HL Deb 06 February 1995 vol 561 cc74-83

7.5 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Hendon rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 16th December be approved [5th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, under the Science and Technology Act 1965, provision was made for the establishment of research councils under Royal Charter. There are currently six such councils. The proposed order will establish the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils as a research council in its own right under the Act.

The central laboratory will comprise the Daresbury and the Rutherford-Appleton Laboratories which, since the restructuring which took place in April 1994, have been part of the new Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. That has always been regarded as an interim measure.

The laboratories are located on two main sites, at Chilton in South Oxfordshire and at Daresbury, near Warrington, Cheshire. They have an international reputation for top quality scientific research, particularly in the use of neutrons and X-rays for probing the structure of matter and in particle physics, space and remote sensing research and in advanced computing.

The laboratories' facilities and expertise are used by a very large number of researchers, many of whom are located in United Kingdom universities. The laboratories are, in short, a vital component of the UK science and engineering base. They employ 1,800 staff, of whom 850 are qualified scientists and engineers. Their income is around £94 million, of which £74 million comes from the existing research councils.

Our review of the laboratories included extensive consultation with their users, from both academia and industry. It was completed last autumn. A key outcome of the review was the recognition that continued ownership by a single research council is unsatisfactory. The laboratories carry out work for five of the six research councils, and ownership by the largest of them (which, incidentally, is also the largest customer of the laboratories) blurs the customer-contractor relationship.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, therefore, announced on 26th October last year that, subject to the approval of Parliament, the laboratories would together become a new non-departmental public body, to be called the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils, and established as a research council for the purposes of the Science and Technology Act 1965. That solution met with widespread support during the consultation exercise and has attracted cross-party support from the appropriate Standing Committee of the other place which, last Tuesday, approved the draft order.

In proposing this way forward, the Government have a number of objectives. We want to enable the laboratories to contribute more fully to the wealth-creation and quality of life goals which were set out in the 1993 White Paper Realising our Potential. We recognise the important role of the laboratories as a key part of the United Kingdom's science and engineering base, carrying out basic and strategic research: We intend that to continue; we do not want them to become short-term contract research centres. That is not their role.

We want to improve the accountability of the laboratories and to clarify their relationship with their customers. We also intend, through the proposed changes, to provide an environment in which the laboratories can develop their existing markets, and can address new ones. This is an exciting opportunity for the laboratories.

I wish to pay tribute to the efforts of the director and staff of the laboratories to build up connections with users of their research. They have established a high reputation for the quality of their work, and for their scientific and engineering integrity, in both academia and industry. We wish to see them build on this firm base.

We envisage that the majority of the laboratories' funding will continue to originate from public sources. The major customers will be the research councils. They are fully seized of their responsibility to act as intelligent customers. The laboratories will be eligible to receive a direct allocation from the science vote. The Government envisage that the sums involved will be small in relation to the total public funding they receive through their research council customers, but the facility will be available to fund specific initiatives and activities.

Your Lordships may already be aware that my honourable friend, the Parliamentary Secretary of the Office of Public Service and Science announced that, following open competition, the first chief executive of the new body will be Dr. Paul Williams, who has been the director of the combined Daresbury and Rutherford-Appleton Laboratories since they came together last April. The membership of the new council will be drawn from the other research councils, the academic community, industry and commerce, and senior laboratory staff. This will give the council a composition representing the major constituencies who interact with the laboratories. The objects of the council as defined in its Royal Charter are set out in the schedule to the draft order. They have close parallels in the charters of the other six research councils, and positioning the new body alongside the other councils serves to underline the interdependent relationship between them. It also highlights the Government's wish to see the laboratories remain as a key component of the science and engineering base.

The Government are striving to ensure that the outcomes from the United Kingdom's excellent science and engineering base are more clearly orientated towards wealth-creation, and enhancing the quality of life. We are also committed to maintaining excellence in science and engineering, and to maximising value for money. The creation of the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils is a key step in this process. Accordingly, I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 16th December be approved [5th Report from the Joint Committee].—(Baroness Miller of Hendon.)

7.15 p.m.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton

My Lords, in making my first contribution from the Dispatch Box I wish to say how pleased I am that another member of the 1993 working peers intake has introduced the order. I wish to say immediately also that this is not a partisan issue. We believe that the order deserves support. There are, however, a number of comments we would make and questions we would ask which we hope that the Minister will be able to respond to, if not tonight, in writing.

