House of COMMONS
MINUTES OF EVIDENCE
Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee
Monday 21 April 2008
RT HON DAWN PRIMAROLO MP, IAN PEARSON MP,
RT HON LORD ROOKER OF PERRY BAR and LORD McKENZIE OF LUTON
USE OF THE TRANSCRIPT
Taken before the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee
(Sub-Committee on Biosecurity in UK Research Laboratories)
on Monday 21 April 2008
Mr Phil Willis, in the Chair
Mr Tim Boswell
Mr Ian Cawsey
Dr Ian Gibson
Dr Evan Harris
Dr Brian Iddon
Examination of Witnesses
Witnesses: Rt Hon Dawn Primarolo MP, Minister of State, Department of Health. Ian Pearson MP, Minister of State, Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, Rt Hon Lord Rooker of Perry Bar, a Member of the House of Lords, Minister of State, Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and Lord McKenzie of Luton, a Member of the House of Lords, Parliamentary Under Secretary of State, Department for Work and Pensions, gave evidence.
Q299 Chairman: Could I welcome our panel of ministers for this, the final session of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills sub-committee work on biosecurity in UK research laboratories. We welcome this afternoon the Rt Hon Dawn Primarolo MP, Minister of State for the Department of Health, Ian Pearson MP, the Minister of State for the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills and obviously for science, the Rt Hon Lord Rooker of Perry Bar, the Minister of State for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and, last but by no means least, the first time we have met you at this committee or indeed my previous committee, Lord McKenzie of Luton, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Department for Work and Pensions. This is probably the first time that we have had four ministers from different departments on one inquiry, but we are very, very grateful to you for giving your time. I wonder if I could perhaps start with you, Ian, this afternoon; if you could chair your panel and if you feel that a question should be deflected elsewhere could I just ask you to accept that responsibility, if it is a difficult question it can go to one of your colleagues, depending on whether they are on the left or right of the party. We have obviously obtained a lot of evidence about biosecurity and I wonder if we could start by saying who do you think is actually in charge within the Government for biosecurity. We have received, obviously, a memorandum from four different departments here but who actually is in charge, who pulls it all together, who actually cracks the whip when things are not going well?
Ian Pearson: The first thing to say, Chairman, is thank you for the invitation to attend this Committee; the fact that you have got four Government ministers here shows that this is very much a joint responsibility and, as Spratt reports and Anderson reports, it is clearly demonstrated with the recommendations that they made there are lessons we have all learned from the outbreak at Pirbright. First and foremost, obviously it is the responsibility of individual facilities to ensure that they conform to good biosecurity practices, whether that is in an institute or whether it is in a university research laboratory, and it is the responsibility of regulators to make sure that sites are operating in conjunction with the terms of their licence. We have had a number of different reports into this at the moment and the clear conclusion from those reports is that there are lessons for all of us to learn.
Q300 Chairman: But who pulls it together, Ian?
Ian Pearson: We are actually learning those lessons and you will see that we have actually responded very positively to Spratt and, recently, we have seen the publication of the Beringer report and you will be aware of BBSRC's response to that in the form of the press statement which was issued on Friday of last week.
Q301 Chairman: When you say "we" you obviously mean the Government in its collective state but who actually within Government pulls the thing together? Is it you, is it DIUS, is it you, Dawn, within health, is it you, Jeff, within Defra? Who is it?
Ian Pearson: Perhaps if you can explain what things you are talking about pulling together then we can try and help you.
Q302 Chairman: Following the Pirbright situation we have clearly had, for instance, an independent review that has highlighted Defra's conflict of interest over the shortcomings of the SAPO regime; who was responsible for picking that up, was it you in Defra, or was it a mistake that had been made in Defra, was it an oversight? The point I am trying to make is, is there nowhere within Government where you all come together as a group, the four different departments, and actually share information and actually have some co-ordinating organisation to make sure that biosecurity and biosafety is something that pervades every aspect that you are responsible for?
Lord Rooker of Perry Bar: In a way you have asked a question specific to biosecurity wich is why I do not think you will get the specific one size fits all answer that maybe you are looking for. Within our individual departments we have got laboratories that are our own laboratories, they may work with others but nevertheless - that happens in Defra, some of which I am ministerially responsible for, but Pirbright I am not because it is not a Defra laboratory, we are a customer. We were also the regulator, we were also the inspector and probably we were the major customer of course. That perceived conflict had probably been identified some time before when we were looking at the review of where laboratories were fitting within Government, but then the laboratories themselves have their own networks within departments and across departments and they are looking at things other than biosecurity - they are looking at the service to customers, research facilities and capital investment programmes - maybe where they can be shared - but when it comes down to the actual nuts and bolts of the biosecurity, wherever the laboratory may be located,, some of it is pretty basic. If you go back to the Health and Safety Commission report published in September, when even the vehicle numbers going on our Pirbright site were not being recorded and times on and off the site were not being recorded, about as basic as you can get, no regulator and no inspector can actually carry the managerial responsibility for that, that has to be imposed on the site operator and it has to be imposed by the person either regulating or as the customer giving the set of parameters, but the actual function of that has got to be the actual site operators themselves.
Q303 Chairman: The point we are trying to make here is that whoever is operating the site, under the aegis of whichever Government department, there perhaps should be common standards which in fact prevail right across the piece. Is that not reasonable?
Lord Rooker of Perry Bar: It will vary from site to site - the location of the site, the risks around sites: some may be urban, some may be rural for various historical reasons or indeed customer orientation reasons, but the basic principles of biosecurity, whether it is a laboratory or indeed a farm, are quite well known. We do not have to write and invent the process here. I get annoyed when I go on farms and it is only when there is a disease outbreak that you get some biosecurity at the front of the farm. Occasionally there are farms which have got it 365 days a year and you could argue that that would be good preventative practice.
Q304 Chairman: The Callaghan review made it absolutely clear that Defra, the Department of Health, Health and Safety Executive and other interested parties should work together much more closely than they were doing at present; you seem to be giving the impression that all is well, we just do our own thing and it does not matter.
