps agree that an approach on a bilateral basis would be even more extended.

I was also asked about property rights. This will depend on the individual contracts negotiated between the research laboratories in member States and the Commission. Who would benefit? This depends on the shape of the final programme. We would expect United Kingdom authorities to be well placed to obtain a good share of available business that is placed.

Mr. Richard Page

I should like to ask my hon. Gentleman a question about this point and the whole issue of patents. He may care to write to me. When something of commercial value that can be patented arises from an order placed by the EEC with a particular research establishment, will the patent be held by the EEC, which placed the order, by the country where it is placed, or by the research establishment? I recognise that it is a difficult question to which my hon. Friend may care to respond later.

Mr. Marshall

I am grateful to my hon. Friend for putting his question in that manner. I undertake to write to him. My hon. Friend, together with a number of hon. Members, tries to take me fast down a path to discover what happens following an agreement that has not yet been reached.

I should like to try to bring together the strands of what is happening in the United Kingdom. Running through the debate has been an assumption that we have been lagging. The issue should be put in better perspective. I have already mentioned Celltech, which, in some ways, is an interesting example of the pump-priming and what has been described as the seed corn. It shows how private finance can come together with the NEB, in this case, to use taxpayers' money to put together proposals of great importance.

It is also interesting that that example involves an agreement with the Medical Research Council, giving the company access to MRC know-how. The company is about to market its first product, an anti-Interferon drug, based on research in MRC laboratories at Cambridge and Warwick universities. The work is on a small scale, involving a staff of only 25, but that should not hide the fact that it is an important development which appears to have a considerable future.

Some hon. Gentlemen argue for major Government funding. I accept that the pre-emption of resources by ICL means that we have less scope in other areas, but the same could apply to other items of major public expenditure. However, if biotechnology is to develop successfully in this country it must primarily be through private sector funding and initiative. The signs are encouraging. ICI's Billingham plant is about to manufacture animal feed from methanol. Then there is the Wellcome Foundation work on a process for Interferon, an anti-virus pharmaceutical agent, Eli Lilly's work with synthetic insulin, Rank Hovis McDougall's work on a microbiological source of protein for human consumption. and Glaxo and Beecham's work on antibiotics by biotechnological processes. These are all important initiatives. In addition, Government support is provided at least at the level recommended in the Spinks report. I have mentioned the £5 million investment in Celltech through the NEB. Other support through the Department of Industry, the research councils and the NRDC totals about another £5 million.

We watch carefully the policies of other Governments. We recognise the importance of the developments and the need to take a close interest in what is happening in the world at large.

Mr. Dalyell

The Wellcome Foundation, for example, has benefited greatly from State-financed research. If Interferon, which now costs £2,000, can be produced by the new techniques for 50p, will the Government take a close interest in the price at which firms sell such substances to the NHS? If their original research benefited greatly from State finance, the State should watch the price charged to the NHS like a hawk when production becomes much cheaper.

Mr. Marshall

With his uncanny flair for timing, the hon. Gentleman raises the question at the very moment that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security is in the Chamber. He will have noted carefully what has been said, as it is a continuing concern of his Department.

The hon. Member for Heeley and others mentioned fears about developments in genetic engineering. When the methods for changing the structure of genes were first developed, there was understandable fear about genetically engineered micro-organisms escaping from the laboratory and causing disease, as the population would have no natural resistance to the changed microorganisms. To prevent this from happening, tight restrictions were placed on genetic engineering experiments. As the science has advanced, it has been realised that many of the initial fears were unfounded. Most genetically engineered micro-organisms can live only in the special conditions of the laboratory and would not survive in the environment.

It has, therefore, been appropriate to relax generally the guidelines for genetic manipulation experiments, though any change is made only after the authorities are fully satisfied that there is no risk to the public. In this country the bodies responsible for the surveillance of genetic engineering experiments are the genetic manipulation advisory group and the Health and Safety Executive. There are important developments in hand in this area, but so far development has been a step-by-step process of looking for safety safeguards while trying to strike the proper commercial balance.

Mr. Dalyell

I hope that the Minister will forgive this, my last intervention of the night. May I plead with him to be a bit careful on the health and safety requirements? Some of us are reliably informed that whereas in 1979 the number of animals used for experiments and testing was 4,719,000, if some of the new regulations are brought into force according to the research director of ICI the figure will rise to up to 25 million. First, there is the question of costs. Secondly, what will the animal lobby say about 25 million rather than 5 million, animals in laboratories?

Mr. Marshall

I take note of what the hon. Gentleman says. It reminds us that part of the thrust of the order before us is the way in which health and safety aspects should be examined. I hope that in the wider debate that will take place these matters will be given full weight. It is certainly right that the scientific community should be required to ensure an appropriate degree of safety in this work.

The possible application of biotechnology in medicine has been mentioned already in relation to Interferon, insulin vaccines and diagnostic testing materials. I emphasise that this does not form part of the revised Community programme. During discussions on the original proposal, it was clear that two member States were not in favour of proposals which would have encompassed, inter alia, the research funding of the medical applications of biotechnology. As I have stressed, in the United Kingdom research and development are being carried out and funded by the public and the private sectors, and the results of that activity are already starting to produce commercial results.

In short, I think that we have a situation in which we shall seek to work constructively in the Community for an agreement which is consistent with our requirements and which complements the work already being done with Europe in biomolecular engineering.

I conclude by saying that the Government certainly recognise the importance of biotechnology and hope and believe that a Community programme can be drawn up that will be beneficial both to the Community and to this country. In doing so, we shall, of course. take fully into account all that has been said tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Resolved, That this House takes note of European Community Document No. 4460/80 on Biomolecular Engineering Research and of the explanatory memoranda dated 19th February 1980 and 8th December 1980; supports the Government's intention to ensure that Community research in this area should be beneficial in terms of the policy priorities of both the Community and the United Kingdom; and supports the intention to ensure that there is no duplication of effort in this area.