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10.29 am

Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): I join in the remarks directed at our Chairman, the hon. Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw). When he reads them in a few years' time he might think that they sound a little like an obituary, but we shall be sad not to see him in the Chair at future sittings of the Committee, because he has made a tremendous contribution. He has held the Committee together in good humour, which is a credit to him.

I shall respond to some remarks of the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson). I believe that there has been considerable science in our activities. Our Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council inquiry is a good example: not everyone can say that they attended a physics lesson addressed by Sir Martin Rees. I feel humbled by that experience.

Some of our earlier reports have put science centre stage--especially our report on human genetics, which will become important in years to come. It is a great pity that the only remaining area of substantial disagreement between the Committee and the Government and the outside world is the issue of insurance. We shall return to that fundamental issue, which will be important to a future Government.

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Let me illustrate my criticism of what has happened by considering the constituency of the hon. Member for Norwich, North and the Central Science Laboratory. It cannot be a coincidence that there is a correlation between the location of such public sector science laboratories and marginal parliamentary seats throughout the country.

The Minister for Science and Technology (Mr. Ian Taylor) indicated dissent.

Mr. Miller: The Minister holds up his hands in horror at that suggestion. It is an extraordinary coincidence. Of course, having a scientific background, I draw no immediate conclusions from that, but other aspects suggest a lack of scientific objectivity in the process.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) commented on pensions. Since the privatisation of Amersham International, a new tactic has been adopted in handling pension funds. In the House of Lords' report of 1993-94, "Priorities for the Science Base", there is a strong recommendation in paragraph 5.10:


As that is not really happening, one wonders whether there is scientific objectivity in the whole process.

My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) spoke of the role of the Deputy Prime Minister. It is a great sadness that we do not have a Minister of senior Cabinet rank to fly the flag for science and technology.

From time to time, we see in the House the results of public sector science being abused in many ways. The classic example has been the handling of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis. It is a great pity that the Government have been unable to take a co-ordinated scientific lead based on a proper structure in a matter as important as that crisis, which has had an impact on every constituency. That would have been possible if a senior Minister had been in post. There remains a strong case for a member of the Cabinet taking responsibility for science. I do not decry the Minister, because he has worked hard in his role, but as a country we do not take the matter seriously enough.

The entire process that we have just gone through suffered from an element of predetermined intentions on the Government's part. It might have been a much better process if it had been carried out frankly and openly.

10.35 am

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge): I am grateful to my hon. Friends for allowing me time to speak. I associate myself entirely with the remarks that have been made about the hon. Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw), and the brevity of my remarks in no way reflects a lack of esteem--I am simply short of time.

The Government response to our report states that the recent exercise has been good value for money. I do not think that any hon. Member believes that. We are told that the cost of carrying out the review was less than 1 per cent. of the total science budget. I do not think that anyone believes that figure.

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I have a letter written to me by the director of one of the research institutes that have been involved in the survey. It is headed "Confidential," so I do not intend to divulge his name, but he says that he finds it


He continues:


    "I could write for ever about this and especially the nonsense figure cited as the financial cost of the exercise (I know what figure the BBSRC submitted and know that it took no account of Institute costs)"--

so the costs that have been cited are simply the costs of the review teams. The cost to the institutes and the time that senior people in the institutes spent conducting the reviews is time lost to science.

The real problem is that the Deputy Prime Minister clings to an outmoded notion that the private sector is always superior to the public sector, which is completely contrary to common sense. We have had review after review under the Government. Following the White Paper in 1992, there was a management review. Following the management review, a multi-departmental review was conducted. Following that, an efficiency scrutiny was conducted by the Prime Minister's adviser, Sir Peter Levene, and now we have had a prior options review--time-wasting indulgence indeed, and all to no avail, because there has been minimal disturbance to the institutes, apart from the complete waste of time in conducting the reviews.

The secrecy with which the reviews has been conducted is very regrettable, especially in this case. On 29 January 1997, when the results of the prior options review were announced, the Department of Trade and Industry issued a press release accompanying the Minister's answer to a question asked by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). One sentence of that press release read:


How can it do so if the reviews are not to be published? Many people in the research councils are wondering about that. I have a letter from one of them, who suggests that the reasoning is that the reviews constitute advice to Ministers, and that such advice is not to be published. That is absurd. How can research councils implement advice if it is not published?

The fate of the royal Greenwich observatories is still in the balance. A review began at least two years ago to consider the rationalisation of the observatories in Edinburgh and Cambridge. Staff there are still waiting for a response. The problems are connected not with pensions, but with the complex ownership of the various sites around the world. The staff want the universities to take over the running of the observatories, as the universities use them. That is an eminently sensible suggestion. With a little common sense, the issue could have been resolved months ago, which would have been the best possible outcome.

10.40 am

Mr. Adam Ingram (East Kilbride): I echo the warm sentiments expressed towards the hon. Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw), and pay a special tribute to my

12 Feb 1997 : Column 267

hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray), who is also standing down at the next election. He has been of considerable help to me in my role as the Front-Bench Member with responsibility for science and technology.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Pudsey and other members of the Science and Technology Committee on obtaining the debate, and on their contributions to it. Once again, the Committee has provided a powerful service to the House. Without the Committee's efforts and output, the House would probably not have been given any time by the Government to discuss science and technology issues, let alone the future of the public sector research establishments. I fully recognise and endorse the views expressed by the Chairman of the Committee about the Committee's role and, like him, I hope that it will have a long-term future. His work, we hope, will go on into the next Parliament and beyond.

The last time the House discussed science and technology was on 11 June 1996, as a result of the Labour party allocating time to the subject. The Select Committee's first report was published in July last year, and the report that we are considering was published in November.

