HL Deb 24 November 1999 vol 607 cc448-50


Lord Peyton of Yeovil

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they consider that research into veterinary matters is adequately co-ordinated.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Baroness Hayman)

My Lords, in 2000–01 the Government will spend in excess of £42 million on veterinary research. The research is fully co-ordinated across government departments and research councils and the appropriate structures are in place to ensure that it is effective. The Government recognise the importance of co-ordination and continue to encourage the development of appropriate mechanisms. Where necessary, we have created high level committees to oversee research of national importance.

Lord Peyton of Yeovil

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that quite astonishing reply which could only have emanated from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food. Will she follow me in two very simple propositions: first, that veterinary research and animal health are important: and, secondly, that funds for research are not overflowing? It therefore follows that those funds should be spent as well as possible. Is it really the fact that the best we can do is to produce a combination between the ministry, whose defects are already well known, a body known as the BBSRC to its friends—I shall not tire your Lordships with its full title—and the Higher Education Funding Council? Those bodies have their own axes to grind. Far from co-operating or being co-ordinated together, they produce fragmentation to the extent that research is separated from disease and disease is separated entirely from teaching and training.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the noble Lord is wishing for a simpler world than that which actually exists. I certainly agree with him that veterinary research is important. My department, much maligned as it is, particularly by the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, has increased spending on veterinary research by nearly £10 million since 1996. However, we are not the only funders of such research. The Government as a whole, as I am sure my noble friend Lord Sainsbury would point out, have increased their funding by £1 billion in terms of strengthening the science base overall which flows into matters of veterinary medicine. Research is carried out at the universities. There are links with the veterinary schools—MAFF has recognised that by having three fellowships at veterinary colleges which it supports. On matters like spongiform encephalopathies, which are enormously complicated, we have to look to other funders of research such as the Wellcome Institute. It is a complex situation. I do not believe that it can all be done by one set of funders in one place. That is why it is important to try to co-ordinate. I would not dream for a moment of saying that everything is done perfectly, but I do not believe that a simple magic wand can be waved. We can look to improve the co-ordination that currently goes on.

The Earl of Selborne

My Lords, is the Minister aware that a year ago the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons set up a committee of inquiry into co-ordinating veterinary research, a committee which I had the privilege to chair, and that as a result there has been a welcome measure of collaboration between the Ministry of Agriculture, the BBSRC, the MRC, the Wellcome Trust and others? I understand that Professor Brian Fender, the chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England, is leading with the co-ordinating group which is trying to implement this much needed co-ordination. Perhaps the Minister can tell us whether that group is making any progress.

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, that comment reflects the importance of bringing together those who have an interest in this area in order to try to take forward research on a co-ordinated basis. It is very much mirrored in human medical research, where it is necessary that we bring together the charities, the professional organisations and government as a funder. The work that is done at the Royal Veterinary College has been extremely valuable. We can continue to build on that.

Viscount Cranborne

My Lords, perhaps I may declare an interest as Chairman of the Council of the Royal Veterinary College. Is the Minister aware that it is generally thought in certain quarters that are interested in this matter that the committee chaired by my noble friend Lord Selborne did an extremely useful job? Is she further aware that there is great disappointment that much of what he recommended has not yet been properly implemented; in particular, that research into these increasingly important diseases not only for animal but human health is being fragmented? Does she accept that a co-ordinating committee is not enough and that we look to the Government to institute proper peer review of research rather than merely co-ordination through a government department?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, external peer review certainly takes place before the Government sponsor research. That is important in order to ensure that research supported by government is both valid and value for money. I take very seriously the noble Viscount's comments in this area and will look carefully to see whether recommendations have been made in this field on which we need to make further progress.

Baroness Byford

My Lords, perhaps I may press the Minister a little further following her replies to my noble friends. We on these Benches are concerned that the money available for research is well directed and that there should not be delay and fragmentation. Can the Minister set out the timetable and say when we might be likely to receive a response to the question raised by noble friend Lord Selborne?

Baroness Hayman

My Lords, the House should not believe that there is necessarily fragmentation. Different people feel that the way in which the research is co-ordinated could be improved. The research supported by my department directly underpins our aims, objectives and policies. That is the area in which we can direct. Government can act only as a co-ordinator when we are talking about areas where research is being done by other bodies. However, if there are areas where we have not made sufficient progress I shall look carefully at the recommendations that have been made and see whether we can take that forward.