HC Deb 12 March 1984 vol 56 cc255-62

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

9 am

Mr. Tony Baldry (Banbury)

In initiating this debate, I am also speaking on behalf of my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson), in whose constituency a similar closure is taking place at Letcombe and who, with my right hon. Friend the Member for Witney (Mr. Hurd), has been in close touch with the Agricultural and Food Research Council to try to ensure that the objections raised by or on behalf of the staff at those two institutes are taken fully into account and properly answered before any irreversible action is taken.

The Weed Research Organisation at Yarnton in Oxfordshire has been carrying out important work on weeds and their control for over 20 years. It is financed by the AFRC, which in turn has a sizeable proportion of its work funded by the Department of Education and Science.

The WRO is regarded internationally as the world centre of excellence for weed science. I have seen tributes from learned institutes in numerous countries to the institute's work. The president of the International Weed Science Society comments: The WRO is now a very unique and special organisation". The director of the International Plant Protection Centre in the United States comments: WRO is undoubtedly the best known and best qualified weed research group in the world. At home the organisation is highly respected and regarded by the farming community. The National Farmers Union states: WRO stands out amongst the AFRC's institutes for its excellent rapport with the fanning industry. The AFRC has decided that this highly regarded research organisation should close because it feels compelled to make savings consequent upon a reduction in its income from the Department of Education and Science in 1986–87 and a desire to divert spending from current projects into new food research. I submit that to close the WRO is a shortsighted decision, made without adequate consultation, without any, or any adequate, scientific debate and without sufficient opportunity for alternative options to be considered fully.

I hope that my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary who is responsible for overseeing his Department's funding of the AFRC will urge it to delay the implementation of the proposal to close WRO until there has been adequate debate and consultation on this proposal and adequate consideration of alternative proposals, which, it should be emphasised, could in all probability achieve the desired savings while enabling WRO to continue its valuable and much-respected work.

Those who work at WRO are public servants who are doing good work in a respected institute. They have been bruised, not just by the decision to close WRO but by the way in which the decision has been taken.

I shall run briefly through the history of the proposal to close WRO. In March, each institute within AFRC was asked to identify possible significant savings, concentrating on work funded by the Department of Education and Science. During the summer of 1982 the responses were studied by a so-called core group of the AFRC comprising the secretary and second secretary of the council and three institute directors. That group contained no one with a particular interest in weed research. The core group reported in October 1982 and suggested that there should be a review of work done on crop protection, a subject that had recently been studied in great detail by a special working party of the AFRC, which had recommended an increase in spending on weed research relative to other disciplines of crop protection.

The next development was a paper in February 1983 prepared by the AFRC secretariat, which identified savings by restructuring arable crops research. However, the scientific case for singling out arable crops to bear the brunt of the cuts received little attention. It has received scant attention since.

By July the council was considering various savings in detail, and a paper submitted by the secretariat to the July meeting of the AFRC commented that savings would probably be maximised by abandoning the WRO site altogether". However, the paper went on to say that this might not be sensible on scientific or practical grounds". The paper acknowledged that WRO was a well-respected institute with practical programmes familiar to progressive arable farmers.

At this stage, one suspects that there was insufficient scientific discussion of the options. Expediency prevailed. Responsibility was then passed to a committee of five institute directors, who concluded that, to make the necessary savings within the AFRC, one of the three institutes — WRO, Letcombe near Wantage or Long Ashton near Bristol—would have to close. There was no agreement as to which institute would close and little time to consider either the scientific or agricultural implications of the various options.

Senior scientific staff at WRO and Letcombe came to the conclusion that there was a very strong case for the merger of WRO and Letcombe at the WRO site at Yarnton. In consultation with the professor of rural economy at Oxford, those advocating a Letcombe-WRO merger presented a fully worked out proposal to the plants and soils committee of the AFRC in November. The proposal included detailed costings of staff transfers, redundancy payments and building costs, as well as incorporating relevant parts of Long Ashton's programme.

The outcome was that that important committee of the AFRC, the plants and soils committee, and the majority of the institute directors consulted and involved favoured, on both scientific and agricultural grounds, the proposal for a new Oxford institute of crop and weed science to be developed at the WRO site in collaboration with Oxford university. It should be emphasised that that proposal would have met the savings required by the AFRC.

However, when the AFRC met on 13 December last year to consider the future, the secretariat made available only brief written details of the Letcombe-WRO merger proposal so recently endorsed by the plants and soils committee, while the secretariat allowed to be included among the formal papers for that meeting a comprehensive paper written by the director of Long Ashton, in which he, not surprisingly, argued against the new Oxford institute proposed. The council decided to close Letcombe and the WRO and to transfer some new research work to Long Ashton.

