Public Research Establishments

– in the House of Commons at 12:00 am on 12 February 1997.

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Wells.]
[Relevant documents: First report from the Science and Technology Committee of Session 1994–95, on the Efficiency Unit Scrutiny of Public Sector Research Establishments (HC 19), the Government's response thereto (HC 805), the fifth report from the Science and Technology Committee of Session 1995–6 and the first report of Session 1996–97 on the Prior Options Reviews of Public Sector Research Establishments (HC 643 and HC 71-I) and the Government's response thereto (HC 291 of Session 1996–97).]

Photo of Mr Giles Shaw Mr Giles Shaw , Pudsey 9:34, 12 February 1997

I am grateful for the opportunity to introduce this debate in the House on the subjects connected with the work of the Select Committee on Science and Technology. The debate is about the inquiry into the prior options reviews, which was recently concluded, and to which the Government have now responded, although the response was not available when the Liaison Select Committee met to discuss whether a debate was appropriate. It is indeed appropriate, because of the importance of the subject and the reviews that have recently been undertaken.

Prior options reviews are not part of the everyday parlance of the House and it is therefore important that we establish what we are talking about. Prior options reviews are most closely associated with the next steps reforms that the Government have undertaken in recent years. The reviews decide whether institutes should be abolished, privatised, made into next steps agencies or retained in the parent Department. Significant questions are asked. Is the function needed? Must the public sector be responsible for the function? Must the public sector provide the function itself? What is the scope for rationalisation? How will the function be managed? The reviews covered almost all the institutes and institutions, via the research councils or directly through the Government, and therefore encompassed the entire range of scientific activities undertaken outwith academia.

Each executive agency in the programme is subject to five-yearly reviews, in which the prior options questions are addressed. The reviews were not designed for scientific institutions and insufficient adjustments may have been made to fit them for the purpose. That was one of the reasons why the Select Committee felt it necessary to undertake the inquiry. The Select Committee was not wholly convinced that the inquiry would be an appropriate step, but it was clear—as the reviews took longer to report than expected—that the scientific community had become deeply uneasy about what was going on. For that reason, the Select Committee undertook its inquiry.

Our conclusions are important and also significant. The Select Committee has always accepted that some review of public sector research establishments was justified. After all, the bodies under review cost some £690 million a year. If the 1992 Levene Stewart "Review of Allocation, Management and Use of Government Expenditure on Science and Technology" was correct, the research laboratories of many Government Departments were ripe for review. One of the recommendations of our most recent report was that all Government research establishments should be reviewed at least once every five years.

It concerned the Select Committee that the review process was seen as hasty and repetitive and as inappropriately applied to research council institutes, which can be central to the research councils' mission. Moreover, in most cases, the institutes are reviewed regularly by their parent bodies—as is only sensible—and the research councils have a good record in closing those that are unsatisfactory.

The Select Committee was also concerned about the openness of the procedure. The Government began well by placing guidelines in the Library and by participating in a meeting to discuss the reviews which was held at, and under the auspices of, the Royal Society. However, as the reviews progressed, that openness ceased. The Government announced that full independence from the public sector would be desirable for the Institute of Arable Crops Research, the Institute of Grassland and Environmental Research, the John Innes Centre and the Silsoe Research Centre. It was not clear exactly what this would imply, but the Government commissioned further work on the matter from Sir Peter Levene.

The terms of reference of the committee were not published. This—together with the fact that it was thought to be looking at establishments that had not yet been reviewed—led to great uneasiness. In the course of the Committee's inquiry, it became clear that Sir Peter's task was primarily concerned with pension provision and pension liabilities. Frankly, I do not understand—nor does the Committee—why a clear announcement of the nature of the inquiry could not have been made at the outset. Much unease and loss of morale could thus have been easily avoided.

Another matter that troubled the Committee was that the reports of the review teams were not published. The Government's view is that these, and the steering group reports, constituted advice to Ministers which would "not normally be published". This is one of the issues that Select Committees of whatever persuasion come up against from time to time—the blanket of "advice to Ministers". It may be the case, but there seems to be little reason for denying publication, particularly since the earlier efficiency scrutinies had been published.

There may have been concern that the Government might be criticised for rejecting the advice of the reports. Frankly, I doubt that, because my hon. Friend the Minister for Science and Technology is not someone who would be deterred by that, and he would be encouraged and would probably accept the advice. Although the Government have been criticised for the scale and scope of the efficiency scrutiny, they have not, as far as I am aware, been criticised for rejecting any of the advice.

The unwillingness to release the reports increased the scientific community's suspicion of the Government's motives. It also meant that the Committee could not discount the complaints that the findings of the reviews and the steering groups were being overridden. This lack of openness is particularly regrettable, given the White Paper's undertaking that advice from the Committee and expert groups working on specific issues would normally be published.

Decisions were taken on some Government research establishments before the current round of reviews. AEA Technology—which the Committee visited—the Laboratory of the Government Chemist and the National Physical Laboratory were to be privatised. On 29 January, the Government announced the result of the current set of reviews in broad outline. ADAS—formerly known as the Agricultural Development and Advisory Service—and the Building Research Establishment are to be privatised, as was already known, and as had been recommended by the efficiency scrutiny.

Some of the laboratories in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food and some in the Scottish Office are to become executive agencies, or companies limited by guarantee. Almost all research council institutes are to remain as they are, subject to efficiency improvements. We are promised that the director general of the research councils will have oversight of these efficiency improvements.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

Is there any difference between the treatment of institutions in Scotland under the Scottish Office and institutions in the rest of the United Kingdom?

Photo of Mr Giles Shaw Mr Giles Shaw , Pudsey

I cannot answer the hon. Gentleman because the Committee did not investigate Scottish institutions, but we might well consider his question in a further assessment. This will be an on-going process, as he is well aware.

The reviews have more worrying implications. The Government's policy has been to substitute meddling from central Departments with the discipline of the marketplace. The result of those reviews seems to have been to increase the meddling from the centre, even though market disciplines are in place. The Government response to our recent report tells us that research council institutes account for some £220 million annually of public funds from the Research Councils and from other Government departments and other public bodies. That is less than a third of the total involved. Much of that money is placed in the institutes as contracts from Government Departments and other public bodies—that is to say, the Department concerned has concluded that no one else from whom it can obtain the same research is better or cheaper.

