HC Deb 20 March 1985 vol 75 cc959-66

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Garel-Jones.]

10 pm

Mr. Alan Howarth (Stratford-on-Avon)

This is the second Wednesday night in succession on which a Minister has been good enough to come to the Dispatch Box to answer a debate on the very pressing and serious problems facing agricultural research in Britain. Last week a Labour Member, the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John), raised these issues. I congratulate him on doing so, and on his good fortune in beating me to it in the ballot.

While the Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Medway (Mrs. Fenner)— I very much appreciate the fact that she is here this evening—stood her ground unyieldingly in last week's debate, she did acknowledge the importance of agricultural research, the need for new sources of finance to be forthcoming from industry, and the need for an end to the present uncertainties. Therefore, I take what she said as an expression of the same shrewd and sympathetic attitude that she showed when she visited the national vegetable research station last September.

Professor Bleasdale and his staff at Wellesbourne, and I myself, very much appreciated my hon. Friend's willingness to make that visit at our request. We also appreciated the tribute that she rightly paid then, when she said, in an interview with the Warwick Advertiser: I am most impressed by the work of the NVRS. The station makes an invaluable contribution to ensuring the continued efficiency and competitiveness of the UK vegetable growers. My hon. Friend the Minister is well qualified to make that judgment, and I should like to highlight to the House some of the facts that underpin it.

The watercress industry in Britain, worth about £4 million a year, would not now exist but for work done by NVRS scientists. Nor would we have a £19 million onion industry. Work on disease control and physiology of over-wintered onions has resulted in an increase in home production from 26,000 tonnes to 200,000 tonnes a year, with a corresponding reduction in imports. The reduction in storage losses from disease alone is estimated at £5 million a year. Very fittingly, the NVRS received a Queen's award for industry for that work.

Fungal diseases of the oil seed rape crop have been a serious problem which, if unchecked, would have been causing losses estimated at between £20 million and £40 million a year. Control was previously by means of repeated and expensive spray treatments with fungicides. Work at NVRS has developed a seed treatment which is now applied to over 95 per cent. of the seed used in Britain and has virtually eliminated the disease damage. The research cost was only £30,000 because of the expertise and facilities available at Wellesbourne.

A research programme on inter-cropping, using one application of spray and fertiliser for two crops, and so reducing inputs both of chemicals and of energy, is producing encouraging findings. Work on the fertiliser requirements of vegetable crops has led to the development of sophisticated models which allow the optimum amounts to be applied for efficient crop nutrition. The annual benefit of that to the vegetable industry is £7 million. Moreover, there is an environmental as well as an economic benefit to this approach of developing minimum input systems, and so reducing the damage caused by high levels of nitrates and other fertilisers in rivers, lakes, and, ultimately, water supplies.

The NVRS, in conjunction with Oxfam, maintains a gene bank which is indispensable to assisting poorer countries to grow vegetables appropriate to their own conditions, and thereby to feed their peoples. The gene bank is a resource for all countries and reflects the international standing of the NVRS.

From these few examples of the work of the NVRS it is abundantly clear that this research establishment confers valuable benefits. Its work has led to reduced costs for industry. It has contributed towards the achievement of a higher degree of self-sufficiency in food and security of supply for the United Kingdom. It has led to an appreciable benefit to the balance of payments, both in import saving and in increased exports, and these trends could be enhanced.

Vegetable growing is virtually unsubsidised and there are no vegetable mountains, so that increased output does not mean a drain on resources. Vegetable growing is somewhat more labour intensive than other forms of agriculture, so we should encourage it in the interests of rural employment.

As a result of the work of the NVRS, the housewife has vegetables of a type that suit her better, available at more times of the year and at steadier prices. The environmental benefits of NVRS research are also becoming of increasing significance. Moreover, the argument for producing and eating more vegetables in the interests of good health is powerful.

