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Scottish Horticultural Institutes (Amalgamation)

Volume 977: debated on Thursday 31 January 1980

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Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[ Mr. Wakeham.]

10.41 pm

The debate about the amalgamation of the Scottish Plant Breeding Station and the Scottish Horticultural Research Institute is of great moment to my constituents. I shall argue that the work force has presented a powerful case for the retention of the breeding station in that area.

The Government have failed in their attempts to answer the case. The Secretary of State for Scotland admitted in a written answer of 19 December that the amalgamation would be phased over a period of years.

It is not too late for the Government to change their minds. In the interests of all concerned I hope that, as a minimum, the Minister will announce that a fresh look will be taken. With respect to the Secretary of State, his answer of 19 December does not answer the case put by the staff against the amalgamation. He owed at least that much to them. It involves as many as 124 jobs and 74 members of the institute will be affected by the amalgamation. That is no small matter.

The Secretary of State hung his hat high in reaching that decision. It was based on a report of a working party that was set up in July 1978. Anticipating the Minister's reply, I concede that that report was set up during the previous Labour Administration. However, it is important to put on record the five points that were made by the staff side through the Institution of Professional Civil Servants against the relocation.

The first point dealt with the whole question of research. The staff argued that insufficient attention had been given to present and future research programmes at the two institutes. They should be reviewed before any reorganisation, as that will determine the resources required. The Scottish Plant Breeding Station staff feel that closure will destroy the station's highly advanced breeding and scientific programme. The Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, Scotland, does not suggest that that programme is not viable.

The review should also assess the place of all existing members of staff in the programme in order to allay the danger of staff losses or wasted resources. The IPCS estimates that capital and incidental expenditure involved in combining the two institutes will be £3 million. That is double the amount mentioned in the report. That will lead to net additional public expenditure of £2·4 million. That level of expenditure is unjustifiable when one considers the expenditure cuts that are imposed on all areas of public services. It contrasts unfavourably with the IPCS estimate of £1 million net additional public expenditure, or £1·5 million direct capital costs for separate development of the two institutes.

Among the other omissions, the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, Scotland, fails to justify its extraordinary assumption that the SPBS must treble its Pentlandfield accommodation merely to maintain the present research programme.

Thirdly, there is loss of revenue. The IPCS estimates suggest disruption of plant breeding programmes caused by the move, which will cost the economy £1·4 million for each year's delay in the production of new varieties.

Those are formidable points, but no answers were given to them in the answer to me of 19 December. Indeed, the Department has never sought to give answers. If there is a five-year delay, which is probable, it could cost upwards of £7 million. There may be more serious effects on the Scottish seed potato trade arising from heavy import penetration by foreign varieties.

These projections are based solely on loss of new barley and potato varieties and exclude the disruption of brassica breeding. Loss of revenue and royalty income from State-bred varieties could amount to a further £1 million. Against those figures must be set the independent cost-benefit analysis of SPBS work, which is estimated at costs of £9·7 million and benefits of £29·8 million between 1950 and the end of the century.

Fourthly, there is the question of savings. The IPCS can foresee no savings, either in land rents or staff travel expenditure, as a result of amalgamation.

Fifthly, there are the working arrangements. Many of the country's other leading research institutes, such as the Woburn experimental farm and Hill Farm research organisation, also run successful experimental farms at a distance from their main buildings. The Murrays farm at the SPBS is still in a state of development and has yet to reachits full potential. Performance could be further improved by making more land available to the SPBS locally through sharing arrangements.

SPBS staff have never been consulted about optimising new working arrangements, but they should now be given the opportunity. From an industrial relations point of view, it is an absolute disgrace that a decision has been taken without that point being borne in mind.

I wanted to put those five points on the record. I now want to deal with the relevance of the submission, which I believe to be important. I said that the Secretary of State hung his hat fairly high in the working party report. That report does not establish a case for the closing of the SPBS. The decision must be seen as being made on other grounds, which the official side is reluctant to reveal.

