Previous Section Index Home Page

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) on securing his first debate. I also congratulate him on securing his seat, and thank him for continuing
22 Jun 2010 : Column 273
the work of his predecessor, who also argued passionately on behalf of the establishments at Porton Down. He is sadly missed in this place. My hon. Friend has taken up the cause and pursued it with similar vigour. I am grateful to him for his correspondence on the matter and for sharing some of the issues that he mentioned this evening, including planning, relocating staff, skills availability, costs and the detailed synergies.

I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon). Oh my, the difficulties of government. In time, I will upset one hon. Friend and please the other.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury knows, the issue came before the House just a few months ago, when he was still a candidate and I was an Opposition Member. How times have changed. Our roles have substantially changed since then, and I am grateful for the opportunity to set out the Government's position. For the benefit of Members present, I will set out the situation as it stands before responding to my hon. Friend's points in detail.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, the history of chemical and biological research at Porton Down is long. Throughout many changes in name and number, the centres continued to provide research and production programmes of the highest international quality. Today's debate concerns the future of the Health Protection Agency's facilities at the Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response. The centre is a specialist facility providing protection against some of the most dangerous organisms in the world. From identification to containment, and from research to production, it fulfils a critical national security function, as well as providing valuable expertise internationally.

As the world of microbiology has grown, so the centre's responsibilities have also expanded, yet its current home says more about its past than its future. The site is 60 years old, the building structures are in a poor state of repair and the laboratories clearly do not meet modern safety standards, so something must be done. The centre's work is vital to protect the nation's health, and it is important that the facilities at Porton Down are fit for purpose not just over the next Parliament, but over the next dozen years or so. That is why it is so important that we make the right decision about the centre's redevelopment. I appreciate that both my hon. Friends believe they have the right solution to the problem of the centre's location.

I understand that in September 2008, the Department of Health authorised the HPA to develop an outline business case for the improvement of the laboratory facilities, a process known as Project Chrysalis. That case was submitted to the Department on 4 June 2010, and the Government have not made a decision on it. As I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury will appreciate, a proposal with so many implications-not least cost, safety and security-must be thoroughly scrutinised. His concern that that will not be the case is probably the basis for this debate. Officials at the Department are considering the business case and will make a recommendation to Ministers as soon as possible. Provided that we are content, the business case will then be passed to the Treasury, where it will be subject to further scrutiny before final sign-off by the Chief Secretary.

22 Jun 2010 : Column 274

My hon. Friend raised concerns about the way the business case is considered. For his benefit and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow, let me be clear that the Department of Health's assessment of the business case will be rigorous, fair and grounded in this simple set of principles: first, that redevelopment is necessary to protect this critical national infrastructure, and to allow it to provide an even better service to the country and its international customers; secondly, that all options must be examined on the basis of cost, value, safety, security, sustainability and strategy; and thirdly, that our assessment must be forensic in its analysis, unprejudiced in its conduct and unbiased in its conclusions. That means looking closely at the risks and benefits, and at the selection criteria. It also means checking that the proposals are affordable and sustainable and that they represent real value for money, and that the investment fits with the organisation's long-term strategic aims. We are pressing to ensure that every consideration, particularly cost, is taken into account. There is an explicit requirement that the successful proposal must represent value for money, even when weighted for the various external factors such as relocation, staffing and business opportunities, which both my hon. Friends mentioned.

I understand that the business case also includes details of the possible effects on the work force, including the cost and security impact of any relocation. The impact of any disruption to the centre's work, whether financial or operational, will also be taken into account, as it must be. At each stage of the assessment process, the HPA will provide any data or analysis that might be helpful in reaching a decision.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury mentioned other options, including splitting the Centre for Emergency Preparedness from the HPA to create a co-operative at Porton Down. I thank him for his suggestions, and I trust he will be reassured by this debate and our correspondence on the matter that we remain open to new ideas. I hope he will acknowledge, however, that any decision about the future of the facilities must be taken with the national interest in mind. The issues facing the HPA at Porton Down will be solved not by simply changing ownership or management, but by a significant redevelopment of the existing site, or a move to a more suitable location.

The work that the centre does is vital to protect the nation's health, but my hon. Friend rightly stated that it is vital across the world as well. It is in all our interests that we arrive at the right decision, which means taking the time properly to assess the business case put forward, and exposing it to detailed scrutiny. It also means being unafraid to listen to new ideas. As he said, every penny counts, so close scrutiny and robust analysis of the business case will be vital. I ask my hon. Friends the Members for Salisbury and for Harlow to have a little faith. The Government will take every precaution to make sure that the future of this work is secured, and we will look closely at every reasonable consideration before reaching a decision that is right for the centre and the nation.

Question put and agreed to.

7.26 pm

House adjourned.

    Index Home Page