I hope that after that brief review of the history of the decision, in which it can be seen that insufficient attention and scant regard were given to the proposal of the WRO-Letcombe merger, my hon. Friend the Minister will understand why those working at WRO are bruised not only by the decision but by the way in which that decision to close the institute was taken.

The only reasonable inference that can be drawn is that the decision to close WRO was taken on grounds of simple asset value and expediency — the AFRC owns the freehold of the WRO site, and it is unencumbered by either an independent governing body or endowments, so the site is easy to close down. There is the added bonus of being able to sell the site on the open market and raise some money.

Given that the proposal that a crop and weed science institute should be formed by the merger of WRO and Letcombe meets the financial costings required by the AFRC in the arable crops and crop protection area, and that the proposal for a new Oxford institute has widespread support among the staff and a majority of the directors of the institutes involved and the agricultural community, it must be sensible to delay the implementation of the decision to close the WRO until this alternative option has been fully and properly explored.

I should have thought that the AFRC would be anxious to prove beyond peradventure to all involved that its decision was the best possible in all the circumstances and made with the best possible motives. In my submission, it has not so far done that.

Furthermore, scientific staff at Yarnton WRO are individuals concerned in the advance of scientific knowledge. Without their dedication, the AFRC would have no research programmes. The loyalty and commitment of staff is an important asset which cannot be sold or disposed of so easily as land and buildings. If staff at WRO do not feel that there has been adequate and fair debate on the various proposals put forward, and especially on the suggestion that WRO and Letcome should merge into a new Oxford institute, there is a real risk that experienced staff may decide to leave the research service completely instead of being transferred. The loss of their experience could only be damaging to future research.

I therefore hope that my hon. Friend the Minister will consider intervening to the extent of exhorting the AFRC to delay implementation of the present proposals until there has been adequate debate and consideration of them and the possible alternatives.

In addition, there are a number of reasons why the AFRC decision to transfer any future weed research work to Long Ashton should be questioned. Such a move will severely disrupt current work and virtually eliminate the field experiment programme, which has been a major factor in WRO's success. There is little suitable land for field experiments in arable crops either at Long Ashton or in the surrounding area. Oxfordshire is near the heartland of England and it is thus possible for field teams to investigate problems in crops in most parts of the country. This will be much more expensive and difficult from Bristol. Long Ashton is simply too far away from the main arable crop areas. Further, one must not underestimate the value of the work that WRO is doing.

There is an ever-increasing need for independent information on the environmental effects of herbicides. If weed research is run down, we shall in future have to be advised by the chemical manufacturers themselves as to the viability of various herbicides and manufacturers can be expected to take a rather more commercial and less independent and academic approach than one would wish. There is an important job to be done in testing new herbicides and working out the economics of their use. This is a job that WRO has been doing with skill for 20 years. Indeed, weeds and soil at Yarnton have been carefully nurtured and monitored over many years.

WRO is recognised internationally as a centre of excellence in research and information on weeds and their control. This will be in danger of being lost at the very time when the Food and Agriculture Organisation has begun a much-needed programme of improving weed management in developing countries, to which WRO would wish to contribute. Perhaps most importantly, at a time when profit margins on arable crop production are declining, farmers urgently need good, independent information about the cost-benefits of weed control.

There is good cause to believe that the AFRC decision to close the Weed Research Organisation was taken too hastily, for the wrong reasons and without proper consideration of possible alternatives. Any moves to close the WRO should be delayed while proper consideration is given to realistic alternatives.

9.14 am
Mr. Roger Gale (Thanet, North)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) and to my hon. Friend the Minister for allowing me to intervene briefly.

In its press release of 15 December last, the AFRC described research into straw disposal as being "in balance". The major centre for this research is Letcombe, which it is now proposed to close. I fail to see how it is possible to close that establishment and to continue the research "in balance" as described by AFRC.

I agree entirely with my hon. Friend for Banbury that the decisions have been taken hastily and without sufficient consideration. I join him in asking my hon. Friend to intervene to exhort the council to delay and reconsider its proposals.

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

I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Mr. Baldry) for raising this topic. The House does not have enough opportunities to discuss scientific problems, and I always welcome such occasions.

As the subject of the debate is the Weed Research Organisation at Yarnton, I shall not talk about Letcombe except in an incidental way.

The Weed Research Organisation, which is based at Begbroke hill, Yarnton, is one of eight institutes directly controlled by the Agricultural and Food Research Council. The AFRC also supports the 14 state-aided institutes in England and Wales.