There is no doubt that investment in our science base is money well spent. One cannot overemphasise the importance to the nation of placing science policy high on the Government's agenda. As indicated, the question of the council was initiated by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on 26th October of last year when he announced that he would set up an independent body in the public sector, and when he made the important statement that, Daresbury and Rutherford are national assets. They have been thoroughly reviewed, and my conclusion is that they should remain in public ownership. I believe that according them independent status is the right way to proceed, but with strong emphasis on operating in a commercial manner, and particularly meeting the needs of the customers". That is a statement we can fully support and which we hope will mean that there are unlikely to be any significant changes in the work of the laboratory; that the basic research is not restricted in any way or the work and running of the new laboratory not interrupted by the change. As the Minister said, the laboratories have large-scale facilities such as ISIS, the most powerful neutron source in the world, a laser research centre and an international space research programme, as well as being the centre for microstructure fabrication. These, together with the 17 research projects, must be nurtured and protected. That is why it is important that the contracts under negotiation for those 17 projects are placed with laboratories with some speed.

There are also certain assurances that need to be given regarding the funding of the laboratory. We would be opposed to any reduction in funding; rather we believe that it should be increased, so assisting UK industry to keep abreast of development by our competitors, particularly in America and Japan. In her reply I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that such expenditure on scientific research will be increased. My understanding is that the Government are expecting increased funding to come from industry. It is estimated, I believe, together with support from the Department of Trade and Industry, at about £19 million. The support of industry is welcome, especially so as all too often it has failed to back the efforts of and invest in British inventions and inventors.

There is also the question of any expectation of funds from Europe. If that is to be the case, can we be assured that it will be additional to government support and not mean a reduction in that support? This question of funding cannot be left just to competitiveness. I am sure we all agree that we cannot afford to lose any facility because of the lack of government funded basic research over a long-term period. The Government must ensure that the new body has ample funds to operate efficiently in the scientific environment. There has, however, also to be some measure of accountability over the spending of this £74 million of public funds. The new body must be accountable and independently monitored. Will the Minister in her reply give an indication of who will carry out that monitoring exercise? Coupled with the need for adequate finance, there must be sufficient specialist knowledge retained in-house to be able to use and interpret the advice it receives from its consultants. This raises the question of whether there are any proposed job cuts and whether in the future researchers will be expected to work to short-term contracts.

The aim of the new body is to support the advancement of knowledge and technology, meeting the needs of research councils, other customers and their user communities, thereby contributing to the economic competitiveness of the country and to the quality of life. These aims are rightly supported by the scientific community, those who benefit most from such economic competitiveness or wealth creation and many more who will benefit from any improvement in the quality of their life.

We ask, however: does this aim fit in with the Minister's statement about the need for preserving basic research as the new body is now considered to he in the category of wealth creation rather than basic research? I would ask the Minister in her reply to establish what is meant by basic research. Will this continue in the new organisation, and how does this differ from what is now said to be economic competitiveness or wealth creation and improving the quality of life?

In giving our warm support to the Government's intentions, to the council and its objects, I would add that there is an outstanding need for long-term corporate planning. Without a corporate plan of five, 10 or 20 years, the new body and the Government will blunder from one year's lack of resources to the next. The Government have to secure the long-term future and the stability of research bodies. Can we have an undertaking that the Government will examine this matter most carefully and that a long-term plan will be presented?

We are discussing a massive institution, not merely in terms of its budget and staff, but in terms of its contribution to science and technological development now and into the next century. Any steps that the Government take to these ends will guarantee our support.

Lord Colwyn

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lady Miller for the clear way she introduced this order this evening. I also wish to congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, for the well-informed understanding of the problems that are concerned with this aspect of research and development.

My noble friend may be aware that I asked a Question on 12th January drawing the Government's attention to the need to promote high quality research in the area of gene therapy and to undertake a co-ordinated approach to new treatments and scientific research.

With that in mind I am delighted this evening to welcome the introduction of the order. I should like to think that it shows on my part an intelligent anticipation of government thinking.

On 12th January I declared an interest as a director of a biopharmaceutical company. Although I can see only a very tenuous connection between my directorship and our debate this evening, in view of the current climate I declare that interest this evening.

