HL Deb 22 January 1992 vol 534 cc844-6

2.53 p.m.

Lord Dean of Beswick

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether the Alzheimer's disease unit at St. Mary's Hospital is continuing to carry out research, and what assistance is being provided by the Department of Health.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I understand that the research in question is continuing. This financial year the Medical Research Council—the main Government agency for funding medical research—has provided some £446,000 in its support. In the 1990–91 financial year (the latest figures available) the council spent well over £3 million directly on research into Alzheimer's disease generally, and a considerable sum on basic research which may be relevant to the disease.

Lord Dean of Beswick

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that informative reply. Bearing in mind the progress that has been made in the early diagnosis and treatment of this disease, will she undertake to keep the Secretary of State informed in order that there is the highest possible funding to allow this good work to continue?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, of course I shall ensure that my right honourable friend is notified of the concern of everyone in your Lordships' House on this matter. However, I doubt whether I need to emphasise that to him. I have already summarised the substantial sum which the MRC has spent on such research. Increases in the MRC's future grant-in-aid, announced before Christmas, will enable the MRC to launch its neuro-science and genetic approaches to human health, so expanding its programme of research on treatment of psychiatric and neurological disorders such as Alzheimer's disease.

Lord Glenarthur

My Lords, more generally, does my noble friend agree that, as well as those academics who sadly wish to take their talents abroad, there is also a number of academics who wish to bring their skills here from abroad? Can my noble friend say in which direction the balance lies?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I can positively reassure my noble friend. The university statistical record shows that there have been net inflows of academic staff from abroad over the past seven years. Information collected by the research councils on the first destination of their studentship holders in 1989 indicates that 11 per cent. were going into employment abroad, and of those only 3 per cent. were entering permanent academic positions. That is a very different position from 1963 when it was revealed that about 35 per cent. of Ph.D. holders were emigrating.

Baroness Seear

My Lords, can the noble Baroness tell me whether those figures refer to a comparison of the grades of people who went away and of those who came back? Simply giving numbers does not tell us very much.

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I am delighted to be able to tell the noble Baroness that the proportion leaving for employment abroad is lower for the highest grades and that at the professorial level the total leaving has averaged about half of 1 per cent. each year. Since 1983 those leaving have been outnumbered by those coming here from abroad.

Lord Ennals

My Lords, further to this plethora of good news which the Minister brings to us, will she accept that research into Alzheimer's disease should have very high priority? Apart from cancer, it is the most disturbing and widespread of all conditions primarily affecting elderly people. Will the Minister ensure that this disease has the very highest priority?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I am sure that everyone in your Lordships' House will agree with the noble Lord's request that the disease must have the highest priority. Perhaps I may continue with my good news: in response to the recommendations of your Lordships' Select Committee, the Department of Health last year appointed a director of research and development and set up the first ever NHS R&D strategy. Therefore, there can be no doubt about the commitment.

Baroness Blackstone

My Lords, is the Minister aware that the figures which she has given concerning academic staff relate to people returning for permanent posts? Is she also aware that a great many people who are working in medical research, as in other scientific research posts, are on temporary contracts? Can the Minister say what plans the Government have to improve the pay, conditions and length of contract of research staff in order to stop the staff—who are currently faced with so many uncertainties about their future careers—taking posts abroad?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, it is for the universities and the research councils as employers to decide on the balance between the number of permanent staff and those on fixed-term contracts. In the United Kingdom pay scales for clinical academic researchers in particular are by no means ungenerous. They are paid on National Health Service scales in which the consultant rate ranges from almost £36,000 to £46,000. Perhaps I may suggest that we should be celebrating that the world acknowledges the excellence of our people.

Baroness Elles

My Lords, does my noble friend agree that the greatest encouragement for academics and professors in this field to return and stay in the United Kingdom will be the return of a Conservative Government which looks after the NHS?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I have no difficulty in agreeing with that.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, did the noble Baroness see the "Panorama" programme on Monday night? It was very critical of the treatment of Alzheimer's disease in this country. The programme has caused considerable disquiet. Can she give the current position of the team of 15 researchers at St. Mary's Hospital who are dealing with research into Alzheimer's disease? They are reported to be leaving for the United States, although I understand that that has now been delayed. Will the Minister clarify the position? Can she tell us about salaries? Also, is she aware that the main criticism of the Government is that the salaries of these researchers are much lower than they would be in the United States or in the countries of Western Europe?

Baroness Denton of Wakefield

My Lords, I did not see the "Panorama" programme and even with my inexperience I think that the noble Lord's question ranges a little wide of the Question. In a letter to The Times earlier this month the Dean of St. Mary's, who is directly concerned said: No army worth its salt is dismayed by the loss of a general. The atmosphere at St. Mary's remains very enthusiastic and lively". I also draw attention to the fact that St. Mary's is not the only establishment carrying out research into Alzheimer's disease.