§ Order for Second Reading read.
§ 4.1 p.m.
§ The Secretary of State for Social Services (Mr. David Ennals)
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.
The immediate object of the Public Health Laboratory Service Bill is to allow me to extend the scope of the Public Health Laboratory Service. This is in order that the Public Health Laboratory Service Board may take over the management of the Microbiological Research Establishment at Porton. I indicated that such legislation would be needed in my reply to the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) on 8 March last year.
The Microbiological Research Establishment has nearly 40 years of history. It originated in 1940 when a small group of scientists was assembled to study the threat of biological warfare. By the end of the war a Microbiological Research Department had come into being and was placed under the Ministry of Supply, as it then was. In 1947 plans were prepared for a separate establishment for biological research for defence purposes, and in 1948 work began on a building at Porton on Ministry of Defence property about a mile from the Chemical Defence Establishment. Within a few years the establishment had justified the confidence placed in it by proving that some disease-producing microbes can live for long periods in the air in weather conditions typical of those found at night in Britain. I am not certain whether they could have survived last night, but that is another matter. It also showed that quantities of bacteria could be released to blanket large areas of the British Isles within a few hours. The MRE had quickly established itself as an insurance against biological warfare.
Defence requirements change, however, and the Government decided that the services provided for the Ministry of Defence by MRE could be provided instead by a small team to be transferred to the Chemical Defence Establishment. We 1327 had to consider what the future of MRE should be. Fortunately, its work was not confined to defence. In 1957, for example, it was called on to help increase the country's stock of vaccine to limit the effects of the Asian 'flu epidemic. In 1967 its staff identified the cause of a new and deadly disease, the Marburg or vervet monkey disease. They isolated the virus and established a means of diagnosis.
In recent years MRE has been involved with research for industrial concerns. Its more striking projects have included the extraction of uranium by microbial action and the destruction by micro-organisms of toxic industrial waste.
I visited MRE recently and was most impressed by what I saw. I was particularly interested to learn something of the civil-funded work being carried on which will continue under PHLS Board management. I was able to visit several of the laboratories where research and development are being conducted on a variety of products in the health field. These include therapeutic enzymes, such as asparaginase for the treatment of certain forms of leukaemia, and reagents of various kinds for use in the diagnosis of disease.
§ Mr. Laurie Pavitt (Brent, South)
In the research and development of these marvellous things which will help the National Health Service, will the patent rights rest with the Crown? What will happen subsequent to the research? Will there be any profit to the Crown as a result of the manufacture of vaccines?
§ Mr. Ennals
A certain amount of patent work is done there. Work is already being done on a commercial basis. It is the hope of some of those working at Porton and of the Board that they will be able to develop the trading element by being able to take on more contracts. However, I do not think that its operations could ever be totally dependent upon work for which payment is made.
I also visited the unit where work is being carried on in the production of vaccines. I do not think I need stress the importance of such work for the present and the future. I also saw something of the work that is going on in the field of genetic engineering, under conditions of maximum safety, and here, 1328 as throughout the establishment, I was struck by the great enthusiasm of the staff for their work. This is an enthusiasm which I and, I am confident, the PHLS Board wish to preserve and foster. There is a very fine team of people at work at Porton.
Clearly we needed to consider most carefully what the future of an establishment of this kind should be. Studies were carried out by the Central Policy Review Staff, a committee of the Medical Research Council, and an official group which examined possible management arrangements. At the end of all this, our conclusion was that MRE should continue as a civil establishment with a reduced scale of activity and that it could most appropriately be managed by the Public Health Laboratory Service Board. I am grateful to the Board for agreeing to take on this responsibility from 1 April 1979.
I understand that the Institution of Professional Civil Servants is asking for a fresh review of the future of MRE. I do not believe this would add anything to the studies that have already been undertaken. Moreover, I do not believe that it would be in the interests of the staff themselves to prolong uncertainty about the future of the establishment. It also suggested that the establishment should have a much wider role than that envisaged under the PHLS. I do not think that is very realistic. The amount of work the establishment can undertake must be limited by the resources we can afford to put into it. Also, it needs a coherent core programme of work, and this will best be provided by the programme worked out, in conjunction with the staff, by the PHLS Board. There is no doubt that the staff have been intensely involved in preparing the programme of work in which most of them will be involved.
The establishment's work will be given primarily a health and preventive aspect, and the Board proposes that it should become known as the Centre for Applied Microbiology and Research. The Centre for Applied Microbiology and Research will be a wholly civil establishment. Defence needs will be catered for by the Chemical Defence Establishment on a nearby site, which will remain part of the Ministry of Defence. Some contract 1329 work for MOD may be undertaken at the centre, but it will not be classified work. Detailed work programmes for the new centre are being prepared, and besides continuing the health-oriented civil work previously carried out under the Ministry of Defence, the Board is planning some expansion in areas of current public health interest.
One of these areas is that of laboratory safety. I do not want to spend too long over the general question of laboratory safety. I made a comprehensive statement to the House following the Shooter Inquiry into the smallpox case at Birmingham on 24 January, and the subject of laboratory safety was raised in an Adjournment debate by my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Hoyle) on 1 February.
On the first occasion, I referred to the recent inspection of the MRE on behalf of the Health and Safety Executive, when it was found to have very high standards of safety. I am confident that these standards will be maintained, particularly as the staff of the new establishment will be drawn almost entirely from the present one.
I cannot agree with suggestions which have been made that the transfer of MRE to the PHLS Board will result in a reduction of safety standards. In the light of recent attention to matters of laboratory safety, the Board is currently carrying out a survey of its own laboratories and is drawing up plans for any improvements which may be shown to be necessary. The Board shares my wish to secure standards which are at once fully adequate and fully realistic.
The new centre will play an active part in promoting laboratory safety. The intention of the PHLS Board, which I warmly welcome, is to set up a reference laboratory dealing with laboratory safety. The functions of this section will include, first, the monitoring of the safety procedures and equipment in all the laboratories of the centre, and liaison with the occupational health service for the staff. The laboratory will also devise methods of evaluating the safety of procedures and equipment, and provide a reference service to which new equipment can be submitted for microbiological safety testing. The staff will also be available to provide advice and training to other laboratories in the PHLS, the 1330 NHS, the Armed Forces and elsewhere, and will be expected to visit other laboratories in this connection.
I turn now to the particular provisions of the Bill, with which I can deal briefly. The PHLS Board's present responsibilities are limited, under the National Health Service Act 1977, to the provision of a microbiological service for the control of infectious disease. It is desirable that the work of the new centre, if it is fully to make use of the facilities that it possesses and of the high level of ability and skill of staff, should be able to extend to activities which are not strictly microbiological but for which the establishment provides an appropriate environment. The extraction of certain therapeutic and diagnostic agents, for example, will involve work of a non-microbiological nature, although it will be work which can appropriately be carried on in an environment suitable for microbiological work.
Clause 1 of the Bill therefore enables me to extend the scope of the Public Health Laboratory Service to include other activities in addition to the already authorised microbiological service. It also introduces a correspondingly wider provision than that contained in the National Health Service Act 1977 for charges to be made for services and materials provided as part of the service.
Clause 2 of the Bill is simply a contingency measure. The NHS Act permits members of the PHLS Board to be compensated for the loss of remunerative time and to receive travelling and other allowances. The present Bill would extend the range of possible payments to members and would transfer from the Board to me the power to determine them with the approval of the Minister for the Civil Service. I have no plans at present to use this power, but it seems wise to take the opportunity of bringing legislation relating to the PHLS Board into line with that relating to similar bodies like the National Radiological Protection Board.
The Institution of Professional Civil Servants has said that it is concerned about the terms of transfer being offered to staff. My hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State had some discussion about this with the staff at MRE only yesterday. My understanding is that many of the worries of the IPCS concern matters that are primarily for my right 1331 hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Defence. I ought also to stress that transfer terms are still under negotiation between the unions representing MRE staff and a committee representing the Ministry of Defence, my Department and the Public Health Laboratory Service Board. Nevertheless, if the staff wish it, I or my hon. Friend will be pleased to meet them and to learn at first hand their views on any matters which are our particular concern.
I have great confidence that by transferring the management of MRE to the Public Health Laboratory Service Board we are ensuring its future, the future of its work in the most important and valuable sphere of health and prevention, and the opportunity for its staff to continue to contribute their particular skills in meeting the current requirements of the nation. It is in that spirit that I move the Second Reading of the Bill.
§ 4.15 p.m.
§ Mr. Patrick Jenkin (Wanstead and Woodford)
I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his brief description of the Bill and for giving the House some of the background to the establishment of the Microbiological Research Establishment at Porton. Unlike himself and the Under-Secretary, I have not had the privilege of visiting Porton. But, in preparation for this debate, I have gone to some trouble to try to find out what it has been doing. I have read a good deal. I have met some of the people involved and spoken to others on the telephone.
I should like to endorse what the right hon. Gentleman says. What emerges is the universally high reputation which Porton and the work done there enjoys in scientific circles. The skill of the staff and the standards of safety which they have set, and, in some cases, have developed, stand comparison with any in the world. The consistency of the products they produce, the enzymes and other biological products which they make available to research laboratories throughout the country and, I suspect, overseas is extremely good. The integrity of their safety standards in handling the extremely dangerous pathogens with which they have to deal is something of which we and they can be proud. If ever the phrase "a centre of excellence" deserved to be applied, it should be applied to the 1332 scientists and the establishment at Porton. It is for that reason that the future of this establishment is of great importance. It is worthy of some time for debate in this House.
There are three distinct functions that one might expect a civilian establishment of this kind to fulfil. In the first place, Porton is essential, as one of the United Kingdom research centres in support of the National Health Service and the whole field of public health, for dealing with the most dangerous pathogens that threaten the life of man. This is especially true in the matter of diagnosis. The right hon. Gentleman mentioned Marburg disease, isolated by Porton, which was able to advise doctors.