Research councils have always had the independence of their charters. In 1993, the Government reformed the system so that each of the new research councils had a chairman drawn from business, and a new mission. The councils were given a fresh remit by the White Paper which emphasised the need to enhance wealth creation and the quality of life. That seems entirely appropriate and is an excellent example of the action that the Government have taken to restore and develop the structure within which science can compete.

In the Government response to the Committee's most recent report, the prior options reviews were justified on the ground that the Science and Technology Act 1965 gave the Secretary of State power to give directions to the research councils, and that the White Paper gave the Director General of the Research Council specific responsibilities for assisting Ministers in ensuring the successful and high quality operation of the Research Councils". That is all very laudable, and the White Paper agreed to give the DGRC responsibilities. But it also suggested that the director general would be advised by a small standing group of independent experts, selected to allow him or her to draw upon the requisite scientific, economic, industrial and management expertise. Frankly, this has not been carried out.

There is an irony in this process. In setting up the next steps agencies—with which prior options reviews are most closely associated—the Government were devolving power away from the centre of Departments and giving it to those responsible for operations who, it was assumed, would know their business best. The research councils had substantial independence before the process began. The outcome of the reviews appears to have increased central oversight of non-departmental public bodies, rather than reduced it. That is one of the prime criticisms that we make.

We are not the only ones to make that criticism. Dr. Michael Elves—a business man who knows the public sector system well—said that UK public sector science should be recognised for what it is—a living and growing organism that can be all too easily snuffed out and which would take a long time to re-build, if indeed it ever could be. That is a fair warning.

The existence of the Select Committee on Science and Technology will be a bulwark to prevent this kind of thing from happening again, and our recent activities have qualified us for this role. A large proportion of Government-funded science flows through the research councils and institutes, and it is well within the remit of a Committee established by this House to monitor its effectiveness and the suitability of its structure. Colleagues will recall that the Committee's first report to the House concerned the structure of the Office of Science and Technology.

The Committee's concerns go wider, and we need to develop the OST as Parliament's instrument to ensure that we can monitor and measure the pulse and heartbeat of British science. The economic health of the nation depends on that, and the very survival of our people depends on the development of scientific solutions to our human problems. The Committee's concern with reviews of this sort is that this debilitating matter has had severe effects on the morale of the science base. Prior options is only the most recent review, but it is by no means the only one that has been effected. For example, there was the 1992 review of allocation, management and use of Government expenditure, and the 1993 multi-departmental scrutiny. Following those, it was not surprising that the latest review received a frosty reception.

The Committee must have a role in overseeing what goes on, and we must ensure and advise on the effectiveness of the instruments that the Government set up. Our research councils have served us well, and I believe that the Government's structure for science has served the nation well also.

It is our judgment that the Select Committee on Science and Technology will serve the House well. As I come to the end of my 23 years here, I am delighted to think that the Committee will continue to be a satisfactory achievement for all who serve on it.

What really makes a Select Committee work, however, is the commitment of the individual members and the wonderful contribution of the Clerks. Our Clerk served the Committee outstandingly: every good creation should have its Eve, and we certainly had one. At the end of the day, the effectiveness with which the House can use the information supplied by Select Committees will be its greatest achievement.

Photo of Dr Jeremy Bray Dr Jeremy Bray , Motherwell South 9:49, 12 February 1997

All members of the Select Committee on Science and Technology will want to thank the hon. Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw) for the way in which he has chaired it in its first complete Session of Parliament. He has been fair and patient, and he has been loyal to the Committee in everything that he has done. The Committee will also want to join him in thanking the staff and all who have given evidence. I believe that the next Parliament will want to continue what is perhaps a slight anomaly within the structure of departmental Committees but is fully justified by the work that has been done.

The prior options review process was a time-wasting indulgence, as the Chairman of the Committee said, but it was an indulgence specifically of the Deputy Prime Minister's prejudice against science, against the public sector, and therefore against public sector science. It caused prolonged uncertainty and demoralisation in services tackling key problems on which the Government have conceded that they have failed and are no longer trusted by the public—most dramatically in the handling of BSE and food safety.

The research establishments reviewed included the Veterinary Laboratories Agency—the principal vehicle for research into BSE—and the Institute of Food Research. The three key questions posed in the review were as follows: were the functions of the establishments needed; should they remain in the public sector; and should they retain their separate existence?

There was no sense in asking the questions unless there was the option, as implied by the title of the review, of expecting the answer to be no. The eventual answers arrived at by the Minister were yes in every case, except for the Agricultural Development Advisory Service and the Building Research Establishment, which were not research council institutes.

The questions had only to be asked, after the repeated reviews to which the research establishments had already been subjected, to demoostrate that they were the wrong questions. Rather than wasting time on the wrong questions, I should like to ask some better questions and to suggest some better answers that the new Government will have to consider after the election.

In announcing plans for a food safety adviser, the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food emphasised the adviser's freedom to comment publicly on policy. That is of course necessary, but unfortunately the problem is more serious than that. There is no problem with a certainty that has to be presented; the problem is how to handle uncertainty, genuine doubt and differences of opinion.

In an excellent review in Nature this week of John Lemon's book, "Scientific Uncertainty and Environmental Problem Solving", Tim O'Riordan says that there are four types of scientific uncertainty, raised by the following questions: what is the problem; how does one observe it; what are the odds; and what is one after, anyway?

Ministers need to understand the different kinds of uncertainty, because they unavoidably contribute to them. Framing the problem is not trivial. The question whether BSE can cross the species barrier was a good question at one stage but is not necessarily the right question today. The question whether human activity has any effect on climate may have been the right question in 1990, but is it the right question in 1997?

There is a further uncertainty about how one observes and models a system—how one sets up the logical structure within which to look for answers. The models may be biological systems on which it is possible to experiment in the laboratory, computer simulations within which the evidence is structured, or other combinations of evidence and analysis.

The odds, the statistical uncertainty, are the kind of uncertainty that people usually have in mind when they talk about risk analysis; but that is only one aspect of uncertainty, and not the most difficult.

The final uncertainty concerns what the Government are after anyway. It is not a matter only of the declared purposes or even the hidden agenda, but of the issues that inevitably arise when different parties consider the attitudes of other parties and the passage of time eventually resolves the situation.

Decision-theoretic uncertainty is not high-falutin' mathematics—the calculation of minimax solutions or expected utility, as one finds in the textbooks—but political reality; it may be sordid, but it is real. Is the Minister concerned with avoiding blame for outcomes within his period of office, as in an E. coli outbreak?

