Select Committee on Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 320-339)


21 APRIL 2008

  Q320  Dr Gibson: Will it work on the level of knowing which laboratory has what and what is going on, so that somewhere that will be known, or will it be the organisation, the research council, that has all the details?

  Lord McKenzie of Luton: Certainly the HSE would have those details, whoever else does or does not.

  Q321  Dr Gibson: So then they are going to have to go and inspect to see that everything is hunky-dory presumably; what do you think the frequency of those visits necessarily should be? I know there cannot be a catch-all time but there must be some kind of limitation at any site that you really require to be aware of some of the problems.

  Lord McKenzie of Luton: The starting point on this is the point that Jeff made earlier on, that any basis of regulation has got to make sure that those who create the risks are ultimately responsible for them, and that is where we start the process. In relation to level 4 laboratories at the moment, there are ten of them and they are inspected on an annual basis; the proposition for level 3 containment facilities is that they would be inspected once every three years and that schedule is roughly being met. I would stress that the approach of the HSE generally in relation to health and safety as well as in relation to biosafety is very much a mix of measures. Inspection and enforcement are part of it but the preventative education side is another key aspect of it.

  Q322  Dr Gibson: That is why I asked you about the resources that you might need there because you are really expanding at a great rate and of course as science and technology develops in this country you are going to have more and more of these facilities, hopefully.

  Lord McKenzie of Luton: I am certainly assured that what is in the plans, with the additional recruitment of three more employees for that unit, is adequate to undertake the task.

  Q323  Dr Gibson: You will know the kind of past history I am sure in your lifetime of the Health and Safety Executive and how they always moan about not having enough people to do whatever. Do you think that is changing?

  Lord McKenzie of Luton: An important change has been the merger of the Commission with the Executive which took place at the start of April. In terms of governance that will mean a much greater focus on planning and resource management and that will certainly help. Indeed, I will not say that there are strings attached to it but part of the agreement under the CSR07 settlement was that the HSE would undertake a review of its strategic plan for the next five to ten years, partly to look at what is the most appropriate model for delivery across all its responsibilities—inspection and prevention.

  Q324  Mr Boswell: Not to editorialise myself, but I hope ministers would think I was reasonable in saying that where the HSE is at its best is when it is in a dialogue with those whom it is regulating as well as just sitting there signing off a licence and then allowing things to continue. I just wanted to get, if I could, some assurances about two matters: one is that if the management of an individual facility has concerns about a particular facility, or if perhaps something arrives externally which gives rise to those concerns, they can as it were approach HSE without prejudice in the sense that I suppose they cannot escape their legal duties, and I am not asking that they should, but at least it is more sensible to start by having a dialogue rather than to have a disaster followed by a prosecution. The second one, which is also related to this, is the kind of thing that happens all the time for example in airline safety: if there is the equivalent of a near miss will you encourage the facility to put their hand up, own up to it and learn the lessons from it rather than seek a punitive regime which can only as it were take people out when they have made a mistake.

  Lord McKenzie of Luton: Broadly yes to each of those questions. I would certainly agree with the partnership approach and indeed at some of the level 3 containment facilities there is an intervention programme which has a range of measures with which the HSE engages. In terms of the ability to contact the HSE if issues arise which give them concern, not only would they have the facility to do that but the regulatory framework would require them to do that. In terms of near misses, what has happened in the nuclear industry and the chemical industry has been the development of precursor data so rather than wait for something to happen so you know you have a problem you try and identify factors which can be monitored along the way to identify if there are weaknesses in the system, and there is work under way to develop those in relation to biosecurity.

  Q325  Chairman: Two very quick points before we move on. First of all you did talk about the fact that you have not in fact resolved some of the issues regarding how in fact you are going to work in answer to Dr Gibson's first question, which was really about if people are planning—let us just say for instance that NIMR do put a new level 4 facility in central London would you be part of the planning for that rather than just simply saying no, we do not touch this until such time as it is built, in which case we will come and tell you have done it wrong?

  Lord McKenzie of Luton: Just to be clear on my answer about where things are still developing, it is whether we end up with a regime which is technically and strictly run, which is a permissioning one so that you can only do something if you have specific permission to do it or whether there is a notification process.

  Q326  Chairman: When will you have clarified all that?

  Lord McKenzie of Luton: However that is clarified it must contain, on one basis or another, arrangements whereby if somebody wants to build a new facility there would have to be engagement with the HSE, not necessarily as part of the statutory planning process as happens at some of the COMAH sites at the moment, but there would have to be an engagement with the HSE because at the end of the day the person wants to know that they are able to operate the facility that they are building for the purposes that they want and they would need the assurance. That happens at the moment although it does not happen with level 4 facilities because there have been no new ones for quite a while.

  Q327  Chairman: Would it not be helpful, for instance to Camden Council, if in fact a facility was being built in Camden, that in fact it had to have the statutory approval of the HSE before in fact it could even apply for planning?

  Lord McKenzie of Luton: That is not the way it operates at the moment.

  Q328  Chairman: Would it not be useful to have that?

  Lord McKenzie of Luton: One would need to think about some of the national security issues around all that sort of public engagement but it is something which should be the subject of discussion as the new framework is introduced. What I would say of course is that the existing arrangements whereby the HSE is engaged is planning legislation not health and safety legislation.