The establishment has developed a unique expertise in containment. I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for allowing me to have a copy of the Shooter report in confidence. Happily, my name does not end with an "s", and I have respected that confidence. Anyone who has read that report—
§ Mr. Doug Hoyle (Nelson and Colne)
I thought we had cleared up this matter once and for all. I speak as president of ASTMS. It was made clear, and my right hon. Friend was good enough to say this in the House, that when the general secretary of ASTMS and myself discussed this matter with him, we made clear that we could not be bound by any secrecy. Indeed, we made clear that we would publish the report. It was not sent to us under any cloak of secrecy. We said that if that was to be the case we did not want to have it. My right hon. Friend made that clear when he spoke.
§ Mr. Jenkin
I have on another occasion —I will not be led further into this matter—chided the right hon. Gentleman because, if that was said to him, he was singularly unwise to place any faith in Mr. Clive Jenkins. He had made clear what he was going to do, and he did it. The fact is that the covering letter sent to Mr. Clive Jenkins made it abundantly clear that the copy was for his own use and information. That letter has been published in Hansard in response to a question by my hon. Friend the Member for Ealing, Acton (Sir G. Young).
It shows how one falls into traps. If Mr. Clive Jenkins was not prepared to 1333 accept the report on the basis of the letter under cover of which it came, he should have sent it back unread. It was a gross breach of confidence that he should have published it. It will be a long time before Ministers of whatever Government are prepared to trust him again.
§ Mr. Jenkin
I will have more to say about the Shooter report in a moment. Porton has an immensely important role in the training of people in biological and laboratory safety.
Its second role is the supply of microorganisms to laboratories and industry all over the country. Its third role—one with which I want to deal in some detail—is as a centre for what is sometimes called economic microbiology, or bio-technology, namely, work in support of the burgeoning science of the industrial application of microbiological techniques. I shall return to those three roles shortly.
I deal now with where we are today and how we have got here. In March 1976 the defence White Paper foreshadowed the civilianisation of Porton Down, which had an establishment of nearly 400, of which perhaps 25—say 10 scientists and 15 supporting staff—would be transferred to the chemical defence experimental establishment down the road.
Since then, the rest of the staff has been left in limbo. There have been two secret reports—and I use the word "secret" advisedly—by the Central Policy Review Staff and the Medical Research Council. For reasons that I am unable to discover, neither has been published, though I understand that parts of the MRC report were made available in confidence to the staff at Porton Down. Certainly neither report was made available to hon. Members and I have not seen either of them.
In December 1976, the Institute of Biology, which obviously has an important role in this matter, called for a thorough assessment of the role of the MRE, not only in regard to the hazardous pathogens for which it is principally famous, but also in the important area of economic and industrial microbiology. The Institute gave its view against the back- 1334 ground of the history of microbiology in this country.
The Department of Scientific and Industrial Research closed the microbiological section of the Chemical Research Laboratory at Teddington in, I think, 1958. That laboratory was founded after the war as a recognition of the backwardness of the United Kingdom in economic and industrial microbiology.
It is a famous historical fact that although Sir Alexander Fleming, whose name is given to the Secretary of State's office building, discovered penicillin in the 1930s, its commercial development and the processes needed to produce it in quantity were carried out in the United States and the licences had to be bought by Britain during the war to enable that work to be done at Speke.
There was good reason for the existence of the Teddington laboratory and it is a matter for regret that it was closed. An article in Science Journal in 1969 said:Its collection of bacteria was banished to Aberdeen and its staff scattered, a move, the consequences of which are still being felt … Microbiological research, apart from the MRE, is now being carried out at universities in shreds and patches and only when it turns out to be necessary in cracking some technological nut not basically concerned with it, for example, in water pollution.The MRE remained cloaked in mystery because its primary work was for defence purposes in the area of biological warfare. However, it is no secret that the establishment developed techniques for handling very virulent and dangerous organisms and that these techniques have considerable relevance and importance not only in strategic terms but in health care.
The establishment also developed the capacity to manufacture and supply virus vaccines in large quantities. The Secretary of State mentioned the Asian 'flu episode; I am told that the establishment supplied 600,000 doses of vaccine in four months. That was, by any standards, a remarkable achievement.
We were told in 1976 that the MRE was no longer needed for defence purposes and it was widely felt in scientific circles that, as a uniquely valuable resource, the establishment should not be dissipated as the Teddington facility had been dissipated 17 years earlier. Indeed, 1335 some went further. An article in New Scientist in December 1976 said:many senior microbiologists are extremely angry that Britain is falling behind almost every other developed country in mounting major programmes of research in biotechnology. West Germany, for example, recently authorised such a project, funded to the tune of at least £20 million annually, while Japan has established several research institutes devoted to fermentation research.There was not only therefore the need to preserve the expertise, but there was also a growing recognition in scientific circles that if we were to achieve and retain pre-eminence in that work we needed a strong research base.
It took two years from the Ministry of Defence's announcement for the Government to announce their proposals for the future of Porton Down. They were two years of doubt, uncertainty, falling morale and many staff resignations, including those of some of the ablest people at the establishment.
In December 1977, another New Scientist article referred to "inordinate delays" in resolving the establishment's future. It was not until 21 February last year that a question from my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Hamilton), in whose constituency Porton Down is situated, elicited from the Government the first indication of what was proposed. My hon. Friend was told:The Government have decided therefore to retain MRE as a civil establishment subject to satisfactory administrative arrangements being made.… The Board of PHLS is considering the matter, entirely without commitment. A further announcement will be made in the near future.—[Official Report, 21 February 1978; Vol. 944, c. 609.]I have to hand it to the Government. They moved very fast after that. It was only a week later that the Secretary of State, in answer to a question from his hon. Friend for Member for Brent, South (Mr. Pavitt), said:I am glad to say the Board of the Public Health Laboratory Service has now accepted my invitation to assume the management responsibility".The right hon. Gentleman said that the MRE would bean integral part of the Public Health Laboratory Service."—[Official Report, 28 February 1978; Vol. 949, c. 204.]We began to get an indication of what the Government had in mind for the establishment. I tabled two questions 1336 about when we could expect legislation and was told that it would be brought forwardas soon as conveniently possible.Here we are a year later. I wonder what would have been inconvenient. I also asked about the purposes of the MRE under the new management. The Secretary of State gave me a long reply but did not answer my question. He said:The Government broadly accept its proposals—that is, the MRC's proposals—for a reduced scale of activity. Detailed programmes are to be the subject of study by the Ministry of Defence, which retains responsibility for the Microbiological Research Establishment for the time being, the Public Health Laboratory Service Board, which it is intended will assume management responsibility from 1 April 1979 and my Department … certain manufacturing and other activities, particularly those connected with the microbiological products, at present carried out at Porton, could not be said to relate to the administration of the public health laboratory service, and additional powers are therefore required."—[Official Report, 8 March 1978; Vol. 945, c. 704.]Throughout that reply, there was no indication of what was to be the main purpose and function of the MRE, and I suspect that, despite the reports they had had, the Government were not too clear themselves.
Now we have the necessary legislation presented to us a year after that reply. I believe that it is right to criticise the Government on two counts. There was an inordinately long delay between the Ministry of Defence announcement in 1976 and the presentation of the Bill. That delay has caused much anxiety to hundreds of staff at Porton Down and has not been a very happy chapter.
The Government are also open to criticism for not publishing the two reports on which their decision and therefore, indirectly, the Bill were based. Although Porton Down has had a cloak of secrecy over it because of its strategic role, it would have been right to bring into the open the question of its civilianisation.
I cannot see any reason why those reports, or at any rate some parts of them, could not have been published and made available to the House and the public. There is wide interest in this in scientific circles. There is a desire for 1337 involvement by industry; and in the last two or three years there has been a rapid growth of interest and concern about developing techniques in microbiology, especially genetic engineering, or genetic manipulation as it is sometimes called. I believe these reports should have been published.
What does the future hold for Porton? I come back to the three main functions which I mentioned at the outset of my speech. I understand that the establishment is to be renamed the Centre for Applied Microbiology and Research—CAMR—but of course as an integral part of the Public Health Laboratory Service.
Dealing first with its work in the field of dangerous pathogens, it is impossible to discuss this part of the work without reference to the Shooter report, and we have already touched upon that. I have read it because I was sent a copy in confidence; and of course we have had the statement to which the right hon. Gentleman has referred on 24 January. We are, however, subject to rules about sub judice. There is a prosecution pending. There is a case coming shortly before the Divisional Court as to whether or not the irresponsible publication of the report has so prejudiced the prosecution that it cannot go ahead. Nevertheless, I feel that we owe a duty to the sub judice rule and therefore I will not discuss the Shooter report in detail.
It is no secret, however, and I do not think that I am breaking any rule of the House in any way if I say that the report disclosed major flaws in the system specifically designed to ensure the safety of laboratories, in the monitoring and checking systems and particularly in laboratories dealing with the most serious viruses, category A pathogens. The report has reinforced the need for eternal vigilance, for the highest standards of care, and for tight and effective monitoring and, moreover, monitoring by people fully qualified to pronounce upon the matters which they are being asked to monitor. The Secretary of State said there were to be new regulations. I do not know whether the Under-Secretary of State will be able to tell us anything about those. On 24 January I urged that we should have the details as soon as possible.
1338 The CAMR, as we must now call it, is now a national centre for developing expertise in this field. To quote an article from New Scientist of 9 December 1976,Porton possesses containment facilities unique to Britain and indeed Europe of the sort that are essential for investigating known and suspect natural pathogens such as Marburg and Lassa fever virusesIn its own brochure which I read with great interest there was reference to the work that is being done, interestingly enough not only on diseases which are dangerous to people in this country but in the very important developing field of tropical diseases in developing countries which cannot themselves begin to afford the kind of research necessary to conquer those diseases.
