HC Deb 22 December 1983 vol 51 cc617-24

2 pm

Dr. Jeremy Bray (Motherwell, South)

The Opposition are concerned about the first corporate plan of the Agriculture and Food Research Council and I am speaking as the Opposition spokesman on science and technology. I am taking the first opportunity to raise this matter because, although it has been widely and semipublicly discussed for a long time in the research council, in the agricultural and farming press and among scientists, it was only finally approved by the council about a week ago.

The background to the council's first plan is a Government freeze on support for science in real terms which, combined with cuts in university support, has produced a substantial cut in the effective support of science as it works through the dual support system. University teachers, who are faced with cuts and students who demand to be taught, are trying to maintain standards of teaching, and therefore inevitably divert their effort away from their long-term research preoccupations to maintain those teaching standards. Moreover, equipment grants are reduced and capital expenditure is not directed at research.

Faced with those cuts in the science budget, the reaction of the Advisory Board on the Research Councils has been to examine priorities as between the research councils. It was faced with several priorities. First, if the advisory board does not support and protect pure science, no one else will. Other people can finance applied science and technology, but none can support pure science. It has not been the Agriculture and Food Research Council's job primarily to contribute to pure science. A comparison between the record of the Medical Research Council on molecular biology with that of the Agriculture and Food Research Council is by no means invidious, bearing in mind the entirely different briefs of the two organisations. But the Agriculture and Food Research Council cannot make the same claim on the ABRC and the Department of Education and Science science budget. Had not the primary work on pure scientific research been done by MRC-financed activity on molecular biology, the interesting and powerful work that is now beginning to be done on the applications of molecular biology to plant genetics could never have come about. The ABRC's priority here is entirely understandable.

The second group of considerations were those that were raised in the Mason report, and concern the balance between work in the laboratories and institutes of research councils and in universities, and the balance between work that is financed by the Government and that which is financed by the industry for the benefit of which it is undertaken. Taking those two considerations together, the ABRC's inevitable conclusion was that the cuts should fall on the AFRC. In addition to that external pressure, the AFRC was also facing pressing demands to find resources to finance applied science, which is becoming available for fruitful application in agricultural research, and for the extension of its brief to include food research. The ACARD report on food and the food industry is only one aspect of the pressures to which the AFRC should respond. It deals only in passing with the important issue of diet and health. In that regard, the Government disgracefully ran away from the James report, which was recently published by the Health Education Council and calls for a national food policy. As we are proceeding at present, the Government are setting the United Kingdom up to be a pilot study of the consequences of a nation not having a food policy. The consequences of that in terms of deaths from cancer and heart disease in mid-life promise to be appalling.

Faced with the demands for fresh work and for the redirection of activity with diminishing resources, the AFRC was in an impossible position. Dr. Riley forthrightly criticised the ABRC's decision. That is entirely understandable. He maintains that the cuts in agricultural research, whatever might have caused them, are not economically or scientifically justifiable.

The considerations that I have outlined are relevant. Within the constraints that I have mentioned we reach an impossibly damaging conclusion for the AFRC. Where, then, does the fault lie? It must lie in the size of the science budget which the Government took as their starting parameter. The magnitude of the cuts are best measured in human terms. In the Agriculture and Food Research Council 800 out of 6,800 jobs are to be removed. That is not just 800 jobs for people with any old background. The people concerned are scientists and technicians who are best equipped to contribute to the development of agriculture and agricultural productivity in Britain. They have made an outstanding contribution to the increase in agriculture's productivity. That is well recognised by farmers and the National Farmers Union. There is every prospect that that record will be improved upon still further.

There is no sign of any lagging in the increase of agriculture's productivity. In those circumstances, it looks as though the Government have given way to rank prejudice. First, there is their prejudice against civil servants. They maintain the idea that work done by Agriculture and Food Research Council staff is inevitably inferior to that done in industry and in the universities. The Government have also given way to the prejudice that cash limits are the ultimate wisdom in economic management and the management of public expenditure, in preference to cost-benefit pay-offs in departmental budgets, where there is need for flexibility to adjust the budget in response to the effectiveness of the results that are achieved.

