HL Deb 13 January 1994 vol 551 cc227-9

3.15 p.m.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn asked Her Majesty's Government:

How many contracts for transport research they have let out to bodies outside the Department of Transport's Transport Research Laboratory, and what are the names of the bodies concerned and the fees charged in each case.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Transport (Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish)

My Lords, the Department of Transport has let 84 contracts for transport research to bodies outside the Transport Research Laboratory since the current system for managing research was introduced in April 1992. The contracted bodies include consultants, research and higher educational institutions, and other government departments. Details of the contracts requested are being provided in writing to the noble Baroness.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn

My Lords, I apologise to the House for addressing it through a heavy. cold which has suddenly descended upon me, but the matter which I wish to raise is urgent. I thank the Minister for his reply. Will he tell the House who, under the Government's proposals for privatising the Transport Research Laboratory, will be responsible for interpreting, assessing and monitoring the flood of those individual contracts which will come in, because they cannot just descend higgledy-piggledy on the Minister's desk? Will he also tell us who will fund the long-term, high-quality research which the TRL does and which produces much greater economic benefits for the country than short-term profit-making contracts?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, the same person or institution will fund long-term research in the future as it does today; namely, the Department of Transport. As it did in the past, it will do in the future; that is, it will assess the strength of the research projects. There is a great deal of difference between having the projects of only one person to assess and having a number of competing people who are putting forward different tenders for the work that one wishes them to undertake.

Lord Hailsham of Saint Marylebone

My Lords, while I yield to nobody in my admiration for the Transport Research Laboratory and the quality of its work and should like it to continue into the indefinite future, is it not the case that over the country there is an extremely wide number of schemes for road improvements and the like in which contracts for applied research are absolutely essential if their value as accident prevention or traffic promotion programmes are to be assessed? Is there not room in that field both for the excellent work of the Transport Research Laboratory and for an extremely wide number of research projects?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, my noble and learned friend is absolutely right. There is room in this field for a wide range of research institutions, including the one which we are discussing, higher education institutions and so on. In fact, they have always been used to some extent, either directly by the department or indirectly by the TRL. Therefore, I agree with my noble and learned friend. I believe that we shall improve the service that the department—and, therefore, the taxpayer—receives by having competition in this field.

Lord Carmichael of Kelvingrove

My Lords, the Minister said that he would send a letter to my noble friend Lady Castle of Blackburn. Will he place a copy of that list in the Library so that noble Lords can see it? Does the Minister accept, as my noble friend said, that it is not sufficient merely to have the research? It is the interpretation of that research which is extremely important. Many other countries, including the United States, are extremely envious of the impartiality of the TRL. Could we not have at least the three years promised by the Secretary of State in which the laboratory would run as an agency to see how the other bodies which are to carry out research blend in with it?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, first, perhaps I may say to the noble Lord that of course I intend to place a copy of the list in the Library so that other noble Lords can read it.

To refer to his other points, as I said yesterday, I do not believe that, just because a body is in the public sector, that necessarily makes it entirely objective. Conversely, because a body is in the private sector that does not mean that it is not objective. Consultancies of all kinds can be found in every part of the private sector and they give the kind of service that their customer demands, otherwise the customer will go to another supplier.

Lord Stoddart of Swindon

My Lords, is there not something to be said for continuing the integrated research which has taken place at the research laboratory over a long period of time with a great deal of success? Is there not a danger that, with the fragmentation of the research effort, the research laboratory will not be as effective in the future as it has been in the past?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

No, my Lords, we do not believe that to be the case. However, it is one of the matters to which we have asked the consultants to address themselves and, as I explained yesterday, we are currently studying what they have to say. We asked them to make sure that in their report they covered the question of the future needs of the department for research and development facilities.

Baroness Castle of Blackburn

My Lords, can the Minister say on what date the consultants' report will be available to this House?

Lord Mackay of Ardbrecknish

My Lords, as I said yesterday, the Government are currently considering the consultants' report. When we have finished that procedure we will, as we promised, make the report available—and I made the qualification yesterday that this would be without any commercial-in-confidence material which it may contain—first to the trade unions, with whom we will then hold discussions about what we propose.