HL Deb 13 December 2004 vol 667 cc1-6GC
The Lord President of the Council (Baroness Amos)

I beg to move that the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Agriculture (Northern Ireland) Order 2004.

The purpose of the draft order is to introduce measures that will do three things. First, the order will allow the creation of a new Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute that will carry out statutory agricultural science functions and will also have a commercial role in scientific activities, including research and development. Secondly, the order clears the way for improvements in the delivery of higher-level agricultural education. It does so by enabling withdrawal of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development from direct involvement in the provision of teaching at the School of Agriculture and Food Science at Queen's University, Belfast. Responsibility for teaching courses relating to agriculture, food and the environment will therefore move to a similar basis as for other university studies. Thirdly, the order provides for the winding-up of the Agricultural Research Institute and for the functions and assets of that body to be subsumed within the new Agri-food and Biosciences Institute.

The policy measures in the order have been reached after lengthy consideration and discussion of the structures needed to serve the agri-food sector over coming years. There is widespread consent—resulting from four main public consultations—to the proposals. I commend the order to the Committee.

Moved, That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the draft Agriculture (Northern Ireland) Order 2004.—(Baroness Amos.)

Lord Glentoran

I thank the Lord President for bringing the order before the Committee; I also thank her and her officials, who gave me a very full briefing this morning.

Over many years in Northern Ireland, the farming industry has been our biggest and most important industry. We have for many years been extremely well served by the Department of Agriculture. I declare an interest as a Northern Ireland farmer. In particular, we were well served by Brid Rogers and her team during the days of foot and mouth.

Overall, I welcome the order, which seems to do much with regard to tidying up. Noble Lords will not be surprised to hear that I was anxious about funding and a number of the outlying institutions that those in farming and I know about. We have many scientific experimental operations and agricultural schools. I hope that none of those will come to any harm and will continue to flourish under the new structures. I was assured this morning by the officials that that is so and that there should not be a shortage of cash.

I was, as always, concerned that the Treasury would be looking to nick a bit of the cash and to put it somewhere else. It appears that that is not so, although the Explanatory Memorandum contains figures that reduce the current £2 million for 2006 to £1.467 million and £1.5 million for 2007–08. However, again, the officials made the point to me that the new organisation should be in a position to become much more commercial and to earn money as a business, if it is set up entrepreneurially with the right sort of people. I see no reason why it should not benefit from both farming in the Republic—and, indeed, across the water, in Scotland, at least. I believe that some of the organisations that are operating in the field are well ahead of the field in those countries. Therefore, I sincerely hope that this move will be for the best.

At this stage, I have no further comments. I support the order.

Lord Smith of Clifton

We, too, support this order. It will update the provisions—and, frankly, not before time. The old 1928 Act, which is being repealed, represented the whole question of agricultural produce. But now the whole gate-to-plate spectrum has moved into food products themselves, and not only agricultural products, and it is important that that change in spectrum is reflected in the research and development capacity for the industry in Northern Ireland.

Agriculture remains a very important industry in Northern Ireland. Quite considerable developments have occurred in food technology, and today we see a successful export of food products of a high quality from Northern Ireland to all parts of Europe. So the provision is welcome from that point of view. It is also welcome on the grounds that the relationship into which DANI—the Department of Agriculture in Northern Ireland—and Queen's University entered in 1928 became rather a cosy cartel in latter years. It is good that a new foundation for research and development is being put in place by this order. For that reason, we support and welcome the order, which is actually about 10 years overdue.

Lord Laird

On behalf of my Ulster Unionist colleagues, I am happy to give this order a broad welcome. However, I wish to highlight a number of aspects which I believe require further clarification.

In considering the new Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute, the Ulster Farmers Union expressed concern about the make-up of the board. It had hoped that the chairman and at least 50 per cent of the board would be made up of experts in the agri-food sector. While paragraph 2 of Schedule 1 attempts to address that concern by providing that the board shall, secure that each member has experience in a field of activity relevant to the discharge of the functions of the Institute", it is still not clear how these appointments will be made, or whether it will be possible to have several people with experience of one area, such as fisheries, and none with experience of forestry, for example.

That point was raised in another place last week, but the Minister missed the finer point, when he merely reiterated that the board will be made up of people of "the right calibre" who, have the relevant expertise to be able to provide oversight of a body primarily involved in scientific testing and research and development in agriculture, animal health and related areas".—[Official Report, Commons, Second Standing Committee on Delegated Legislation, 6/12/04; col. 11.] What the Minister did do, however—and this we welcome—was to confirm that one space on the board would be reserved on a non-statutory basis for a person nominated by the Ulster Farmers Union.

Will the noble Baroness tell us how the board will be appointed, what process will be in place to facilitate appointments and, indeed, whether it is necessary to have someone from each of the highlighted aspects of agriculture, food and the environment—animal health, fisheries, forestry, the natural environment and rural development—before the board can meet?

