HL Deb 27 January 1994 vol 551 cc1079-80

Lord Taylor of Blackburn asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have for the future of the Overseas Development Natural Resources Institute at Chatham.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Employment (Lord Henley)

My Lords, the Natural Resources Institute is being restructured in the light of a strategic review of its performance and prospects. In the same context, as announced by my noble friend the Minister for Overseas Development on 26th January, a study of options for transferring NRI to private sector ownership is being launched.

Lord Taylor of Blackburn

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. Is he aware that there is great concern among the scientists at the NRI, who have contributed a great deal of work to our overseas aid programme? They do not know what their future will be. They do not know whether they will be cast on the slag-heap or whether they will be used or not. Is he further aware that the expertise of the scientists has been of great benefit to this country? Surely, more should be said and more should be done rather than allow rumours to float around as they are at present.

Lord Henley

My Lords, I hope that people are not fearing rumours floating around, as I shall go on to explain. The need for change is to ensure that the NRI's capacity adapts to changing patterns of demand for its services. A strategic measure of this kind is essential if the NRI is to preserve its position as a centre of excellence in natural resources and if best value is to be obtained for the aid programme. We have appointed the consultants Segal Quince Wickstead and Hambros Bank and they will report shortly. We shall then take the matter forward. It is possible that staff reductions may be necessary but I can give the noble Lord an assurance that there will be full and frank consultation with all involved.

Lord Judd

My Lords, does the Minister agree that, whatever the other explanations, this is the first evidence of cut in real terms in the aid programme? Does he not also agree that there is room for grave anxiety that such an important and rich resource of talent and expertise, which is so desperately needed in the groundwork of development in the third world, is being lost in this way?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I reject totally the allegations that this is evidence of a cut in the aid budget. We believe that we have a very good record on aid. We have maintained and increased our programme in very difficult times—it has increased by 10 per cent. in real terms in the past six years. I accept that the NRI performs a valuable role. We want to ensure that it continues to perform a valuable role. That is why we are ensuring that the consultants look at the future of the NRI to see that it can perform its role in the best possible manner.

Lord Judd

My Lords, does the Minister accept that the aid programme is being cut in real terms now?

Lord Henley

No, my Lords, I do not.

Baroness Young

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that negotiations are proceeding between the University of Greenwich and the NRI with a view to developing research links between the two? Is he further aware that there is also under discussion a proposal that the university might become a tenant of part of the land of the NRI? Would he like to say something further on that matter?

Lord Henley

My Lords, there is not much further that I can say. I can confirm, as my noble friend has informed the House, that the university is planning to develop a new Medway Towns campus. That is very good news for the Medway Towns and a welcome boost for the east Thames corridor. We also believe that the university's decision to rent accommodation at the NRI's Chatham site is an excellent opportunity for collaboration in teaching, research and consultancy. We certainly hope that the consultants will look at various options which involve the University of Greenwich, but I cannot prejudge any suggestions they may come to.

Lord Cledwyn of Penrhos

My Lords, the reputation of the NRI is high not only in this country but internationally. In those circumstances, why is an inquiry necessary in the first place? Will the noble Lord be precise and explain that to the House?

Lord Henley

My Lords, I would be the first to agree with the noble Lord that the NRI is an internationally recognised centre of excellence in natural resources. It will remain a significant contractor of specialised services to the British aid programme. We believe that it should provide the best possible service. There is no reason whatever why that could not be provided just as well in the private sector and no reason whatever why the service could not be just as objective in those circumstances.

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