One possible explanation is that the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, Scotland, has invested large sums of money in the SHRI over the last 10 years, despite the fact that the crops it works are of only minor economic importance. At the same time, the SPBS has been starved of investment. The plan therefore conceals mismanagement on the part of the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries, Scotland, in developing the wrong institute by moving the important arable work to the SHRI, which has been charged to an unjustifiable extent.

On the question of costs, the staff side estimates that it will cost £3 million to move the Plant Breeding Station, at a time of severe curtailment of public expenditure. That expenditure is quite unjustified. The money could be put to far better use elsewhere, in agricultural rerearch or development.

There is a fear that the official side will embark on the move and then discover that it has been allocated insufficient funds, is restricted by cash limits, or will have the allocation reduced by another round of public spending cuts. The result will be that the move will be under-financed, inadequate facilities will be provided, and many more staff will be made redundant.

The staff side estimates that the continued separate development of the Plant Breeding Station and the SHRI would cost £1 million and £0·5 million respectively. In fact, the SHRI has already been over-developed relative to the value of the programmes. The £1 million for development allocated to the Plant Breeding Station—the PBI, as it is described at Cambridge—could be reduced, not necessarily by moving anybody but just by integrating the work.

We already work with the potato breeders at the PBI, but they have announced that if we move from the Plant Breeding Station to Dundee this arrangement must be broken, because it will be too far for them to travel to the new seed-producing farm. Thus, the move will damage potato breeding by interfering with the existing beneficial collaboration, and it will help us in no way.

On the working party's composition, I must stress that my constituents feel, and the staff side feels, that this was entirely unsatisfactory. Three of its members were associated with farming, but they never were or claimed to be research scientists. Their position on Government bodies does not qualify them to make informed judgments about the organisation of research. One was a civil servant, who has now retired, fulfilling the policy of the Ministry of Agritulture, Fisheries and Food. One was an academic with little knowledge of farm- ing or Scotland, and he too has now retired. Only Professor Robertson, as principal of the East of Scotland college of agriculture and, incidentally professor of agriculture at Edinburgh university, had the depth of expertise, experience and judgment to make a fully informed appraisal of what organisational changes were needed, and he disagreed with the others.

The subsequent approval of the report by the governing bodies and the ARC is almost irrelevant because members of the working party sat on all of them. They could not therefore have been independent in their judgment.

The staff at the Plant Breeding Station at this moment have no guarantee of continued employment. The non-mobile staff, who comprise about two-thirds of the total, are especially vulnerable. The view of the official side that they can be found alternative employment at other nearby institutes ignores the fact that because of spending cuts those institutes are trying to reduce their staffing levels and will be recruiting very few staff members in the next few years.

I suggest that the first priority for the Scottish Plant Breeding Station certainly is good management. The staff side, I have to inform the house, distrusts the director and believe he was appointed to engineer the closure. I must inform the Minister that morale is at rock bottom at present, and I hope that the Minister will agree that the case presented—and it is its case—by the work force is substantial and that the case for amalgamation has not been made by a long chalk.

I must say—I do not say it with any personal animosity—that I welcome the fact that the Minister is present, but the matter is rather confusing. I never knew that the hon. Gentleman—I do not say this to denigrate him—was the Minister for agricultural affairs in Scotland. He may not agree with the case that I have put, but my understanding is that it is his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland who is mainly dealing with agricultural affairs. He may decide that I have not impressed him tonight by the case that I have put forward, but he cannot reject it, because it would be most unfair to my constituents if the responsible ministers did not have the opportunity of hearing the case that I have advanced on my constituents' behalf. That case should be put to his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland. If the Minister were to answer "No", it would be a serious violation of parliamentary privilege, for my constituents would be suffering a rebuff of a sort that I have never experienced in the House of Commons.

I hope that the Minister will at a very minimum give me a guarantee that he will consult his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland about the case that I have submitted on behalf of my constituents, and inform me later of his right hon. Friend's decision.

10.56 pm

The hon. Member for Midlothian (Mr. Eadie) raised a number of points, including the expression of polite dissatisfaction that I should be replying to the Adjournment debate and not my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State.

That is how I construed the hon. Gentleman's remarks. I am responding inoffensively, in the manner in which he made his remarks.