Lord Rooker of Perry Bar: No, I do not seek to give that impression at all. First of all, we fully accept that lessons can be learned both from this outbreak and indeed others right across Government - this goes way beyond Government and as Bill might tell you in a way, as a result of all this, the input of the Health and Safety Executive is much greater on these areas than hitherto in the past. We can learn lessons and all I am simply saying is you are asking a question: who is in charge nationally of biosecurity? Frankly, you cannot get an answer to that.
Q305 Chairman: But I can get an answer to the basic question as to who within Government actually pulls it together when there is a need to do so, to make sure that there are not in fact errors or in fact problems which are occurring in particular areas. We do not need another Pirbright, do we, before we start looking at all this again?
Lord Rooker of Perry Bar: We do not, but Pirbright is fairly atypical of laboratories. Government departments have their own laboratories and Pirbright of course is effectively a charity, partly funded by the Science Research Council, and it is outwith that normal flow with a separate governing body I understand. We are a customer as I say, it is not a Defra laboratory like the veterinary laboratories agency. When you look at your own laboratories you clearly are responsible as the department, as the minister, to make sure of the operation of the laboratory as well as the focus on the finance and the actual research contracts as well as the other issues relative to biosecurity, but that does not therefore cover across Government.
Q306 Chairman: I know that Tim is wanting to come in here and I know Bill that you are wanting to come in and so is Ian; can I bring you two in and then bring in Tim?
Lord McKenzie of Luton: I just wanted to comment briefly, if I can. In answer to the question who is in overall charge, as my colleagues have said, it depends in charge of what. It seems to me that some clear issues that came out of the Callaghan report are that there should be a single regulatory framework and there should be a single regulator; therefore, in terms of that part of the equation the way forward is clear, those recommendations are right and certainly recommendations which cross-Government we support. That component of it, therefore, it seems will be in place but at the moment it is split: there is more than one regulator and the regulations that apply are not identical within the framework to get one framework.
Q307 Chairman: I am looking at one stage before the regulator because the regulator regulates something and it is who pulls together, if you like, the conditions under which the regulator then inspects and makes sure that they are applied. Ian, did you want to come in?
Ian Pearson: Just to emphasise the point that Bill was making really, which is that one of the clear conclusions that come out of the Callaghan report that has been accepted by Government is that there does need to be a single regulatory regime. You have heard very clearly from the people who have submitted evidence to you and been examined orally as well that there is very strong support for that approach, and that is exactly what as a Government as a whole we are doing at the moment.
Q308 Chairman: Dawn, on this initial question?
Dawn Primarolo: I absolutely accept and welcome the Callaghan review points, particularly around the question of biosafety and who should be, if you like, the regulator in that. I was listening carefully to the dual point about are safety and security the same thing in all circumstances and should they be done by the same body? From the Department of Health's point of view there is a clear line on safety and on security, the one on safety is through the HSE, buttressed by the COSHH regulations, and security is done through the national counterterrorism security office, Home Office, inspected by the police. What I was reflecting on briefly as this starts is whether those two things are exactly the same and whether they should or could be done by the same body, or how they interlock. All of us have said in submissions to the Committee that we think on the regulation side, the safety side, whilst it is the responsibility of the particular authorities - HPA as an agency for the Department of Health - to make sure they have got safety, that has got to be regulated and inspected and the HSE is the way forward. I am not saying it cannot be done by the same body, I am questioning what exactly do we mean? Some of the security is very specific and requires different skills, but that still begs the question that you started with though, which I do not have an answer to, should there be one body? Given that it is cross-government and we have all got - those of us represented here - particularly Class 4 laboratories, how do you get that departmental link and tie-in?
Chairman: The line of my questioning will become more apparent as we move through the questions this afternoon, because there are other issues we have raised which actually bring us back to that business of who co-ordinates it all, but you have been very patient Tim.
Q309 Mr Boswell: Can I begin by apologising to ministers for being a touch late but I have literally come up by train because I wanted to talk to you about this. It would not really be appropriate perhaps if I glossed on what the Chairman said but I could perhaps introduce a concept which Lord McKenzie will be familiar with from HSE philosophy about the controlling mind. It is understandable that in the individual laboratory, be it owned by Defra, a research council, the Department of Health or one of its agencies, it would be quite wrong to say that site security should not be the responsibility of an individual ultimately and of the management to whom that individual reports, but I would like to take you on a little further about this idea of what might be termed strategic biosecurity, by which I am really feeling after how one would get a better mechanism across government for setting a set of standards which a single regulator that you have referred to would then implement, having a discussion about it and possibly taking that forward into the future. If I could say one more thing to make it one question for you to respond to, please do not think that as far as I am concerned this is all raking over the past, although obviously we are all interested in learning the lessons of the past. If we are looking forward - and you will get some more questions about this in a little bit - we may be wanting to ask perfectly sensible questions across the public sector about how many category 4 laboratories we need and how we should have a plan for those - it is a perfectly proper planning function for government. We cannot do that by a series of itemised decision-making, somebody has to take the lead on that and then have a discussion and take advice from HSE as the regulator - I can see Dawn in particular responding. I wonder if you could just take me through those thoughts and give me some comfort as to how we might get a single structure for looking at some of these issues on a fairly principled basis within Government or within the public sector.
Dawn Primarolo: I was nodding in terms of some of the work that I know the MRC has commissioned that the HPA is working with, and there is a steering committee and then an independent review. I am happy to join in or answer it, but I do not know, Ian, whether you want to say what the MRC decided to do and how this might actually take us down the path of exactly what this Committee is talking about.
Ian Pearson: Let me comment on that but firstly let me amplify some of the points that have been made about security and what we are talking about here. It is right to draw a distinction between biosecurity in the sense of safety that we have accepted should be a unified regulatory regime with the responsibility of the Health and Safety Executive and the security aspects that would deal with potential threats through counterterrorism or through proliferation, and it would not be sensible to put those together into a single regulatory regime but we do as a Government think it right that the Health and Safety Executive take responsibility for what you might call the biosafety aspects. With regard to your broader question about containment level 4 facilities and how many of them do we need, the Medical Research Council has commissioned, as Boris said to you during his evidence session, a study that will look at with regards to the MRC and I believe the BBSRC as well the scope and likely future requirements when it comes to category level 4 facilities, but again it is important that we be clear what we are talking about here because the sort of research that you might want to do for medical research or biosciences research or veterinary research can be very different to some of the other research fields that might have more of a security aspect to them.