As hon. Members will, of course, be aware, the AFRC is a body which operates under a royal charter and whose main purpose is the support of research in the sciences relevant to food and agriculture. It does this by awarding research grants selectively to teams of scientists in the universities and by running or grant-aiding the 22 research institutes. It also supports postgraduate training in relevant fields of science.

The AFRC receives money with which to conduct its various scientific activities from two main sources. There is the science budget of the Department of Education and Science, and there is the income from research commissioned by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. About half the council's income is derived from each source. In the current financial year the council will receive £46 million in grant-in-aid from my Department and £50.9 million from MAFF commissions. Those sums are cash limited.

The council is having to plan to accommodate a significant reduction in its income over the next three years. It is difficult to be precise about the likely total loss of income over the period, since cash allocations beyond the 1984–85 financial year have yet to be decided. I know, however, that the council estimates that its budget may be about 7 per cent. less than now, in real terms, by the end of the period. The council's expected loss of income is due in part to a planned reduction in the council's share of the science budget. That reduction was foreshadowed in the advisory board for the research council's published 1982 advice to my right hon. Friend and reiterated in the board's 1983 advice, which will shortly be published.

The main reason why the ABRC recommended such a reduction was that the board's assessment of scientific priorities pointed to the need for an increase in the funds for one of the science budget's other client bodies, the Science and Engineering Research Council, to enable SERC to expand its programme of research in vitally important areas, including the areas of information technology. As the level of the science budget as a whole has been held steady in real terms, it is evident that this increase in funds had to be secured by reducing the provision for other councils. On ABRC advice, the main burden of the reduction has fallen on the Agricultural and Food Research Council and on the Natural Environment Research Council. This is not to say that the board doubted the quality of the science being supported by those two councils. It was a question, rather, of having to make harsh choices at a time of overall restraint in public expenditure. My right hon. Friend accepted the ABRC's advice in this matter in making allocations to the research councils for 1984–85.

Now the AFRC, in common with the other research councils, is responsible—within the purposes set out in its royal charter and taking account of any views expressed by the ABRC—for deciding on its scientific priorities and on how its activities should be directed. Once my right hon. Friend has decided the size of the council's grant-in-aid, it is his practice to give it to the council without direction as to how it should be spent.

Taking account of the implications for future funding of the ABRC advice, and wishing to retain the flexibility which any forward-looking scientific organisation should have to move into new and promising areas of scientific activity, the AFRC drew up its first corporate plan. The corporate plan, copies of which may be found in the Library, but which I know many hon. Members will be well aware of, was prepared in consultation with the Agriculture Departments, the universities and the industries concerned. It covers work commissioned with the council by the Agriculture Departments as well as with the mainly fundamental scientific work done with grant-in-aid from my Department, and deals with the whole range of work in progress, with areas of new scientific opportunity, with the priorities identified by the council and, in broad terms, with the measures which will be necessary to achieve desired objectives within the funds likely to be available. I have already said in the House how much I welcome the publication of the corporate plan, and I reiterate that welcome today. Within the context of the corporate plan, institute directors reviewed their priorities and decided, in consultation with the council, which programmes would have to be stopped and how many posts would have to be lost.

My hon. Friend referred to consultations. I believe that consultations on the future of WRO programmes have been adequate. I understand that, following discussion with institute directors on programme priorities during 1982, the restructuring of arable crops research was further considered by the Agricultural and Food Research Council in February 1983 when a savings target of £2.5 million was agreed. Detailed discussions followed in the forum of the council's plants and soils research committee under the chairmanship of Professor Jinks of Birmingham university and with a membership including other council members, three AFRC institute directors and representatives of the Agricultural Departments.

In August, the director of WRO and the other arable crop institute directors met the committee to comment on the ideas that were developing. The directors then formed their own working party to make recommendations to the committee on the ways in which savings of the order required could be achieved. They proposed several options, which were considered by the committee, and, after further meetings of the committee and a final meeting with the directors concerned, the committee submitted recommendations to the council for its December 1983 meeting. The outcome of the council's deliberations is well known to hon. Members. It is estimated that the committee members and institute directors devoted about 300 man hours to the arable crops restructuring discussions, so I am satisfied that decisions were reached without undue haste.

