Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page


Lord McCluskey: My Lords, in the light of what has been said and in the hope that the Government will not close their minds to the possibility of reconsidering the matter, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

The Earl of Lindsay: My Lords, I beg to move that further consideration on Report be now adjourned. In moving the Motion, may I suggest that the Report stage begin again at twenty-five minutes before eight o'clock.

Moved accordingly, and, on Question, Motion agreed to.

Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils Order 1995

7.5 p.m.

Baroness Miller of Hendon rose to move, That the draft order laid before the House on 16th December be approved [5th Report from the Joint Committee].

The noble Baroness said: My Lords, under the Science and Technology Act 1965, provision was made for the establishment of research councils under Royal Charter. There are currently six such councils. The proposed order will establish the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils as a research council in its own right under the Act.

The central laboratory will comprise the Daresbury and the Rutherford-Appleton Laboratories which, since the restructuring which took place in April 1994, have

6 Feb 1995 : Column 75

been part of the new Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. That has always been regarded as an interim measure.

The laboratories are located on two main sites, at Chilton in South Oxfordshire and at Daresbury, near Warrington, Cheshire. They have an international reputation for top quality scientific research, particularly in the use of neutrons and X-rays for probing the structure of matter and in particle physics, space and remote sensing research and in advanced computing.

The laboratories' facilities and expertise are used by a very large number of researchers, many of whom are located in United Kingdom universities. The laboratories are, in short, a vital component of the UK science and engineering base. They employ 1,800 staff, of whom 850 are qualified scientists and engineers. Their income is around £94 million, of which £74 million comes from the existing research councils.

Our review of the laboratories included extensive consultation with their users, from both academia and industry. It was completed last autumn. A key outcome of the review was the recognition that continued ownership by a single research council is unsatisfactory. The laboratories carry out work for five of the six research councils, and ownership by the largest of them (which, incidentally, is also the largest customer of the laboratories) blurs the customer-contractor relationship.

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, therefore, announced on 26th October last year that, subject to the approval of Parliament, the laboratories would together become a new non-departmental public body, to be called the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils, and established as a research council for the purposes of the Science and Technology Act 1965. That solution met with widespread support during the consultation exercise and has attracted cross-party support from the appropriate Standing Committee of the other place which, last Tuesday, approved the draft order.

In proposing this way forward, the Government have a number of objectives. We want to enable the laboratories to contribute more fully to the wealth-creation and quality of life goals which were set out in the 1993 White Paper Realising our Potential. We recognise the important role of the laboratories as a key part of the United Kingdom's science and engineering base, carrying out basic and strategic research. We intend that to continue; we do not want them to become short-term contract research centres. That is not their role.

We want to improve the accountability of the laboratories and to clarify their relationship with their customers. We also intend, through the proposed changes, to provide an environment in which the laboratories can develop their existing markets, and can address new ones. This is an exciting opportunity for the laboratories.

I wish to pay tribute to the efforts of the director and staff of the laboratories to build up connections with users of their research. They have established a high reputation for the quality of their work, and for their

6 Feb 1995 : Column 76

scientific and engineering integrity, in both academia and industry. We wish to see them build on this firm base.

We envisage that the majority of the laboratories' funding will continue to originate from public sources. The major customers will be the research councils. They are fully seized of their responsibility to act as intelligent customers. The laboratories will be eligible to receive a direct allocation from the science vote. The Government envisage that the sums involved will be small in relation to the total public funding they receive through their research council customers, but the facility will be available to fund specific initiatives and activities.

Your Lordships may already be aware that my honourable friend, the Parliamentary Secretary of the Office of Public Service and Science announced that, following open competition, the first chief executive of the new body will be Dr. Paul Williams, who has been the director of the combined Daresbury and Rutherford-Appleton Laboratories since they came together last April. The membership of the new council will be drawn from the other research councils, the academic community, industry and commerce, and senior laboratory staff. This will give the council a composition representing the major constituencies who interact with the laboratories. The objects of the council as defined in its Royal Charter are set out in the schedule to the draft order. They have close parallels in the charters of the other six research councils, and positioning the new body alongside the other councils serves to underline the interdependent relationship between them. It also highlights the Government's wish to see the laboratories remain as a key component of the science and engineering base.