My right hon. Friend has discussed the matter with me and, indeed, the Minister who is essentially responsible for agriculture in Scotland is my noble Friend the Minister of State, in another place. He has personally conducted a number of consultations with many of the parties involved in this amalgamation and in laying plans for it. The hon. Gentleman is therefore not having to deal tonight with a mere Under-Secretary of State. I hope that he will accept from me that the Minister of State and the Secretary of State have both given very serious consideration to this matter. The remarks that I make in reply to the hon. Gentleman are a result of consultations and discussions that I haw had with my right hon. Friend and with my noble Friend.

The Minister has missed the point, with respect. I said that I did not wish in any way to denigrate the hon. Gentleman. If I appeared to be offensive, I certainly did not wish to be. He must be seized of the point that I am making, which is that although he may be replying to the debate on behalf of the Secre- tary of State for Scotland and the Minister of State, the Secretary of State and the Minister of State have not heard the case I have submitted tonight, and they are entitled to hear that case before a decision is made. That is the only point I am putting.

If they have not heard it they can read about it in the Official Report. I assure the hon. Gentleman that they will indeed hear about what has been said. If any point that I make tonight is not in concert with their views, I am sure that they will not only tell the hon. Gentleman but will certainly tell me.

I shall try to answer some of the hon. Gentleman's points, but perhaps I may first give an outline of the decision that has been made to merge these two important establishments. The decision was made by my right hon. Friend in the first instance. It was not, as the hon. Gentleman realises, as part of the Government's programme of expenditure cuts, because the whole business was set in train by the previous Government. It is a measure that we believe will give much needed impetus to crop research and development in Scotland.

The Plant Breeding Station at Pentlandfield and the Horticultural Research Institute at Mylnefield are two of the eight agricultural research institutes in Scotland supported by grants from the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries for Scotland.

Towards the end of his speech the hon. Gentleman questioned the membership of the working party, and I do not think it is going too far to say that he threw scorn on its members and their qualifications to reach this decision. He must know that in 1978 his right hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow, Craigton (Mr. Millan) set up a working party to examine the arrangements for the commissioning and the organisation of crop research and plant breeding at these institutes. I think that the hon. Gentleman will acknowledge that, and, if he has any complaints on the constitution of the working party, he should address them to his right hon. Friend and not to my right hon. Friend.

My understanding is that it had become clear that programmes of development and capital investment would be required, particularly at the Scottish Plant Breeding Station. I know that the staff dispute that. But capital expenditure was required at the station, and, taking that into account, it was felt that there was real room for improvement in the use of research resources in Scotland for the benefit of agriculture and horticulture.

While the station achieved notable success in the 1950s and the early 1960s with the production of new potato varieties, it has been less successful in recent years. We are convinced that there would be greater prospects for overall success if the efforts of the plant breeders could be backed by the greater depth of science and research capability which already exists at Mylnefield.

There were also obvious problems associated with the 13 miles distance between the Pentlandfield station and its experimental farm, the Murrays. Indeed, the difficulty about the Murrays all along has been that the soil and climatic conditions are unsuitable for plant breeding. The hon. Member for Midlothian suggested that the Murrays might be extended easily, but those two basic problems exist.

I assure the hon. Gentleman that the working party took account of views from the staffunions concerned, from representatives of line management at both institutes, and from both governing bodies. They also had available to them advice from the Agricultural Research Council, with which the Department of Agriculture and Fisheries works, closely in the oversight of agricultural research in Scotland.

The report of the working party was submitted to the previous Administration in December 1978 and made available to every member of staff at both institutes. No decision was taken, however, before the general election.

The Agricultural Research Council was formally consulted and agreed with the recommendations of the working party. My noble Friend the Minister of State discussed the recommendations with repsentatives of the staff side of the Agricultural Research Service. He also met the chairman of the two governing bodies, who are strongly in favour of the amalgamation. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State decided to accept the working party's proposals. We believe that the evidence for the decision is overwhelming.

The professor of agriculture at Edinburgh University, who was a member of the working party, had reservations.

Yes, the professor had reservations, but he went along with the view of the working party—which was unanimous. He did not file a minority report or take any action of that kind.

