HC Deb 15 July 1999 vol 335 cc559-60
10. Dr. Phyllis Starkey (Milton Keynes, South-West)

What estimate his Department has made of the number of jobs in the United Kingdom dependent on biotechnology. [90018]

The Minister for Energy and Industry (Mr. John Battle)

Although that information is not available from official sources because biotechnology cuts across traditional standard industrial classification categories, a report published earlier this year by the Biolndustry Association, entitled "Industrial markets for UK biotechnology—trends and issues", estimates that dedicated bioscience companies employ between 35,000 and 40,000 highly skilled people.

Dr. Starkey

I thank my hon. Friend for that answer. Is he aware that the latest Ernst and Young European life sciences report revealed that this country is home to the largest number of biotech companies in the European Union, and that those companies are largely focused around Oxford and Cambridge and in Scotland? What is his Department doing to ensure that we build on those regional concentrations? May I point out that my constituency is midway between Oxford and Cambridge and is well placed to be part of a biotech innovation corridor?

Mr. Battle

My hon. Friend had much experience in her former life in that sector and brings wisdom to the House in her campaigning for and championing of it. Ernst and Young estimates that the number of UK specialist biotechnology small and medium-sized enterprises has increased from 135 in 1995 to more than 270 in 1999. The sector is burgeoning. We are leading in Europe in that sector with our top-quality expertise.

We ought to remember that the industry contributes to agriculture, health, manufacturing and new clean-up environmental processes. In the future, there will be much work to be won on the greening agenda, using biotechnology techniques. We aim to encourage the development of biotechnology. The Department's work is to focus on the natural clusters that are emerging and to ensure that the whole sector gets an underpinning boost. It is vital to the future of our economy, and it will be vital to the quality of life in the 21st century.

Mr. Nicholas Winterton (Macclesfield)

From this side of the House I wish the Minister well, but, in seeking to increase the number of jobs in the important biotechnology sector, he should focus not only on the areas referred to by the hon. Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey), but on Macclesfield. The town boasts an extremely go-ahead biotechnology company called Proteus International plc, which is based at the Lyme Green business park in Macclesfield. What help and advice would the Minister give Proteus, which has developed a BSE diagnostic testing technology which could prove of very great benefit to this country, to help the company to market and develop that technology, to the advantage of our beef and cattle industry and of the whole country?

Mr. Battle

I should tell the hon. Gentleman that biotechnology companies are developing in practically every constituency. Biotechnology really is an industry of the future. It is the engineering of the future, and it will be not a small niche but a major segment of our economy in the 21st century.

With regard to the use of the science that has developed, in January we launched the Bio-wise project, to encourage technology transfer and the take-up of that science and research by all sectors of industry, ensuring that the economic and environmental benefits of the research are realised by a widespread application throughout industry and commerce. We have put about £13 million into that scheme over four years, to help companies such as the one in the hon. Gentleman's constituency.

Mr. Alan W. Williams (East Carmarthen and Dinefwr)

Does my hon. Friend agree that the term "biotechnology" is widely misused? The agricultural component, involving genetically modified foods, is highly controversial and does not receive the support of the general public, but much the larger component consists of applications to medicine—to health. In that sphere—the design of new drugs, taking a molecular approach to medicine—the prospects for the 21st century are extremely promising, and Britain, given the record of our excellent pharmaceutical companies, is very well placed to exploit those applications.

Mr. Battle

My hon. Friend makes an important point. It is important to emphasise the full range of biotechnologies in the plural. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) asked about the number of jobs. The number of jobs in diagnostics—the medical area that my hon. Friend the Member for East Carmarthen and Dinefwr (Mr. Williams) refers to—is estimated to be about 9,000. There are about 6,000 jobs in environmental clean-up, using what is called bio-remediation. There are 4,500 jobs in food biotechnology. It is important that we keep a sense of proportion while appreciating the full range of the sector, which can improve health and revitalise some of the traditional manufacturing sectors of our economy.