It is in that direction, and not in the damaging and ungracious human consequences of the Government's decision, that we must pursue the argument. We can convincingly argue — we have done — in terms of economic benefit that is to be derived from maintaining and increasing the agricultural research budget. I advise the scientists and the Agriculture and Food Research Council to seek the leverage of brute political force in persuading the Government to change their mind. I ask the Minister whether the corporate plan is final or whether it is subject to further consultation with the staff, with the industry, with the National Farmers Union and with the Select Committee, which has not even been given the courtesy of a reply to its report before the Government effectively committed themselves to a position on agricultural research, which was so well covered by the Committee in its report. What about consideration by Parliament itself?

In practice, the implementation of the plan is bound to be subject to consultation and. in the process of that consultation, will inevitably be subject to revision. Will those decisions and the implementation of them be so precipitate as to allow no room for the consultations and the revision of plans which are likely to save the day?

If, in the course of consultation, increased resources are found — not necessarily in 1984–85 but in later years, not necessarily from the science budget but from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, and not necessarily from Government but from farmers by means of a levy on the marketing boards or from other sources—to allow the AFRC to increase resources and carry out the programmes to which it has previously been committed and with which it should be able to continue, will it have the establishment, the people, the staff and the continuity of programmes, to use the additional resources that may be forthcoming?

The Letcombe laboatory, for example, is doing useful work on the role of the root system of cereals in relation to the nitrogen cycle. It is only a few weeks ago that the National Farmers Union cereals committee visited Letcombe, expressed its interest in the work that was being undertaken, and asked for a contract research programme to be submitted to it on the topical problem of straw. The NFU is pursuing that and is actively interested. The laboratory has not yet had a reply, yet it is faced with the likelihood or expectation of closure. The staff of the laboratory is convinced that in cost-effectiveness terms, in the scientific quality of its work and in the value of its work to clients, it can justify continuing as a separate, small and efficient laboratory rather than being absorbed into a vast laboratory where, possibly, it would have less direct contact with those whom it serves in agriculture.

Secondly, there is some evidence that research that is diverted to the universities could perfectly well be done in the institutes since it is not of a kind that is genuinely opening up new possibilities, which should be the emphasis of the university-based research. University-based research should be supplementary to the work that is carried out in the institutes rather than a replacement for it.

Thirdly, the proposal to shift the weed research organisation away from arable land in the east of England to Long Ashton near Bristol, away from the arable land and its work on weeds, seems to be rather an extreme decision.

I am not contesting the need for efficiency in the management of research. If we had an expanding science budget, the consequences for change and the efficient management of research resources would be greater and not less. I do not think that there is any question of being able to offer the members of the staff, or the organisation of the research council, the prospect of unchanged and undisturbed conditions and the continuity of everything that has taken place in the past. I do not think that any of the staff want that, anyway. Instead, the staff wants the opportunity in a vigorous and expanding area of research, which serves a vigorous and efficient industry, to carry on with the work that it is doing.

The damage is not limited to the AFRC. The Government have proposed that the transitional cost—not necessarily in 1984–85 but in future years—should be borne by a levy on other research councils, principally the Medical Research Council and the Science and Engineering Research Council. Effectively, the Government are cutting the science budget still further. In universities and nationalised industries, where there are possible closures, redeployments and redundancy costs, the consequences have been considered legitimate reasons for increasing the cash limits of the organisations and departments concerned.

Why are the research councils and the science budget being discriminated against in this way? If any fellows of the Royal Society supposed that the Prime Minister would be persuaded to reverse the decision made by her Ministers by electing her to the Royal Society, they entirely mistook her psychology. As a child, one of the saws which seem to have impressed her was "family holdback" when the cake was passed round. She has not lifted a finger to help the scientific community.

