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Graham Stringer: My hon. Friend makes a significant point. The scientific community is more than the sum of its parts, and it changes from time to time, because of the brilliance of parts of the community, when innovations and new discoveries are made. The larger and more solid that base is, the more significant the changes are likely to be. When something goes, the loss is bigger than it appears.

To return to the point that I was making about whether the Government have a regional policy, what levers will they use? We get a fog when answers are given. They say “Yes, we support it,” but will they tell the Science and Technology Facilities Council that it must invest at Daresbury, or will the excuse of the Haldane principle be used: that they cannot tell scientists what science to engage in? I agree with that, if it is a question of telling scientists what kind of microscope, telescope or computers to use, or even when it is a question of the choice between the two projects in question; but the Government can say—and they have said—that they will concentrate on a certain area of research because it is more important. The comprehensive spending review was clear about the fact that more money would go into medical research than into other areas.

If that can happen, the Government can also say, where there are bases of excellence as at Daresbury, that science must take place there. They can say that they will not permit the same thing that happened in 2000, when the Wellcome Trust, which clearly did not want to come to the north of England—the decision was based not on objective evidence but on bigotry—made a raid on the investment and effectively told Lord Sainsbury that there would be a competition, although no one had mentioned one before, enabling it to take resources and slap them into Oxford. I should like an answer to my questions, because they are fundamental to what is happening in the world of science, physics and astronomy, as well as particle accelerators.

I shall leave my hon. Friend the Minister with this thought. A huge investment has been made in the National Institute for Medical Research just up the road in Camden. The way that that project has been carried on is an absolute dog’s dinner. It is a £500 million project putting dangerous chemicals in sites where they probably will not fit, in a densely populated area, but no other part of the country was considered for the site of that facility. We have questioned the people involved. They said, “Oh, it’s half a billion, we’re near King’s and UCL”—or whatever university it may be—“and we are in the south-east, so of course it’s going to go there.” The Government need to tackle that attitude and spread out fundamental research throughout universities as well as sites that are not in universities, to ensure that there is a real regional policy and that the regions benefit from investment in fundamental research.

[Mr. David Wilshire in the Chair]

12 noon

Stephen Williams (Bristol, West) (LD): I join my colleagues in congratulating the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) on securing this debate, and I congratulate all hon. Members from the north-west of England who have spoken on their clear knowledge of Daresbury and
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their commitment to their region. I have learned a lot by listening, including about ALICE and EMMA.

There has been much comment in the press recently about the Science and Technology Facilities Council; indeed, it must have felt like an organisation under media siege after various comments on the budgetary pressures that it faces. I am grateful to have had a meeting with Professor Mason, the chief executive of the STFC, who gave me his perspective on the situation. I understand that the Select Committee on Innovation, Universities and Skills is looking at the issue as well, and I am sure that its report, which will be published shortly, will lead to future debates and deliberations.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh) mentioned, much of the press’s attention has focused on astrophysics, particularly Jodrell Bank, but today we are concerned solely with Daresbury, home of the Cockcroft institute, the Daresbury science and innovation campus and the Daresbury innovation centre. Those institutions all have a close and critical relationship with the universities in Manchester, Liverpool and Lancaster.

Much of the uncertainty surrounding the budgetary pressures on the STFC arises, perhaps, from the peculiar budgetary pressures unique to it. I am sure that one of the first points that the Minister will make when he responds is that the pressures are occurring against a background of real-terms growth in the science budget, but the STFC commits a third of its budget to international subscriptions to CERN and various astronomy projects. Those are long-term commitments that are hard to restructure and whose budgets are hard to trim. Many of the STFC’s UK projects are also long-term. If there are budgetary pressures—£80 million has been mentioned—they will have an impact on short-term funding. That causes concern in the scientific community and in many universities, including Bristol university in my constituency, about the number of postdoctoral research assistant posts that may be cut in that area of scientific research.

The Secretary of State for Innovation, Universities and Skills made a statement about the science budget and its growth during the comprehensive spending review on 11 December last year. It has become clear from my rereading of that statement that the major winners were medicine and the Medical Research Council; the hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley (Graham Stringer) referred to a new facility that will be funded, at least in part, by the MRC. It appears that that will lead to budgetary pressure on the other research councils, particularly because part of the growth that they will receive is designed to accommodate the full economic costing of research projects in future.

The Secretary of State’s statement also referred to reviews that he intends to carry out on the health of research disciplines in this country. The very first review, chaired by Professor Bill Wakeham, the vice-chancellor of Southampton university, will examine physics, with which this debate is primarily concerned. It is vital, Mr. Martlew, that decisions—[Interruption.] I beg your pardon, Mr. Wilshire; I had not looked up to see that the Chair had changed while I was speaking.