Mr Boswell: To link in with ministers, if I might - because that is a helpful answer - presumably albeit it is an MRC show this will report to some kind of inter-ministerial machinery so that you will make a decision on whether you need to make a collective decision on some of these issues or whether it is really too difficult or inappropriate.
Q310 Chairman: It is a point here that we do not know of any inter-ministerial group that works in this area despite these big issues.
Ian Pearson: The situation is that Research Councils are responsible for making detailed decisions on the level of research that is required across their communities and they will be responsible for making that assessment and ensuring that facilities are put in place to meet those, and that is one of the reasons why the MRC has been actively looking at the future situation and trying to make an assessment, given that these are very expensive facilities, whether there are sufficient resources. As you heard in evidence previously the feeling is that with regards to the Medical Research Council and the BBSRC as well there is a sense that the resources that are available at the moment are adequate for the tasks that are currently envisaged and funded, but the issue is what might happen in the future which is why the research has been commissioned.
Q311 Mr Boswell: That again is helpful but I am not sure it quite meets my point because you started off by responding to my question about whether there was a single controlling line of government by saying the MRC is conducting a survey, and that we understood, but as you went on to refine that you made it increasingly clear that that was a study which was confined at least to the relevant research councils and did not extend across government. I am just wondering, again taking up what the Chairman said, there is a single body which is prepared to stand back and say, look, we are a country of a certain size, there is a distribution of population and we need X number of facilities. We have got more or less or we could rationalise them in this or that way or make better use of our facilities, and generally plan the system. I do not think you have quite given me that.
Ian Pearson: Firstly let me put back to you the fact that the sort of research that you might want to conduct at Porton Down is very different to the sort of research that you might want to conduct at Pirbright, we always need to bear that in mind. When it comes to the quantum of research that any particular institute might want to do and whether that research should be funded, we then come back to a peer review process and so the MRC will take some detailed decisions on what it thinks is the best peer reviewed research that it wants to undertake, and it will be up to the MRC within its delivery plan that gets approved by Government to make those decisions.
Q312 Chairman: We do understand that Ian. May I just ask you all one very simple question? As far as this inquiry is concerned have you ever met as a team of ministers on this issue of biosecurity or biosafety? Have you ever met?
Ian Pearson: No.
Q313 Dr Gibson: The Health and Safety Executive is the regulator and that has been agreed; do you think they have enough resources to do all the things they might have to undertake or are there going to be limitations and will they need other kinds of support, do you think, or are they self-sufficient?
Lord McKenzie of Luton: It is an important point and the expectation is that resources will be sufficient. You will be aware that Sir Bill Callaghan's report proposed a three-phase approach; phases one and two for the additional work that the HSE would be undertaking, looking at the SAPO regulation, that Defra has agreed to fund and in relation to phase three Bill's recommendation was that we enter into a charging process just like the COMAH sites at the moment; that obviously creates some challenges, it will be a sensitive issue and will need a lot of discussion, but that would certainly provide a route for additional resources. If you looked overall at the settlement for the HSE under CSR07 it has been the subject of some comment only just today when the DWP Select Committee probed that in some depth, but I would summarise again the outcome as being that the three year review gives the HSE in aggregate something like a little bit better than flat cash in comparison to the 04 settlement. In the context of the DWP's minus five per cent real year-on-year you will see that we have tried to resource the HSE appropriately. In terms of personnel, at the biological agents unit which provides the staffing for that I am advised that staffing has increased over the last six or seven years from about six originally up to 17 including the three recruitment exercises that are under way, so in terms of personnel we believe there will be sufficient personnel to carry out the tasks. I understand that although the HSE is currently focused on human pathogens, we are really dealing with containment technology and processes here and they are broadly common to animal and human pathogens; therefore, since there is not a hugely new learning curve I guess the final point I would make is that if you look at the number of institutions for Level 3 containment that HSE is engaged with at the moment it is overall the highest proportion of those facilities that exist. The number of those that are SAPO-only regulated is quite small and of the ten level 4 containment facilities only two of them are currently SAPO-only regulated, so the HSE is already significantly engaged with most of them. The answer is yes it will be sufficiently resourced to do the task.
Q314 Dr Gibson: If I decided to set up a laboratory of some kind to investigate disease would they come in and help plan and prevent the problems that might happen, rather than just picking up the problem once it happens?
Lord McKenzie of Luton: It depends in part, I guess, on the structure of the regulatory framework that we end up with because the approaches under COSHH and the GM containment regulations are slightly different - one is a permissioning regime, the other is a notification regime whereas SAPO is a licensing regime. Whichever of those processes is eventually adopted Bill recommends against a licensing regime.
Q315 Dr Gibson: But there is a bit of uncertainty in that area, is there, about how it might end up?
Lord McKenzie of Luton: The final structure of that regulatory framework is the subject of discussion at the moment but certainly Sir Bill recommended against a licensing approach; the extent to which there should be a permissioning approach or a notification approach should be the subject of on-going discussion. However it ends up, there would inevitably be an iterative process between those proposing the establishment and the HSE because at the end of the day those who propose it want to know that they are going to get whatever approvals or agreements they have that the thing can be safely operated.
Q316 Dr Gibson: Has the HSE cut their ties with Defra for example, who have a heck of an experience in this area, in certain fields anyway?
Lord McKenzie of Luton: It is working closely with Defra at the moment or has worked through stage 1 and as stage 2 kicks in at the end of this month there is a good working relationship. Obviously those ties will not be cut and if there is need in particular for veterinary expertise that would be available and would presumably be brought in, so we do not see that as being a particular problem.
