HC Deb 08 July 1986 vol 101 cc158-60
7. Mr. Tony Lloyd

asked the Secretary of State for Education and Science what recent representations he has received about the Science and Engineering Research Council decision to transfer the Royal Greenwich Observatory to Cambridge.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Education and Science (Mr. George Walden)

Since the council meeting on 18 June my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I have received 22 letters commenting on the decision to transfer the RGO to Cambridge.

Mr. Lloyd

Has the Minister seen the editorial in the latest edition of Nature, which surmises that the decision to refuse to transfer the Royal Greenwich Observatory to Manchester seemed to be justified by a desire to please the staff at the RGO, who felt that living north of the River Trent would be uncomfortable and a little bit like living in a foreign country? Does the Minister accept that nobody — not only those in the north of England -believes that the decision was made on technical grounds, but was simply to please the Oxbridge mafiosi? Will the hon. Gentleman now agree to publish the reports leading up to the decision so that at least he can absolve himself of the charge that he is pandering to that mafiosi?

Mr. Walden

Such decisions on scientific grounds are taken by the research councils that are appointed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to make precisely that sort of decision.

Mr. Charles Wardle

Is my hon. Friend aware that both the Royal Society and the Royal Astronomical Society have advised the SERC to leave the Royal Greenwich Observatory at Herstmonceux? Is he further aware that the chairman of the SERC said in March that the cost of the move would be £3.5 million, and now he is saying that it will cost £6 million? Will my hon. Friend examine the proposal carefully and critically, and particularly the financial reasoning that underlies it?

Mr. Walden

I can only repeat to my hon. Friend what I have just said in reply, to the first question. Those decisions are taken on scientific grounds, by people who are appointed by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to take them. However, I should like to add that I am well aware of the uncertainty and, perhaps, the disruption that will be caused to the lives of some of my hon. Friend's constituents. As he knows, the SERC is anxious to do whatever it can to help in that regard.

Mr. Faulds

Is the hon. Gentleman not aware that there is widespread and near total opposition—[Interruption.] I will get on when people shut up and let people be heard—

Mr. Speaker

Order. I can hear the hon. Gentleman.

Mr. Faulds

For the benefit of these loons, I will repeat the question. Is the hon. Gentleman unaware that there is widespread and near total opposition to the move from Herstmonceux by those in the astronomical world who actually know something about this problem, unlike the majority of the members of the SERC? Will the hon. Gentleman get his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State to review this decision before the damaging implications become too obvious?

Mr. Walden

I am not aware of near total opposition to the decision. What I am aware of, as in any such decision, is very healthy and natural public discussion and public dissent.

Mr. Silvester

Will my hon. Friend make it clear, because it is not altogether clear from his answers, whether he is simply taking the decision of the SERC at face value, or reviewing it? If he is reviewing it, will he make sure that before the review he publishes the facts on which the council's decision and statement are based, particularly in respect of the Herschel development?

Mr. Walden

The position is as follows. The council is required to seek my right hon. Friend's approval to the capital expenditure at Cambridge, and through him, the Treasury, for the retention of the receipts from the sale of the Herstmonceux estate. Apart from those financial approvals, there is a long-standing practice over many years, observed by Governments of both complexions, not to overturn a decision by a research council made on scientific grounds.

Dr. Bray

Is the Minister aware that the SERC in fact said that Manchester as well as Cambridge would be very satisfactory from scientific, technological and administrative viewpoints"? Is he further aware that the decision to send the observatory to Cambridge greatly increases the claims that Manchester will have for the next research institute, which will perhaps create more employment in Greater Manchester than in La Palma or Hawaii?

Mr. Walden

I note the hon. Gentleman's advance lobbying.

Mr. Gow

Is my hon. Friend aware that among the 22 letters which he has received about the recommendations of the research council there is a particularly powerful one from the hon. Member for Eastbourne? Following the answer that he has just given to my hon. Friend the Member for Manchester, Withington (Mr. Silvester) will my hon. Friend make it clear that the Secretary of State does not have in mind even the possibility that the Government will reject the recommendations of the research council?

Mr. Walden

Among the other letters, I am aware, of course, of the powerful points that have been put by my hon. Friend. I can only repeat that there is a long-standing practice, observed by all Governments, not to question decisions by research councils which are taken on scientific grounds.

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