My right hon. Friend the Minister of Agrciulture, Fisheries and Food has endorsed the recommendation in the report of the committee on medical aspects of food policy that the nation should eat more vegetables. Investment in vegetable research will lead to a saving of costs in the National Health Service, a point that should surely carry weight as the Government establish their priorities in public expenditure.

The New Scientist of 15 November reported the finding of a large-scale study in Japan showing that eating vegetables every day reduces the risk of cancer, and I have been glad to see that my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Mr. Patten), the Under-Secretary of State for Health and Social Security, in a campaign to encourage people to adopt a diet less conductive to heart disease, is also urging them to eat more vegetables.

The Minister may perhaps agree that in what I have said I have, in effect, made a case for increased funding for vegetable research, both relative to research on arable crops and absolutely. What the NVRS would ask for—and I only endorse its plea— is level funding and a settled financial environment. What, however, the NVRS actually faces is much worse than that, and the present prospect for the NVRS, of further cuts on top of those already made is black indeed.

In 1984–85, 11 posts were lost at the NVRS. For 1985–86, another 17 posts, including 13 in science grades, have been sacrificed. The NVRS will have lost 28 posts out of 224 in the two years to April 1985. Money that might have been spent on research has been spent on redundancy costs. The NVRS has additionally been asked by the Agriculture and Food Research Council to identify further savings of 18 per cent. for 1986–87.

Not only does the NVRS do work worth millions of pounds for the nation, but does it in a prudent and responsibly cost-conscious manner. Such scope as there was for the elimination of marginal expenditure was more than used up in the first round of cuts. The cuts for 1985–86 will cause the existing research programme to suffer. The further cuts which are envisaged will mean the dissolution of research teams and the complete abandonment of some research projects.

The threat to the NVRS is but an aspect of the wider threat to horticultural research, which is itself but one part of the whole programme of agricultural research, which faces the prospect of cutbacks which will be draconian. The Government have announced their intention to cut expenditure on agricultural and food research and development by £10 million in 1986–87 and by £20 million in 1987–88. As Lord Selborne, chairman of the AFRC has said Cuts of this magnitude would probably lead to the closure of at least two institutions and to a further damaging curtailment of programmes throughout the research service. The new AFRC corporate plan indicates that on top of the 550 jobs lost this year a further 650 jobs—nearly half of them the jobs of scientists—are to go in the next three years. The fall in the AFRC budget between 1982 and 1987 will be between 15 and 20 per cent. It must be borne in mind, too, that the rise in the cost of research, with the sophisticated equipment involved, outruns the general rise in the cost of living.

I appreciate, of course, that it is the Government's hope that the shortfall in Government funding to the AFRC will be made up by an increased contribution from industry. It is not unreasonable that this should happen, given the great benefit that industry has received from AFRC research. There are, however, risks in this approach which must be guarded against. I hope that the means of ensuring a proper contribution from industry will be a levy on the relevant industries, since the priorities of public research ought to be determined more disinterestedly than they are likely to be by industry itself negotiating specific contracts. I am aware, too, that the Government are awaiting the advice of the Priorities Board, and that no particular research establishment should assume the worst for itself until the priorities have been made clear. At the same time the NVRS has grounds for the most serious apprehension. It has been asked to prepare large-scale savings, as I have said. The AFRC corporate plan published in December 1983 identified various research areas as being over or under supported or in balance. Vegetable crop research was one of the areas described as being in balance. But then, in August 1984 Lord Belstead said We are over three years decreasing our support for agriculture and horticulture work and increasing that on food. In the debate on 13 March, my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary confirmed that there are likely to be some changes in relative priorities.[Official Report, 13 March 1985; Vol. 75, c. 413.] Priorities in research should be kept under review. In the debate on 22 December 1983 my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science alluded to the danger that the pattern of organisation can unduly dictate scientific priorities. I put it to the Minister that, similarly, priorities should not be determined by a notion that the Government have that they can get away with putting in less money by dint of extracting more from industry. The source of the funding should not distort our best judgment as to research priorities.