Q317 Dr Gibson: Could somebody somewhere walk into an office and look at a sheet of paper or a map about where these pathogens are going to be localised across the country? Is there going to be a centralisation in HSE or what?
Lord McKenzie of Luton: It is right to say at the moment with the existing regulatory structure one way or another the HSE ends up with a pretty significant database of what work is going on where across the country. I would hope that means that somebody could not just wander in and have a browse at it, but in fact that data does exist and is with the HSE at the moment.
Q318 Chairman: You mean it does exist now.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: I believe it does.
Lord Rooker of Perry Bar: It is just not published.
Q319 Dr Gibson: Is there a reason why it is not published? Is it just being remiss or is too risky?
Lord McKenzie of Luton: Some of it would be I guess highly sensitive, some of it might be commercially sensitive, and obviously there are national security issues associated with some of it.
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.
Q340 Dr Harris: Looking forward, clearly the redevelopment is going to cost more than the original sum. Have Defra and DIUS agreed to pay their share of that increase in order to implement the Pirbright redevelopment programme or is that still an ongoing discussion?
Ian Pearson: As a result of the review of biosecurity that has been taking place the project which was originally costed at 121 million will now cost more than that. Work is still going on to scope the additional cost that is going to be involved in this. As far as the BBSRC is concerned, as you will have seen in their response to the Beringer Report, they are prepared to commit long term funding for the redevelopment of the Institute of Animal Health at Pirbright.
Q341 Dr Harris: Somewhere I have read that they are prepared to fund 50 per cent of the increased cost. Where is the other 50 per cent going to come from for the redevelopment?
Ian Pearson: We will have to have discussions in government to make sure that the project will deliver value for money.
Q342 Chairman: I thought it was urgent that this was done?
Ian Pearson: The project is continuing at the moment. There is a project board. As Lord Rooker has said, resources have already been committed to it. We do see this as being an urgent priority for us. Exactly what pockets some of the additional money comes out of will have to be decided between us but the project will go ahead. It will be a mixture of funding from Defra, the BBSRC and its own capital resources and it will be a mixture of funding from the large facilities capital fund. We are not in a position to say exactly what those levels will be at the moment.
Q343 Chairman: When will it be decided?
Ian Pearson: We hope to be able to make some decisions in principle on the Large Facilities Capital Fund project which has already had money earmarked to it back in 2005. It has gone through the road map process again, as you will be aware. We hope to be able to make decisions on that by probably the end of May. Obviously it will be up to the BBSRC as well to decide what capital it wants to provide for it and some decisions will need to be taken by Defra. I do not think there is any doubt from all those who were involved in this project that we see this as being an important priority.
Q344 Dr Harris: That is good to hear. In the Anderson Report, he made a suggestion that the IAH be transformed into what he named informally I suppose as the National Institute of Infectious Diseases to give the Institute of Animal Health a national name to reflect its importance nationally. Is that something you are attracted to and is any attraction you have to that associated with a merger between the VLA and the IAH? Does the government have a position on that proposition?
Ian Pearson: I know the Anderson Report made that recommendation and also the Beringer Report talked about an Animal Health and Welfare Agency. My view on that is that it might be a bit premature at this stage, before we look at the overall costs of the project, to come to a firm conclusion about whether that will be the right, long term direction.
Q345 Dr Harris: Do you mean the merger of the VLA and the IAH? Is that what you are talking about there?
Ian Pearson: I think we are still considering some of the recommendations of the Anderson Report and a lot of this will be a matter for Defra.
Lord Rooker of Perry Bar: It is early days. We are happy to discuss this recommendation with colleagues but it might look administratively and managerially convenient. You have to accept that there is a variety of laboratories in the country and it is a good thing that we as government use laboratories that we do not always own and control ourselves. There are universities and the private sector laboratories as well. A lot of contracts are let. A simple merger with the IAH and the VLA, where the VLA is a wholly owned government laboratory, IAH is not. It is a fairly unique structure, as I mentioned earlier on, compared with a number of other laboratories in the UK. We are happy to discuss the Anderson recommendation with colleagues but it is not something we have drawn any firm conclusions on at the present time.
Q346 Dr Harris: The Beringer Report made I think a very important proposal that does require a response and that was that you could not really have whatever you call this new entity, whether it had a national label or not - it did such important work and was so important to government, being responsible in answer to the Chairman's first question and as a customer - that it needed to have sustainable, core funding in a simple way. I see the term "single owner" used as well, but long term, sustainable core funding rather than relying on being successful in winning contracts for its core function. What is your reaction to that particular recommendation from Beringer?
Ian Pearson: I agree with that and the BBSRC has already accepted that as a recommendation. There does need to be long term, sustainable funding. As the Beringer Report says as well, there are also government issues which need to be addressed, both in the short term and in the medium term. I am very keen as well that we respond to those.
Lord Rooker of Perry Bar: Obviously in the context of responding to Professor Anderson's report, we will give a view on that later in the year. On the other hand, I cannot recall which select committee I appeared before with the late Howard Dalton - I think it may have been this one or a modified version of it - when it was put to us that, because we were a customer and as a customer we provided more than 15 per cent of the funds of an institution, we should therefore be committing to long term, seed corn funding. That is an untenable proposition if that is the proposition that is still floating around. We do not accept that simply because we have to have the capacity to let contracts to a variety of institutions. Obviously it is in Defra's interest as well as in the country's, I might add, that Pirbright succeeds and grows and maintains its world class reference for the particular diseases. Our commitment of course is given as a huge chunk of our capital budget in there, but the question that underlines your question, if I can put it that way, is what we will seek to address when we address the Anderson Report. We will respond to it later in the year.
Q347 Dr Harris: Beringer was very clear and I am going to read exactly what he said on this recommendation: "BBSRC and Defra must jointly provide long term, core funding to ensure the sustainability of the new national centre at Pirbright. We do not believe it appropriate to fund a national facility with statutory responsibilities primarily through the award of research grants and contracts." I understand that you - and partly Defra - award research grants and contracts. I do not blame you for doing that. It is the way some of these things work, but this is a clear line under that and a recommendation for the future. In a sense, history is history and, because of the sensitivity of this to the economy and the rural economy in particular, there is a specific recommendation. I got the impression you were relatively negative about that because you are a customer.