As part of this, therefore, Porton has an enormously important role in the training of laboratory staff and the training of safety officers. Interestingly, this is one of the functions which the Institute of Biology saw right at the beginning fell into this field. I quote from a statement made by the institute towards the end of 1977:MRE could serve a most useful role in training safety officers, in acting as a centre of advice on safety matters. This could involve (a) the training of safety officers (b) the training of senior scientific staff in the handling of dangerous pathogens, and so on.I was grateful to hear from the right hon. Gentleman that that is firmly within its remit because it seems to me most important. Indeed, everything that was said in the Shooter report indicates the necessity for increasing the expertise of those who are to undertake this safety task. If it is to be decided that the Dangerous Pathogens Advisory Group membership is to be widened, I have no doubt whatever that those who are to be appointed to it should have the advantage of at any rate being exposed—and I do not use that word in its medical or scientific sense—to the expertise which Porton has to offer. That is important, and there is no dispute that CAMR has a real role in this training.
It is ironic, in passing, that just at the point at which it is to come under the aegis of the Public Health Laboratory Service Board, the PHLS itself has had to close one of its laboratories in the wake of the Shooter report because apparently it was failing to meet even the 1339 existing standards of health and safety. I am bound to say I have some sympathy with a comment in a letter from a member of the staff at Porton Down that the takeover by the PHLS is a fine example of "setting a rabbit to guard the lettuces." Perhaps the right response is to say that Porton can teach Colindale a thing or two.
§ Mr. Jenkin
The hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Hoyle) says "A lot", and that may well be.
I turn to the second role with which I can deal very briefly—the supply of micro-organisms. There is a range of fermentation plant at the works which provides a very valuable service to industry and laboratories in universities, and this is to continue. I am glad of that. It is not very easy to see how, in a management sense, it fits alongside the research work on dangerous pathogens and its third role, the economic microbiology. This is rather more of almost a production, or a development and production, role and the right hon. Gentleman might like to consider that there may come a time when perhaps that should be seen as a separate division with a trading fund; because it is really more analogous to some of the Government organisations that have been set up with trading funds, so that it can actually run on as near a commercial basis as possible. When I was at the Treasury, Parliament passed the trading fund legislation and since then dockyards and various other bodies have come under that regime. This fermentation and supply of products part of Porton Down might well be suitable for that kind of treatment.
On the third role, I come to the key point of what I want to say. The biggest and most exciting potential for Porton Down—certainly this is so in the eyes of its own staff—lies in the field of industrial or economic microbiology. Nearly 10 years ago scientists were beginning to foresee what was going to be the future of this new science. I have already quoted from an article from the Science Journal. I would like to enlarge on that with a quotation. It refers to Professor Posgate, who was then Professor of Microbiology at Sussex university.Professor Postgate reels off a list of subjects of economic importance that are bound 1340 up with microbial activity. Many of them involve the sulphur bacteria with which the Teddington group was doing so well in its heyday. They include, for example, the removal of pyrites from coal and upgrading it from non-coking to coking coal and also obtaining sulphur from effluents containing yeast. Both these are being worked upon, one at Cardiff, the other in Czechoslovakia.The list is much wider, however, and includes corrosion of iron, steel and stone, release of oil deposits, spoilage of oil and canned foods, water pollution, fish farming, soil treatment and many more.The right hon. Gentleman mentioned that microbes can be used to extract uranium from low-grade ore; there are uses in the decomposition of plastic rubbish, and so on. There is an enormous range of industrial techniques opening out in the microbiological field.
I believe that Porton should have a key role in that work. Part of this work relates to genetic manipulation. The Institute of Biology said on this matter:Our members see an important future for MRE as a European centre for studies in genetic manipulation providing facilities for research work both by permanent staff and by visiting workers, and for technique training.I have tried to obtain the view of industry. The representative of a major company which undertakes a great deal of its own research—I accept that much of this research has an element of commercial secrecy—put to me the views of his firm:From the standpoint of practical usage, biological science and, more specifically, microbiology, is about to reach the stage of industrial application which has for so long characterised physics and chemistry. There is a lot to do and too few resources to do it. On balance therefore we probably need in the United Kingdom another centre such as Porton.I was also told thatone could soon provide industrial justification for some applied microbiology of the sort which was best done at Porton—even in today's straitened circumstances … We would stress the need to attract able and senior people so that real research can be performed at Porton; the place must, under no circumstances, degenerate merely into a service centre.That view has been echoed in much of the correspondence from the staff at Porton. It is in this area that the gravest doubts have been expressed about the Government's proposals. I have a letter from the general secretary of the Institute of Biology, Mr. D. G. B. Copp. Talking of biologists, he said:Several are seriously concerned that the plans of the PHLS board make virtually no 1341 allowance for the development of biotechnology and the seeking of contract work which would use some of the very special facilities available. There is, therefore, a real danger that those staff with considerable expertise in biotechnology will seek posts elsewhere, as some of them already have.That letter was written to me only two days ago.
The Secretary of State for Social Services said that it was intended that work at CAMR should be health-oriented. The paper that I have seen from the PHLS board said thatIt has been agreed that the work of the Centre should be 'health orientated', and detailed work programmes with this remit are being developed; much of the work will be a continuation of the 'health-orientated' civil work previously carried out under the Ministry of Defence, with expansion in areas of current public health interest.I do not contest the importance of that aspect. But, set against the background of the history of the closure of the Teddington laboratory and the dismay thereby caused, the new surge of interest in industrial microbiology and the fact that by common consent we are on the thresh-hold of new advances in genetic manipulation, will Porton have a major role in this, too?
Work is taking place in this sphere all over the world. Some hon. Members may remember listening to two fascinating talks given to the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee in April 1977—one by Professor Pritchard, of the Department of Genetics at Leicester University, and one by Sir Gordon Wolstenholme, chairman of the Genetic Manipulation Advisory Group.
Professor Pritchard, in his address, said:The work should go forward because the potential economic and social benefits are considerable. An example often quoted is the one which supposes we can put the gene which provides cells with the information they need to make the substance insulin into a bacterial cell. If the new cell could make insulin then this hormone could be made in a vat like beer instead of having to be extracted expensively from bulls' pancreases. In fact genetic engineering is part of a larger area of applied science which could be called biochemical technology and which will surely become increasingly, perhaps overwhelmingly important to us.Sir Gordon Wolstenholme talked to us about the safety coverage given by the GMAG. I also had the privilege of hear- 1342 ing a lecture by Sir John Kendrew, director general of the European Molecular Biology Laboratory at Heidelberg. Subsequently I wrote to him and he referred to the importance of havinga tool like the recombinant DNA technique without which it would be impossible to understand what is going on.The more I talk to people in this field, the more I am impressed about how important it is for this country to remain in the forefront of this technology.
What is the future role for Porton in this work? Is the Public Health Laboratory Service the right aegis under which that kind of work could properly be done? Sir Robert Williams, a distinguished scientist, enjoys the full confidence of the staff at Porton. Indeed, the House will remember that the Williams report, of which Sir Robert was the author, was one of the forerunners in the setting up of the GMAG. I have been given the staffing figures for the laboratory for 1977, the most recent figures available. Of the staff of 2,064 a total of 172 are consultants, or are classified as "other medical"; there are two top-grade scientist microbiologists and 37 other scientist microbiologists. Therefore, the staff at the PHLS is overwhelmingly medically and health-oriented. That is an entirely different field from industrial microbiology, to which I have been referring.
One looks to see whom the organisation is trying to find as a new director of Porton. Although its advertisement refers to the fact thatapplications from non-medical graduates with specially relevant interests or experience will be welcomed",it is made quite clear thatpreference will be given to candidates with a medical qualification".I have tried in the last year or two to understand something of the roles and tensions that exist between scientists and doctors in the Health Service. I believe that there is a growing understanding and sympathy in relation to the roles of the two sections, but I can understand and sympathise with scientists at Porton who feel that, under the direction of a medically oriented leader with a medically oriented brief, this enormously important area of industrial microbiology will play a much reduced role, or may even be phased out altogether.
1343 I wish to pay tribute to Dr. Robert Harris, who has managed to keep Porton going and who, despite all the difficulties, has sustained morale to a remarkable extent. Dr. Harris was described in the New Scientist as an "outstandingly well-qualified microbiologist". Nevertheless, I understand that he is not to be given the chance to apply for the job, and this, too, has caused dismay among the staff.
All this raises considerable doubts whether the Government are missing a great opportunity. Economic microbiology promises to become as important to the chemical industry as are silicon chips to the electronics industry. The Guardian, in one of its wilder headlines, referred to it as "Cloning in the gloaming", and talked about "prokaryotes" and "eukaryotes" —words that will pass into normal language. Just as 30 years ago the language of nuclear science was totally unfamiliar to the general public but has now become familiar, so will the language of this new science of microbiology become familiar to the public. I am fearful that, unless a determined effort is made, we shall find ourselves falling out of yet another technological race in the international competition with which we must live.
I wish now to turn to my last point—namely, the fears and the fate of the staff at Porton. My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury has been in close touch with the staff and no doubt, if he has the opportunity in this debate, he will voice their fears with more eloquence than I can.
I, too, have met an official of the IPCS, and I have carefully read the brief that it provided. I do not think that I want to become involved in what is obviously developing as a competition for membership at Porton between IPCS and the union of which the hon. Member for Nelson and Colne is president. Clearly, if the staff cease to be civil servants and become part of the PHLS, there will be a battle there, but that is for them to decide.
Nor is it right for me to start negotiating across the Floor of the House on the precise terms and conditions of staff transfer. That, as the right hon. Gentleman made clear, is a matter still open to negotiation. But there is great uncertainty and much unhappiness. Mr. Copp, of the Institute of Biology, writing to me a few days ago, said: 1344No member of the staff has yet had formal notice of termination of their employment by the Ministry of Defence although the hand over of responsibility is due to take place on 1st April. At a meeting of staff recently a representative of the PHLS said that those who have not been offered posts by the PHLS will not be allowed to enter the establishment after the 31st March. Presumably—writes Mr. Copp—this group of people will continue to be paid by the MoD while remaining at home.That is a pretty unsatisfactory state to be in. The Government claim that there has been a great deal of consultation. The staff claim that consultation has been quite inadequate. I call to mind an amusing letter I saw in The Times about a year ago when Dr. Ashcroft, of Magdalen College, Oxford, in correspondence about the use of the word "consultation", had this to say:may I offer the following lines from this year's Eynsham Primary School pantomime? They were spoken by the Evil Queen to her counsellors: Queen: 'Now I am going off to think of a Plan. When I return you can tell me what a good Plan it is, that is what we rulers call "Consultation".'I think that the staff have the feeling that they have been addressed by the Evil Queen.