The Secretary of State has discredited himself in the eyes of his dry colleagues by asking for more for the science budget, and being knocked back by them. I hope that the scientists will persist in pointing out to Ministers the errors of the decisions that they have taken. They can help to sway the arguments in their sphere, and by doing so and by vigorously lobbying Conservative Members, as well as in the scientific community, they can fully establish that they are best able to serve their clients and uphold scientific standards by maintaining the volume of activity to which they were previously committed, taking on, in addition to that, the greater responsibilities that this House should ask them to fulfil.

2.15 pm
The Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. Peter Brooke)

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) for having raised this important subject. It may help if I give a little background before responding to the points that the hon. Gentleman raised. I am conscious that he is making his maiden appearance at the Dispatch Box in his capacity as Opposition spokesman, and I welcome him in that role.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of a prejudice on the part of the Government. The larger part of the science budget is a matter to which we shall probably return on a future occasion. Therefore, it would be inappropriate for me to take the debate too wide today, although I shall say something later about the latter part of his speech, in which he asked me questions about how the Agriculture and Food Research Council's budget might fit in with that of the science budget as a whole.

The Agriculture and Food Research Council's first corporate plan was published on 15 December. Hon. Members will find copies of the plan in the Library. The first plan covers the five years from 1984 to 1988, and it the council's intention that it shall be brought up to date regularly and revised as necessary. I am glad to have this opportunity to commend the council's decision to put together and publish a corporate plan. I am aware of the difficulties that are inherent in any such exercise, and I should like to put on record my appreciation of the courageous way the council has faced them. I have little doubt that all concerned will, in due course, see benefits flowing from this strategic approach, which I would encourage similar bodies to consider adopting.

To respond to the specific question that the hon. Gentleman asked, the corporate plan was drawn up in consultation with all the interests affected — the agriculture departments, the universities and industry. It covers the work commissioned with the council by the agriculture departments, as well as the work done with the grant-in-aid from my Department.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the relationship between the corporate plan and the report of the House of Commons Select Committee on Agriculture. Perhaps, inevitably, the work on the plan was already well in hand when the report appeared, and the financial situation facing the council and its institutes in 1984–85 was such that any delay in dealing with it could have amounted to irresponsibility. In fact, a number of the report's recommendations are reflected in the plan — for instance, more funding for food research, and better support for the universities. Further work is required on the Government's reply to the Select Committee on Agriculture's report, but a response will be made in the spring.

The council decided to draw up the plan because of the urgent need to meet new scientific challenges, success in which will pave the way for the growth of entirely new technologies. It was also necessary, because finance was expected to be limited, to ensure that every pound would be spent effectively. An important purpose of the plan is to enable the AFRC to improve its cost effectiveness. Another is to enable the industries concerned to understand better what the service is doing and to give informed advice on directions for the future.

The plan sets out in some detail the current research programme of the Agriculture and Food Research Council, and identifies the scientific opportunities in each area of research. It also sets out quite explicitly those areas of research that are regarded as being under-supported in terms of the future needs and opportunities to which I have referred, as well as those which are roughly in balance, or which are at present over-supported.

Not surprisingly, research into food science and technology is identified as an under-supported area. Attention was drawn to the need to expand research into food last year, when the Advisory Committee for Applied Research and Development published the report to which the hon. Gentleman has referred. The plan provides for a substantial switch of effort, within a reduced budget, towards research underpinning the food processing industry.

Under the plan, funds devoted to food science will grow by about 26 per cent., so as to represent about 13 per cent. of the council's total expenditure. For this to happen, there will need to be a reduction of about 10 per cent. in support for both plant science and animal science. The plan assumes that, overall, the council's budget will fall in real terms by some 7 per cent. by 1988—mainly due to the expected reductions in funding from the science budget, about which I shall say more a little later. Other areas of science research which will benefit under the plan include plant biochemistry, molecular biology and biotechnology. There will also be more provision for research grants to universities and colleges.