Overall retrenchment on the scale envisaged would be catastrophic for agricultural and horticultural research. What makes this prospective damage seem so disproportionate and gratuitous is that the figures which are so large in relation to the budgets of these research establishments are small in relation to other budgets. An AFRC budget of £121.6 million in 1984–85, even before it is cut in real terms, represents only 6.8 per cent. of this year's forecast public expenditure of £1,779.8 million under the common agricultural policy and on national grants and subsidies. the AFRC costs taxpayers less than 1 per cent. of the total value of the product of British agriculture. These ratios seem odd at a time when we need to reduce surpluses—where they exist; I have said, there are no vegetable mountains—and when, in the words of Sir Ralph Riley, secretary to the AFRC and a member of the Government's Priorities Board, we must think in terms of new objectives for agricultural research in changed economic conditions … We require significantly to increase the competitiveness and efficiency of production rather than its volume; to sustain the effective use of land and practise farming in ways that do not offend the increasing "green" sensitivities; and to ensure that the cost of imported food does not become an insupportable burden on our balance of payments when the contribution from oil diminishes. New crops, new diseases, new market and economic forces, for example, constraints on price support and enlargement of the EEC, and looming environmental and soil structure problems all enhance the importance of research.

At a conference in December my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said that his concept of a modern British agriculture was based on four principles: a more competitive British agriculture; British agriculture and the British food industry supplying a larger share of our domestic market; help for farmers to meet changing demands in diet and pesticide control; and greater emphasis on conservation and enhancement of the environment. Agricultural research is an essential prerequisite of all these policies. The work of the NURS specifically underpins each of them.

The National Farmers Union, in its document "The Way Forward" published in December, observed that the provision of adequate funds for horticulural research, development and advice is vital. They have expressed themselves to me as being "extremely concerned" at the present position.

I do not propose to enter into what I take to be an unproductive debate about whether by one measure or another the United Kingdom is spending more or less than other countries on agricultural and horticultural research. I hope I have made the crucial point that such research is an investment in the vital interests of our country and, that, if anything, we need more of it.

In conclusion therefore I ask my hon. Friend to answer these questions. Will he and his right hon. and hon. Friends recognise the irreparable damage that the proposed cuts, if not restored, will do to the research services in agriculture and horticulture? Will Ministers therefore take steps to ensure that the food, horticultural and agricultural industries provide funds for research which will at least make up the shortfall before the Government proceed with the cuts that they envisage? Will Ministers accept that research needs a stable framework of finance and needs to be rescued from the hurly burly of politics? Will my hon. Friend acknowledge that, apart from the personal difficulties and distress that career disruption causes, research is a fragile, creative enterprise? Will he acknowledge that successful research depends upon complete and enthusiastic concentration and that present uncertainties and anxieties are demoralising and liable to be damaging to the quality of research?

I know that my hon. Friend is sympathetic. He is on the record as saying: The work done by the research councils and universities in scientific research is of fundamental importance to us all."—[Official Report, 22 December 1983; Vol. 51, c. 624.] I appreciate that in much of what I have said I have inevitably dealt with matters which are not, at any rate in particular aspects, within my hon. Friend's ministerial province. None the less I hope very much that in answering this debate he will be able to respond constructively to the considerations I have put forward, and that he will give clear and positive answers to the questions that I have put to him.

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

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Stratford-on-Avon (Mr. Howarth) for giving the House the opportunity to debate this important matter. I thank him for the serious and sober manner in which he has presented his case. We debate science too little in the House. Every opportunity is therefore to be welcomed, even in the circumstances such as he has described this evening. I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food for being present tonight on the Front Bench, because the interests of our Departments in agricultural research march together.

The national vegetable research station, which is situated at Wellesbourne in Warwickshire, is a state-aided agricultural research institute which receives its funds through the Agricultural and Food Research Council. The AFRC supports a total of 22 such research institutes in England and Wales, together with seven Scottish agricultural research institutes which are funded by the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland. The network of institutes constitutes the agricultural and food research service.