I do not argue that the long-term future of Porton should continue to remain in doubt. I do not argue that it should stay in the Civil Service. Nor do I argue that Potion should not come under the PHLS. That is the decision, and it should now be followed through. But whether it is part of the PHLS or otherwise, it is important for the scientific staff at Potion that their future should be seen by them to depend on Porton becoming not just an adjunct of the PHLS, with its almost exclusive health orientation, but on Porton being free to develop to the full its potential as a United Kingdom centre of excellence in the new era of industrial microbiology.
I am advised that this is a matter not so much of legislation as of policy. It has been suggested to me that the Government should be asked to withdraw the Bill and think again. I do not make that suggestion. There must be an end to uncertainty. In recommending my hon. Friends to give the Bill a Second Reading, I hope that when the Under-Secretary replies to the debate he will be able to give the House the firm assurances that are necessary to reassure 1345 both the staff and industry that if Porton is needed to secure for Britain a place in the sun in the field of industrial microbiology, the necessary support will be forthcoming from the Government.
Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Bryant Godman Irvine)
The digital clocks have been behaving in a rather erratic manner. I think that it would be wise if they were turned off for the rest of the day.
§ 4.54 p.m.
§ Mr. Doug Hoyle (Nelson and Colne)
I did not think that when I rose the first thing that I should have to do, as president of the union, would be to deal once more—I thought that we had already dealt with it—with the unwarranted comments of the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) against the general secretary of my union, Mr. Give Jenkins.
Mr. Jenkins is a man who can usually defend himself and he would be more than a match for the right hon. Gentleman. But it is completely wrong for the right hon. Gentleman to continue to say that Clive Jenkins broke any confidences in publishing the Shooter report. As the right hon. Gentleman said, it is sub judice. When I saw my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, together with Clive Jenkins, we pointed out that we intended to publish. The answer that we got from the Secretary of State was that he also intended to publish but he could not because of legal advice.
As the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford should know—because it is his profession—one barrister's advice is only as good as another's, and our legal advice was that it was right to publish. Therefore, we "published and be damned". I think that Clive Jenkins did a service to the country in publishing the report and bringing to the attention of the public the disgraceful conditions that existed at Birmingham.
Because of the unusual rules of the House, I realise that I cannot to refer to the Shooter report, despite the fact that everybody knows about it. Therefore, that is all I intend to say on that. Of course, underlying what I shall say in relation to Porton is the question of dangerous pathogens and what can be done with them.
Before turning to that, I want to make a suggestion to my right hon. Friend the 1346 Secretary of State. Perhaps notice will be taken of it in the winding-up speech. I think that there is a great chance here to make a breakthrough in industrial democracy in the Public Health Laboratory Service. We have a commitment—it was repeated in paragraph 18 of the joint statement between the TUC and the Government—
§ Mr. Hoyle
I am not so sure that that is the right word to use, according to certain newspapers. Let us just call it a "joint statement", so that we do not offend anyone. What that statement said was that there was a need for industrial democracy and a need for worker representation at all levels, including board level. Either we have got a Board, as it is composed at the moment, of academics and health administrators—worthy people, I have no doubt at all, who are excellent in their work—or we can seize the nettle and make it a 50–50 representation, with one half being drawn from staff and independent trade unions who also have an interest in these matters.
I have already declared my interest as president of ASTMS, but we could bring the staff in and it could only be of benefit. It would bring in wider experience than is now apparent on the Board, because it is rather narrow and limited. They would bring their working experience, their experience of safety and, indeed, their knowledge of what is actually happening in the laboratory service. That would not only benefit the laboratory service; it would provide a great deal of benefit to the public.
As I understand it, the Government are already committed to the idea of industrial democracy in the private sector, although I know that we shall have to fight a difficult battle against the captains of industry who do not want to see their employees on the Board with them. We are experimenting in this way in the nationalised industries. Surely here is an opportunity to extend these experiments to the public sector. The board that I have suggested would be within the National Health Service, yet it would be self-contained. That would be a worthwhile experiment, particularly as we know that in April 1978 the TUC said 1347 that it wished to see industrial democracy in the Health Service extended so that representation was 50–50 between independent trade unions on the regional and area health authorities.
I do not believe that we should miss the chance of doing something positive about industrial democracy by giving workers this opportunity to participate in the work of their organisations. This is something that is worth considering, and it would be of value not only to the workers but also to the service and the general public. Let us seize this opportunity.
I agree with most of the things that have been said in relation to Porton. The right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford, my right hon. Friend and myself are at one when we say that Porton is an excellent centre. It can be used in many instances. In welcoming the Bill, I should also like to extend its functions, and I shall come to that in due course.
We must talk about dangerous pathogens in the light of the Shooter report. Porton offers the facilities that we are looking for in respect of dangerous pathogens. Porton has the things that we ought to be going for in the interests of safety. For instance, it has facilities that are second to none in this country. That is a very good reason why it should be used in this way. Both sides of the House have paid tribute to the experience of the staff. Here again, the staff are extremely well qualified in this area, and this is another very good reason why Porton should be used.
I come to an important point that I stressed in the Adjournment debate which I initiated in relation to dangerous pathogens and laboratories for pathogens. This concerns the question of security arrangements. In this respect, Porton is second to none. There is absolutely no danger. As well as its isolation, it is very secure with perimeter fences, guards, and all the rest. That makes it an ideal site for research into dangerous pathogens. For all these reasons, we ought to develop Porton as a work centre for dangerous pathogens.
When Porton is compared with Birmingham or, indeed, with St. Mary's Hospital, Paddington—which aroused many people's fears about the dangerous 1348 work being carried out there—it can be seen that there would be no fears at all if this work was concentrated at Porton. I recommend this approach to my right hon. Friend. I believe that Porton has a great deal of advantage over any other centre of which I can think. That is why I ask him to look again at this question.
In addition, I believe that Porton ought to be developed as a centre of expertise on safety in microbiological work. It ought to be able to provide special functions and facilities in this regard. For instance, it should be able to train staff from other laboratories in relation to safe working conditions. Where better for people to be trained in this respect than at Porton?
This centre has also built up a great deal of knowledge and expertise in relation to suitable containment facilities. Surely that can be used to build up suitable containment facilities elsewhere. In fact, Porton should act as consultant with regard to this kind of thing. It could also advise laboratories generally. Who better to do so than people in safe laboratories?
The right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford referred to what had been said about other laboratories which until recently were considered safe. That is another reason why Clive Jenkins did a first-class job. I do not believe that the laboratory at Colindale would have been closed had it not been for Clive Jenkins and the publication of the Shooter report, because the inspections would not have been carried out. When they were carried out, a laboratory that was supposed to have been first-class and absolutely safe had to be closed. The same cannot be said of Porton.
§ Mr. Patrick Jenkin
The Secretary of State made the report available in confidence to a good number of interests—indeed, to anyone who would have been involved in acting on the recommendations of the Shooter report. It did not require the report to be splashed over the television and the newspapers for action to be taken. For a trade union leader to imagine that he can act only once he has seen something in headlines seems to be the height of irresponsibility.
§ Mr. Hoyle
The trouble with the right hon. Gentleman is that when the report 1349 was published he got off on the wrong foot on a radio programme and never recovered from it. That is really his trouble. He was wrong-footed. Of course, his colleague went off on a different tack. It is not the first time that the right hon. Gentleman has got off on the wrong foot. Many of us remember his advice on cleaning people's teeth, and all the rest. But I wish that he would learn a lesson. I hope that he does not intervene again. Why does not he admit that there is a great deal of difference between "Jenkin" and "Jenkins"? Thank God for it. Why does not the right hon. Gentleman come clean and say "Thank you very much, Mr. Clive Jenkins, for what you did in this respect"?
There was no secret about the Shooter report, and no confidences were broken, but, because of what Clive Jenkins did, health and safety in laboratories are now foremost in people's minds. I know that the people of Birmingham will be very grateful for what Mr. Jenkins did. It is time that the right hon. Gentleman at least admitted that he was wrong and that it was unfortunate that he went down the wrong path.
§ Mr. Robin Hodgson (Walsall North)
I am sure that the hon. Gentleman will have seen the report in Medical World headlinedIt takes a death—we publish Professor Shooter.Does the hon. Gentleman think that that is a balanced assessment of the report as a whole, particularly when published under that sort of screaming headline?
§ Mr. Hoyle
Of course it should. I make no apologies for what was said in Medical World. Every hon. Member ought to regret that that lady lost her life. Her mother also died, but it was only by the grace of God that her husband was not a carrier, because he was in contact with a large number of people in the Birmingham area. There could have been an epidemic. I believe that we have been very mild indeed. We cannot bring our member back, but I do 1350 not believe that we need interruptions of the hon. Gentleman's sort.
§ Mr. John Lee (Birmingham, Handsworth)
Is it not rather ironical that people complain about the alleged sensational character of that headline, whereas they are silent about the fusillade of strident headlines in newspapers that have been attacking NUPE and other trade unions for weeks and weeks—ever since the present industrial disputes began—with reckless regard for the truth and for people's feelings?
§ Mr. Hoyle
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his intervention. It is true. But he knows as well as I that what the Conservative Opposition are going through in a search for bogy-men. Trade union leaders are pictured as bogy-men. If it was not Clive Jenkins, it would probably be Alan Fisher. Before him, it was Moss Evans. It must be remembered that a few years ago it was Hugh Scanlon and Jack Jones, who later suddenly became statesmen. It was Frank Cousins before that, and then he became a statesman. That is the way it goes. At present, the Conservative Opposition are doing their usual thing and looking for bogy-men. They adopt the attitude of "Never mind the facts, let us find an Aunt Sally and knock it down".
