HL Deb 01 April 2003 vol 646 cc1163-6

2.53 p.m.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they intend to take any action in respect of the policies and performance of the Medical Research Council.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Trade and Industry (Lord Sainsbury of Turville)

My Lords, we note the Select Committee report on the Medical Research Council issued on 25th March and are reviewing its recommendations. We shall make a detailed response in due course, but the MRC is highly renowned around the world for its track record in promoting excellent medical research.

Baroness Gardner of Parkes

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that reply. I had intended to mention the report in my Question, but under the procedures of the House, I was not allowed to do so. That is why the Question has been worded as it appears on the Order Paper.

The report states that: We have found evidence of poor financial management and poor planning, with too many funds committed over long periods leading to large numbers of top quality grant proposals being turned down". As someone who has always had a high regard for the Medical Research Council, I was very disturbed to read press reports concerning this Select Committee report, especially as public expenditure of over £400 million is involved. Can the Minister reassure the House that the Government have had no cause to worry about the Medical Research Council and that they continue to value its work?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I am grateful to the noble Baroness for that question. In view of the press accounts of the Select Committee report, I should like to take this opportunity to assure the House that the report does not suggest that the structure of the MRC is faulty, that money has been wasted or that there has been any financial impropriety. The criticisms have related to the allocation of funds between responsive-mode funding and managed funding, the management of commitment and forward funding, consultation and the way that the peer review of the UK Biobank project was handled. These are complex issues, in many cases involving matters of judgment, and therefore they require careful responses.

I should also say that in the past we have had some concerns as regards the processes of financial planning and commitment. We have been working with the MRC to address those concerns and we are satisfied that good progress has been made.

Lord Walton of Detchant

My Lords, I declare an interest as a former member of the Medical Research Council during the 1970s. Even at that time criticisms were often levelled against the MRC by disgruntled scientists who failed to secure funding for their research. Is it not the case that the MRC has a proud record of achievement which has won for it international respect and acclaim? Does the Minister accept that many members of the scientific community regard a number of points made in the report as being seriously misconceived, not least the fact that so much criticism has been levelled against the UK Biobank project? That project was warmly commended and strongly supported by the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology in its inquiry into UK genetic databases.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, the noble Lord has made a number of points. I agree completely and say again that the MRC has gained an excellent world-wide reputation for its funding of medical research, and I do not think that anything in the report suggests otherwise. A number of criticisms have been made of certain specific issues and certainly there is a need to improve some of the financial planning and commitment. However, those problems should not detract from the excellent work carried out by the council in the past.

As regards the UK Biobank project, again I believe that some of the press reaction has rather overstated what is set out in the report. The report itself makes the point that: The Biobank is an exciting project and we commend the MRC's efforts to ensure that the UK is taking the lead in harvesting the fruits of the human genome". Thus even in the report it is understood that this is an extremely important and imaginative project which should be supported.

Lord Clement-Jones

My Lords, the paragraph immediately following the one from which the Minister has just quoted goes on to state that: It is not clear to us that Biobank was peer-reviewed and funded on the same basis as any other grant proposal. Our impression is that a scientific case for Biobank has been put together by the funders to support a politically driven project". I believe that the Minister was only partially quoting from the report. Over recent years UK Biobank has received £45 million, the lion's share of funding from the MRC. Will the Minister take seriously the criticisms made by the Select Committee to the effect that it was possible that the UK Biobank proposal was not peer-reviewed. The Select Committee is well regarded, as is the MRC both now and historically, so the Minister should not brush aside lightly any criticisms made by the committee.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I hope that I made it clear in my original Answer that we take the report seriously and shall consider it in detail. However, I do not think that the noble Lord is correct to say that the UK Biobank project was not peer-reviewed. In fact, it was peer-reviewed by an international panel. Furthermore, it was not reviewed on the basis of a normal grant project, but rather as a major infrastructure project. Such projects are never reviewed on exactly the basis as other projects. UK Biobank is a major infrastructure project and was peer-reviewed by a very distinguished international panel which supported it. On that basis, while there may be criticism, it should be kept in proportion.

Lord Winston

My Lords, I declare an interest as a practising scientist whose laboratory has repeatedly benefited from funding granted by the Medical Research Council, although obviously from time to time we, too, have felt disgruntled when we have not secured a grant.

Is it not fair to say that the Medical Research Council is to be congratulated on the excellence of medical research in Britain, due in large part to its scientific leadership and to the standards and levels of funding which the Government have allowed the Medical Research Council to contribute? May that long continue.

It is essential that large projects such as UK Biobank compete side by side with smaller projects, and that those large projects continue. As a way of improving funding from the Medical Research Council, does the Minister agree that some more attention might be given to extending project grants rather than merely collaborative grants? Collaborative grants are important, but project grants often launch new science in a slightly different way.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I totally agree about the quality of the MRC's science. Project grants versus collaborative grants is another area of debate within the medical research community. We need to look at this very carefully and discuss it more fully with the MRC before we give a reply.

Lord Jenkin of Roding

My Lords, it is quite difficult to maintain the usual courtesies between the Houses when in a report from another place this immensely imaginative project, the UK Biobank, is described as politically motivated. Is it not a fact that the project is leading the world in bringing together a person's genetic make-up, environment and lifestyle in a unique way—half a million people will be in the survey—which will enable society in future to predict, prevent and cure some of the world's most devastating illnesses?

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, I do not quite understand what it means to say that this project is politically driven. I fear it is simply a rather low-level form of abuse to describe it as political. I do not think that that is the kind of abuse another place should indulge in.

I agree with the noble Lord that the project is leading the world in this respect. Various other countries see it as a major and important source of valuable information. I regard it as an extremely important project.

Lord Alton of Liverpool

My Lords, does the Minister recall the recommendation of the House of Lords Select Committee on stem cells that a discrete line should be kept between embryos and eggs being used for research purposes and those being gathered from fertility clinics? Will he therefore look again at the way in which the MRC has decided to fund nurses working in fertility clinics, bearing in mind the proscription that is placed on such activity in the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990? In upholding the very high standards to which the noble Lord has just alluded, it is important that that separation is maintained.

Lord Sainsbury of Turville

My Lords, that is an important question. I will take a further look at this to see whether there is any issue on which we should focus.