Ian Pearson: Can we be very clear on this? Beringer talks about long term, core funding and core funding is the right distinction. It does not mean long term, total funding to the organisation. In any organisation like this, it will want to compete competitively for research funds and Defra will maybe want to make different decisions about the volumes of overall contracts that it wants to put this direction. The principle that long term, core funding needs to be provided to the organisation is one that is in Beringer, is one that I would support and certainly I know the BBSRC does.
Q348 Chairman: There is a fundamental difference though between core funding of other organisations - we have obviously been talking recently about STFC's work in astronomy and particle physics - and animal health or human and animal pathogens which in fact can have the most devastating effects, as we have seen with foot and mouth, which we could also see in terms of human pathogens. What you are saying is that because you cannot agree with each other we are not likely to have the core funding issue sorted out for these important, national institutions, or am I misreading you?
Ian Pearson: I am not saying that at all. You are misreading me. I am not sure how you can construe that from what I have said. I have said that it is important ----
Q349 Chairman: You seem to be committed but Defra do not. They do not seem to have any role in this at all.
Ian Pearson: I am sure Jeff is as committed as I am to making sure that Pirbright has the funding that is required to maintain its strategic capability to conduct the world class work that it does.
Q350 Dr Harris: It is not just the funding, is it? The specific recommendation was sustainable, long term, core funding which cannot be obtained through collecting up grants, awards and contracts.
Lord Rooker of Perry Bar: You may say I am being negative. My line is exactly the same as I gave when I came to the select committee before. We will respond to the Beringer recommendation, when we are discussing the response to Chris Anderson's report, later in the year. Let us get it clear. Defra have spent an enormous sum of money at Pirbright. This is not just the capital that we are spending on the laboratories on a site that we do not own and that we do not manage. It is done because it is vital. On exotic diseases in the last five years we have spent over £27 million. Half of that has been at Pirbright. £10 million has been spent in the last five years at Pirbright on foot and mouth research alone and yet it is a world reference laboratory for some ten diseases. I would not want to give the impression that we are not a funder. If the implication is that therefore we fund without an outcome, as someone that does not own or control the site, when we have other funding requirements, that is a major, major policy change.
Q351 Chairman: The fundamental issue which I started this discussion with is about who pulls all this together as far as government is concerned. Whilst you are able to trade off amongst different departments, you will not get a resolution to those basic questions as to how we provide world class animal health and human health facilities. Do you accept that?
Lord Rooker of Perry Bar: I do accept that but, although you have a narrow remit on this particular inquiry, I ask you then to look at the consequences of that for science and other laboratories in the country where the same kind of contract relationship applies. In recent months, I have visited HRI, John Innes, IGER and Rothampstead, all of which we fund and are vital. We do not fund core funding. We have the Central Science Laboratory, where I will be later in the week, a Defra wholly owned laboratory inherited from the previous government to their undying credit, a major, international resource at York that cries out for more core funding in my view, and the VLA and CEFAS. You cannot separate this out just for the animal and human pathogens. You go for a policy change to say we have a set of laboratories that it is in our interests we keep. The implication is we keep them for ever, whatever they do, because of this core funding arrangement. Whatever innovation comes up in other areas, which may intervene and say, "Oh no, that money has gone for the core funding to protect this laboratory; we cannot help fund this area", this is an area where I am not qualified at all at the present time and nor do I have any authority whatsoever.
Q352 Chairman: Do you have an opinion though?
Lord Rooker of Perry Bar: I have just given one.
Q353 Dr Harris: I wanted to ask when you think this will be sorted out by government. I accept that it is not straightforward for Defra because it would be redefining its relationship with one particular organisation that it funds. People will argue it is important that it does so but what about the timescale for sorting this out?
Lord Rooker of Perry Bar: We are not going to pass the buck. We are not going to leave it to the chief scientist to sort out. In our previous incarnation when I came with Howard, everyone has their own agenda. This has to be sorted out by ministers and government. The buck stops with us quite clearly. On the narrow issue of the recommendation that you have asked the question about, when we have a response to Professor Anderson's recommendation and his report later in the year, we will have to give an answer that any minister can legitimately come and defend to this Committee.
Q354 Dr Harris: When will we know?
Lord Rooker of Perry Bar: I do not know what the timescale is. It says, "In the near future." We will be discussing these issues. We have only just had the review in March. We had several reports following the outbreak last year and we are learning the lessons. We have gone back to look at what happened in bovine TB as well but certainly with this outbreak it is fairly unique. We now have five or six reports. We have to take an overview of all these to make sure there is no conflict, that we get the right decisions on the finance and the accountability of that finance to Parliament.
Q355 Dr Harris: Beringer went as far as saying if there is no prospect of agreeing by April 2009 the matter should be referred by referral through DIUS and Defra to the Cabinet Office. The BBSRC say it should be by December 2008.
Lord Rooker of Perry Bar: I would not argue about a couple of months but the fact is if ministers cannot agree this would go to Cabinet.
Ian Pearson: The Beringer Report only came out last week so it is not unreasonable for us to take some time in looking at the detail of the recommendations.
Q356 Chairman: We will give you another week.
Ian Pearson: I hope you are going to be talking about the governance of Pirbright as well.
Q357 Dr Iddon: Is it generally considered that we have enough capacity in this country for research on dangerous pathogens?
Ian Pearson: As I think Sir Leszek said to you when he appeared before the Committee, he felt that there was sufficient capacity for research that is presently envisaged by the Medical Research Council. One of the reasons why he has commissioned this report and research for the future is that we want to look at what the future requirement might be for containment level facilities. We mentioned that earlier and it is George Griffin who will be leading this work. I think he will be reporting within six months.
Q358 Dr Iddon: The evidence that we have seen suggests that some of the category four laboratories at, for example, Pirbright itself and HPA Porton Down need quite a bit of money spending on maintenance, if not wholesale refurbishment. Are you aware of that and will funding be made available for that in the future?