It is very difficult indeed to put down Clive Jenkins when he is on to something like this. I believe that he has done a first-class job, and I do not apologise at all for what was said in Medical World. In fact, if anything, we were far too mild, considering that we lost a member. But we intend to protect that member's family, although that will not bring back the loss of a devoted wife and mother.
I apologise for going on at some length, but this is rather an emotional issue in our union. We thought that it was a needless death, which should not have occurred had safety been up to the standard that we were told it was. This points to the need for other people in the scientific world being involved.
The difference between DPAG—the Dangerous Pathogens Advisory Group—and GMAG—the Genetic Manipulation Advisory Group—in relation to safety is that in GMAG we have trade union representatives and representatives of the public. That is why there are far safer provisions in genetic engineering than we 1351 have had from DPAG, in which only scientists are involved. That is why DPAG must be restructured.
Porton should be used as a centre of expertise on safety. That can be done, and it is an aspect in the Bill that I welcome. Porton can also provide support, advice and assistance to the Health and Safety Commission and its Inspectorate. The Commission is doing a first class job but it now needs the support and advice of experts on safety in laboratories. The staff at Porton are the people most able to provide that.
We are moving into the sphere of biotechnology. This is of great importance to our industrial and economic future. But it will throw up new and significant problems. It will create new occupational health problems. That is why a safe laboratory such as Porton is the place where the lessons and experience can best be gained.
I turn to the question of genetic engineering. The right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford said that genetic engineering would create many great benefits for mankind. I certainly agree, but great dangers are also involved. That is why Porton should be the centre for genetic engineering. Porton should be the place where the experiments are carried out. Our knowledge should be built up in such a secure place.
I shudder at what might happen because of the huge profits that are to be made from genetic engineering. Already chemical and pharmaceutical manufacturers are moving in. I am afraid that short cuts will be taken. Therein lies the danger, not only to the people working in the laboratories but to the general public. There could be another epidemic unless genetic engineering takes place in safe conditions. Porton should be built up so that experiments can take place there.
Genetic engineering offers massive profits as well as benefits. The financial benefits as well as the other benefits should accrue to the public sector. I urge the Secretary of State to examine this matter. Can we not extend the Public Health Laboratory Service in this respect? Could it not manufacture commercially the results of experiments in genetic engineering and sell them overseas? We must have public involvement. It is far 1352 too dangerous to be left to the private sector.
There are problems which involve the World Health Organisation internationally. We have started something that is the envy of the world, but there are dangers in countries such as Switzerland, where there are no regulations to govern scientific research. A real danger to mankind arises because of that.
Let us seize the opportunity not only to conduct experiments at Porton but to expand the Public Health Laboratory Service to enable it to undertake commercial work so that we can reap the benefits of a new and expanding science. In the past, scientific and engineering experiments have been carried out in the public sector but the profits have gone to the private sector. We should not make that mistake again. That would be too dangerous. In addition, when public money is involved the public should benefit.
I hope that my right hon. Friend will take on board what I have said about industrial democracy, dangerous pathogens and about Porton being a centre of excellence. I hope that he will ensure that the Public Health Laboratory Service is expanded so that we can reap the benefits from experiments at Porton.
§ Mr. Ron Thomas
Does my hon. Friend agree that if the private sector is allowed to exploit these opportunities the public sector will have to deal with the dangers that might arise as a result?
§ Mr. Hoyle
I agree. The public sector would have to examine the situation and try to remedy it. An epidemic could wipe out the whole of mankind. This could be as dangerous as nuclear weapons—perhaps, in some ways, even more dangerous. There might not be a Clive Jenkins to come to the rescue. That is why I emphasise that we should keep genetic engineering in the public sector as far as possible.
I apologise for taking so long, but it is an important subject. What is happening at Porton is right. Let us develop its facilities to the full. If we do that, we shall help to achieve health and safety in laboratories generally.
§ 5.17 p.m.
§ Mr. Michael Hamilton (Salisbury)
This rather humdrum little Bill signals the 1353 end of one of Britain's great defence projects. I mean no disrespect to the two Ministers on the Government Front Bench, but I cannot help feeling that the wrong Ministers are in the Chamber. The Secretary of State for Defence is responsible for the Microbiological Research Establishment and remains so until 1 April. The Secretary of State for Defence is in the House and I should have liked him to find time to come into the Chamber. The Secretary of State for Defence has decided to dispense with this establishment, but he has left the hapless health Ministers to pick up the pieces.
I should prefer to avoid controversy and to be constructive. But in my part of the world we have suffered a series of body blows from successive Labour Administrations. I remember April 1965, when Mr. Roy Jenkins, the then Chancellor of the Exchequer, introduced his Budget in the course of which he announced the abandonment of the TSR2 project.
The TSR2 was undergoing tests near Salisbury. The House will know that it was exceeding the hopes of its designers, that it flew daily up to the Pennines and down to the Isles of Scilly and that it was a world-beater. But the then Chancellor of the Exchequer signed its death warrant. Today, perhaps less dramatically, it is the same story and another great defence project is being abandoned.
Surprisingly, perhaps, it was the Attlee Government who created the establishment as we know it today. That was done immediately after the war. The need to protect the civil population was appreciated. Top priority was accorded to the project. It was a time of shortages. Building materials were scarce, but nothing was allowed to delay the project. Bricks were used because bricks were available, and the building needed about 12 million bricks. It is one of the largest brick buildings in the world. it contains more than 100 laboratories. It stands in open country a few miles to the northeast and in sight of the spire of Salisbury cathedral.
There is a question that I have put many times in the House, but no Minister has seen fit to answer it. If the Attlee Government were right to establish the Microbiological Research Establishment, how can the Callaghan Government also 1354 be right to abandon it? I hope that when the Under-Secretary of State replies he will answer that simple question.
§ Mr. Ennals
I am sad to hear the hon. Gentleman delivering a funeral oration. It seems appropriate that the Government have decided, in recognising the service performed by the establishment over 40 years under the responsibility of the Minister of Defence, to create a new centre and a new future for it. As the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) has said, it has a new future with rosy prospects. It will be under distinguished leadership and under civilian control. Surely we should welcome the decision to create a new body built on the experience of the old. I believe that the new body will last as long as the old and make as great a contribution to our civilian and peaceful life as the research centre did in time of war.
§ Mr. Hamilton
With respect, I am expressing essentially a defence concern. I appreciate that locks will not be turned in the doors of an empty building. I appreciate that some life will continue after 1 April. I am grateful for that. However, the establishment was considered vital and now the view is taken that we can virtually dispense with it. That is what worries me.
At present, the staff number about 400, of whom 10 are to continue with defence work. If there were dangerous days when the establishment was set up after the war, there are far more dangerous days today. In the days immediately after the war we did not have foreign aircraft in our own skies, but now several times every week long-range Soviet surveillance aircraft enter our skies at an altitude of about 10 to 15 miles. it is right that the House should appreciate the dangers.
It is an infinitely simple and cheap operation for one aircraft to disseminate disease germs from a spray tank. There is no need for an armada of aircraft. One aircraft making use of prevailing winds can cause major damage to this island. Micro-organisms can be neither seen nor smelt. Delivery by one bomber of 10 tons of a biological agent on an unprotected population would affect an area several hundred times greater than a one-megaton nuclear bomb.
1355 There are many diseases that lend themselves to military use. It is necessary to choose only one off the shelf. Anthrax is a good example. An anti-anthrax serum is available if scientists are available to make it. Without it the disease is almost always fatal. There is a range of choice. There are plague, cholera, viral encephalitis. All these germs are easily manufactured, all are horrific and all are cheap. Biological warfare is bargain basement stuff.
The Microbiological Research Establishment was set up after the war as a modest insurance policy, no more and no less. It was established to mitigate disaster and to protect the civil population. However, in six weeks' time the Secretary of State for Defence is to wash his hands of it. Only the 10 scientists of whom I have spoken are to continue with the defence effort. After 30 years, and in threatening times, the insurance policy is to be torn up.
I question the wisdom of that. It is right that the House should be aware of what is being done. At a moment when the Soviet Union is enlarging its capacity for biological warfare, it seems highly questionable that we should be submitting the civil population to additional risk and be offering it that much less protection.
I turn to the effects of the changes on those who work at the establishment. As my right hon. Friend said, three full years have passed since the Ministry of Defence announced that there were to be significant economies. They have been unhappy years. I am sure that the decision was taken and the announcement made with no clear idea of its implementation. The Government plunged in without knowing how far away the far bank lay and without appreciating the complexity of the journey.
Over the past 30 years, the establishment has built up a worldwide reputation as a centre of excellence in microbial research and development. It has been a source of pride to those who have worked at it. It rivals anything in the free world today. I believe that the Secretary of State will agree with me.
Anyone who happens to represent Salisbury in this place is bound to get to know pretty well the scientists who work at the establishment. They have their weekends 1356 off like the rest of us and they have a social side to their lives. In the establishment there are physicists, chemists, epidemiologists, bacteriologists and biochemists. There is a whole range of skills.
Three years of uncertainty have taken their toll. Consultation has been imperfect. That was well illustrated by the letter read out by my right hon. Friend. Morale is low. The quality of work of a skilled man is not improved if he is uncertain how long his job will continue. It is a parallel situation to that of a private company faced with a successful takeover.
§ Mr. Ennals
The hon. Gentleman made a comparison with a takeover. There was a long period of uncertainty while the Government weighed up the pros and cons on what the establishment's future and management structure should be, and which Department should have responsibility for it. I understand that those working there in that period felt their morale sinking. However, when I visited the establishment I found that morale was not low. People working there had been appointed, in many cases, to their new posts. They were looking forward to doing their jobs. They felt that they had resources at their disposal. Morale was rapidly improving. That will continue to be so. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will encourage that spirit among the staff rather than the spirit of despondency.