Obviously, everyone, including the Minister, is concerned with minimising the effects, but is it a matter in which the effects may be seen within a matter of weeks, as with E. coli; is it a matter of climate effects that will not be measurable for another 20 years; or is the Minister dealing not with reality as we ordinarily understand it, but with perceptions of reality in the public mind; not with trade, competitiveness and the current balance—the preoccupations of the Chancellor—but with sentiment in the foreign exchange markets?

The four kinds of uncertainty are not independent. Problem formulating, modelling, statistical uncertainty and decision-theoretic uncertainty all interact. Each has to be reconsidered in the light of changes in the others. Institutionally, each has to be provided for, possibly separately, but certainly differently; each has to be tackled, but each has to communicate with the institutions and the people tackling the others.

On the first kind of uncertainty—what is the problem?—anyone can join in, but the Minister has a duty at all times to give his view. Unless the Government's view of what the problem is comes out clearly, neither the public debate nor the practical work of the scientists will be given a clear steer about the direction in which they need to go.

Defining the problem is not a trivial exercise, and the formulation is likely to change as the problem develops and as people change their views. When the stakes are high, as they often are, and a "play safe" strategy is required, ethical and social consensus positions will rightly be pressed and the Minister must handle them.

On modelling uncertainty, a wide set of scientific issues arises. There will be analytically elegant models for which it is very difficult to produce, or even conceive of, serious empirical testing. The currently fashionable model is the market. The market will decide: it will decide the length of traffic jams on the M25, for example.

Then there will be the prescriptive advocacy of the farmers, of the oil-producing countries or of Greenpeace, defending preset conclusions; and there will be closed shops in particular scientific sub-disciplines. Scientific peer groups will have to fight it out, and be seen to fight it out, with the victor possibly changing when the problem changes.

Typically, the institutions pursuing their different models will need to be tested and compared by another kind of institution, able to join in the technical argument, but standing above it and not pontificating. It is unlikely that the market or an operational arm of Government would be able to fulfil the testing and comparison role.

With problems and methods better formulated and reviewed, the statistical and risk analysis can be pressed all the harder, but it is not the only sort of uncertainty. Here come the hazards of the million-to-one-against events that occur with monotonous regularity, revealing the misformulation of the problem specification in the first place. The need is not so much for an institution to do the risk analysis, because the problem formulators and modellers will want to do that themselves, but for a sufficiently wide audience to understand the argument and its limitations and dependencies, not just in general but in its application to the point at issue.

That leads on to the decision-theoretic uncertainty. What are the Minister, the media or the public after? It is a palpably obvious question in politics, but a contortionist's nightmare in game theory and decision theory. Does the Minister think that I think that he thinks that they think that there is nothing in it, so they would not move anyway? The limitations and the realities of politics need to be understood, as well as the balances of scientific uncertainty. The whole process of decision making becomes much more effective and efficient if sufficient people in government and politics can handle the different sorts of scientific uncertainty. That is why the work of the Select Committee is so important.

At the time of the last general election, I said that we had learnt nothing about methods of government since the 1960s. So I got Neil Kinnock' s and John Smith's agreement that the Office of Science and Technology should look, for the Government, at research on how Government should behave, as well as at Government research into how other people should behave.

A free-standing Office of Science and Technology—a pale shadow of the proposal—has come and gone. Now, of course, it is perfectly reasonable for the Opposition to accept present Government methods as a point of departure. But, whoever wins the election, the present methods are not sustainable. They must improve or, under the pressures of continuing social and technological change, they will deteriorate further.

Photo of Mr Patrick Thompson Mr Patrick Thompson , Norwich North 10:01, 12 February 1997

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak briefly in the debate. I was interested in the remarks of the hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray), but I will not follow his analysis in detail. I certainly support what he had to say about my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw), the Chairman of the Select Committee. I am a fairly new member—not necessarily the best behaved—but he has certainly been patient and an excellent Chairman. Sadly, I too am retiring at the next general election, but I certainly support the remarks of both hon. Members about the importance of an active Science and Technology Select Committee to the nation. I hope that my hon. Friend and anyone else in authority will take that into account.

I have two themes. The first is the effect of the prior options process in my local area and in my constituency, which contains many people who work in research institutes and who have an interest in what has been happening. If time permits, I shall comment on the importance of science and scientific research and the relationship between that and public attitudes to science. Again, that is relevant to the debate.

I thank my hon. Friend the Minister for his response to my many letters. I was surprised that I had written so often to him about prior options. When I went through the papers, I realised how grateful I should be to him for his assiduousness in getting back to me quickly with replies on the various matters. I pay tribute to his commitment to science. He has written a number of articles recently. One was in the New Scientist and I have it before me. I agree with his general approach to these matters. He pays tribute in the article to Britain's excellent science base, saying: With 1 per cent. of the world's population, Britain carries out 6 per cent. of its research, produces 8 per cent. of all science publications". We certainly punch above our weight in science. I may have a little more to say about public attitudes at the end of my remarks.

I also support the commitment of my hon. Friend the Minister to education and higher education as it relates to the science base. After all, I spent 23 years teaching science in the schools—it is amazing, and I can hardly believe it now. When I hear or read about my hon. Friend paying tribute to the importance of science education, I can only say, "Hear, hear!" I will not say much about the Select Committee report and the Government response to it as my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey has dealt with that in some detail and, basically, I agree with his remarks. I must simply pose the question, where is the memorandum on the rationale for the recent Government decisions? It is difficult to find all the information. I hope that my hon. Friend will tell me when it will appear in the Library. Indeed, it may even be there this morning, but I have not seen it.

The only other thing that I have to say about all this documentation before us this morning is to make an appeal. I have read the Select Committee report—I suppose I must bear some responsibility for it—and the Government response. There is not much science in it. As a scientist, all this would be much more interesting if we could get a little more science into the paperwork that affects the administration and workings of science in this country. Other countries do so. I suspect that if, we read the equivalent documents in France or Germany, we would find more science in them. I spend a lot of time wondering why the Select Committee does not write much about science itself, and the Government must take their share of that criticism.