The Government are striving to ensure that the outcomes from the United Kingdom's excellent science and engineering base are more clearly orientated towards wealth-creation, and enhancing the quality of life. We are also committed to maintaining excellence in science and engineering, and to maximising value for money. The creation of the Council for the Central Laboratory of the Research Councils is a key step in this process. Accordingly, I beg to move.

Moved, That the draft order laid before the House on 16th December be approved [5th Report from the Joint Committee]. —(Baroness Miller of Hendon.)

7.15 p.m.

Baroness Gould of Potternewton: My Lords, in making my first contribution from the Dispatch Box I wish to say how pleased I am that another member of the 1993 working peers intake has introduced the order. I wish to say immediately also that this is not a partisan issue. We believe that the order deserves support. There are, however, a number of comments we would make and questions we would ask which we hope that the Minister will be able to respond to, if not tonight, in writing.

There is no doubt that investment in our science base is money well spent. One cannot overemphasise the importance to the nation of placing science policy high on the Government's agenda. As indicated, the question

6 Feb 1995 : Column 77

of the council was initiated by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster on 26th October of last year when he announced that he would set up an independent body in the public sector, and when he made the important statement that,


    "Daresbury and Rutherford are national assets. They have been thoroughly reviewed, and my conclusion is that they should remain in public ownership. I believe that according them independent status is the right way to proceed, but with strong emphasis on operating in a commercial manner, and particularly meeting the needs of the customers".

That is a statement we can fully support and which we hope will mean that there are unlikely to be any significant changes in the work of the laboratory; that the basic research is not restricted in any way or the work and running of the new laboratory not interrupted by the change. As the Minister said, the laboratories have large-scale facilities such as ISIS, the most powerful neutron source in the world, a laser research centre and an international space research programme, as well as being the centre for microstructure fabrication. These, together with the 17 research projects, must be nurtured and protected. That is why it is important that the contracts under negotiation for those 17 projects are placed with laboratories with some speed.

There are also certain assurances that need to be given regarding the funding of the laboratory. We would be opposed to any reduction in funding; rather we believe that it should be increased, so assisting UK industry to keep abreast of development by our competitors, particularly in America and Japan. In her reply I hope that the Minister will be able to assure us that such expenditure on scientific research will be increased. My understanding is that the Government are expecting increased funding to come from industry. It is estimated, I believe, together with support from the Department of Trade and Industry, at about £19 million. The support of industry is welcome, especially so as all too often it has failed to back the efforts of and invest in British inventions and inventors.

There is also the question of any expectation of funds from Europe. If that is to be the case, can we be assured that it will be additional to government support and not mean a reduction in that support? This question of funding cannot be left just to competitiveness. I am sure we all agree that we cannot afford to lose any facility because of the lack of government funded basic research over a long-term period. The Government must ensure that the new body has ample funds to operate efficiently in the scientific environment. There has, however, also to be some measure of accountability over the spending of this £74 million of public funds. The new body must be accountable and independently monitored. Will the Minister in her reply give an indication of who will carry out that monitoring exercise? Coupled with the need for adequate finance, there must be sufficient specialist knowledge retained in-house to be able to use and interpret the advice it receives from its consultants. This raises the question of whether there are any proposed job cuts and whether in the future researchers will be expected to work to short-term contracts.

6 Feb 1995 : Column 78

The aim of the new body is to support the advancement of knowledge and technology, meeting the needs of research councils, other customers and their user communities, thereby contributing to the economic competitiveness of the country and to the quality of life. These aims are rightly supported by the scientific community, those who benefit most from such economic competitiveness or wealth creation and many more who will benefit from any improvement in the quality of their life.

We ask, however: does this aim fit in with the Minister's statement about the need for preserving basic research as the new body is now considered to be in the category of wealth creation rather than basic research? I would ask the Minister in her reply to establish what is meant by basic research. Will this continue in the new organisation, and how does this differ from what is now said to be economic competitiveness or wealth creation and improving the quality of life?

In giving our warm support to the Government's intentions, to the council and its objects, I would add that there is an outstanding need for long-term corporate planning. Without a corporate plan of five, 10 or 20 years, the new body and the Government will blunder from one year's lack of resources to the next. The Government have to secure the long-term future and the stability of research bodies. Can we have an undertaking that the Government will examine this matter most carefully and that a long-term plan will be presented?

We are discussing a massive institution, not merely in terms of its budget and staff, but in terms of its contribution to science and technological development now and into the next century. Any steps that the Government take to these ends will guarantee our support.


Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page