These important changes cannot be achieved painlessly. Though the methods for achieving change which are outlined in the plan include improving operational efficiency in institutes and by linking related programmes, a number of specific programme reductions have been identified and will be implemented. I do not intend to go into detail about these now, because they are in the plan. Some major organisational changes will result, however, including the amalgamation of the Letcombe laboratory with Rothamsted experimental station — with the Letcombe premises eventually being relinquished—and the consolidation of the current work of the weed research organisation at Long Ashton research station, to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) sought leave to raise the issue of Letcombe during our deliberations on the Consolidated Fund. As a result of his initiative, he and I, and Dr. Riley and the head of Letcombe are to sit down together.

In achieving these and other organisational changes, the council intends to make the maximum use of natural wastage and limited recruitment. About 300 posts might be lost this way, according to the plan. The fundamental nature of the changes in prospect makes it likely, however, that as many as 500 further posts—the hon. Gentleman referred to 800—will be lost over the period of the plan. There will inevitably be a need to resort to compulsory redundancy in some cases, though premature retirement and voluntary redundancy will be used wherever possible.

I assure hon. Members that the council and its institutes' directors carry out full and proper consultation—a matter raised by the hon. Gentleman—with unions at all levels where redundancies or redeployments are in prospect, and that they intend to proceed in ways which avoid, where possible, hardship to individuals. I understand that, where posts which are to be lost next year have been identified, discussions are already in process with the staff involved. It is too early to say, as yet, what the total cost to the council of the planned organisational changes will be. There will obviously be some capital costs where programmes are merged or transferred, but the largest element will inevitably be the redundancy lump sum and continuing compensation payments.

Hon. Members may recall that in 1982, for the first time, the Advisory Board for the Research Councils—the ABRC—published the advice it had offered to my right hon. Friend on the allocation of the science budget under the title, "The Science Budget: A Forward Look 1982". The ABRC's advice spoke of the responsibility of all the research councils to decide whether existing activities should be abandoned or curtailed to permit new and specially promising work to be undertaken, recognising that such reassessment presents greater difficulty where the research is carried out in a number of institutes of long standing where there is a greater possibility that the pattern of organisation can unduly dictate scientific priorities.

The report said: We place great emphasis on the importance of flexibility, while recognising that redeployment of resources in research calls no less than in other areas for long-term planning and sensitivity of management. We welcome the steps that have already been taken by the Councils but must express some concern that, even now, new activities to which the Councils and we accord high priority are having difficulty in finding a place within the Councils' programmes because of commitments to existing areas of work.

The ABRC went on the recognise that restructuring often involved early retirement, or even redundancies, and hence additional spending in the short term, and said that it intended to consider with the councils whether special arrangements, such as the establishment of a central fund, needed to be made.

This need for flexibility and the importance of redeploying resources to new and promising areas of science has been reiterated by the board in the advice that it has given to my right hon. Friend this year. This has been a year of particular pressures on the research councils. I have already described the AFRC's situation. Fluctuations in the exchange rate and changes in national GNPs have increased the cost of international subscriptions paid in particular by the Science and Engineering Research Council, while the Natural Environment Research Council has in recent years suffered a considerable loss of income through a fall in the amount of research commissioned with it by Government Departments.

In its advice to my right hon. Friend, the ABRC gave high priority to the provision of additional funds to help with the restructuring costs involved if the AFRC were to implement its plan and if the NERC were to cope within lower levels of funding. The board also recognised the inescapable obligation faced particularly by the SERC to pay its international subscriptions, and pressed for additional funds to be provided to help SERC with its problems in this area.