Within the AFRS, the remit of the NVRS is to undertake research on the production of outdoor vegetables, to maintain and where possible improve the competitiveness of United Kingdom vegetable growers, to meet the needs of consumers and to avoid undesirable impacts of production systems on the environment. This is clearly important work, and the NVRS, which was established in 1949, is currently working on a range of essential vegetables including various kinds of beans, sprouts, cabbages, tomatoes and many other familiar vegetables.

I understand that the station has received the Queen's award for technical achievement in recognition of its contribution to onion production in the United Kingdom. The control of a disease known, with accuracy but perhaps infelicity of language, as neck rot has extended the period in which home-grown onions are available. The NVRS's research on the control of fungal disease of oilseed rape, as my hon. Friend said, has also contributed to substantial savings in production costs by the industry, and the station has also done important work on the fluid drilling of pre-germinated seeds and on reducing fertiliser requirements.

I say all that in acknowledgement of the valuable work that the station has done and is continuing to do. Nevertheless, AFRC's decisions about the future funding of the station have to be taken in the light of the council's scientific priorities and of the resources made available to it by the Department—by way of grant in aid from the science budget — and by funds from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, which commissions work of a more applied nature of particular and more immediate importance to the industries concerned.

The AFRC is having to address the consequences of reductions in the funding it receives both from the science budget and from the Ministry. The science budget reductions stemmed from the advice given to my right hon. Friend by the Advisory Board for the Research Councils in 1982, and were taken account of in the council's first corporate plan which was published in December 1983. In the light of that plan, and of the council's total resources in 1984–85, which were £46.7 million from the Department and £52.1 million from MAFF, the NVRS's recurrent budget for 1984–85 was set at £2.59 million. This amount was approximately the same in cash terms as the previous year's and thus obviously represented some reduction in terms of the work the station could do. I understand that this reduction in real income was not out of line with reductions elsewhere in the AFRS. As a result, however, 16 posts at the station have been lost this year out of a total complement of 208, 10 of them by compulsory redundancy. My hon. Friend referred to that trend.

Although some of the work which the NVRS does is strategic research paid for out of the science budget, the greater part of the work, about 87 per cent., is commissioned work paid for by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. The announcement by my right hon. Friend, the Minister for Agriculture, on 22 January, that the agriculture Departments' research and development budgets are to be reduced in 1986–87 and 1987–88, will almost certainly mean that further reductions will have to be made in AFRS research programmes. The NVRS, with its high proportion of commissioned work, can hardly expect to escape from having to bear a share of these. I understand that the agriculture Departments are awaiting the advice of the priorities board, as my hon. Friend mentioned, on how reductions between the various sectors of research and development they support might be apportioned; thus, it is too early to say what the precise effects on NVRS will be.

As my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food said in reply to the hon. Member for Pontypridd (Mr. John) in the Adjournment debate on 13 March, to which my hon. Friend also referred, the reductions in the Ministry's planned expenditure reflect the Government's intention that industry should contribute financially towards the R and D from which it benefits and be more fully involved in determining the scale and nature of the R and D programme. The extent to which NVRS is successful in attracting funding from industry will clearly also have a bearing on the quantum of work which will in future be sustainable at the station. In this regard, I would note that, hitherto at least, it has not been the council's practice to reduce allocations to institutes on account of their having been successful in attracting outside funding. I understand that the council has no plans at present to change this practice, which clearly provides a valuable incentive to enterprise.

In the meantime, the AFRC published earlier this month its second corporate plan, covering the period 1985–90. The new plan notes that the programme of restructuring started in 1984 will continue. It cannot, of course, yet quantify the effects of any further reductions in activity brought about as a result of the loss of commissioning funds from MAFF.