Concerns have also been raised during the consultation phase and, indeed, at last week's committee in the other place, regarding the commercial work of the institute. The order contains a statutory obligation on the institute not to seek any commercial work that will prejudice the agreed programme of work for the department. Equally, however, the department has powers to give directions to the institute on the research that it should carry out, but such directions should not put the institute in breach of any existing contractual obligations. This rather complex system seems to me to be entirely open to confusion. Can the Minister tell us how the department will ensure that any commercial contacts gained by the institute do not prejudice department-guided work? Who judges whether commercial activities are prejudicing the departmental work done by the institute, and what mechanisms are in place to ensure that that does not happen? Will the Minister be able to intervene, or is it up to the institute to judge its own work? What does the noble Baroness anticipate happening in the inevitable event of a conflict of interest or cross-over of research? How would such a situation be administered?

I now turn to the new department at Queen's University, the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise. How closely does the noble Baroness anticipate the new college to work with the institute? Again, will there be cross-over and what mechanisms are in place to ensure that the college and the institute actually work together to develop global competitiveness and success for Northern Ireland's agriculture sector?

Moreover, the legislation before us today does not indicate what will happen with regard to the college's funding after the initial three-year period. Can the noble Baroness assure us that funding will be guaranteed in the long term?

In conclusion, I would like to draw the Minister on what impact she feels the new institute will have on stemming the spread of TB or other infectious diseases across our farms, or how its work will help prevent a repeat of the foot and mouth disaster. Will research into diseases such as those take priority?

Lord Glentoran

Before the noble Baroness responds, I want to mention one figure. The thought of the institute having 18 people on its board fills me with horror. I am sure that any future chairman would be horrified to discover that he had to try to reach decisions with 18 people. That figure is too high.

Baroness Amos

First, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken for their broad welcome for the order. The noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, referred specifically to funding. I wish to put it on record that the proposals are not specifically linked to cost-cutting exercises. Their purpose is to improve the structures needed for the future integrity and viability of providing agri-food, educational, scientific and related services. The setting up of the new body will result in additional initial costs but thereafter it should operate at costs either similar to the present arrangements or perhaps lower because of the coming together to achieve greater value for money. We consider these costs to be reasonable, bearing in mind the nature of the changes.

As regards the point the noble Lord, Lord Glentoran, raised about having 18 people on the board, I believe that the order has a range from eight to 18 as it is anticipated that specific skill sets will be required. Therefore, the range gives a degree of flexibility. However, I take the noble Lord's point that the maximum figure of 18 is a large number of people to work with. I welcome the recognition by the noble Lord, Lord Smith of Clifton, of the major developments that have taken place in food technology.

I turn to the specific points raised by the noble Lord, Lord Laird. First, I wish to address his comments on the composition of the board. I am aware of concerns about representation raised by the farmers' union. It is, of course, too early to be definitive about the nature of board membership, but I reassure the noble Lord, Lord Laird, that careful consideration will be given to the composition of the board. It is important to note that the board will need to have a very strong business remit both to deliver services and to win new commercial funding, including for research and development. We are keen to identify the key talents needed for the AFBI board and to match selection accordingly. We are looking to see whether the balance of corporate skills is appropriate for the important role that the board has to play. We want to ensure that collectively, as far as reasonably possible, the board reflects the differing community backgrounds in Northern Ireland.

On further points made by the noble Lord with respect to appointments to the board, there is flexibility in the order to allow appointments to be made in a way that reflects the functions of AFBI. That was a particular concern of the noble Lord, Lord Laird. Early in 2005 the department will consider and decide on how composition of the board will be taken forward. The noble Lord will understand that I cannot be drawn further on that at present, but I can reassure him that appointments will be in line with guidance from the Northern Ireland Commissioner for Public Appointments.

On the question of commercial work prejudicing work for the department, the department will agree with AFBI the work programme for each year in its business plan, so that there should not be any confusion about that. This will include an assessment of whether there is any potential prejudicial impact on AFBI's work. The department will require assurances that statutory testing will not be compromised, and it is right that the department should have powers of direction should these prove necessary. There will be a specific sponsoring division in the department to monitor and liaise with AFBI, and this division will deal with any conflict of interest that might arise, but I do not anticipate that any of those kinds of conflicts will happen.

On the questions with respect to the College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise, it will have lead responsibility for providing dissemination of technical transfer, with AFBI playing a key role in support of the college. As may be expected with a front line scientific body, AFBI will be in a strong position to provide input to DARD's technology transfer work. The College of Agriculture, Food and Rural Enterprise will liaise closely with AFBI, universities, research institutes and other providers to ensure cohesive and comprehensive delivery of technology transfer. The sponsoring division will monitor all those arrangements.

On the question about funding for Queen's University Belfast School of Agriculture, DARD will retain control of the funding for the School of Agri-Food and Land Use until 2008. This is a highly visible way of showing that the money is secured during the three-year transitional period. After the three-year period, appropriate funding transfers to the Department for Employment and Learning will take place. As a result, the Department for Employment and Learning will have sufficient long-term funding for continued operation of the School of Agri-Food and Land Use at current levels. This means that the school will be funded in the same manner as for other Queen's University Belfast facilities.

On the final point made by the noble Lord, Lord Laird, on the impact on conquering diseases such as TB and foot-and-mouth, AFBI will have a major role in all scientific research and development. I understand that animal health research is already high on the agenda, and I foresee that position will remain unchanged. Prevention of a further foot-and-mouth disaster is a matter for the department to consider. AFBI's role will be to provide a unified emergency response should any such situation arise. I hope that I have addressed the points that have been raised. I commend the order to the Committee.

On Question, Motion agreed to.