HL Deb 25 October 1988 vol 500 cc1472-5

2.56 p.m.

Lord Ross of Newport asked Her Majesty's Government:

What increased funding they are providing for the Natural Environment Research Council.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, the level of funding for the science budget will be announced at the time of the Autumn Statement. The allocation of the science budget between the individual research councils and other bodies will not be made until later in the year after my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science has had an opportunity to consider the advice on allocation from the Advisory Board for the Research Councils.

Lord Ross of Newport

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. In a Statement or in an Answer made in this House to the noble Baroness, Lady Nicol, last week or the week before, it was indicated that funding for NERC had increased. That does not take into account the money committed to the British Antarctic Survey. Will the Minister please take note that, according to statistics supplied to me and to other noble Lords, NERC's resources have declined by some 5 per cent. in real terms over the past four years? This has led to cuts in university grants and to quite massive redundancies—a figure of some 160 now being mentioned. Will he please put in a good word for NERC with his colleagues?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I agree that in recent years there has been a decline in real terms in NERC's total income because private sector commissions have not grown enough to compensate for a fall in income from commissions from other government departments. The council has had to make some very hard choices, and regrettably there will be staff losses.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, is it not the case that the staff losses are quite substantial, amounting to 160 in the current year? Is it not the case that NERC, having asked for £150 million, was given £123 million? If the Government are really serious about the environment, and if the Prime Minister is really looking to the future with hope, will they not look with rather more graciousness upon the efforts of NERC?

Viscount Davidson

Yes, my Lords, the Natural Environment Research Council has been engaged on research on major environmental issues—ozone depletion, the greenhouse effect and acid deposition—for a number of years, and these will continue. It was NERC's British Antarctic Survey that discovered the ozone hole in 1985. In her speech my right honourable friend the Prime Minister was simply reaffirming the Government's commitment to the environment.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, with respect, although the noble Viscount as always is giving as constructive reply as he can, he is not satisfying me. He told the House that the Government were expecting private industry to make up any deficiency there might be. By how much are the Government expecting private industry to assist? Is it 20 per cent. or 30 per cent.? By how much?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, it would be wrong at this stage for me to anticipate the decision of my right honourable friend the Secretary of State on the allocation of the science budget, which will take place before the end of the year. The best course I can take is to ensure that the comments made in the House today are passed on to my right honourable friend.

Lord Nugent of Guildford

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that the past proportion of private industry's contributions to the NERC has been something of the order of 50 per cent.? As the diminishing grant from the Government has clearly had some influence on the industrial contributors, can my noble friend see that there might be a double bonus if the Government were a little more generous and increased their grant, thereby encouraging industry to increase its grant a little too?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend. I cannot commit myself today, but I shall pass on his remarks to my right honourable friend.

Lord Peston

My Lords, while bearing in mind that the noble Viscount cannot commit himself on the issue today, I hope that when he conveys our views to his right honourable friend the Secretary of State he will remind him that in this scientific field, as in so many others, we are among the world leaders—if not the very best in the world—and it would be a major pity if we lost our researchers because of a shortsighted lack of funding.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I can assure the House that there will be no cuts on priority research. As I have already said, important scientific work on major environmental issues—namely, ozone depletion, the greenhouse effect and acid deposition—will continue.

Lord Hatch of Lusby

My Lords, the noble Viscount is telling the House that we can trust the Government to continue their interest in the environment. Considering that from these Benches for years now Ministers have constantly denigrated the issues we have raised on CFCs, the ozone layer and so on, will he not agree—I know he cannot commit himself—that it is important that he should draw to the Government's attention that the words which have been used by the Prime Minister will be judged by the amount of funding that is put into research on the environment, and not just by rhetoric?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I am not quite sure from the noble Lord's question where the Ministers concerned were sitting. I think he said the Ministers on those Benches. I am sorry, I shall have to read Hansard tomorrow. But, of course, I do not agree with him.

Lord Harmar-Nicholls

My Lords, in view of the last question should not everyone who has a position of responsibility in the matter avoid making this particular issue a party-political football? That is the risk which I see in front of all of us.

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, I agree with what my noble friend has said.

Baroness David

My Lords, a moment ago the Minister mentioned there had been a fall in NERC's funding because of less commissioned work from the private sector. Is it not a fact that there has been an even greater fall in commissioned work from the Government and that that has made a substantial difference?

Viscount Davidson

My Lords, all I can say is that the Government have a responsibility to judge year by year in the Public Expenditure Survey, and in the light of advice they receive, the funds which can be afforded for research and the grants and aid to the research councils. In the Government's judgment, the funding for NERC is right in the circumstances. It is for the council to judge priorities in the light of our national needs and scientific opportunities.