Ian Pearson: We are certainly aware that Pirbright needs money spending on it which is why, for a number of years, we have had plans for its redevelopment. As I said earlier, we are looking again at the costing of those plans in the light of the information that has been made available on biosecurity as a result of the reviews that have taken place. With regard to Porton Down, I would defer to Dawn.
Dawn Primarolo: The Department funds the HPA by agreeing a core budget and grant in aid, although, to reinforce the point that was being made by Jeff, notwithstanding our ability also to contract with other laboratories' research. On the investments, the HPA have prepared a strategic plan for themselves about the future, 2008 to 2013. Part of that includes a strategic capital investment plan for Porton. The outline case has been submitted. It would come here to the Department of Health and those discussions are now taking place. Whilst of course facilities like Porton class four have very high maintenance costs - and so they should because it is about what they are containing and the work they are doing - the Department is moving on, going back to the review which the HPA is contributing to, about capacity of class four, what might be necessary in the future, whilst there is not a shortage at the moment, it is important to see that in the wider plans. I too have seen the facilities at Porton. They are still up to standard but we have to try and look forward here as your Committee is obviously encouraging us to do as well. That was already in train.
Q359 Dr Iddon: Are you aware that there may not be any facilities in this country for carrying out a post mortem on a body which has been infected by a dangerous pathogen? Do you believe that to be true? If it is true, do you think we need such facilities?
Dawn Primarolo: Certainly the discussions that I have been having with the HPA and their advice to me is to try as best we can to look forward and say, "What facilities might we need in terms of public health provisions?" That is what the strategic plan and the outline case is looking at. Whilst I have to admit I cannot immediately say on this point that the whole point of what they are doing is to address these issues about trying their best to look for the challenges that may occur, the capacities we have now and the important public health role, the transformation role that a facility like Porton can play in the development of important vaccines, that is all very much part of the discussion. That will have to be part of what is looked at in this wider, independent review which has been commissioned by MRC. Some of the other points that you are raising though we will need to take note of as we get to the point of receiving that independent review. As I understand it, it may be in the autumn.
Ian Pearson: Can I make a broader point about what we do as a government to ensure the sustainability of the research base? As the Committee will be very well aware, the movement towards full economic costing that is taking place throughout the university sector is something that has been very much welcomed and has helped to upgrade and make more sustainable a number of university based research institutes. Also through the government we conduct a Research Council Institute and Public Sector Research Establishment sustainability study. That is conducted I think every couple of years. It looks right across the research institutes to ensure the long term sustainability of research, including the recovery of full economic costs. I think another study is due shortly. The evidence from the last one has been that overall improvements have been made when it comes to public sector research establishments and their sustainability, so the buildings are in better condition than they were previously. Have we got more to do? Yes, clearly we have got more to do and there are clearly priority areas where more needs to be done but we are certainly taking action in a number of those areas.
Q360 Dr Iddon: In Germany the Committee is aware that there is a large animal facility and I understand that scientists in this country wanted to build a similar facility at Pirbright but that it has been struck out because of the increased cost that that would bring to the scheme. Do you believe that we need a large animal facility at category four in this country to either carry out a post mortem or carry out research on large animals such as horses, cattle and so on?
Ian Pearson: I think it is for the experts to come to conclusions about whether a large animal facility that would be able to be at a containment level to tackle dangerous pathogens is needed.
Dr Iddon: I think they have come to the conclusion that one is needed and a request was made to build one at Pirbright. That is my understanding.
Chairman: We understand that it was turned down.
Q361 Dr Iddon: It has been struck out because of the cost.
Ian Pearson: I am not sited on the particular thing that something has been struck out. I do not understand where that is coming from. I thought the case for whether there needed to be a large animal facility was still something that was under consideration. If I have any better information on that, I am happy to write to the Committee on it.
Q362 Mr Boswell: On the operational practice in the future, if a director of an institute, be it Pirbright, be it one in the human health sector or otherwise, is conscious perhaps as a result of ageing facilities of some biosecurity hazard and this is not a particular affection of his or hers but is confirmed by the HSE - and there is clearly a debate about that - and if the area of work is one which you regard as a strategic priority within government, either for human or animal health or for some other wider reasons, can we be fairly certain that that need for capital expenditure will be treated as in effect a contingency that will be advanced up as against the possibility either that the work will cease or that it will continue and be done on a wing and a prayer with people's fingers crossed?
Ian Pearson: There are a lot of ifs in that question which make it very difficult to answer. In general terms, if a director of a research institute as you suggest has concerns about the biosecurity of his site, I think it would be the responsibility of that director to report them to the Health and Safety Executive or their appropriate regulator to make sure that there is a thorough inspection that takes place and that any improvement notices or remedial action that needs to be taken is taken. Obviously if this was a research institute that was financially supported through one of the Research Councils, then they would want as part of the normal process to put in a bid to the Research Councils for the necessary capital funding to undertake that work. That is how it would happen in normal circumstances.
Dawn Primarolo: If one of the class four laboratories within the HPA failed either on health and safety on the biosafety side and/or the security side, it cannot function. It is closed. My understanding from the human pathogen HPA work is that that cannot happen.
Lord McKenzie of Luton: One would hope that these things would not only emerge at the last minute but that the process of regulation and engagement would have spotted it earlier, but it is absolutely right. If the system was not fit for purpose, then some form of improvement or prohibition notice could be served. If it were in Crown ownership, then there are parallel processes.
Q363 Mr Boswell: It would be ultimately for ministers who had the national interest in mind to respond to that by, if necessary, making the capital funds available on an emergency basis if it had arisen?
Lord McKenzie of Luton: The issue of improvement notices and prohibition notices would certainly not be for ministers. That would be for individual inspectors.
Q364 Mr Boswell: Once issued, the response would be in the hands of ministers?
Ian Pearson: Regulators will shut it if it is not safe to be operated. It would be up to us to take action to ensure that we provide the funding to make it safer.
