HL Deb 26 February 1985 vol 460 cc829-31

2.37 p.m.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government where they intend to apply the proposed reductions in expenditure on agricultural research and development, and what representations they have received on these proposals.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Lord Belstead)

My Lords, my right honourable friend has asked the Priorities Board for Research and Development in Agriculture and Food to advise on how the research effort might be adjusted to take account of the overall reduction in planned expenditure. We shall be taking our decisions in the light of that advice and of our assessment of the scope for greater industry support for research undertaken by the public sector. The reaction to these proposals will emerge more clearly as our consultations progress.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, in thanking the Minister for that reply, may I say that he has not told us very much? Can I put it to him and is he really aware—

A noble Lord

Ask a question!

Lord John-Mackie

I have, my Lords. Is the Minister aware that if efficiency in farming is to be maintained in the face of falling prices, agriculture needs more research and development, not less? Is he also aware that if he reads the letter in The Times today written by the director of the Plant Breeding Institute, who makes this point, he will appreciate that question? Does he also realise that the AFRC, if it has to bear the major part of these cuts, will probably have to do away with another two institutes over and above the Letcombe Laboratory and the Weed Research Organisation? Does he not realise that this demoralises research workers to a degree that affects their work immensely? The noble Lord mentioned—

Noble Lords

Too long!

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, I should like to ask the noble Lord whether he is aware that if the industry is to give help to research, it will need more time to organise? Will he see that the cuts are phased over a longer period to allow this to happen?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, the noble Lord says in his first question that the efficiency of the agricultural industry is all important. That of course is why the total expenditure on agriculture, fisheries and food in the United Kingdom is over £200 million a year—a figure which compares very favourably with other major OECD countries. The Government have said that we believe that the industry ought to take a share in that funding and in the decisions on R & D. We are consulting the priorities board on those issues. The noble Lord asked me specifically about the AFRC institutes and about the timing of decisions. I give the noble Lord an assurance that we shall aim to give guidance on our future recommendations from the Ministry of Agriculture as soon as we can. But of course the management of the institutes is a matter for the AFRC.

Lord Harvington

My Lords, will my noble friend also bear in mind that much of the money involved over the past 25 years has been spent on trying to isolate the virus in the disease of scrapie in sheep? Is he aware that as a result, to the great loss of our sheep breeders, it has not been possible to export pedigree sheep from this country to New Zealand or Australia? Will he try to ensure that some money is left for the continuation of what has been going on rather unsuccessfully for the past 25 years?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, my noble friend makes an important point. It will undoubtedly be taken into account by the priorities board in giving its advice to my right honourable friend on the priorities that it foresees in the future for R & D. I shall also draw my right honourable friend's attention to what my noble friend has said.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, will the noble Lord confirm what is common knowledge—that the announcement of these proposed cuts has caused considerable dismay not only to the farming community, to the agricultural colleges and to the university departments where they teach agriculture, but also in the AFRC itself? Will he also confirm that this research is of value not only to the farmers of this country but also to the third world? Will he agree with Sir Ralph Riley that these cuts, if carried out, would bring this country down to the level of Greece and Italy?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, it is because the research work in this country, as the noble Lord knows very well, is of such importance that the expenditure amounts to over £200 million. The decision has been taken by the Government that they will not make any change to that rate of funding for another year; but after that there will be a reduction in commissioned research of £10 million in 1986–87, and another £10 million in 1987–88. I do not agree with the last question that the noble Lord put.

Lord Mottistone

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that I was right in the impression I received from his first Answer that in the future there will probably be rather more of a fair share for food processing research than there has been in the past?

Lord Belstead

My Lords, we are putting more emphasis on food research in the future. This, of course, is a response to the report, made about two years ago, of the Select Committee of another place.

Baroness White

My Lords, can the Minister confirm that the money which was allocated to the Agricultural and Food Research Council for restructuring is being safeguarded? I ask this because there will be considerable expenditure on reorganisation.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I do not think I can go further than simply to say that within the total budget which the AFRC has, which of course comes from both my right honourable friend's department and the Department of Education and Science, it will be for the AFRC to decide how it runs its institutes.

Lord Inglewood

My Lords, can my noble friend make it clear to the industry whether this expenditure on research and development is aimed at an increase in production in this country, or at a reduction? That is where we have felt the pinch over the past year.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, this is perhaps one of the most important points which need to be looked at, and I have no doubt at all that it is a point which at this moment is being looked at by the priorities board.

Lord John-Mackie

My Lords, is the Minister aware that he made a mistake in saying that the figure for 1987–88 was £10 million? It is £20 million.

Lord Belstead

My Lords, I am glad to clarify this, because, like the noble Lord, I think one could draw the wrong conclusion from statements that have been made. The correct figures are that there will be no change in funding in the next financial year, which is 1985–86; there will be a £10 million reduction in the following year, and a £10 million reduction in the year after that.