East Anglia has the fastest growing population in the United Kingdom and, as hon. Members will agree, it has an important scientific base, a high level of research and development and a skilled work force. There is no question, therefore, but that what is happening in Norwich in relation to science is important and the Committee has taken account of that. I welcome the prior options review as it affects my area at this stage, and I welcome the retention of the Central Science Laboratory in Norwich. That was the correct decision, and I welcome it. As I said, East Anglia has a high scientific profile and devotes a higher proportion of its gross domestic product to research and development than any other region.

In Norwich, although not in my constituency, we have the John Innes Centre, the Institute of Food Research and the Central Science Laboratory. Also, many people who work at the University of East Anglia have connections with research institutes in other parts of the country. Indeed, I have had some correspondence from Dr. Phillip Williamson, who is a constituent of mine, about the Centre for Coastal and Marine Sciences—another of the institutes affected by our discussions. Dr. Williamson also gave evidence to the Select Committee, and he highlighted the concerns in his letters to me.

My hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey said that concerns were raised by this process, which perhaps should not have been so acute, as I think hon. Members on both sides of the House would agree. Dr. Williamson referred to that in his correspondence. He talked about costs, staff morale and the fate of national data centres within Natural Environment Research Council laboratories. He raised a number of issues that are relevant. The scientists for whom he spoke were concerned about the process, but I think that my hon. Friend the Minister is aware of that and will no doubt take note of it.

Because of my interest in institutions in Norwich, I have had representations from the National Farmers Union, which is concerned about the quality of research in agriculture and its continuance and from the trade unions. It is fair to say that all those representations were on the same theme and for that reason there is no need for me to elaborate too much. Their concerns were much the same.

I shall quote a letter that I wrote to my hon. Friend the Minister some time in March last year: Under the existing system, agriculture benefits from effective, multi-disciplinary research conducted within the framework of a national strategy.The transfer of the John Innes Centre (and of other Research Council Institutes) to 'university ownership'— I was not clear what that meant— would run the risk of diminishing the level of scientific interchange and of exposing the work of such Research Council Institutes to the shorter-term priorities involved in seeking a financial return. The impetus for basic research would be weakened with less effective spending and more duplication of facilities, research and skills. There would also be likely to be a deterrent effect upon the career structures of scientists in such centres given the prevalence of short-term contracts for university research staff. I quote that to highlight the fact that the NFU was concerned about the prior options review. My quotation summarised its concerns.

My final local point concerns the university of East Anglia which has been interested in the process, not least because of its proximity to the John Innes Centre, the Institute of Food Research and the Central Science Laboratory. Unsurprisingly, I had considerable correspondence with the university's vice-chancellor, Dame Elizabeth Esteve-Coll. I do not know how this squares with the NFU's idea of university ownership or whatever it was. I did not quite follow the connection, so perhaps my hon. Friend the Minister can enlighten me.

The theme that emerged from the correspondence was that the university was keen that there should be a vision for the creation of a federation based on the Institutes and the University which could form the major UK centre for food science, food analysis and food safety. Obviously, the university was concerned about the future of the CSL, with which I have already dealt, and with more general points, which I will not elaborate further. However, I think that the university will be happy with where we are now. The Government were sensible to let the matters stand where they are.

I hope that the debate that has been opened up between the university, the research institutes and the Government can be continued positively. I am trying to be brief, but I hope that my hon. Friend the Minister has picked up my point and can say that that will happen. If he can do that, there is no need for me to elaborate further my local points. [Interruption.] I am doing my best to be brief, but much has been happening in Norwich on this issue.

To summarise my remarks about prior options, I shall quote from the recent note produced by the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, which states: care must be taken if 'pulling up the plant too often to examine its roots' is not to affect the ability of the Research Councils to maintain the long-term vitality of the science and engineering base, by diverting management time and Science Budget funds to the inevitable legal and administrative tasks involved. The Government on the other hand wishes to reduce to a minimum work carried out in the public sector and sees the additional prior options process as a critical part of that policy. That sums it up well. There have been real concerns and I support those that have been raised.

I do not have time to talk about the public understanding of science. I refer hon. Members to Melvyn Bragg's recent article in The Times. I had thought that the two cultures went out after CP Snow's books, which I read, but sadly they have not. Melvyn Bragg's article says it all. Our country still has a problem with its culture and attitudes to science. I would love to talk more about it but I shall not. I hope that people will read that article and that my hon. Friend the Minister will take note of the serious issues that it raises.

Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones , Birmingham, Selly Oak 10:13, 12 February 1997

Unlike the previous three speakers, who are retiring, I hope to return to the House after the general election. I wish to place on record my grateful thanks for their work. I have found the work on the Select Committee tremendously enjoyable. This debate has shown that there is complete agreement on the report.

I regard my work on the Science and Technology Select Committee as the must useful work that I do in this building, largely because the Committee approaches its work consensually. We take evidence, examine issues objectively and reach conclusions. Almost always, we find that, irrespective of our political affiliations, we agree. I contrast that with the work in this Chamber, where we are at one another's throats. The adversarial nature of debates diminishes our Parliament and does not lead to good government. If we had more of the Select Committee approach in the legislative process, this might be a much better governed country.

As recently as last night, the Government had the opportunity to refer the National Health Service (Primary Care) Bill to a Special Standing Committee, which would have enabled it to go through such a process. However, they refused. I hope that the new Government after the general election will consider the use of more Special Standing Committees so that we can get more agreement in the House and better government.

The hon. Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw) and my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) adequately outlined the Committee's concerns about the prior options review and the efficiency scrutiny, so I do not propose to go over that. I sound a slight note of disagreement with the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson), who said we should do more science in our Committee. While this report is largely about the organisation and administration of science, we have recently conducted a major inquiry into human genetics, which was full of science and very interesting. We produced recommendations that the Government first rejected, and then accepted after we went back to them. That shows the Committee's effectiveness.

I was also treated to the delights of particle physics and astronomy during our inquiry into P Parc. Those areas of science are exciting. If more publicity was given to them, there would be more public interest in science and in our scientific endeavours, which are so important for our economic well-being.

The scrutiny was supposed to lead to greater efficiencies. Our report makes it clear that we do not feel that that was the result. The scrutiny has led to much disruption in a community which, as the hon. Member for Norwich, North said, the Minister accepted in his New Scientist article was one of the most cost-effective producers of research among G7 countries. If we are so cost-effective, we must wonder why it was necessary to go through the reviews, which have led not to efficiencies but to inefficiencies.

