HL Deb 29 March 2000 vol 611 cc802-4

2.45 p.m.

Lord Wade of Chorlton asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have for the future of the Daresbury Laboratory, Warrington, in view of the decision to site the joint United Kingdom/French Synchrotron Diamond Project at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Oxford.

The Minister for Science, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville)

My Lords, the capability of the current synchrotron at the Daresbury Laboratory will be maintained and continue to operate for up to seven years to provide an overlap period with the new synchrotron. The research councils are currently investing £5 million in new beamlines.

On 13th March 2000 I announced a review to examine options for strengthening the science base in the North West and have committed a minimum of £25 million from the science budget to fund the implementation of the review team's recommendations. An important part of the review will be to identify opportunities to build on the scientific capabilities of the Daresbury Laboratory. The Daresbury Laboratory is owned by the Council Central Laboratories of the research councils and they will be examining the future options for Daresbury as part of its normal strategic and operational planning process.

Lord Wade of Chorlton

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. However, I am sure that he appreciates that the Government's decision over this matter caused considerable concern in the North West, particularly among the industry and businesses which make use of the facility and the science people within the North West. Can he confirm whether the £25 million being made available to the North West will be new money, and not re-allocated money? Will he confirm also what the focus of the new Daresbury Laboratory is likely to be? We have at Daresbury some of the greatest experts on accelerator technology and micro-technology systems. It is important that we continue the work of relating research and industry, at which Daresbury scientists have been so effective.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I understand the concerns of the scientists at Daresbury. The £25 million will be money that will be taken from the science budget and allocated specifically for this purpose. It is clearly new money in the sense that it will come from the Comprehensive Spending Review that is about to be agreed. We are aware that the people at Daresbury Laboratory have substantial skills, not only in the design of accelerators but also in terms of instrumentation, computing and in general engineering. The projects we are considering will seek to build on that basis.

Lord Hoyle

My Lords, will my noble friend consider the anger and frustration that occurred not only throughout the North West, but also further afield that the Diamond Project, at the behest of Wellcome, has gone to Oxford'? Further, morale at this world famous laboratory is at rock bottom. Staff are already leaving. While the Minister is offering £25 million, that is poor compensation for losing a £500 million contract. Can my noble friend be more specific in saying what major scientific project will be located at Daresbury?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, we are aware of the impact of this decision on the people who work at Daresbury and are conscious that we need to build morale in order to ensure that this facility works well over the next seven years. It is not totally accurate to compare the £500 million with the projects that will be introduced. That cost would be spread over 25 years, as opposed to investment that will come in immediately. Clearly, the point of establishing the review team is to look at the sort of projects that we could introduce most advantageously. We have a list of projects that may be suitable, which range from a bio-medical research facility, Manchester University, to a technology centre, to bio-informatics and a database centre, and also a regional data centre for the Cern Large Hadron Collider. There is a set of important projects at which the review team is to look specifically.

Lord Razzall

My Lords, will the Minister indicate whether any work had already been carried out on this project at the Daresbury Laboratory and, if so, whether any of the value of that has been retained by the transfer?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, some work had already been done on the design of the machine in the process of reviewing the location and looking at the specification which has substantially changed since the original design was drawn up. We shall be able to use some of those ideas, but the machine design is now going through substantial change because we are talking about a much larger machine, a 24-cell machine rather than the 16-cell machine of the original design.

Lord Tanlaw

My Lords, will the Minister for Science say how much he was influenced in the move to Oxford by the contributions made by the Wellcome Foundation and how much the decision was based on pure science?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, the view of both the scientific advisers to the Government was that on balance there was a scientific case for the move to Didcot. This was not an overwhelming case, but on balance the view of the scientific adviser to the Government and the head of the research councils was that that was the right location. Given that this is a partnership of three parties, we took into account the views of our other partners, as one surely must do in these circumstances.

Lord Evans of Parkside

My Lords, will my noble friend—

Lord Jopling—

My Lords—

Lord Carter

My Lords, it is the turn of the Conservatives.

Lord Jopling

My Lords, cutting aside the convoluted wording of the first Answer, is not the real truth that this money has been announced before in the general science budget and therefore it is not new money?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, perhaps I have not made clear that this is money which will come from the new comprehensive spending review and therefore it has not been allocated.

Lord Evans of Parkside

My Lords, will my noble friend confirm that the synchrotron project at Daresbury has operated highly successfully for more than 20 years? Is he aware that the Government's decision to resite the project at Oxford has been regarded in the North West as virtually a government vote of no confidence in the scientific future of the region? Can the Minister explain why the Government allowed themselves to be dictated to and virtually blackmailed by the Wellcome Trust? Seven of the eight trustees of that trust are professors at Oxford, Cambridge and London Universities and can hardly be regarded as independent, unbiased advisers.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, it has never been suggested by anyone that the quality of science at Daresbury is anything other than world-class. Nevertheless the fact remains that there are good scientific reasons for siting the new synchrotron alongside the neutron source and the other facilities at Rutherford, such as the lasers and the nuclear magnetic resonance. As I said, that is the view of the scientific advisers. It was also the view of at least the physicists when we consulted those who will make use of the machine.

Lord Bruce of Donington

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that a useful maxim to bear in mind is that experts should be on tap, never on top?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

Yes, my Lords