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6.5 pm

Mark Williams (Ceredigion) (LD): Thank you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, for allowing me to raise this important issue on the Floor of the House. The Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research, which is based near Aberystwyth, in my constituency, has rightly been described as a “Welsh national institution”. This is not the first time that the future of this research facility has been debated at Westminster. In 1984, Lord Prys-Davies introduced a debate on the future of the then Welsh Plant Breeding Station. He remarked in that debate that the Welsh Plant Breeding Station was the only agricultural institute in Wales that was grant-aided by the then Agricultural and Food Research Council, and he noted by way of comparison that there were seven such institutions in Scotland. In 1984, the WPBS was facing the loss of 25 scientific posts, and Lord Prys-Davies was quick to point out the effect that those staff cuts could have on key aspects of the station’s research capacity, notably its research into dairy systems and pasture quality.

Some 22 years on, the WPBS is now the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research, but the theme of today’s debate is depressingly familiar. IGER remains the only agricultural institute in Wales, and the Government have seemingly done very little to counteract the concentration of the science base in the south-east of England. Figures from the Office for National Statistics for 2003 show that Wales’s share of the UK Government’s research spend on Government research establishments is 2.1 per cent. That is surprisingly low, given that 5 per cent. of the UK’s population lives in Wales. By way of comparison, Scotland has five agricultural research institutes and 8.6 per cent. of the UK’s population, yet it gets 13.5 per cent. of the UK’s research spend on Government research establishments. The Government should look long and hard at ways to redress that balance, and I hope that they will grasp the opportunity offered by the new national institute of energy technologies—NIET—announced by the Chancellor, to which I shall return.

People in Ceredigion and across Wales are justly proud of the work undertaken at IGER. It is unique in Europe in carrying out a coherent research project that links programmes in crop improvement, forage conservation and ruminant nutrition and behaviour to system studies that emphasise land, landscape, soil, water and manure management. It uses its expertise, skills and unique field resources to do that, carrying out research in related areas such as amenity grassland, environmental management and growing crops for energy, the most notable example being its biomass project.

IGER’s influence in sustainable farming extends well beyond Wales. It has a site near Okehampton, in Devon, and an upland site at Bronydd Mawr, near Brecon. It also has a structured knowledge transfer system, through which it shares its knowledge and expertise with some 285 associates. They include the National Farmers Union, the Farmers Union of Wales, grassland farmers, the agricultural supply industry, “downstream” livestock industries, national and local government and agri-environment agencies.

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The Minister will be fully aware of the drastic effect that reform of the common agricultural policy has had, and will continue to have, on farming. It has resulted in the abolition of direct production subsidies, and continued support for land use projects. That has radically altered the environment in which farmers now work. It has necessitated a different style of research on land use systems that deliver both economic and environmental goods, that promote rural sustainability and a multi-functional landscape, and that develop options to meet the challenges of climate change.

As that sea change in agriculture occurs, farmers need the kind of support IGER is able to offer more than ever before. Much of IGER’s research is cross-cutting. One project, for example, is a red clover breeding project that aims to increase the amount of omega-3 fatty acids in meat and milk, which are said to help children’s development. Another seeks to manipulate animals’ diets to reduce the amount of methane produced—a major factor in climate change. A third is investigating growing crops for energy use.

All of those research projects, and many more undertaken at IGER, are directly relevant to the challenges that DEFRA and the Government face today. However, this year, DEFRA reduced its sustainable food and farming research spend by 11.5 per cent., which for IGER has translated into a shortfall of some £2 million. Difficult and painful decisions have already been made that were forced on IGER’s management by DEFRA’s funding decisions. In April, 29 redundancies were announced. The loss of those highly skilled jobs is obviously a major blow to the individuals, but it is also a blow to the local economy.

Widespread concern remains about the future funding arrangements, and about IGER’s future in general. Ministers have stated that the 11.5 per cent. cut is necessary for DEFRA to refocus its research and development strategy on climate change, and I hope that the Minister will tonight explain why the cuts in the sustainable farming and food research sector across England and Wales are justified. DEFRA has a specific responsibility under the devolution settlement for research and development in Wales and the cuts will have a significant knock-on effect on pastoral agriculture, especially dairying, which is still significant in rural Wales where agriculture still employs 7 per cent. of the work force.

I had the privilege of meeting Lord Rooker and his officials at DEFRA on 12 June. At that meeting, tribute was paid by the Minister and senior civil servants to the quality of work carried out at IGER. But it was made depressingly clear just how DEFRA views its relationship with IGER. DEFRA is IGER’s major funder or, in other words, its major customer. It provides 52 per cent. of IGER's income—some £5.5 million. But DEFRA recognises no current obligation to sustain IGER—or any other contractor—apart from any views that it might have about its own future needs. DEFRA sees itself as little more than a “customer” of IGER’s. In a written answer to me, a Minister stated that DEFRA had made

That decision left IGER with a £2 million shortfall.