Mr. David Wilshire (in the Chair): It is all right; you were in full flow.

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Stephen Williams: I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Wilshire, for the conclusion of our proceedings. It is vital that the reviews should be able to come to conclusions, and that the Wakeham review should be able to take place, without decisions being taken that will have far-reaching implications. The Secretary of State also referred to a second highly pertinent review, Sir Tom McKillop’s review of the Manchester city region economy, which will specifically include the Daresbury campus. Again, it is critical that no decisions detrimental to the future of Daresbury should be taken before that review comes to a conclusion and its findings are published.

Universities UK has called for what it terms a sensible period of adjustment before any decisions are taken and—more crucially, perhaps—for year-end flexibility in the budgets of the STFC and other research councils. I am guessing that that is an allusion to the disgraceful raid on research councils’ budgets that took place before the restructuring of Departments last July, while the councils were still within the remit of the Department of Trade and Industry. I hope that one positive result of the creation of the new Departments will be that such short-sighted raids will not happen again.

The STFC says that it is committed to the future of the Daresbury site and that it is working in partnership with higher education institutions in the north-west, the Northwest Regional Development Agency and the private sector to develop an innovation campus. It has stated to me that there is potential for the creation of 10,000 new jobs, although that is obviously an aspiration for the future.

The STFC also says that the fourth generation light source, which has been much mentioned in this debate, will not come on stream until 2012, so it is critical that decisions are not taken in the interim, during the next four years, that will undermine the current science base at Daresbury. We need a critical mass of scientists in place in north-west England to deliver future projects. STFC says that it manages Harwell and Daresbury as a single unit for the benefit of the whole United Kingdom, and that they should not be seen as competing with each other, but I gather that that feeling is not shared by hon. Members from north-west England.

I shall conclude with some comments on the principles of funding research. It is right that private companies or charitable funds such as the Wellcome Trust or Cancer Research UK fund good science wherever they find it and wherever it matches their own remit, but this debate primarily concerns public money for all research councils. There must surely be a regional dimension to the funding of UK science. Several hon. Members have mentioned that we do not want to perpetuate the perception, much less the reality on the ground, of a golden triangle of London and Oxbridge.

Mr. Mike Hall: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his support for Daresbury laboratory and his remarks. They have been far more constructive than those of the hon. Member for Southport (Dr. Pugh). Does the hon. Gentleman agree with his colleague, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris), about the future of Daresbury laboratory? I understand that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon has called for it to be closed.

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Stephen Williams: My hon. Friend could not be here this morning, as the Innovation, Universities and Skills Committee is on a visit to the Royal Society. I am not aware that he has made any such statement about the future of Daresbury. Clearly, he has his own constituency interests at heart, but he does speak for my party on a range of UK science issues, and I would be surprised if he did not feel that science funding should be spread throughout the United Kingdom.

I was about to make an observation about my own region. Bristol university, the university of Bath and the university of the West of England are collaborating on a new science and innovation campus, which we hope will open in the next few years at Emersons Green. This debate has focused on the north-west of England, which certainly needs a viable and vibrant research base to underpin the regional economy. I listened with interest, as I always do, to the hon. Members for Warrington, North (Helen Jones) and for Manchester, Blackley. The hon. Member for Manchester, Blackley said that the matter was a key test whether the Government shared that aspiration and were willing to commit the resources to deliver it.

Helen Jones (Warrington, North) (Lab): Further to the hon. Gentleman’s earlier remarks, if it is the case that the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon (Dr. Harris) called for Daresbury to be closed—we believe that it is—does the hon. Gentleman agree?

Stephen Williams: I will obviously have to clarify that with my hon. Friend, because, in my experience, people can interpret Members’ remarks incorrectly.

12.10 pm

Adam Afriyie (Windsor) (Con): I welcome you to the Chair, Mr. Wilshire, which you slipped into so eloquently that it would have been easy to miss, but I have a keen eye for these things.

Mr. David Wilshire (in the Chair): Somebody of my size?

Adam Afriyie: I thank the hon. Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) for calling this debate, which I am delighted to speak to, not only as the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, but because of my keen interest—I served on the Science and Technology Committee—in the STFC, its formation and the consequences of some of the decisions made through it. I am conscious of time and I want to give the Minister as much time as possible to answer some of the questions and queries raised, so I shall canter through my remarks as briskly as I can.