I understand that the AFRC's plants and soils research committee advised the council that savings on the required scale could be obtained only if two of the five institutes concerned were to close and that there were two main options for restructuring in that way. One was to consolidate weed research and the Letcombe laboratory's cultivation studies at Begbroke with all the rest of arable crops-related research being at Rothamsted experimental station. That option would have involved the closure of Long Ashton research station. The other option was to bring weed research together with other aspects of arable crop protection at Long Ashton and to consolidate crop production at Rothamsted. The council's plants and soils research committee and several directors were attracted to the practical image that an Oxford institute would have created, but they recognised that it would perpetuate the separation of crop protection work, mean greater disruption of staff and be more costly to implement in the light of the requirement for new laboratory buildings at Begbroke. In view of that, the council decided in favour of consolidating at Long Ashton work on crop protection currently carried out at WRO and at Long Ashton research station.

My hon. Friend mentioned cuts in weed science research. The reduction in activity in the AFRC, which includes horticultural and agricultural work, was partly in response to a decision to switch priorities into food research, which itself was in harmony with a recommendation of a report of a Select Committee. It is not true that work on weed science research has been picked out for specially adverse treatment. The council's corporate plan makes it clear that work on plant science generally and on crop protection and production in particular will have to be reduced. Arable crop protection, which includes all the work of WRO, will have to be reduced by about 20 per cent. over the next three years. The precise elements of weed research that the council is able to continue funding will be determined by the council in the light of advice from directors and senior staff at Long Ashton and WRO and in the light of discussions between the council and the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The council is committed to maintaining the largest possible weed science programme at Long Ashton.

The consolidation of work at Long Ashton will link WRO's important work on weed science more closely with related work at the Long Ashton station on hormonal control of plant growth, crop protection chemistry, cereal pests and diseases and spray application. In this way, work on weeds will benefit from close association with other scientific disciplines which have not been represented at the WRO at Begbroke. It will also help the integration of crop protection practices with crop husbandry generally to create efficient and environmentally acceptable control systems for farmers. The AFRC intends that the work will not be submerged in the wider programme, and it is intended that there will continue to be a clear point of contact for the advisory services, farmers and the agrochemical industry with concern for weed control.

My hon. Friend asked for a delay in implementation and intervention by my Department. There is no substance in the charge that the council was not in possession of all relevant information when it made its decision. All relevant papers, including papers produced by the director of the Weed Research Organisation and the director of the Letcombe laboratory, were submitted to the council for its meeting on 13 December 1983. All costings carried out relating to staff losses and transfers and costs of new buildings were submitted to the council. Analyses by the directors of WRO and Letcombe laboratory, and by the AFRC secretariat, showed that the option for the Oxford institute was more expensive than was the Long Ashton option. Therefore, I can give my hon. Friend no hope that there will be a delay in the implementation of this firmly taken decision. However, the coincidence of the retirements of the heads of WRO and of Long Ashton with the appointment of a new head of a merged institution in October this year means that there will be a reasonable time frame for the process of running down.

The phase-down of work at WRO and the transfer to Long Ashton is expected to take place over three years. It is accepted that this restructuring exercise will result in some disruption to work and to the continuing staff, but the council attaches great importance to minimising that. The total redundancies are likely to be about 140, but at this stage it is impossible to give precise figures. Those redundancies will involve staff at WRO, at the Letcombe laboratory and at the Rothamsted experimental station.

My hon. Friend referred to the circumstances of research at Long Ashton. Although Long Ashton is further west than Begbroke, it is not foreseen that this will be a deleterious factor in conducting arable crops research. As now, environmental diversity will be achieved by conducting field experiments on farms in various parts of the country. Further, there will be opportunities for collaborative work with the two major arable crops institutes in the more eastern part of the country at Rothamsted experimental station and the Plant Breeding Institute at Cambridge.

The milder and moister climate at Long Ashton resulting from an annual rainfall of 35in compared with 26in at Begbroke may be looked upon as creating more challenging disease and aphid problems. Although the land at Long Ashton is not well suited to arable crops field experimentation, cereals are grown extensively not far away in the Cotswolds, and in due course additional land within reasonable working distance of the station will be sought.

I hope that it will be clear to hon. Members from what I have said that the council is fully committed to continuing research in weed science, albeit on a reduced scale, with the aim of securing savings of about £1.4 million in its arable crop protection programme. Although that reduction represents about 20 per cent. of the programme, I understand that the AFRC, following the reorganisation of its work, expects to continue the work commissioned by the Ministry and currently undertaken at the Weed Research Organisation.

As I said at the beginning of my speech, I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making this debate possible. As I have said in the House, there are insufficient opportunities for it to debate science. This is the second occasion this Session when aspects of the affairs of the Agricultural and Food Research Council have been debated; there have also been two debates in another place, one being about more general scientific and technological matters. I welcome the increased public recognition which such debates give to science, and especially to the valuable work done in universities and the research councils.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Nine o'clock am.