For example, the Medical Research Council has not been able to replace the director of its reproductive biology unit in Edinburgh, who left last year. The Central Science Laboratory stated: It is regrettable that political considerations led to the retention of CSL's Food Science laboratory in Norwich when the clear business case was for it to be integrated"— with the new facility at York— releasing savings of over £1 million a year. The efficiency scrutiny has wasted £1 million a year.

Photo of Mr Tam Dalyell Mr Tam Dalyell , Linlithgow

To reinforce my hon. Friend's comment, the decision led in Edinburgh to outrage in informed circles in the university.

Photo of Lynne Jones Lynne Jones , Birmingham, Selly Oak

I thank my hon. Friend for reinforcing my point.

The Institute of Arable Crops Research says that more than 60 per cent. of its staff have contracts of less than three years, compared with 10 per cent. in 1981. That means that staff spend much time applying for money and submitting proposals.

The submission to our inquiry from the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists states: inefficiencies are on the increase as more and more scientists are drawn into procuring and managing contract funds and hunting for sponsorship deals. That is not efficiency. Senior scientists can spend up to 40 per cent. of their time applying for grants, writing progress reports and reviewing other colleagues' proposals.

I hope that we will learn from the review and that we will not repeat the mistakes made in it. I want to spend a few minutes discussing the outcome and why we are happy with it. It means that most of the research institutes will remain in the public sector. Perhaps the main reason why privatisation did not occur was because of the problems surrounding the so-called crystallisation of pension rights. At present, in public bodies, there is no funded pension scheme—there is a pay-as-you-go pension scheme funded out of the research councils' budgets. Were the institutes to be privatised, they would have to move to a funded scheme and the Government would have to pay over a lump sum to fund the pension liabilities.

It is ironic that, in the long run, it makes no difference at all to the taxpayer whether there is a one-off lump sum of £100 million, which was the figure quoted, or there are annual contributions from the taxpayer that are, in effect, the financing cost of that £100 million. However, that was the major stumbling block, which highlights the nonsensical arrangements for public finance in this country. The Treasury rules basically say that, if the Government borrow money for investment, it is bad; whereas, if the private sector borrows for the same purpose, that is acceptable or even good. The issue of pensions shows the ridiculous nature of the public sector rules. The sooner we move to having a general government financing deficit, separate from borrowing for investment, the sooner we will have more effective public services.

It is quite wrong when the Government borrow for consumption. We currently have a public sector borrowing requirement of about £26 billion, which has been used to finance consumption—mainly to pay for the high costs of unemployment. That sort of borrowing is to be deplored, but, had the same sum been borrowed to invest in, for example, public transport, our universities, our science base or research and development, that would have been borrowing well spent and we would reap the rewards in terms of greater income. That issue must be addressed by a future Government, but there is a reluctance on both sides of the political divide to examine it.

I am being pressurised to wind up, so I shall draw my speech to a conclusion. All hon. Members recognise the importance of science to the well-being of this country's economy, but money has been wasted on the efficiency scrutiny. In their reply, the Government said that that was less than 1 per cent. of the budget, but that is £6.9 million which could have been used to reinstate the I per cent. cut in the science budget that has occurred this year. It could have reinstated the Faraday Partnership or contributed towards the foresight action programme for which aerospace companies are calling—they want funding from the Department of Trade and Industry to match the money that they are prepared to put in. We could have used the money to much better effect and used it for wealth-creating activities, rather than on the long period of disruption resulting from the scrutiny.

Photo of Mr Ian Bruce Mr Ian Bruce , South Dorset 10:23, 12 February 1997

I shall speak briefly so that other colleagues will be able to contribute.

I add my tribute to the valedictory comments about our Chairman, the hon. Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw), who is to retire at the general election, and about my other colleagues who have given excellent service on the Committee. I also wish to mention by name Ms Eve Samson, our Clerk, who is always modest about what she does, but who has been able to co-ordinate all her staff and all our advisers. Our Committee takes notice of what advisers say, and Select Committee reports are much better for having taken good advice, instead of trying to grandstand politically.

It is interesting to note that colleagues on both sides of the House have been talking about privatisation or non-privatisation issues. I am an unreconstructed Thatcherite, and the Labour party—or at least its Front Benchers—seems to be trying to catch up with us. The history of almost all the institutions, universities and other learned bodies in this country shows that they are not purely public sector bodies. Most of them started in the private sector and all of them have a great deal of private sector involvement in their work, so to take the argument about privatisation to its extreme would be a waste of time.

In their response, the Government did not accept the Committee's criticism that the prior options review was conducted unsatisfactorily, but that is not specifically what we said. I want to make it clear that we were saying that prior options was yet another review, on top of half a dozen resulting from almost every organisation review. The point that I would like to make to Ministers and to anyone else who may be examining our science base is that we cannot continue to carry out review after review if we want staff to get on and do their job. That is the strongest criticism that the Committee tried to make.

It is not as though we have not already had reviews—the Committee would never say that it does not believe that we should always check whether we are getting value for money from our science base. It is the fundamental reviews of who will own the research institutes, how they will be organised and whether the structure will differ that are disruptive and destroy morale.

In my constituency, I have one of the bases of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and one of the fish laboratories. I also have two organisations that have been reviewed and changed: AEA Technology, which is now fully in the private sector, and the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, which has undergone great changes, not least in location. Once both organisations had their establishment nailed down and understood where they were going, they went from strength to strength.

We should therefore be careful about continual reviews. We must instead set up a structure that tells people that, every year, they should review how they have done and make minor alterations to their organisation if necessary. We cannot say that we are going to check whether organisations are in the public or private sector, or tell them that they are going to be completely changed around, because that would destroy their work.

On the issue of blue sky research and who should pay for it, I sometimes annoy colleagues on the Committee who say, "This is something that should be done by the public sector." I tend to respond, "You cannot say that in absolute terms." The private sector has often worked wonders in making progress in blue sky research, and we should always be considering how to involve commerce and industry in our science base. Any scientist who says, "I shall never talk to the other side, because I am publicly funded and only do things that will add to the sum of human knowledge," is not gaining the benefits of the approach taken in the foresight programme, whereby people consider where blue sky research might lead, and what might emerge from it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) said—and it bears repeating—that the United Kingdom has 1 per cent. of the world's population, 6 per cent. of the science spend and 8 per cent. of science discoveries. I believe that the more scientists involve themselves with industry and commerce and with the rest of academia, the better it is for the science base.