Does my hon. Friend not agree that one advantage of the merger will be that it will create full-time and part-time jobs in Mylnefield, near Dundee—an area where there is high unemployment?

Yes, my hon. Friend is correct. It would be helpful to the Dundee area, which is a special development area and a problem area in Scotland. That must be recognised.

The need for improvement of crop research in Scotland is the motive force behind the amalgamation. But amalgamation of the institutes is also the more economical course. In that respect I disagree with the hon. Member for Midlothian, and with the arguments put forward by the staff side. There are figures to support that, and I hope to be able to give them.

The cost of capital work which would have been needed at Pentlandfield and its associate farm, as estimated by the Scottish Plant Breeding Station director, is in the £3 million-£4 million range. Capital works would also been needed at Mylnefield costing about £600,000.

I can understand the feelings of the staff at Pentlandfield who have settled in and near Edinburgh and who may not relish a move. That is understandable. Throughout there has been consultation with staff and their representatives. Change is often difficult to accept even when, as in this case, it is intended to open up new opportunities for collaborative scientific work.

Will the Minister give an undertaking that the laboratory, the glasshouse and the land resources at Dundee will be equivalent to what is available now?

The right hon. Gentleman makes a point which I know is important to the staff—both those already at Mylnefield and those who are moving there. It is very much in the minds of those involved to try to provide buildings which are satisfactory and acceptable to the staff. Consultations at present taking place include that important point.

It is the hope of my right hon. Friend and myself that constructive consultative arrangements, dealing with the planning for the new buildings, will persuade the Pentlandfield staff that they are, in fact, participating in a development programme. This will open up new avenues for their expertise as researchers and plant breeders, and will lead to results which will be of benefit to horticulture and agriculture, not only of Scotland but throughout the United Kingdom.

It is very difficult for those who are faced with the move. Most of us representing Scottish constituencies argue the case, quite rightly, for decentralisation of Government Departments, bodies and agencies from London to Scotland. Surely we must recognise that within Scotland there must be a case from time to time for some of the Government bodies and agencies, 95 per cent. of which are located in Edinburgh, to be decentralised to other parts of Scotland.

I have only two or three minutes left.

It has been suggested that we have a fresh look. I cannot say that we shall look again at a decision which has been made in principle, but as it is being carried out over a number of years, consultations will continue and the interests of the staff at Pentlandfield will continue to be given high priority.

There are two sides to the staff case. Only today I received a telegram from some of the staff at Pentlandfield who are enthusiastic about the move. I believe that other hon. Members also received telegrams.

There will be some disruption of the work at Pentlandfield, of course. This is inevitable in a move of this kind. But it will be minimal. As the amalgamation will take place over a number of years, it should be possible to minimise the disruption that might take place.

I have the telegram here, and I believe that other hon. Members also received telegrams. I see that the right hon. Gentleman for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles (Mr. Steel) has indicated that he received one. These were totally unsolicited. The hon. Member must accept that there are two sides to the staff case. I hope he will agree that this amalgamation is very much in the interests of Scottish agricultural research and as such it deserves to be supported.

There is only one minute left of this debate.

I am not suggesting that these people are not on the management side. But the fact remains that they are affected by the move and they are on the staff of Pentlandfield. Any suggestion to the contrary is quite wrong.

Let us bear in mind that there are employment opportunities for people who are mobile. All the mobile staff will be given the opportunity to move to Mylnefield, and many of those at present categorised as non-mobile will be given opportunities for employment prospects. As this is taking place over a number of years, it would be quite wrong to be pessimistic about the employment prospects of those who may decide that they do not wish to move, but wish to stay at Pentlandfield.

The hon. Member is incorrect to suggest that this has been done in any heavy-handed manner, and that considerations of the staff at Pentlandfield have been ignored. I have made it clear that one understands the feelings of the staff who will be disrupted. However, the negotiations and consultations that have already taken place show that the personal considerations of the people there have been taken into account. This augurs well for the future consultations that will be required before the amalgamation can be completed. The motive behind this is to improve agricultural research and development in Scotland. That is—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at eleven minutes past Eleven o'clock.