Q365 Mr Cawsey: During the course of this inquiry we learned about the MRC considering to move their work from the National Institute for Medical Research into a brand new facility in the centre of London. It did lead us to speak to a number of people who we have taken evidence from through the inquiry as to how wise it is to have a large laboratory dealing with dangerous pathogens in the centre of a city, London or anywhere else for that matter. I think it is fair to say that we have had a whole different series of views, but Professor Griffin when he spoke to us as part of his policy said he thought it ought to be avoided, frankly, and it would be better to keep them out of large conurbations. I just wondered whether there was any view on whether they should be permitted.
Ian Pearson: Firstly, no decision has been taken at all on what biosecurity facilities should be provided at the UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation. They are still very much at the design stage and it would be up to Sir Paul Nurse and the community to make appropriate recommendations about how the project is taken forward in terms of the containment level that might be required for the science that they want to conduct there. I would not want to prejudge any of those decisions in the future. I just offer the observation that there are more than a dozen cities around the world where containment level four facilities do operate. I am not aware that there are any security or biosecurity issues as a result of those. One of the things we have done is to ask George Griffin to comment on this as part of the work that he is doing and we would want to consider the evidence that he produces when he comes up with his report.
Q366 Mr Cawsey: Given the increasing role in the HSE in the regulation of all of this, do you think perhaps they should be required to give approval for a location of a proposed build?
Lord McKenzie of Luton: I do not think that should necessarily follow. It does depend upon the circumstances. We come back to the point we have touched upon quite a lot this afternoon about responsibility for biosecurity. It does not rest with the HSE. It rests with those who own and operate and run the facility. That is the right balance. Certainly there is a role for the HSE in terms of the design and how the facility is operated but the key role in all of this is in making sure that there is effective biosecurity. Bill Callaghan recommended that the process should try to be as close to zero as is possible in terms of handling of risks. I think that does rest with the operators.
Q367 Mr Cawsey: Given the review of level four facilities, where they are and who runs them, is there a view on whether they should be restricted to the government sector or should universities be allowed to run them?
Ian Pearson: Universities already run a range of containment facilities. They run literally hundreds of containment level three facilities at the moment and I do not think there is any reason to believe that universities are an less reliable than a government institute when it comes to running containment level four facilities.
Q368 Mr Cawsey: One of the reasons might simply be the old question of costs. Some of the evidence we have been looking at looked at the idea of centralised facilities because otherwise, with lots of small facilities, it is a very expensive way of providing them. They are often under-utilised and perhaps really high containment laboratories should be more centralised, where people could come in and use them as they need them. Is that a view that you are considering?
Ian Pearson: That is a very fair point. One of the things that the review will look at specifically, as I understand it, is centralisation and whether centralisation makes sense in the broader, strategic sense. These things are hugely expensive facilities and it is right that they are used in the most effective way. That might well mean having them in relatively few locations rather than spread around.
Q369 Chairman: You mentioned earlier the issue of governance. Clearly the Callaghan Review, when it looked at what had happened at Pirbright, was critical - let us put it that way - of the fact that you had Merial and the Institute for Animal Health who did not seem to talk to each other in terms of biosecurity. I wonder if that is what you meant by governance. Indeed, is the government planning to do anything across different ministerial teams about ensuring that we do have a level of governance which does not in fact have different organisations on the same site not being able to speak to each other effectively.
Ian Pearson: That was not what I was particularly talking about but you are right to say that there is a triangle here with the regulator, the Institute of Animal Health at Pirbright and Merial. It is important that we learn the lessons for all the organisations as part of the process. I was specifically talking about one of the recommendations in the Beringer Review about governance arrangements, which is recommendation five where it says that, in line with the previous wishes of the IAH governing bodies, BBSRC should take over direct responsibility for the governance of the Institute of Animal Health and as an interim measure to resolve the current ambiguity of governance in recognition of the scale of change facing IAH, "... we recommend that the IAH governing body should invite BBSRC to give them a corporate trustee for the Institute of Animal Health."
Q370 Chairman: Some of us will be surprised that that is not the case.
Ian Pearson: My understanding is that the charity that is currently the body corporate for Pirbright will be making a decision tomorrow on this and inviting BBSRC to be a corporate trustee and therefore to take over and clarify arrangements. It is obviously a matter for those who run the board of the charity.
Q371 Chairman: Would you be supportive?
Ian Pearson: I would be very supportive and certainly the BBSRC I know is very supportive of this. It has been talking to the IAH governing body about this. This will clarify arrangements for the short term. There then needs to be a decision taken about the medium term and appropriate governance arrangements. That is something that again Beringer talks about and suggests that BBSRC and, through them, ourselves and Defra will need to take decisions on that within the next 12 months. BBSRC for its part has said that it wants to finalise a revised business case within the next six months for Pirbright. Again, I think it is important that we continue to make progress and get on with it while discussing what are the most appropriate arrangements given the work that Pirbright does which both covers world class research to be expanded by BBSRC, but also important surveillance activity that is rightly the responsibility of Defra as a Department. We need to have that conversation. In the meantime, we are taking the short term steps to clarify the position and BBSRC are getting on with producing the business case.
Lord Rooker of Perry Bar: All the questions have been in effect related to research capacity but, from Defra's point of view, that is only one side of the coin. The diagnostic facility for us for outbreaks of animal disease is absolutely crucial, equally so, and therefore we need to have a surge capacity both with our own laboratories and our customer laboratories. Indeed, we have arrangements - I want to say this by way of reassurance in a way so that it does not seem negative - if needed with the medical authorities to use human laboratories when we have a crisis. The question was related to had we got sufficient capacity. Our review from 2001, given what we have done with the VLA at Weybridge, the huge amount of expenditure in there, what we have planned and what we have been able to fund at Pirbright and the other arrangements that we have made, we have sufficient capacity. The capacity for us is two ways. It is the research strategically and of course diagnostically. We cannot really plan for that in a cubby hole. With avian influenza and other new diseases that we are probably having to deal with and that we need to be prepared to deal with, we do need extra capacity. We feel as though we are okay. There are discussions around the laboratory network, not just Defra but the other laboratories as well. It is not just the research capacity; the speed of the diagnostic capacity is absolutely fundamental if you are dealing with exotic animal disease outbreaks. The speed is crucial. As I hope we showed once foot and mouth was notified, we were able to deal with it much more quickly than we had in 2001 and indeed with avian influenza as well. That aspect of capacity for us is just as important as the research capacity.