With regard to horticultural research, the second corporate plan announces a review of this area of work aimed at improving the operational efficiency of AFRS programmes through unified management and by strenghtening links with MAFF's Agricultural Development and Advisory Service. I understand that the review is looking at all horticultural research in the AFRS —the total value of which is some £9 million annually —with a view to seeking reductions of the order of 18 per cent., a figure quoted by my hon. Friend. This review, which is being conducted by a working party headed by Professor John Harper, FRS, will advise the AFRC plants and soils research committee and, through it, the council, on how best rationalisation and savings can be achieved. The institutes mainly concerned, apart from the NVRS, are East Malting research station and the Glasshouse Crops Research Institute. I understand that there has been detailed consultation with the directors concerned in drawing up a proposed strategy which will be considered by AFRC's council in April. The advice of the Priorities Board for Agriculture and Food R and D will, of course, be taken fully into account as this exercise develops.

For the immediate future, I understand that the council has allocated NVRS a provisional recurrent budget of £2.58 million for 1985–86, recognising that this represents a further reduction in terms of the work the station will be able to do. No assessment of the number of further job losses has been made, nor indeed will that be possible until the overall financial position and the priorities of research in 1986–87 are clearer. When that point is reached, I understand that AFRC aims to make a statement outlining its strategy in the various areas of research for which it is responsible.

I should like to clarify and stress the fact that, in terms of the reductions in funding to which my right hon. Friend the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food referred, it is £10 million in the first year— 1986–87 —and a further £10 million in 1987–88. The £20 million is a cumulative figure embracing the two years.

My hon. Friend also referred to levies. Ministers will wish to consider the full range of possible options and methods of funding, and would not, therefore, want to exclude any options, including levies, at this stage, although they raise special difficulties.

My hon. Friend also asked about industry funding and the timing of the reductions contingent upon that funding. The agriculture Ministers are considering industry funding of research and development and have asked for the views of the priorities board on how this might be done. The Government's view is that it is not unreasonable for industry to bear a part of the cost of a service from which it benefits, as my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary said last week. When the priorities board has given its advice, agriculture Ministers will consult the industry about the mechanisms which might be appropriate for securing its greater involvement. Ministers do not embark on this exercise with any predetermined areas for industry support in mind.

As to timing, while I cannot give my hon. Friend the assurance which he sought, I would emphasise that my right hon. Friend's announcement on 22 January does not envisage any reduction in planned expenditure in 1985–86, and the full reduction is not due to take effect until 1987–88. It is considered that this will allow adequate time to take the necessary decisions and to consult the industry on how it can be fully involved in the funding of the research effort.

I wholly sympathise with those whose job it is to plan and conduct research in times of financial difficulty and some inevitable uncertainty. I recognise that it is not easy to sustain high morale among staff, especially the scientists, whose energy and creativity is the essence of a successful research enterprise such as that conducted at NVRS. Changes of the order of those currently in progress in AFRC present practical and personal problems as well as opportunities. The Department is doing what it can to ease the transition to a lower level of science budget funding. The ARFC's grant in aid for 1985–86 of £50.3 million includes an element of £4.8 million to assist with necessary restructuring.

I repeat that the implications of the reductions in the agriculture Departments' research and development budgets have yet to be considered, both from the point of view of the future work programme of the NVRS and more generally. The Departments concerned with the ARFC are urgently considering this matter so as to allow the consequential implementation to proceed smoothly. The House is not so full tonight that my hon. Friend can have missed the scale of advice available to me on the periphery of the Chamber from among all the interested parties, and that in itself is an index of the importance we attach to, and the concern we all feel for, an orderly process.

I echo the views expressed by my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary in the debate on 13 March, when she pointed out that, even with the reductions which are now taking effect or are in prospect, the Government will still be making a major contribution to agricultural research. I have no reason to suppose that this will not apply equally to research on vegetables, which is the business of NVRS, as elsewhere.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-nine minutes past Ten o' clock.