My noble friend Lady Cumberlege replied to my Question, stating (at col. 359 of Hansard): The main responsibility for government-funded research into human genetics lies with the Medical Research Council. The MRC spends around £12 million a year on the human genome project, whose main aim is to link specific diseases to the gene responsible. This important project is too large for any one organisation, and requires national and international collaboration". She went on to say that: Apart from the MRC, support for genome research in the UK is also provided by the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council, the Wellcome Trust and the Imperial Cancer Research Fund as well as other charities, such as the Cancer Research Campaign". My noble friend corrected me and said that although the US spends about 10 times more capital on gene therapy as the UK, the UK leads the world and that lead is the result of very good basic science allied to the clinical environment provided by the NHS. As a result, the UK has been able to attract leading scientists.

She also laid to rest my fears that the UK was taking an unco-ordinated approach to scientific research. The MRC and health department, through the appointment of Professor Michael Peckham as director of research and development, are responsible for the nation's co-ordinated approach. In addition, a number of advisory committees and councils have been established to assist in that process, one such council being the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils. I am pleased this evening to acknowledge its foundation and offer it support and encouragement.

The CLRC has been given a wide charter under which to operate. Under that charter its objectives have been defined in the order.

Objective (a) in the schedule is commendable, but I should like to remind your Lordships of the comment of Mr. Dai Rees, the Medical Research Council's secretary, in the 1994 Scientific Strategy: While I would naturally wish for more funding, constraints on public expenditure are a fact of life and we must make the best of what we are given from the public purse and increase our income from other sources whenever we can". In view of the assurance of my noble friend Lady Cumberlege, I ask my noble friend whether the UK is doing enough to ensure that it remains a world leader in scientific research and, in particular, gene therapy.

Can the CLRC truly perform its first objective to full potential if capital investment remains at current levels? Many core technologies around the country are currently dormant. To promote research by providing facilities or additional technical expertise may well not be the answer as I guess that it is additional funding which will eventually convert core technologies lying on the laboratory bench into economic reality.

I hope that the CLRC will be able to encourage greater participation from the business community by establishing additional programmes outside those already in place.

I urge the CLRC to accept an obligation to ensure that objective (c) in the schedule is pursued with great vigour and that gene therapy falls under that umbrella.

If the CLRC fulfils that objective it is likely that the community, and more importantly the business community, will have a far better understanding of the promise that scientific research and particularly genetic research holds for the nation. I hope that, as in the US and Europe, more private capital in the form of investment funds and other creative financing packages become available specifically to service the research requirements.

For the UK to remain a world leader more capital will be required as the public purse is stretched to the limit, and it is crucial that that finance is available in the near future.

If the CLRC is successful in educating minds and organisations with substantial capital awaiting investment opportunity, it will successfully fulfil its other objective—objective (b), which is designed to ensure that the CLRC contributes to the economic competitiveness of the United Kingdom and the quality of life. I welcome the order.

7.25 p.m.

The Earl of Selborne

My Lords, I too should like to intervene briefly to welcome the order. Before I do so I should like to thank my noble friend the Minister for the comprehensive way in which she introduced the order and also to welcome the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, to her new responsibilities on the Front Bench. I am delighted that she has joined the team.

In a sense this is unfinished business from the reform of the research councils last year, as my noble friend the Minister reminded us. I wish to draw attention to the exemplary way in which the Office of Science and Technology has undertaken the review. It has not rushed it. It has taken a great deal of advice, from scientists and customers. It has taken into account accountability and funding arrangements. The fact that that has taken 18 months from the announcement of the previous research councils demonstrates what a thorough job has been done.

There is one small matter about which I would be concerned had I to direct the new council, namely the support required from the Department of Trade and Industry. At present the Department of Trade and Industry is rather fickle in regard to research funding. It seems to be changing its priorities. It clearly feels that its previous contribution to research is not something which it wishes to maintain. I hope that the newly appointed director has been given an assurance from the Department of Trade and Industry, although I do not expect the Minister to answer that point because clearly such an assurance would not be public knowledge.

I wish to draw attention to an unfavourable comparison with how research might have been reorganised. This emanated from the Efficiency Unit scrutiny of public research establishments—an exercise which the House of Lords Select Committee regarded with some horror, as did the Select Committee of the other place. It was based purely on reasons of efficiency. Members of the House may remember that the proposals revolved around reorganisation on either a disciplinary or a regional basis, and, if that could not be decided upon, the proposal was to have directors of rationalisation.