The science and innovation campus at Daresbury is doing excellent work involving a heady mix of businesses, scientists and organisations able to facilitate innovation. There is no doubt that innovation, and specifically scientific innovation, holds the key to our place in the world over the coming decades. However, we cannot consider Daresbury in isolation from the Government’s overall policies and expenditure priorities laid down by Ministers. Without the base level of scientists, Daresbury could not perform its work as it needs to. However, over the past several months, Whitehall has delivered what I would call a Whitehall headbutt to scientists over science
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funding. There is no question but that the £80 million shortfall in the STFC’s budget will impact on the work done through it throughout the country. Did the Minister provide that flat-cash settlement knowing that it would have the knock-on effects demonstrated in the paperwork released under freedom of information legislation? Did he know that his funding decision would have the impact that it did? I guess that the alternative is that neither he nor his Department were aware of it, which would be far worse.

I would like to press the Minister to tidy up the point about the redundancies at Daresbury. We understand that there are plans to close one of the light sources, which will result in 180 redundancies, but how many will there be overall and from which sources will they come? Will they be compulsory, voluntary or lost through natural wastage? What sort of numbers are we talking about? I appreciate that it might be slightly premature on one or two points, but it would be useful if he could tidy that up for us.

Ministers from the Department often seem to boast about the level of science expenditure, but the reality is rather different. While they talk about rising budgets, the P45s appear to be rolling out in several places around the country. About 25 per cent. of research grants will have to be cut over the next few years, until the next spending review. Will the Minister comment? Does he agree with the figure of 25 per cent. or does he have another one for the amount of research that is being cut back on or that will be unable to be delivered?

It is important that the Minister faces up to the fact that his and his Department’s decisions have caused the pressures at Daresbury. There is no doubt that Daresbury does superb work in its various areas, from synchrotron and the core sciences to, more importantly, the innovation through its connection with the 60 or so businesses in the area. As a Labour Member observed here, innovation is the challenge for our nation today. We do reasonably well in research citations, but that needs to be converted into products, services and jobs that boost the economy. Daresbury is in a good position to help with that overall ambition.

I shall focus on three points before allowing the Minister to answer in detail. The first point is about the critical mass of scientists in and around Daresbury and whether that will impact on future projects. I quote from a sobering letter from 63 early career scientists:

If the number of scientists employed or deployed at Daresbury falls below a certain level, all of the benefits from a science and innovation campus will fall away fairly briskly. Everyone knows about Oxford, Cambridge and the triangle, but without enough scientists at Daresbury, it is unlikely that businesses will be attracted to the region or that the vision of expanding innovation in the area will continue. Is the Minister aware of staff concerns, and other concerns raised in the House, that Daresbury might not survive without a critical mass of scientists? How would he address those concerns?

My second point is about comments made by Professor Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society, who made clear two related problems with Daresbury and the STFC. He said that

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Ministers cannot undercut the STFC’s budget and then scratch their heads and wonder why things are changing on the ground.

That brings me to my last and key point, which I shall put as a question: to what degree do Ministers have control over decisions made by the STFC? It seems that quite often Ministers boast about wonderful new projects and say, “We are responsible for the funding of this project, isn’t it wonderful, give us a big clap”, but that when something goes wrong and there are redundancies, they say, “Oh, this is a decision for the STFC or another body and it is nothing to with me, governor.” For clarity, can the Minister make the decision on the fourth generation light source and where it is to be placed, or is that a decision for the STFC? Finally, does he have a regional science funding policy, and, if so, is he satisfied with the distribution, given that Labour Members have criticised the low level of distribution in the north-west?

12.19 pm

The Minister for Science and Innovation (Ian Pearson): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) on securing this debate and pay tribute to him for his work in championing Daresbury over the years. I also acknowledge the support of his colleagues in the north-west and their championing of Daresbury as a major science and innovation campus. I want to reassure them that the Government remain absolutely committed to developing Daresbury as a world-class campus for science and innovation. We all appreciate the current situation, which has resulted from decisions about the Diamond synchrotron—I shall not go into them today given the time, but they have been put on the record previously. I understand the feeling in the north-west that that decision was wrong. However, it is a decision that has been taken and certain consequences flow from it. Therefore, the redundancy situation with the synchrotron radiation source, or SRS, in Daresbury, has been known for a period of time. None the less, it obviously creates a climate of uncertainty for people who work there.

In the remaining time that I have available, I hope that I can provide some reassurances and also set out some of the next steps in terms of what I think the vision for Daresbury will be.

Ian Stewart (Eccles) (Lab): First, I offer my thanks to my hon. Friend the Member for Weaver Vale (Mr. Hall) and I pay tribute to him; he is not only looking after the interests of his own constituents but those of my constituents too.

I was pleased to hear the Minister’s opening statement and I believe him to be sincere when he speaks about seeking to retain a world-class service at Daresbury. However, what my Eccles constituents want to know, especially those who either work at Daresbury or who are otherwise concerned for its future, is this: what would the purpose of Daresbury be if no large science project is placed there? Secondly, if, as we all hope, large science projects are placed there in the future, how will the Government guarantee the retention of the world-class skills that would be necessary to run such projects?

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