  Ian Pearson: Can I just say on that, Phil, it is important not to prejudge the work of Paul Nurse and his colleagues in determining what the future requirements are to be for the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation.

  Q329  Chairman: I am just using it as an example really.

  Ian Pearson: I would also like to make the point as well that the work that Professor George Griffin is doing—and I know that you have interviewed George Griffin—as part of the strategic review of high level containment facilities in the UK is looking at future national requirements, as we have already said, including the organisation of those facilities and the degree of centralisation. Indeed, I understand that he will also make comments on appropriate locations as well and, as a government collectively, we will obviously want to consider the report when it is published.

  Q330  Chairman: You would support a strong input from the HSE at the early stage of planning new facilities.

  Ian Pearson: Yes, it is just good practice in building any major facility that you would want to involve HSE at an early stage of the design process to make sure that you have got facilities that are going to be fit for purpose and meet the containment levels that are going to be required.

  Q331  Chairman: Dawn, did you want to comment?

  Dawn Primarolo: I just wonder whether it might be helpful to say to the Committee with regard to the work that has been commissioned that MRC and HPA are working on.

  Q332  Chairman: We are actually coming back to the issue of the central London facility.

  Dawn Primarolo: The terms of reference have not been finalised but I wonder whether the Committee would find it helpful to have sight of those terms of reference and indeed what the structure is with the steering committee, the review group and how it is independent.

  Q333  Chairman: We have asked for those and we have been assured by Sir Lesek that he will let us have them when in fact your department agrees we can have them.

  Dawn Primarolo: My department?

  Q334  Chairman: Yes.

  Dawn Primarolo: Then I shall make sure that happens without question tout de suite.

  Chairman: That is encouraging; I am sure Dr Turner will be delighted to hear that.

  Q335  Dr Harris: Lord Rooker, do you accept on behalf of Defra the part played in the problems at Pirbright by chronic lack of investment or under-investment in the Pirbright site by Defra?

  Lord Rooker of Perry Bar: When you say do I accept on behalf, accept what?

  Q336  Dr Harris: Do you accept that what happened at Pirbright was due in part to an under-investment in the facilities at the Pirbright site—not solely by Defra of course because you were just one of the funders.

  Lord Rooker of Perry Bar: We are putting a big share of our capital budget into that site, as indeed we have done at our other sites—we have been upgrading laboratories over the period of the last few years, including the Veterinary Laboratories Agency as well. It is a multi-million pound investment and in some ways—I know this is history—the outbreak of the drains and the water, if it had not been for all the construction vehicles going on and off the site because of the heavy capital investment there, this may not have happened, but then we would not have discovered about the biosecurity lapses and the old drains. The past is the past and the fact is that we are pumping in £121 million; we have spent £37 million on the site, there is a leaseback arrangement I understand and it is our capital budget that gets transferred to another department, BBSRC, and we are the prime customer. The Pirbright site is vital, not just for this country but for the world because it is a world reference laboratory for many diseases and so it is very important that we have an upgrade of the site, and that is what we have been engaged in doing for several years. It is not a bottomless pit though in the sense that we have agreed what we will put in but we are not responsible, if this is part of the question, for every overrun, and this is why we have to get control of building costs. We have put in the money that we have agreed over the last few years, and that is ongoing as we speak today.

  Q337  Dr Harris: I know it is history but it is important, if we are going to solve the problems in the future, to accept the diagnosis before you go on to treat the patient. The Spratt review said—I am paraphrasing—the IAH laboratories were in a poor state and had not received adequate funding, and the Spratt review recommended that funding should be available to remedy this until the new laboratories are completed at the site in 2012. I am interested to know whether Defra and DIUS, which overall fund BBSRC, accept that funding in this case was part of the issue because of the impact that had had on the poor state of the IAH laboratories at Pirbright.

  Lord Rooker of Perry Bar: First of all, the criticism that we have not invested enough in science and our laboratories is a legitimate one that goes back a long period. This was recognised certainly within Defra and across government many years ago and there has been a massive upgrade in the laboratories, both at Pirbright—which we do because we are a customer and it is a national public good resource—and our own departmental laboratories. However, in putting in the capital equipment and the capital assets of the laboratories there is no way the previous under-investment could account for the poor biosecurity at the site. I have given you the examples from the HSE report: not bothering to take the vehicle registration numbers and count people on and off the site is pretty basic and that is not related to the amount of capital investment that is going on inside.

  Q338  Dr Harris: I do not want it to be said that Spratt said it was solely due to that, it was a component, we could agree. Ian, the same question to you really, do you accept that funding adequacy into facilities is an important factor, one of many, for biosecurity?

  Ian Pearson: What I do accept is that there is a need for the redevelopment of Pirbright, that it is an urgent priority and that as a facility it is not a first class facility and we want to see modern, first class facilities. What I would not accept is that the problems that occurred at Pirbright were as a result of under-investment because if the problems had been known they would have been dealt with.

  Q339  Dr Harris: The problems?

  Ian Pearson: If the problems of the drains had been known, they would clearly have been dealt with.

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