My right hon. Friend considered carefully the representations made to him by the advisory board for increased funding for these two key purposes. He agreed with the advisory board about the importance of flexibility so that the councils could respond positively and quickly to new scientific challenges. He accepted that the creation of that flexibility would inevitably involve major redeployment of resources within both AFRC and NERC and that such redeployment would involve restructuring costs in a variety of forms, such as costs of early retirement, transfer costs and capital work where it made sense to concentrate work at certain centres in order to close other centres.

Having regard to the overriding need of the Government to contain public expenditure, the Government in the event decided that, while they would be able to assist SERC with additional funds to help with the increased cost of international subscriptions, they were able to make only a modest increase to the science budget to help with the costs of restructuring. The additional sums for the latter purpose were £750,000 in 1984–85 and £900,000 in each of the next two years.

That is the background against which the advisory board made its final recommendations to my right hon. Friend about the distribution of the science budget for 1984–85. The board recognises that all councils keep under review their organisation and practice and would normally be expected to fund changes through prudent management of their budgets. But equally it recognises that major changes, such as those being exanined by both AFRC and NERC, would require special support from the board; that other councils might be expected from time to time to face opportunities or difficulties that could not be met within their own resources, however flexibly they were managed; and that the board needed to be in a position to recommend ways of handling major problems of this kind that did not put the overall development of scientific research at risk or call automatically for the provision of extra money.

The board has therefore recommended to my right hon. Friend that, in general, money for reorganisation and development should, where necessary, be set aside from within the science budget. Provisional allocations of the science budget had been made in 1982 as far ahead as 1985–86, and were included in the board's published 1982 advice. Those provisional allocations took no account of the need that I have described, which was fully perceived during 1983. Thus, in framing its 1983 advice, the board has revised its forward projections, albeit within a broadly level science budget, after allowing for the increased provision for international subscriptions. In one serse, therefore, the hon. Member for Motherwell, South has a point when he speaks of taking money from other research councils to provide money for the AFRC and the NERC. In another sense, however, the sums being contributed by the two donor councils come from their planning figures rather than from firm allocations.

The board has proposed that in 1985–86 and 1986–87, for which years the allocations still remain provisional, the MRC and SERC should make "contributions" of 0.75 per cent. and 1.5 per cent. of their planning figures respectively. That produces £3.1 million in 1985–86 and £6.3 million in 1986–87. Together with the extra £900,000 in each year, to which I have referred, the total available for restructuring becomes £4 million and £7.2 million. The board has proposed that those resources should be allocated to the AFRC and the NERC in response to detailed proposals in their future forward look submissions. No diversion of resources is proposed in 1984–85—as I told the hon. Gentleman in a written answer this week—but the additional £750,000 will enable the AFRC and the NERC to make a start on their most immediate restructuring plans. I emphasise that that scheme received unanimous support from the board, the membership of which includes the head of each of the research councils.

My right hon. Friend has now announced the allocations of the science budget for 1984–85 to the research councils and other research bodies. I am glad of this opportunity to tell the House that it has been possible to secure an additional £1 million in 1984–85 further to assist the SERC with international subscriptions. The total of the science budget is thereby increased to £550 million and the allocation to the SERC will be increased to £278.8 million.

My right hon. Friend has also accepted the provisional advice of the advisory board about the distribution of the budget in 1985–86 and 1986–87. I stress, however, that, just as the Government review public expenditure each year, so the advisory board will look again at its provisional recommendations in the light of the total resources available in the science budget for 1985–86 and 1986–87.

I am grateful to the hon. Member for Motherwell, South for providing the House with an opportunity to debate the important question of managing changes needed to meet new scientific opportunities. It is regrettably seldom that the House has a chance to debate science in any form, and the work of the research councils does not therefore receive the public recognition that is its due.

I stress the importance that the Government attach to the funding of scientific research in all its forms. We have managed in recent difficult years to maintain the level of the science budget, and this year we have managed to increase it, although not by as much as we or the advisory board would have wished. The 'work done by the research councils and universities in scientific research is of fundamental importance to us all because it provides the scientific base on which our industry and technology, and hence our future prosperity, rest.