Q372 Chairman: To be fair, we have taken a lot of evidence on that issue of surge capacity and had some very reassuring comments made about that.
Ian Pearson: It is important to emphasise that it is about research and surveillance, which is why Beringer talks about a joint national strategy.
Chairman: By way of comment, I do not think you can divorce the two areas of research and surveillance. They do go hand in hand and good research leads to good surveillance and vice versa.
Q373 Mr Boswell: Just a few words about staff. It would be a common interest that we all think this depends on a high level of staff. I am bound to say at the levels that we have talked to people, even quite junior levels, we have been impressed by their enthusiasm and the fact that obviously, self-evidently, they are anxious neither to endanger themselves nor their immediate work colleagues. The first question comes back a bit to this general question of capacity. What is being done by government as a whole to ensure a continuity of supply of well trained scientists in key disciplines and specifically is there a shortage of trained staff at container level four work at the HPA? It may not be confined to the HPA. Are we going to want to do all these things, to face new challenges, and find we have not got the people to man the facilities we have or need?
Ian Pearson: Shall I say something on science, technology, engineering and mathematics in general and Dawn might want to say something on the HPA.
Q374 Chairman: It is a very specific area though, is it not, in terms of scientists working at level four and technicians working at level four?
Ian Pearson: It is a very specific area. Tim's question was a very broad one to start with.
Q375 Mr Boswell: It got narrower.
Ian Pearson: As you know, Tim, on the broad point, there is a huge amount of work that the government, working with a range of partners, is doing on the STEM agenda right through into our schools to make sure that we have kids who want to do science subjects at GCSE, A level and want to go through to university. There are some encouraging signs as well about the number of people applying to go to university to take science subjects.
Q376 Mr Boswell: Just interrupting you for a second, while I accept that is extremely important, clearly even if the overall population rises we need to make sure that the particular cells that deal with category level four are adequately populated themselves, do we not?
Ian Pearson: Of course we do but I just wanted to make a broad science point about the government investment in science education.
Q377 Chairman: We accept all that and we applaud it.
Ian Pearson: When it comes to the specifics in terms of staff at containment level four facilities, Dawn will probably want to say something on HPA but just in general training is required to conform to a range of legislation that is already in place at the moment, whether it is the Health and Safety at Work Act or the COSHH regulations, both of which are administered by the Health and Safety Executive. Clearly any research institute or organisation operating containment level facilities is going to want to make sure that its staff are adequately and fully trained to meet the tasks that are required and that they conform to the high standards of biosafety and security that we expect. It will be up to those individual establishments to develop their own ----
Q378 Mr Boswell: You see it as a primary post employment training facility, not something which needs to be done at the undergraduate or postgraduate level?
Ian Pearson: My understanding is the way these things work is that somebody who might be a principal investigator, for instance on the research side, as part of their research training, doctoral, post-doctoral and onwards, will have built into that training the need to follow good clinical practice and good measures of biosecurity. Then you will have a range of people who will be operating at technician level, who will come into an organisation. They may have come into it with a background but they may have training requirements and it will be up to that organisation to assess those and make sure that they have the adequate training that is involved. At different levels, you will have different training needs but certainly the people who are leading a lot of the research projects, as opposed to some of the surveillance work that is done, would have had extensive training throughout their career in biosecurity practices, because it is inbuilt into the whole learning process.
Q379 Mr Boswell: Dawn, do you want to say something about the HPA?
Dawn Primarolo: Yes. For the HPA there is not a shortage of staff with regard to the level four laboratories at the present time. The HPA also do training for the future. I am sure you appreciate it does take time. They have their own training of a very high standard, considered the gold standard, but of course you alluded to the fact that this is highly specialist work. Even with that training, as with the laboratories themselves, these are relatively scarce resources though there is no shortage at the present time. They do train for the future. It takes time and they do recognise the importance of these resources. On a separate issue, it is also the responsibility of the HPA when there are high security infectious diseases and there is a need for patient care at level four. The HPA keeps staff trained at all times to that level in case they are needed. I would want to assure you that there is an active programme there in terms of assuring staff are trained to the relevant levels. Again, we are talking about scarce resources here so of course the HPA can never be and is not complacent on that. It is very actively involved.
Q380 Mr Boswell: I took what you said about on the job training but Bill Callaghan told us that it was a recommendation of a previous HSE report that undergraduate and masters programmes in university should include more training in biosecurity and biosafety. Do you think that is something we should do?
Ian Pearson: I think it is a very sensible recommendation and I would be very surprised if it is not already happening.
Q381 Mr Boswell: We have been impressed by, or at least we have noted going round, quite a different range of regimes for security vetting. Pirbright for example uses private contractors. Government laboratories like the Defence Laboratory obviously use the standard procedures which government employees will be familiar with. Is there a case for some tidying up and putting this all through a government vetting programme, given that subject to particular risks at least the capacity of any of those people to cause damage, either maliciously or through unsatisfactory standards, is the same? Is there scope for rationalisation in this area or at least some discussion? How do you view it?
Ian Pearson: I would be interested to see whether the Committee strongly feels that it has a view in this direction. Obviously when it comes to vetting of foreign students, the major issue is one of proliferation rather than one of security. You will be aware of the Academic Technology Approval Scheme and how that works.
Q382 Mr Boswell: I set up its predecessor.
Ian Pearson: With regard to security and counterterrorism, that is a matter for the Home Office and the police. I think they are very rigorous in what they do and the requirements that they put in place.
Chairman: On that note, can I say that Labour Members had another pressing engagement. It was nothing to do with the answers you were giving. They just had to be somewhere else. I apologise on their behalf. Can I thank Dawn Primarolo, Ian Pearson, Lord Rooker and Lord McKenzie very much indeed for giving us their time this afternoon. Thank you very much.