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The latest newsletter from RIPSS, which is the research institute and public sector research establishment sustainability study, states:

That articulates very well the basis of concern about IGER’s funding. I hope that today the Minister will acknowledge the significant impact that DEFRA’s funding priorities have on IGER and the surrounding community.

Several years ago, the Office of Science and Technology carried out the research institute and PSRE—public sector research establishment—sustainability study known as RIPSS. The RIPSS recommendations deal with the relationships between institutes and the Departments that are their major funders. The recommendations are yet to be implemented by DEFRA, and I strongly urge the Minister to state today how his Department will address those recommendations, which would strengthen the relationship between DEFRA and institutes such as IGER, and to outline what part DEFRA will play in the acknowledged need to get major funders to work together. Will he acknowledge that there has to be a degree of sustainability, and of security for their high-skilled research jobs, if research establishments are to function properly?

I received a letter from the Under-Secretary of State for Wales on 23 May, which stated that

That suggests that DEFRA may be able to offer some continuity of funding in exchange for a role in strategic management and planning. Is the Minister able to elaborate on that?

The creation of a national institute of energy technologies was announced in the Budget. With funding of £1 billion, it is designed to further the climate change reduction programme, but we have heard little about how it will work. I hope that we will hear more today, as there is concern that its creation will cause existing skills and centres of excellence to be overlooked. Will some of that funding come to Wales?

I welcome the new institute but, as I said earlier, there is a feeling in Wales that we are losing out and getting less than our fair share of research spend. Will the Minister give me an assurance that some of NIET’s research capacity will be designated for Wales?

At present, IGER is at a fork in the road, with two possible options for its governance. The first is closer collaboration with Rothamsted Research, which is based in Hertfordshire. There is some overlap with the research that is undertaken there, but there are concerns that IGER would pay a big price for closer alignment. There is a feeling that it would have to sacrifice its independence, and become merely an outreach of a bigger institution over the border.

Sentiment also plays a part in that. Earlier, I mentioned the importance of the perception that IGER is a Welsh national institution, but there is also some concern about future funding from the Biotechnology and Biological
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Sciences Research Council. Funding for both Rothamsted Research and IGER has been guaranteed until 2011, but there is a feeling that IGER would suffer after that, becoming the weaker and more junior partner. Moreover, some people believe that that would lead to some administrative activities being transferred to the BBSRC, and the consequent loss of more jobs and status for IGER.

The second option is to build on IGER’s strong historic links in Wales and forge a partnership between the BBSRC, DEFRA and institutions in Wales. There is a genuine hope that we can achieve greater collaboration between IGER and the university of Aberystwyth—which is in my constituency—and Bangor university by means of a single funding stream. I was privileged to have an opportunity last month to discuss that possibility with Wales’s Minister for Environment, Planning and the Countryside, Carwyn Jones. This second option would allow IGER to retain its financial integrity and independence.

Under the devolution settlement, the National Assembly for Wales has a duty to promote sustainable development. There is a fear that if control of IGER passed out of Wales, it would be less able to assist the Assembly with its sustainable development agenda. I hope that the Government and relevant officials will do all in their power to encourage talks between the Welsh Assembly, higher education institutions in Wales, and IGER.

It should be noted that IGER is Wales’s only agricultural research institute, and that it employed 300 people before the cuts were made. The comparison with Scotland could not be more stark. There, there are five agricultural research institutes, and a total staff well in excess of 1,000. There is a perception that Wales is being short-changed when it comes to research and development.

The challenges of globalisation mean that our economy inevitably will undergo a shift, moving from the labour-intensive sector to more knowledge-based industries. The quality of Welsh research and development will be integral to the strength of our economy. In real terms, that means that we need to bring quality jobs to Wales. The 29 jobs that have gone already at IGER represent a major loss to the local economy, and I was disappointed that the Government did not consider the socio-economic impacts of their funding decisions.

Globalisation, reform of the common agricultural policy and the overwhelming power of the supermarkets mean that the Welsh farming industry is under immense pressure from all sides. Since 1997, full-time employment in Welsh agriculture has halved. If farming is to have a sustainable future IGER has a vital role to play in identifying cutting-edge ways for farmers to modernise and to operate more effectively and efficiently. Reducing funding for agricultural research means abandoning the farming community to face a hostile market without vital research assistance. If the Government are serious about giving Welsh agriculture a sustainable future, they must give our farming research bodies the support and funding they need, and I urge the Minister or one of his colleagues to visit IGER to see the valuable work that is undertaken there.