This is an important issue. I know that the Minister and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram), are both supportive of science, and, as a result, we can work together to the greater benefit of the British science base.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller , Ellesmere Port and Neston 10:29, 12 February 1997

I join in the remarks directed at our Chairman, the hon. Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw). When he reads them in a few years' time he might think that they sound a little like an obituary, but we shall be sad not to see him in the Chair at future sittings of the Committee, because he has made a tremendous contribution. He has held the Committee together in good humour, which is a credit to him.

I shall respond to some remarks of the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson). I believe that there has been considerable science in our activities. Our Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council inquiry is a good example: not everyone can say that they attended a physics lesson addressed by Sir Martin Rees. I feel humbled by that experience.

Some of our earlier reports have put science centre stage—especially our report on human genetics, which will become important in years to come. It is a great pity that the only remaining area of substantial disagreement between the Committee and the Government and the outside world is the issue of insurance. We shall return to that fundamental issue, which will be important to a future Government.

Let me illustrate my criticism of what has happened by considering the constituency of the hon. Member for Norwich, North and the Central Science Laboratory. It cannot be a coincidence that there is a correlation between the location of such public sector science laboratories and marginal parliamentary seats throughout the country.

Photo of Ian Taylor Ian Taylor , Esher

indicated dissent.

Photo of Andrew Miller Andrew Miller , Ellesmere Port and Neston

The Minister holds up his hands in horror at that suggestion. It is an extraordinary coincidence. Of course, having a scientific background, I draw no immediate conclusions from that, but other aspects suggest a lack of scientific objectivity in the process.

My hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) commented on pensions. Since the privatisation of Amersham International, a new tactic has been adopted in handling pension funds. In the House of Lords' report of 1993–94, "Priorities for the Science Base", there is a strong recommendation in paragraph 5.10: The new Director General of Research Councils must be given real authority … which might include an unfettered right to publish his advice to the Minister". As that is not really happening, one wonders whether there is scientific objectivity in the whole process.

My hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) spoke of the role of the Deputy Prime Minister. It is a great sadness that we do not have a Minister of senior Cabinet rank to fly the flag for science and technology.

From time to time, we see in the House the results of public sector science being abused in many ways. The classic example has been the handling of the bovine spongiform encephalopathy crisis. It is a great pity that the Government have been unable to take a co-ordinated scientific lead based on a proper structure in a matter as important as that crisis, which has had an impact on every constituency. That would have been possible if a senior Minister had been in post. There remains a strong case for a member of the Cabinet taking responsibility for science. I do not decry the Minister, because he has worked hard in his role, but as a country we do not take the matter seriously enough.

The entire process that we have just gone through suffered from an element of predetermined intentions on the Government's part. It might have been a much better process if it had been carried out frankly and openly.

Photo of Mrs Anne Campbell Mrs Anne Campbell , Cambridge 10:35, 12 February 1997

I am grateful to my hon. Friends for allowing me time to speak. I associate myself entirely with the remarks that have been made about the hon. Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw), and the brevity of my remarks in no way reflects a lack of esteem—I am simply short of time.

The Government response to our report states that the recent exercise has been good value for money. I do not think that any hon. Member believes that. We are told that the cost of carrying out the review was less than 1 per cent. of the total science budget. I do not think that anyone believes that figure.

I have a letter written to me by the director of one of the research institutes that have been involved in the survey. It is headed "Confidential," so I do not intend to divulge his name, but he says that he finds it unbelievable that a Government driven so strongly by its perception of Private Sector excellence should ignore two important private sector financial considerations—the cost of time and the cost of lost output. He continues: I could write for ever about this and especially the nonsense figure cited as the financial cost of the exercise (I know what figure the BBSRC submitted and know that it took no account of Institute costs)"— so the costs that have been cited are simply the costs of the review teams. The cost to the institutes and the time that senior people in the institutes spent conducting the reviews is time lost to science.

The real problem is that the Deputy Prime Minister clings to an outmoded notion that the private sector is always superior to the public sector, which is completely contrary to common sense. We have had review after review under the Government. Following the White Paper in 1992, there was a management review. Following the management review, a multi-departmental review was conducted. Following that, an efficiency scrutiny was conducted by the Prime Minister's adviser, Sir Peter Levene, and now we have had a prior options review—time-wasting indulgence indeed, and all to no avail, because there has been minimal disturbance to the institutes, apart from the complete waste of time in conducting the reviews.

The secrecy with which the reviews has been conducted is very regrettable, especially in this case. On 29 January 1997, when the results of the prior options review were announced, the Department of Trade and Industry issued a press release accompanying the Minister's answer to a question asked by the hon. Member for Ribble Valley (Mr. Evans). One sentence of that press release read: I shall expect the NERC, under the oversight of the Director General of Research Councils, to pursue the opportunities for rationalisation and restructuring identified by the reviews. How can it do so if the reviews are not to be published? Many people in the research councils are wondering about that. I have a letter from one of them, who suggests that the reasoning is that the reviews constitute advice to Ministers, and that such advice is not to be published. That is absurd. How can research councils implement advice if it is not published?

The fate of the royal Greenwich observatories is still in the balance. A review began at least two years ago to consider the rationalisation of the observatories in Edinburgh and Cambridge. Staff there are still waiting for a response. The problems are connected not with pensions, but with the complex ownership of the various sites around the world. The staff want the universities to take over the running of the observatories, as the universities use them. That is an eminently sensible suggestion. With a little common sense, the issue could have been resolved months ago, which would have been the best possible outcome.

Photo of Adam Ingram Adam Ingram , East Kilbride 10:40, 12 February 1997

I echo the warm sentiments expressed towards the hon. Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw), and pay a special tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray), who is also standing down at the next election. He has been of considerable help to me in my role as the Front-Bench Member with responsibility for science and technology.

I congratulate the hon. Member for Pudsey and other members of the Science and Technology Committee on obtaining the debate, and on their contributions to it. Once again, the Committee has provided a powerful service to the House. Without the Committee's efforts and output, the House would probably not have been given any time by the Government to discuss science and technology issues, let alone the future of the public sector research establishments. I fully recognise and endorse the views expressed by the Chairman of the Committee about the Committee's role and, like him, I hope that it will have a long-term future. His work, we hope, will go on into the next Parliament and beyond.

The last time the House discussed science and technology was on 11 June 1996, as a result of the Labour party allocating time to the subject. The Select Committee's first report was published in July last year, and the report that we are considering was published in November.