§ Mr. Hamilton
I intended to pay a tribute to the Secretary of State for finding time, in a difficult moment in the nation's affairs, to visit that remote place. Of course, time was short. I am delighted that his impression was not that morale was low as a result of three years of uncertainty. I wish I could go all the way with the right hon. Gentleman on that point. However, I appreciate that he carved out time to go there.
One of the difficulties is that a scientist who is a civil servant will face loss in his career prospects when he goes over to the Public Health Laboratory Service. The Minister agreed that when transferred the scientist should retain his existing civil servant's terms and conditions. I appreciate that. When he becomes due for promotion, he must forfeit those safeguards that he retains while he is a civil 1357 servant. That point has already been put to him. I hope that it may be ironed out before the Bill goes much further.
I have a great regard for the Public Health Laboratory Service. I was pleased that my right hon. Friend paid tribute to its director. I am less certain that this is the right home for the establishment. I should be slightly happier if the establishment went to the Department of Health and Social Security direct. By doing so it would have more of the authority of the Government. It would be directly responsible to the Government. The establishment, even shorn of its defence work, still has an essential role to play.
My right hon. Friend stressed that we were on the threshold of a breakthrough in microbiology. Complicated, difficult and expensive chemicals will be suddenly simple to produce by means of microbiological processes. My right hon. Friend said that it was the silicon chip story all over again. Certainly the significance of this to industry cannot be over-emphasised.
I have known the establishment for a good many years, at least for long enough to appreciate what a national asset it is. Now the teams of scientists will be broken up. Some of the teams have been together for some years. Each knows instinctively how the others' minds work. It is like a football field in which each player without having to look knows precisely what his colleagues are doing.
Some scientists may apply for early retirement. Others may work for private industry. Some may go overseas. Their services will be lost to this country. It is often said that, if the United Nations were disbanded, the nations would unite tomorrow to rebuild a new world organisation. In the same way I am anxious, as the Government may find that they are destroying an establishment which they may have to re-create almost at once and at vast expense. Voltaire said:If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent Him.I am anxious that something of value may be lost and that within a year or two it will prove necessary to re-create it.
I bear no animosity towards the Secretary of State and his Under-Secretary. They are in the position of a local authority which suddenly finds that a 1358 priceless mediaeval church in the middle of its city has been declared redundant. They are faced with a problem of what is to be done with this great structure and the talent within it. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State for having visited the establishment and to the Under-Secretary who braved the snow when visiting Salisbury Plain yesterday. He will have gained first-hand knowledge of this matter. I appreciate that.
I am especially grateful to the Secretary of State for offering to see members of staff if that would help. I hope that I may hold him to that offer and that I may bring two or three members of staff —I know how busy the Minister is—to discuss these points in the near future.
I beg the two Ministers involved to move slowly and to consider the contribution to our national life that the establishment makes. I ask them to consider whether some appreciable improvements cannot be made to the Bill between now and the Committee stage.
§ 5.38 p.m.
§ Mr. Robin Hodgson (Walsall, North)
My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Hamilton) touched on a number of important issues, especially the protection of our civilian population. I shall return to that point later. One of the Government's most important duties is to protect the citizens of this country. My hon. Friend made some telling points.
I congratulate the Secretary of State on having paid tribute to the work at Porton Down. That tribute compares favourably with the perfunctory way in which this Bill was introduced in another place, when the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell devoted five paragraphs in Hansard to introducing the Bill. One of those paragraphs was devoted to an announcement that he had placed some kidney donor cards in the Library. It was hard on the staff at Porton Down—after their work, which was acknowledged on both sides—that the change should have been proposed in such a perfunctory way.
Other points raised in that debate were not adequately covered. I ask the Under-Secretary to turn his attention to them when he replies. The first is the financial effects of the Bill. From the explanatory and financial memorandum I see that the new laboratory will cost from £2 1359 million to £2½ million per annum to run. In reply to the debate in another place, the noble Lord, Lord Wells-Pestell said that the present cost was £1.6 million to the Ministry of Defence. He also announced that the reduction in staff would be of the order of one-third. By my simple arithmetic, that means that we are now paying £2.5 million, as opposed to £1.6 milion, for an establishment which has one-third less staff. Perhaps the Under-Secretary of State will comment on that. There was reference also in the debate to the fact that the establishment had been quite deliberately run down, and that an element of capital expenditure would be needed for various reasons. Perhaps the Minister will illuminate the reasons for the apparent loss in productivity or, alternatively, the apparent requirements and needs to which the additional capital expenditure will be put.
My next point arises from clause 2. The Secretary of State says that he has still not decided whether to use the powers granted to him under clause 2. Signing a blank cheque in private life is considered to be a foolish thing to do, and to some extent we are signing a blank cheque here.
§ Mr. Hodgson
The Secretary of State may say that he has not signed it, but we shall be giving him the pen with which to sign it when we pass the Bill. He may not use the pen, but he has the pen and he has the cheque. This matter is worthy of comment and I should like to have a further response from the Government on it.
The use of the word "conveniently" in the phrasecan conveniently be carried onstrikes some horror in my heart, because the word "conveniently" seems to me to be capable of definition to suit almost any circumstances.
Following the comments made by my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury, I have also been very much concerned with what used to be called civil defence and is now called home defence. My hon. Friend referred to the dangers, as did the Secretary of State, but it is hard for an out- 1360 sider, who has perhaps not looked at what is, after all, a very small subsection of any Government's policy—the provision of adequate civil defence—to realise just how run down is Britain's home defence establishment.
In 1968 the present Prime Minister, who was then Home Secretary, used a phrase which parallels precisely that which was used by my hon. Friend. When the then Home Secretary announced the running down of home defence, he described the cost of maintaining a civil defence force and civil defence precautions as being an insurance premium which had to be judged against the size of the risk involved.
I support the view that not enough thought or careful consideration has been given to balancing the size of the premium to the size of the risk. My hon. Friend touched very much more eloquently than I could on the dangers that could arise from this source. The fact is that Britain's home defence is now run down, and the policies being followed are at best obsolescent. Those policies nearly always concentrate on the impact of nucclear warfare. Virtually no thought has been given by local authorities to training at regional or national level for the purpose of minimising the results of chemical or bacteriological warfare. It is in relation to these matters that the Microbiological Research Establishment has such a valuable role to play.
I should like to know whether the Under-Secretary of State feels that the use of the word "conveniently" is correct in the context of seeking to provide that in future there will be adequate and continuing research to ensure that the civilian population of this country is adequately protected.
§ Mr. Lee
I am following the hon. Gentleman with some interest. Perhaps he would be good enough to enlarge upon the way in which he envisages that it is possible, as eloquently described by his hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Hamilton), to protect the population against the dissemination of germs, because I have a suspicion that that exercise might well prove to be as futile as some of the suggestions made some while ago concerning protection against nuclear warfare.
§ Mr. Hodgson
It is quite true to say that there is no absolute 100 per cent. protection, but adequate knowledge and training can help to minimise casualties. We may be talking here about a very large risk, but such training can minimise, as far as it is possible to do so, the dangers to the civilian population.
I should like to deal with the hon. Gentleman's comment about nuclear warfare, if I can do so within the remit of the Bill. An estimate has been made of the difference between Britain adequately protected by home defence and Britain not protected at all, and a figure of 20 million lives has been given. That is the estimated difference if the population has been adequately warned about the way in which to protect itself from the effects of nuclear fall-out. The information is freely available and can be discussed with the Home Secretary. There is undoubtedly a chance of saving more people if we have adequate home defence, although obviously it cannot save everybody.
My right hon. Friend the Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) and the Secretary of State both referred to genetic manipulation. Despite the doom-bug scare talk, there is no doubt that glittering prizes are available where successful research is carried out. My right hon. Friend referred to the production of insulin. It may be of interest that this is now beginning to be produced commercially, by means of genetic manipulation processes, by pharmaceutical companies in the United States.
There is also the possibility of vastly improved yields from arable crops which have their own self-fertilising mechanisms built into them. Some fantastic advances can be made in that direction. The objective would be to reduce greatly the starvation in the world and to increase greatly the standard of living and food intake in large parts of the world which currently have no hope of being adequately fed.
Why does this particularly involve Porton? I understand that Porton has the only category 4 laboratory to carry out the most risky and potentially the most fruitful, experiments. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will be able to reassure us that the passage of the Bill will not in any way be yet another 1362 hindrance to the work on genetic manipulation. The Government's treatment of the subject, whether by Act of Parliament or by statutory instrument, can hardly be said to have been even-handed or constant. The Williams committee, which was set up to follow the Ashby working party, put forward as its main recommendation thatexperiments in genetic manipulation, conducted in appropriate conditions of physical and biological containment should be encouraged".Notwithstanding this, we have had the establishment of the Genetic Manipulation Advisory Group, GMAG. There has been a good deal of controversy within the scientific community about the way in which the operations of that group are carried out and about the fact that commercial safety and security are not always maintained. But even the first report of GMAG suggests that the dangers have been considerably exaggerated. Paragraph 5.9 of its first report said thatif the present trend continues, of increasing reassurance and evidence that the conjectured hazards have been overstated, more work will be judged appropriate to the lower categories of containment.At paragraph 12.2 it said:If those findings stand up to careful scrutiny it will appear that many of the more extravagant predictions of risk can probably be disregarded.Porton Down provides a laboratory for the most dangerous category of genetic manipulation experiments, and it is most likely to be affected by the switch of authority and the multiple masters that that field has to serve. Experiments in manipulation are becoming hopelessly boxed in. The Health and Safety Executive is responsible to the Department of Employment, and the Genetic Manipulation Advisory Group is responsible to the Department of Education and Science. We now have Porton Down with its category 4 laboratory responsible to the Secretary of State. The shuffling of power, authority and responsibility between the three Ministries endangers the impetus, urgency and prospect of the country leading the way in this fruitful field.
The present structure for the control of genetic manipulation experiments is not satisfactory. The hon. Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Hoyle) is no longer present. I can now quote from his 1363 Medical World with approval rather than disapproval as I did before. Clive Jenkins write in there thatThe Genetic Manipulation Advisory Group should be brought within the Health and Safety Executive.That would involve only two Ministries instead of three.