IGER has a proud history; it is a talisman for Wales’s excellence in science and research. I hope that when the Minister responds he will agree that it needs and deserves a sustainable future in Wales.

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6.21 pm

The Minister for Trade (Mr. Ian McCartney): I thank the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Mark Williams) not only for bringing the subject of the debate to the attention of the House but also for a well-researched speech that set out, from his point of view, the intellectual and economic case for funding IGER. My noble Friend Lord Rooker is the Minister directly responsible for the issue and I will ensure that he receives a copy of the debate. If there are points that I cannot answer this evening, I am sure that they will be followed up with the hon. Gentleman.

As a Scotsman who is a Member of Parliament in England talking to an Englishman who is a Member of Parliament in Wales, I point out to the hon. Gentleman that there is no discrepancy in respect of the access of Wales as a nation to research and development. Research council remits cover the whole of the United Kingdom and research is funded on the basis of scientific excellence and the judgment of peer review groups. It would not be proper to allocate funds on an individual country basis.

The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, too, has a country-wide policy for R and D, and prioritises funding on the basis of scientific excellence. In addition, the Welsh Assembly has a budget of about £50 million for R and D to be spent exclusively in Wales, which is not the case for the English regions.

I must also point out to the hon. Gentleman that agricultural research carried out in Scotland is available to the whole UK agricultural industry. Similarly, research in biosciences and medical science is available to all the medical teaching and research institutes in the UK. It is a UK effort, based on investment, according to the remit, and judged by peer review.

I want to set out the relationship between the Department of Trade and Industry’s Office of Science and Innovation and the research councils. The Department provides funding to the eight research councils for them to support research, training and knowledge transfer, as well as promoting public engagement with their research. In accordance with the long-standing Haldane principles, decisions on the funding of specific scientific research are taken by councils independently of Ministers. That also applies to research council institutes. It is for individual councils to determine the appropriate level of support for their institutes in accordance with those principles.

Councils have responsibility for determining the precise role of each of their institutes. Typically, institutes have distinctive missions, which include scientific excellence and knowledge transfer, supporting the knowledge-based economy, providing crucial UK capability and offering the Government independent research and advice.

The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is funded from the DTI science budget to support research and related postgraduate training in the life sciences. The Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research is one of seven research institutes sponsored by the BBSRC—my goodness, what a mouthful—which was responsible in 2005-06 for 38 per cent. of its funding. That core funding provides the resources for the basic scientific research carried out at the IGER and enables the institute to enter into a contract with DEFRA and others to carry out the research that they commission.

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The Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council’s science budget allocation has more than doubled since 1997, from £183 million to about £380 million for this year. The hon. Gentleman’s tenet of a lack of resources is not the case. The huge increases across the field of research and development demonstrate the Department’s commitment to maintaining the quality of life sciences research in the UK.

The council recently published a consultation paper on bio-energy research, based on advice from an expert panel. IGER has the skills relevant to that research, which presents it with new research opportunities for the future. I hope that the hon. Gentleman and DEFRA colleagues can look at that possibility when they meet again.

Investment in institutes will evolve and change over time to reflect emerging science challenges and priorities. The hon. Gentleman reflected that in his contribution when he said that, some 20 years ago, there was a debate in the House about changing priorities, as a consequence of which the institute evolved. We are now 20 years on, and it is seeking to evolve again. If institutes do not evolve, they die. That is the reality. Research and development priorities change, the nature of what we need to do as a country changes and globalisation changes that again. However, those changing priorities do not mean the end of the institute: it can and should adapt.

Significant investments have been made or will be made across the piece. For example, the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council is increasing funding for animal health and welfare with a £35 million investment in a new building to house the world-renowned Roslin Institute and Institute for Animal Health neuropathogenesis unit, in partnership with the university of Edinburgh, focused on the veterinary school.

I could give a whole range of other examples. For example, the partnership with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and the Veterinary Laboratories Agency is providing consistent additional resources by investing £27 million in a range of projects. The Department of Trade and Industry has invested £27 million. I understand that the total figure is £67 million in those areas.

Across the piece, in other regions throughout the country, a range of world-class facilities are being provided and constructed to ensure that we as a country are at the leading edge of research and development in a range of key areas. The Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge is another example.

In the UK, grassland occupies about 70 per cent. of the land area and supports natural plant and animal communities, as well as farmed ones. IGER’s research programme focuses on grassland-related sustainable agriculture, with strands impinging on production, environment, amenity and biodiversity.

I understand that the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council commended the overall quality of the basic and strategic research at the institute. According to its 2005 assessment exercise, eight out of 10 assessed programmes were scored as “high international/international” or “outstanding/good”. The issue is one of shifting priorities, not one of saying that the institute cannot make a contribution in the future: it can, but it may well be a different contribution.

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