The Government announced their decision on the 38 establishments under review on 29 January. One day before this one and a half hour debate, they published their response to the Select Committee's report. I list that history of events to highlight the wholly unsatisfactory way in which the Government have gone about their business in relation to an important part of the nation's science and research base.

The all-party Select Committee made the same criticism of the Government's approach in the report of 17 July, which stated:


The hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) seems to forget that criticism, but I draw it to his attention.

The real reason for the secrecy--or, as others have called it, the lack of transparency--in the conduct of the exercise, and the delay in publishing the findings of the review, was that the Government were working to only one agenda: the privatisation of the Government research establishments and the research council institutes. Their every effort was targeted towards that objective.

Anyone who doubts that need only look at the oral evidence that Sir Peter Levene gave to the Select Committee on 13 November last year. He said:


Sir Peter went further. The Chairman of the Committee asked him:


    "Could you confirm that you have not been asked, in relation to the Prior Options Review, to consider the effects of any changes on the science base itself?"

Sir Peter replied:


    "That is not something we are looking at, that is correct."

Sir Peter was telling the Committee what the entire scientific community suspected--that the review was an off-loading exercise and a means by which to cut further the public science base. It was concerned not with quality,

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but with dogma. It took the Government from May until January--nine months--to realise that they had got it wrong all along.

The Government were clearly frightened to allow full parliamentary scrutiny, through debate, of their antipathy towards the public sector research establishments. They knew that to allow proper examination of Sir Peter Levene's review would bring into the public domain the almost universal criticism levelled against the Government in the matter. The Confederation of British Industry, important trade bodies such as the Food and Drink Federation, the Royal Society, the royal academies and the learned institutes all voiced their trenchant criticism of the Government's approach.

The Institute of Biology said:


The Royal Society stated:


    "the programme is being driven by a generic belief in the merits of privatisation, without adequate regard to the strategic role of publicly funded research in promoting the national good."

I could go on listing criticism after criticism of the Government's approach to the reviews. All are documented in the minutes of evidence submitted to the Select Committee. They make salutary reading for anyone involved in policy framing and policy making.

The history of the review process makes sorry reading for the Government. In June 1995 The Guardian carried a detailed story showing that the Government were split from top to bottom on the issue, and they probably still are. The story was based on letters leaked to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell). I shall read an extract from the article:


The article continues:


    "Mr Portillo and Mr Heseltine, who favour quick decisions and privatisation of establishments--including the Health and Safety Laboratory--are objecting to further delays.


    Mr Heseltine signalled his dissent by announcing that the National Engineering Laboratory, AEA Technology. . . and the Laboratory of the Government Chemist were to be sold without further reviews.


    Mr Waldegrave, who set up the original review, has backed Mr Hunt, saying he would prefer a minimum review concentrating on laboratories, which had not been examined before."

There we have it. Those who are now without real influence in the Government favoured a more long-term approach, and those who would be king after the election--the Deputy Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Portillo)--favoured a full-scale privatisation of the laboratories and institutes. It is therefore right for us to warn the thousands of scientists

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who work in those establishments to beware of a Tory fifth term. The Government have merely deferred their decisions on privatisation, not abandoned them. Anyone in doubt about that should read the speech given yesterday by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the right-wing Centre for Policy Studies. He said:


    "The long march of privatisation goes on."

In their drive for ideological purity, the Government spared no expense in relation to the prior options review. As the Minister knows, I tabled a series of questions seeking to elicit the total cost of the exercise. The answers--95 in all, from the various Government Departments--varied from the helpful to the obscure. One thing was clear, however. Including the cost of the review of the royal observatories, more than £4 million was raided from the already hard-pressed science budget to pay for it. As other hon. Members have commented, that figure is probably at the lower end of the true cost incurred.

When I put questions to the President of the Board of Trade on the reviews of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council institutes, I was informed that it was not possible to quantify the costs incurred by the several Government Departments involved in the prior options procedures without incurring disproportionate cost.

That answer was given to me by the Minister for Science and Technology. He was telling me and the House that his Department was working in the dark about the real cost of the exercise that he had initiated. It makes a mockery of the Minister's claim that the entire exercise was about enhancing the nation's science base. That could not be the case, because he did not know the cost-benefit analysis to which he was working, he was unaware of the costs involved, and providing benefit to the science base was not part of the exercise. Sir Peter Levene admitted as much to the Science and Technology Committee.

We have come to the end of the single-track road on which the Government have been travelling for the past few years in their obsession to privatise the Government research establishments and institutes. It has been costly, wasteful in time for all concerned, and demoralising for the people who work in those establishments.

The many thousands of scientists who work in laboratories have faced an uncertain future for far too long. The Government will now claim that what they announced on 29 January is effectively the last word on this subject. Those who understand how the Government work will not believe them. They will know that powerful Ministers, such as the Deputy Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence, have only one objective in mind: the wholesale sell-off of public sector research establishments.

The Government's announcement on 29 January was no more or less than blatant political expediency. A fifth term of Tory Government will bring the privateers back to the laboratory doors, and the whole exercise will be re-initiated.

The Labour party has made it clear--I re-emphasise the commitment--that a Labour Government will fully recognise the importance of Government research establishments and research institutes as part of the nation's essential publicly funded science base. The

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PSREs are a major national resource and a source of crucial research expertise involved in long-term research activity in collaboration with universities and industry. They have a vital role to play in offering independent, impartial advice to Government.

In these days of BSE, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, salmonella and E. coli 0157, the PSREs can contribute to the public good in a way that is not wholly open to the private research sector in its own right. Industry recognises that, as do the royal societies, academies and learned institutes.

In its response to the report by the Science and Technology Committee, which we are considering today, the Royal Society of Chemistry states:


A Labour Government will provide such an environment, for the betterment of our nation's science base and the public good.


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