The analogy has been made that this is the silicon chip of the next decade. A few years ago this country led the world in experimenting with microprocessors. We have largely thrown away our lead, and the NEB is spending £50 million to re-establish our presence in that field. It would be a tragedy to throw away a similar reputation and lead in genetic manipulation. I shall be looking for reassurance from the Under-Secretary of State that the change of control of this laboratory will not affect that work.
I am concerned about the value for money of the transfer. The staff is being cut by a third, but the cost is going up by 50 per cent. There is also no assurance that defence research capability will be maintained. So much hangs on that one word in the opening clause of the Bill. Thirdly, I am concerned that genetic manipulation may be put at risk. Yet another Ministry will be involved and a further set of controls established which will further discourage commercial firms from using Britain as a research base for this most exciting scientific prospect. The dangers have been much over-estimated, and the prospects and rewards are greater than was originally thought.
§ 5.45 p.m.
§ The Under-Secretary of State for Social Services (Mr. Eric Deakins)
The debate has been interesting, in places passionate and both pessimistic and optimistic. I hope that by the end of the debate all hon. Members will feel that there is some scope for optimism.
I visited Porton for the first time yesterday. I was extremely impressed, not merely as a non-scientist looking at elaborate scientific apparatus and experiments and talking to highly qualified staff, but the ambience makes one confident and convinced that Porton has been. is and will continue to be, a genuine centre of excellence.
There is general agreement in the House that genetic manipulation and the 1364 general use of bugs—to use a nonscientific word—for industrial and public health processes require tremendous Government involvement. That is not disrespectful to British industry. Larger firms such as ICI, Shell and British Petroleum are doing their own research. They are interested in certain aspects of the commercial application of research and not necessarily involved with public health. It was essential that the Government should decide to maintain the civilian work and channel it to help public health and ultimately industry. A partnership between the Government and industry in this field will guarantee a secure industrial future. Without that, we cannot provide the necessary production and wealth.
The right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford (Mr. Jenkin) paid tribute to the safety and excellence of Porton. That view has been endorsed by the other hon. Members who have spoken. The right hon. Gentleman had three main themes. First, there was the general question of the reports and the delay in reaching a decision. There have been three reports. The first one, from the Central Policy Review Staff, was confidential to the Government. I do not believe that it is in a form that any Government would wish to see published. Most CPRS reports are not available for public consumption. However, there is the MRC report under Sir Robert Williams. As a Minister in the Department of Health and Social Security I cannot give an undertaking on this, since the MRC is not a direct departmental responsibility but comes under the Department of Education and Science. I shall have a word with my right hon. Friend to see whether those parts of the report that have been made available to the staff can be placed in the Library. It is possible that the whole report could be made available, but that is not an undertaking that I can give. It is an interesting report.
The delay is a matter of public concern. The Government initially decided that the Ministry of Defence requirements for the services of the Microbiological Research Establishment could be met by a small team transferred to the Chemical Defence Establishment. In October 1976 we asked the Central Policy Review Staff to conduct a study 1365 of the possible future civil use of MRE. Following its report, we decided that MRE should be kept open as a civil establishment but on a reduced scale. Arguments were put forward for closing the establishment down, but common sense and reason prevailed.
§ Mr. Michael Hamilton
It is possible that I misheard the Minister. Did he say that this decision was taken in 1970?
§ Mr. Deakins
We initially decided that the defence requirements could be handled at the Chemical Defence Establishment. That left the problem of the civilian work, because the Ministry of Defence no longer wished to continue with that.
§ Mr. Deakins
In October 1976 we asked the CPRS to report. Following that report we decided that MRE should be kept open as a civil establishment. It was necessary to have expert guidance, and in April 1977 we asked the Medical Research Council to review the capacity of MRE for civil research. Following that report, an official group was asked to examine possible management arrangements for the civil establishment. It was a complex matter. There are at least half a dozen Government Departments interested in the continuing civilian work at Porton. We had the largest present and potential future interest. It was therefore decided that my right hon. Friend should resume ministerial responsibility. A number of other Departments could have taken it on, but in the circumstances I think that we took the right decision.
The DHSS does not directly manage establishments such as MRE. We do not have the capacity or the experience to do so. Since much of the work of MRE is civil and already falls within the general responsibility of the Public Health Laboratory Service Board, and as that Board has considerable experience of managing laboratories up and down the country, we thought that we should invite it to take over the establishment. The operational date will be 1 April 1979.
1366 There have been some other arguments put forward by the staff. It was argued that, in the interests of safety, MRE should be run by a Government Department directly or by the Health and Safety Executive. I do not think that the latter argument could be sustained. Certainly the HSE has an important role to play in laboratory safety, but that is only one aspect of its work. We think that the work at MRE is more appropriately managed by the PHLS Board, for the reasons that I have indicated. We do not think that it would be appropriate for the HSE to take over.
The HSE has basically an enforcement role. The work of the establishment in the field of safety has to be coordinated with the HSE, but this is not sufficient argument for placing the establishment directly under the control of the HSE itself. We share the PHLS Board's wish to see it develop as a centre of excellence and as one of a number of sources of advice on matters of laboratory safety. We are already considering this with the Board, and we have in mind the need to integrate the advisory function with other advisory machinery such as a re-constituted Dangerous Pathogens Advisory Group.
The right hon. Gentleman went on to talk about the need to have a strong research base in microbiology in the United Kingdom, and he suggested that we needed a separate division for commercial work. The House may find this information helpful for the record. I shall describe the pattern of work going on and what is envisaged by PHLS. The major areas of civil funded work currently being carried out at MRE and envisaged as continuing in CAMR are as follows—first, diagnosis and research on dangerous infectious diseases such as Lassa fever; secondly, research and development into and production of therapeutic enzymes such as asparaginase, used for treatment of certain forms of leukaemia in children; vaccines such as anthrax, botulinum toxoid and tick-borne encephalitis; and microbial products ranging from frozen pastes of whole cells of bacteria to separate components of cells, such as DNA genetic material, specific enzymes or cell wall components. A particular aspect is the development of enzymes and reagents for use in diagnosis of disease. The third area is experimental 1367 work in genetic engineering including experiments requiring the maximum level of containment, which is category 4.
A broad programme of work for CAMR has been drawn up by Sir Robert Williams—director of PHLS and a much respected scientist—in consultation with the staff of the MRE. Sir Robert chaired the MRC study on the use of MRE for civil research. This programme comprises, first, the cultivation of bacteria and other microbes and extraction from them of material for use in the making of microbial products which can be used as chemical reagents in the diagnosis, treatment and prevention of non-infective diseases; in medical, veterinary or biological research; in the decontamination of the environment, materials or equipment; and in other industrial processes.
The second category in the programme is the extraction of therapeutic, diagnostic and research agents from human tissues, including blood, and from animal or plant tissues. The third category is the design and production of equipment for microbiological laboratories. The fourth category is genetic manipulation experiments. Last, but by no means least, is the commercial manufacture and sale in the United Kingdom and overseas of any material in the first of those three categories.
Speaking entirely as a non-scientist I shall give more details of the commercial aspects. I understand that bacteria can be "trained" to eat almost anything. At MRE work has been done in "training" them to eat toxic materials. Further work in this direction may include such things as the destruction of cyanide in rubbish tips or toxic materials in the human body. An example of the kind of activity we have in mind is "training" bacteria to eat industrial waste.
One of the categories that I mentioned, which was the extraction of therapeutic and diagnostic tissues, has a number of applications for public health. An example is the extraction of human growth hormones from pituitary glands. Another application is sterile packaging facilities.
The category concerned with the design and production of equipment for microbiological laboratories includes the setting up of a reference laboratory dealing 1368 with laboratory safety. It will be concerned with the development and testing of safety equipment used in medical and cognate laboratories. There is a certain amount of scope there for co-operation with the Health and Safety Executive.
Everyone who has spoken in the debate has mentioned genetic manipulation, or "engineering". There is a lot of public misunderstanding about this. It uses the technology of recombinant DNA, whereby DNA is taken from one organism and spliced on to DNA from another. To control this in Britain, we have the Health and Safety (Genetic Manipulation) Regulations which came into force on 1 August 1978. At CAMR the technique will be employed, for example, in identifying the fractions of bacteria which give the protective effect to vaccines with the object of enabling the bulk production of protective material without the toxic effects often present in the whole bacteria. I was told yesterday that one only uses that part of the bacteria which is needed; one does not have to inject the lot into the human body or the animal concerned.
I hope that that is enough scientific jargon from a non-scientist, but it was necessary to get on the record the fact that there is a great deal of continuing and valuable work in this field.
The right hon. Gentleman asked about new work and industrial microbiology. Some of the existing work has a considerable commercial spin-off. The scientists, being pure scientists, and researchers are always looking for new ways of doing things and new techniques. There is nothing in the arrangements being made in this Bill to prevent that scientific research from continuing. There could be new work in industrial biology on a contract basis. This is not going on at the moment. But one can envisage possibilities of co-operation with commercial firms, pharmaceutical companies, and so on. This could be done, and if necessary it would be open to the PHLS Board and the management at Porton to bring in extra staff on a contract basis in order to do the work on a customer contractor principle which is widely accepted in Government.
There is a need for continuing real, basic scientific research at Porton. There is no shadow of doubt that this will 1369 continue and will be enlarged. I saw only a small amount of it, but I was very impressed, especially by what is being done with therapeutic enzymes. There are many enzymes, of course, and so far the scientists have tackled only two or three, but they are constantly looking ahead.
§ Mr. Patrick Jenkin
The anxiety that has been expressed and which I tried to voice is about the words "health orientation" that appear in the PHLS documents. This is important—the words would not cover the kind of industrial activities to which I referred in the field of bio-technology. I wonder whether the Minister can explain what is meant by "health orientation" and how far that is to be exclusive.