The Government announced their decision on the 38 establishments under review on 29 January. One day before this one and a half hour debate, they published their response to the Select Committee's report. I list that history of events to highlight the wholly unsatisfactory way in which the Government have gone about their business in relation to an important part of the nation's science and research base.

The all-party Select Committee made the same criticism of the Government's approach in the report of 17 July, which stated: We consider that the Department's policy on this matter is far from satisfactory". The hon. Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) seems to forget that criticism, but I draw it to his attention.

The real reason for the secrecy—or, as others have called it, the lack of transparency—in the conduct of the exercise, and the delay in publishing the findings of the review, was that the Government were working to only one agenda: the privatisation of the Government research establishments and the research council institutes. Their every effort was targeted towards that objective.

Anyone who doubts that need only look at the oral evidence that Sir Peter Levene gave to the Select Committee on 13 November last year. He said: When Ministers considered the report on the first tranche of reviews in May they decided that they needed some further advice on certain practical issues in relation to the privatisation option which they were considering. Sir Peter went further. The Chairman of the Committee asked him: Could you confirm that you have not been asked, in relation to the Prior Options Review, to consider the effects of any changes on the science base itself? Sir Peter replied: That is not something we are looking at, that is correct. Sir Peter was telling the Committee what the entire scientific community suspected—that the review was an off-loading exercise and a means by which to cut further the public science base. It was concerned not with quality, but with dogma. It took the Government from May until January—nine months—to realise that they had got it wrong all along.

The Government were clearly frightened to allow full parliamentary scrutiny, through debate, of their antipathy towards the public sector research establishments. They knew that to allow proper examination of Sir Peter Levene's review would bring into the public domain the almost universal criticism levelled against the Government in the matter. The Confederation of British Industry, important trade bodies such as the Food and Drink Federation, the Royal Society, the royal academies and the learned institutes all voiced their trenchant criticism of the Government's approach.

The Institute of Biology said: Whenever the Government does not get the right result it wants from a review, it sets up a further one with the apparent intention of privatising and cutting back on services. The Royal Society stated: the programme is being driven by a generic belief in the merits of privatisation, without adequate regard to the strategic role of publicly funded research in promoting the national good. I could go on listing criticism after criticism of the Government's approach to the reviews. All are documented in the minutes of evidence submitted to the Select Committee. They make salutary reading for anyone involved in policy framing and policy making.

The history of the review process makes sorry reading for the Government. In June 1995 The Guardian carried a detailed story showing that the Government were split from top to bottom on the issue, and they probably still are. The story was based on letters leaked to my hon. Friend the Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell). I shall read an extract from the article: The Government's response to a scrutiny of publicly funded research by Sir Peter Levene, the Prime Minister's efficiency adviser, was to be released last week alongside the report, Forward Look: Future Priorities for Government Research, and a Department of Trade and Industry report on industrial competitiveness.But the letters show that a dispute between William Waldegrave, the Agriculture Minister, Michael Portillo, the Employment Secretary, Michael Heseltine, Trade and Industry Secretary, and David Hunt, the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, has stopped the exercise.A leaked letter from John Horam, the junior science minister, to James Paice, the junior employment minister, says that David Hunt wants yet another review of research councils and laboratories before final decisions are taken next year. The article continues: Mr Portillo and Mr Heseltine, who favour quick decisions and privatisation of establishments—including the Health and Safety Laboratory—are objecting to further delays.Mr Heseltine signalled his dissent by announcing that the National Engineering Laboratory, AEA Technology … and the Laboratory of the Government Chemist were to be sold without further reviews.Mr Waldegrave, who set up the original review, has backed Mr Hunt, saying he would prefer a minimum review concentrating on laboratories, which had not been examined before. There we have it. Those who are now without real influence in the Government favoured a more long-term approach, and those who would be king after the election—the Deputy Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence, the right hon. Member for Enfield, Southgate (Mr. Portillo)—favoured a full-scale privatisation of the laboratories and institutes. It is therefore right for us to warn the thousands of scientists who work in those establishments to beware of a Tory fifth term. The Government have merely deferred their decisions on privatisation, not abandoned them. Anyone in doubt about that should read the speech given yesterday by the Chancellor of the Exchequer to the right-wing Centre for Policy Studies. He said: The long march of privatisation goes on. In their drive for ideological purity, the Government spared no expense in relation to the prior options review. As the Minister knows, I tabled a series of questions seeking to elicit the total cost of the exercise. The answers—95 in all, from the various Government Departments—varied from the helpful to the obscure. One thing was clear, however. Including the cost of the review of the royal observatories, more than £4 million was raided from the already hard-pressed science budget to pay for it. As other hon. Members have commented, that figure is probably at the lower end of the true cost incurred.

When I put questions to the President of the Board of Trade on the reviews of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council institutes, I was informed that it was not possible to quantify the costs incurred by the several Government Departments involved in the prior options procedures without incurring disproportionate cost.

That answer was given to me by the Minister for Science and Technology. He was telling me and the House that his Department was working in the dark about the real cost of the exercise that he had initiated. It makes a mockery of the Minister's claim that the entire exercise was about enhancing the nation's science base. That could not be the case, because he did not know the cost-benefit analysis to which he was working, he was unaware of the costs involved, and providing benefit to the science base was not part of the exercise. Sir Peter Levene admitted as much to the Science and Technology Committee.

We have come to the end of the single-track road on which the Government have been travelling for the past few years in their obsession to privatise the Government research establishments and institutes. It has been costly, wasteful in time for all concerned, and demoralising for the people who work in those establishments.

The many thousands of scientists who work in laboratories have faced an uncertain future for far too long. The Government will now claim that what they announced on 29 January is effectively the last word on this subject. Those who understand how the Government work will not believe them. They will know that powerful Ministers, such as the Deputy Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Defence, have only one objective in mind: the wholesale sell-off of public sector research establishments.

The Government's announcement on 29 January was no more or less than blatant political expediency. A fifth term of Tory Government will bring the privateers back to the laboratory doors, and the whole exercise will be re-initiated.

The Labour party has made it clear—I re-emphasise the commitment—that a Labour Government will fully recognise the importance of Government research establishments and research institutes as part of the nation's essential publicly funded science base. The PSREs are a major national resource and a source of crucial research expertise involved in long-term research activity in collaboration with universities and industry. They have a vital role to play in offering independent, impartial advice to Government.