The Select Committee considered that it is necessary to reorganise research from time to time. It is clearly necessary to review the scientific bases and priorities, value for. money and accountability, as is well demonstrated by the draft order before us tonight. What one must not do is lay down doctrinaire rules as to how such reorganisations should be undertaken. There will be one solution on one occasion and another on another occasion. The Scottish system is quite different from that in the rest of the United Kingdom, and probably all the better for that in many respects. However, it would he a great mistake to think that because the Scottish system works reasonably well in Scotland it can be transplanted elsewhere.

In the Select Committee report which came out in November we draw attention to the fact that where rationalisation had taken place in the past it tended to have the characteristic of bringing together government departments, research councils and users of the research and producing a solution which appeared to meet everyone's requirements. We quoted the example of Horticultural Research International, which had brought together sites from the former agriculture and food research council and from the Ministry of Agriculture and put them together under one direction.

Had the order been tabled before we completed our report, I have no doubt that we should have quoted this also as an excellent model of how to organise and reorganise publicly funded research.

7.28 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Hendon

My Lords, the debate has benefited from a number of distinguished and valuable contributions, which I welcome. In particular, I should like to welcome that of the noble Baroness, Lady Gould, from the other side of the House. It is very nice that two of us from the class of '93 are here this evening.

Lord Graham of Edmonton

A very good year, my Lords!

Baroness Miller of Hendon

Indeed, my Lords.

The noble Baroness asked me several questions, particularly about funding, as did my noble friend Lord Colwyn. There is no reason to suppose that there will not be enough funding. The management certainly believe that they can attract enough investment. Currently they have a demand for some key facilities which exceeds the supply by three times. The laboratories have demonstrated their ability in the past to attract significant research projects from research councils and also external funding. The research councils will remain the main customers.

The noble Baroness also asked whether they thought that the new research council could attract investment. The laboratories have currently already initiated research work for over 150 companies. I am sure that the noble Baroness would not wish me to read out the names, but, to give a few examples, there is a £10 million investment from Japan and a £19 million investment in the Central Microstructure Facility for research in micro-electronics and micro-engineering, funded by five industrial partners and the DTI. There is also a £5 million contract to design and build the world's largest superconducting solenoid for CERN, with most of the components being made by United Kingdom industry.

The noble Baroness also asked whether the new council would be accountable. I should like to assure her and the House that it will be fully accountable. Like existing research councils, the new council will have to make an annual report to Parliament and publish accounts audited by the National Audit Office. The new chief executive, Dr. Paul Williams—to whom my noble friend referred—will be the designated accounting officer and will be responsible to the permanent secretary of the Office of Public Service and Science. Ministers will be answerable to Parliament.

The noble Baroness was also concerned over whether or not there might be job losses at the laboratories. We do not believe that there will be any direct impact on jobs at the laboratories arising simply from the change of status. Levels of employment will obviously depend upon the ability of the management and staff to attract customers. New arrangements intended to increase the laboratory's competitiveness should have a beneficial impact on employment.

The noble Baroness was also concerned as to whether basic research might be threatened. We neither intend nor envisage that the laboratories will become short-term contract laboratories. They will continue to work mainly for the other research councils, which have the support of basic research as part of their missions. The mission of the new council refers explicitly to its role in providing facilities and expertise to support basic research.

The noble Baroness was anxious about European funding. We expect that the laboratories will be successful in bidding for European funding and it will be in addition to other income from public sources. I also wish to assure her that the change will not interrupt the work of the laboratories.

My noble friend Lord Colwyn was worried about capital and we understand that it is essential to ensure that the CCLRC facilities remain competitive. So do its research council customers. We envisage that they will continue to support the laboratory with the funds necessary to carry out their work. My noble friend Lord Colwyn was also worried about gene therapy. My right honourable friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster announced on 2nd February in the debate in another place on the allocation of the science budget that additional funding of some £3.5 million is to be provided for the Medical Research Council to take forward its important work on genome. That underpinning research work should lead to an improved understanding of our genetic make-up and subsequent treatments of the type referred to by the noble Lord.

The Government are working to establish a framework to ensure that we get maximum impact and maximum value from our national strengths in science and engineering. Within that framework, the creation of this new council is an essential part of the research council structure. In my opening remarks I mentioned that the proposed order received cross-party support in the other place and I am very gratified by the support it has also received from your Lordships and in particular my noble friend Lord Selborne.

It is notable that both the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering have welcomed the Government's plans. The Royal Society described Daresbury and Rutherford-Appleton as national assets. They are indeed and I believe that our proposals mean that we will get the best from them. I therefore commend the draft order to the House.

On Question, Motion agreed to.