§ Mr. Deakins
The health orientation cannot be exclusive. We do need a core of work at Porton. This is a continuation, by and large, perhaps with some reorganisation, of the existing scientific work in the fields that I have mentioned. That core is absolutely invaluable not only in providing commercial spin-offs but in enabling other basic research to be linked in with it, because, frankly, it would be possible to envisage an establishment which was very bitty, in which there was no continuing theme in the work at all. We believe that the health theme, particularly the public health and the national health theme, is one that will be of great benefit to the NHS and the people of this country without at the same time excluding other wider applications of that work.
The right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford also referred, as did his hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (Mr. Hamilton)—who has a very close constituency interest in this matter—to the staff uncertainty at Porton. Perhaps I may make a few comments on that position. The staff spoke to me for quite a long time yesterday. I went there to listen to their points. I took with me a senior civil servant. It was a meeting attended by the deputy director and Sir Robert Williams himself, and representatives of the various staff groups.
We should also bear in mind that there are not merely scientists at Porton. There are a number of technicians and other people, members of the TGWU and one 1370 or two other unions, who were also present at the meeting.
First, on the general point about terms and conditions of transfer, I could go into detail if the House were to press me, but I hope that there is no need for that because, by and large, I think that they are fairly sensible terms of transfer. They have been put into operation where existing staff have applied for PHLS jobs. I think that the feeling of the scientific staff to whom I spoke yesterday—the Institution of Professional Civil Servants local branch, if that is what it is—was that they should have some further concessions from the Ministry of Defence, their current employer, in terms of having at one and the same time the option of working for the PHLS—depending on the jobs that are advertised and so on and become available to them—or having a job elsewhere in the Civil Service, or having voluntary redundancy.
One has to say that there is no compulsion on the staff there, obviously, to move with their work to the new authority. One hopes that they will do so, because there are some brilliant people there, and we certainly would not want to lose them. But, if they choose not to accept offers from the PHLS, the Civil Service Department—the Department which manages these things—is ready to use its best offices to place them elsewhere in the Civil Service. Failing a satisfactory outcome to the CSD's efforts to place staff elsewhere, they would be eligible for the normal Civil Service redundancy compensation arrangements.
I hope that the discussions which are still going on will lead to a satisfactory outcome. It is a rather complicated series of discussions, because we have discussions at national level—between my Department, the Ministry of Defence and the PHLS, on the one side, and the Institution of Professional Civil Servants, in London, I imagine—and there are also the local discussions going on down at Porton.
One of the difficulties in recent months may have been that there has been a lack of communication between the centre and Porton, perhaps on both sides. I shall say no more about that. I got the impression yesterday that the staff had not been kept as fully informed as they might have been. However, I hope that my visit 1371 yesterday will have resolved that matter. Certainly the management there are very keen to ensure that the staff are brought fully into the picture.
My hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne (Mr. Hoyle) asked, first, about industrial democracy. I think that most Labour Members, and perhaps hon. Members on the Opposition Benches, are in favour of some form of industrial democracy. That is obviously a matter for the NHS. My hon. Friend said that some of the nationalised industries have gone ahead with it. All that I can say to him now is that the general issue of industrial democracy in the NHS is under consideration between my Department and the Health Service trade unions. I think that it would be inappropriate for us to leap in and go ahead with something at Porton or in the PHLS without having considered first of all the wider implications in the NHS.
We are moving rather slowly, but we are moving cautiously, I hope, because there are some very big issues involved concerning the staff in the NHS. As my hon. Friend will know, we have many staff associations and many trade unions, and not all the interests will necessarily see eye to eye with each other.
§ Mr. Hoyle
That is why I said that this was a good place to start. It is a self-contained unit. The kind of things to which my hon. Friend is referring do not apply and are not likely to apply in this place. That is well known in the trade unions. Therefore, I do not see the difficulties envisaged in a wider sphere occurring here. it sees to be too good a chance to miss. I hope that my hon. Friend will reconsider this point.
§ Mr. Deakins
My hon. Friend has made his point. I hope that those who are interested in these matters—and this particularly involves the staff side at Porton; some initiative must come from them—will take his remarks on board. Certainly, however, it would be fair to say that we cannot have PHLS taking a lead when it is part of the wider NHS and there are, perhaps, principles which need to be involved in the NHS which we must get sorted out first before applying them at Porton.
My hon. Friend went on to talk about safety standards and possible transfer of 1372 work. Certainly we want to see safety standards improved. There is even scope for improvement at Porton. A recent Health and Safety Executive inspection at Porton made some positive suggestions for further improvements, and the staff are very mindful of the need for improvements. They are constantly looking for new, better and safer ways of doing things. I think that the House can have every confidence in their ability to advance the frontiers not merely of medical and scientific knowledge but also of safety knowledge.
I cannot at this stage say how far it may be either possible or desirable to concentrate at Porton any of the work with dangerous pathogens which is being conducted in laboratories elsewhere. Although the idea has certain attractions, I am not convinced of the wisdom of concentrating all of our expertise and facilities in one place. In any case, there is a real problem of accommodation in the buildings at MRE. However, I can give the House an assurance that we are considering very carefully whether it would be appropriate for certain work to be transferred, wholly or in part, to Porton. It is not a simple issue, and it is not one on which we can allow ourselves to be rushed into a decision.
§ Mr. Lee
My hon. Friend has almost anticipated what I have to say in the remarks he has just made. However, may I reinforce what has been said? I represent part of a city which is at the centre of the controversy to which the Shooter report gave vent. We feel deeply disturbed about activities connected with the more virulent bodies being conducted in the bigger cities. When dealing with that matter, will my hon. Friend, even at this late stage, repudiate the disapproving attitude, which has come mainly from the Opposition Benches but to some extent from the Front Bench, about the blowing of secrecy? With my hon. Friend, I am unrepentantly of the view that the more publicity that is given to situations where there are health hazards, the better, even if it sometimes comes about in a rather dramatic and irregular way.
§ Mr. Deakins
I really have nothing to add to what my right hon. Friend said on an earlier occasion.
1373 I now turn to the third point raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Nelson and Colne. That was about the use of the laboratory in safety training, and so on. My right hon. Friend explained its wider use in advice and training. I think that I have dealt with my hon. Friend's suggestion about the HSE. He certainly made an interesting suggestion, but I think that any approach would need to come from the HSE rather than from my Department.
A number of hon. Members have raised points regarding genetic manipulation and the need for safe and secure conditions. Perhaps I may refer the House to an article by Dr. Harris, the present director, called "Commonsense in Genetic Engineering" published in the magazine Biologist in 1977. In that article, Dr. Harris goes into great detail about the work at Porton, the dangers and hazards, and the misunderstanding that exists in the popular press and the public mind about genetic manipulation. I recommend the article to all hon. Members who have an interest in this matter.
Finally, my hon. Friend referred to the commercial manufacture of genetic products. The scientists at Porton are well aware of the scope that exists when one gets going on genetic manipulation. The hon. Member for Walsall, North (Mr. Hodgson) mentioned cereals. When I was at Porton, I was assured that it might be possible in the future, by genetic manipulation, to give cereals the means of fixing their own nitrogen from the air, which would do a great deal throughout the world to save the need for nitrogenous fertilisers. That would be an absolutely invaluable commercial spin-off. That is not in any way barred.
I come now to the points raised by the hon. Member for Salisbury. I cannot comment on some of them. This is not, perhaps, the debate for that. However, I take note of his fear and anguish about the Ministry of Defence decision. The defence work is to continue. As I am not a defence Minister, I cannot say in what way it is being reduced or changed, but it will continue in the Chemical Defence Establishment, to which a number of MRE staff are to be transferred.
Indeed, when one visits the site, one sees that CAMR, the new place, will occupy only a very small part of what 1374 is a very large area. The rest will remain MOD property.
The hon. Gentleman implied that the Government had not appreciated the complexity of the work going on at Porton. I think that I dealt with that point when I said that we took a great deal of time to sort out the complexities and to decide who was to be responsible if the work were to be continued.
The hon. Gentleman said that consultation had been imperfect. In reply to the right hon. Member for Wanstead and Woodford I said that consultation was still continuing. I repeat my right hon. Friend's assurance that, if the staff feel that they would like to see us about matters affecting terms and conditions of service with the PHLS, either he or I will be delighted to see them. However, I must enter the caveat that some of the comments that they made to me yesterday about alternative employment, redundancy and so on are the responsibility not of my Department but of the Ministry of Defence. Therefore, they will need to approach a Minister in that Department.
The hon. Gentleman also talked about teams of scientists being broken up. I sincerely hope that will not happen. It depends on whether they apply for and get the new jobs which are available. I was impressed that the heads of various sections in the new set-up were keen on their work, full of bright ideas and merely waiting for the rest of their scientific staff to be transferred to them.
The hon. Member for Walsall, North asked about finance. The Public Health Laboratory Service is funded by my Department. The net cost to us of the transfer to the PHLSB, including some capital expenditure on essential adaptations and the repayment charges which will arise for services hitherto provided interdepartmentally as allied services, is initially estimated at £2 million to £2½ million a year in current terms. The PESC 1978 survey already contained provision of about £2 million at 1978 survey prices. The existing cost to MOD will be discontinued. In the first two years after the transfer, a small part of the cost of running the new establishment will be met by subventions from several Government Departments. The PHLS is expected to carry out some work for these 1375 Departments in return for the subventions. As part of its general programme, PHLS will undertake remunerative contract work for Government Departments and industry in health microbiology, but the extent to which it can be developed will depend on other demands made on the new establishment and the priority accorded to them.
The hon. Gentleman was right about the MOD cost, but that is a net cost. I do not think that one can compare the MOD cost with the DHSS cost, partly because of the running down of the place. If the hon. Gentleman remains mystified, I undertake to write to him setting out in more detail what is involved, and I shall send a copy to his right hon. Friend.
I hope that I have answered all the points made in the debate and that the House will now give a Second Reading to a small, but important, Bill for the scientific and industrial future of this country.
§ Question put and agreed to.
§ Bill accordingly read a Second time.
§ Bill committed to a Standing Committee pursuant to Standing Order No. 40 (Committal of Bills).