In these days of BSE, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, salmonella and E. coli 0157, the PSREs can contribute to the public good in a way that is not wholly open to the private research sector in its own right. Industry recognises that, as do the royal societies, academies and learned institutes.

In its response to the report by the Science and Technology Committee, which we are considering today, the Royal Society of Chemistry states: The Royal Society of Chemistry recognises the importance of safeguarding open public access to the information of PSREs as a key point of principle in the public interest.The integrity and accessibility of the vast reserves of 'core data' within the existing PSREs should be preserved". A Labour Government will provide such an environment, for the betterment of our nation's science base and the public good.

Photo of Ian Taylor Ian Taylor , Esher 10:51, 12 February 1997

To an extent, this has been a bit of a wake, and I am sorry about that. This may be the last science debate in this Parliament, but it is certainly the last appearance in this Parliament in a science debate by my hon. Friends the Members for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw) and for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson), and the hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray), all of whom have contributed enormously over the years to the understanding of and enthusiasm for science, engineering and technology in this place.

I add my voice to the tributes that have already been paid to the very existence of the Select Committee. I hope that the valuable work that it has done in this Parliament—I note carefully the report on human genetics, for example—will continue in the next Parliament, if Parliament decides, as I hope it will, that a Science and Technology Select Committee should continue.

I have only a few minutes to respond to some of the serious points raised in the debate. I do not share the worry of my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey that the reviews were hasty and perhaps ill targeted. They were part of a continuing process. Naturally, they had to apply to the research council institutes, which account for about £220 million out of the £690 million expenditure. Some of the research councils have clearly indicated the benefit that has come from their work. The National Environment Research Council has made a clear statement to that effect, and I hope that my hon. Friend will appreciate that, quite often, such reviews make it easier to understand the relationship between a research council or institute, and the definition of the mission statement.

Several hon. Members, not only my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey but my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North and the hon. Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) and for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram), talked about openness. As a Minister, I have always been available for questioning across the Floor of the House. I wish that I were questioned more, because I enjoy being at the Dispatch Box and answering questions. There is no lack of desire on my part to be open. Obviously, I cannot table questions; I can only appear if the questions are tabled, so perhaps colleagues will think about how they could table a few more to me.

We have tried to make consultations as wide as possible. Naturally, the review groups were very much associated with the sponsoring Department. The explanatory memorandums have been, or will be, placed in the Library. Indeed, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food placed one there today about its decisions of 9 December. Those are part of a general attempt to ensure that we understand why a particular process has taken place.

I shall not comment on ministerial advice, because, as the House well understands, that matter has wider implications. One point that I do pick up, however, is that in no sense was I anxious to undermine the morale of those who work within the science base. I recognise the importance of the work done in the research establishments and the excellence of the scientific achievements. In some cases, when objectively reviewed, some institutes have shown themselves to be up with the best of any in the United Kingdom. For example, the figures at the Babraham Institute are extremely convincing. Several of the reviews made it clear that research is best carried out in the public sector. I welcome that outcome, so there is no pre-ordained message.

I was saddened by the speech of the hon. Member for East Kilbride, who, having found that the reviews came up with decisions with which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) decided that she was happy, had to find a different excuse for the fact that the outcome was not so distasteful, and decided that it had something to do with split Governments, frit Governments and electioneering. It was not the most impressive contribution to the debate, although I pay full tribute to the interest of—I nearly said my hon. Friend; perhaps I will—my hon. Friend in the science base. Unfortunately, it did not extend to his speech today.

Other matters of great importance have been raised. I listened closely to the comments by the hon. Member for Motherwell, South on risk assessment. I have made two speeches: one to the British Association for the Advancement of Science; another to the parliamentary Science and Technology Committee, on risk assessment in its broadest sense. I share many of the hon. Gentleman's concerns. It is almost impossible for a Minister to come to the Dispatch Box with a degree of certainty about what often confuses scientists.

It is also difficult for a Minister—I hope that I shall criticise none of my colleagues—to come to the Dispatch Box and say, "I shall do what the scientists tell me," because scientists may say different things, or their comments may have different orders of magnitude. In those circumstances, we need a wide and public debate, attempting to get the public to understand the degree of risk involved. That is why I proposed a sort of Richter scale of risk, so that there is at least an objective benchmark when we hit crises such as BSE, E. coli and longer-term matters such as the debate on climate control.

The hon. Member for Motherwell, South made one comment which justified the reviews, although that was not why he made it. He said that, in many cases, the questions will change over time. I accept that, but the process of how one discovers the answers may have to change over time. A particular establishment may therefore need to adapt its mission statement or look again at how it is configured.

The Office of Science and Technology's role in Government has now been well established by its success within the DTI, with enormous improvements in the lines of communication and delivery mechanisms. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North mentioned, quite rightly, the work of the Central Science Laboratory at Norwich. He also mentioned the John Innes Centre and the Institute of Food Research. He has been a tireless champion for research at Norwich. I confirm that I hope that open discussions will continue with the university of East Anglia on how to create a centre of research excellence, particularly in food. I underline and confirm his comments, particularly about the strength of the science base. We should make much more of it.

The hon. Member for Selly Oak said that the prior options reviews cost £6.9 million, which is way out. Even the hon. Member for East Kilbride mentioned £4.3 million. The direct cost of prior options reviews is some £1.5 million. Obviously, other factors have been taken into account—for example, with ADAS and moneys connected with the conversion to next steps agencies, which are not directly relevant to the process. Whatever the figures—I stick to £1.5 million—they are tiny in relation to the overall quest for efficiency out of a spend of £690 million. No Science Minister can ignore that fact.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) said that there are too many reviews. I draw his attention to my announcement, and that of the President of the Board of Trade as the Cabinet Minister responsible for science, that we shall now revert to quinquennial reviews, although we will look very carefully at the management tasks that have been given to the various research institutes. They have been informed that they can put them in place.

The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston talked about how the House responds to some of these crises, and mentioned predetermination. There was no predetermination, and that brings me to the hon. Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram). Government have a duty to look at the health of the science base. This country has a science base of which it can be proud. Science base expenditure has risen by more than 15 per cent. in the past 10 years. That is a great achievement. British science is well recognised throughout the world as being excellent. We punch above our weight, partly because of the concern of the Government.

Photo of Mr Michael Morris Mr Michael Morris , Northampton South

Order. We must now move on to the next debate and to the Chairman of the Public Service Committee.