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Agricultural And Food Research Council

Volume 81: debated on Thursday 20 June 1985

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asked the Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food if he will make a statement on the level of his Department's funding of the Agriculture Research Council compared to previous years.

My Department's expenditure with the Agricultural and Food Research Council in the current year is likely to be very similar in cash terms to that in 1984–85.

Does the Minister envisage the research and development services coping with — whether the right hon. Gentleman hides it or not — something approaching a cut in real terms in the time that they have been given? Will that not injure the totality of their work?

The total expenditure on agriculture, fisheries and food from all sources is likely to amount to £204 million in 1983–84. The total spent on agricultural research and development amounts to £160 million. That is an enormous amount of money being spent on that important endeavour. I have no reason to believe that it is likely to be inadequate.

Is my right hon. Friend aware of the grave anxiety of the horticultural sector of the industry about reputed reductions in research and development? Horticulture gets little general support from the Government and taxpayers' funds, so the support for research and development is of particular value.

I hear what my hon. Friend says. He will know that those matters are being considered by the Priorities Board. It would be a mistake to pre-empt what it might decide. Those concerned are experts in this area, and the AFRC is represented on the board. No doubt those people will note what my hon. Friend has said.

Is the right hon. Gentleman aware that the slashing of funds for the research and advisory functions of his Ministry will have a serious effect on the industry as a whole? Unfortunately, through his right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Scotland following his example in Scotland, it has meant a cut of 41 per cent. Will the right hon. Gentleman take on board the point, which has already been made, that expenditure on those services is well worth while and that the loss from cutting them might be severe?

The right hon. Gentleman will recall that this question is about research and development, not necessarily about the advisory service. He will also recall that we are now having discussions with the industry with regard to both research and development and the advisory service, so that the industry as a whole will be able to make a larger contribution in the place of cuts in public expenditure that are necessarily having to take place.

Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that the Government are doing everything they can to mobilise private sector support to make up the shortfall in funding that will arise from the Government's reductions? Is not that the least that the Government could do in the present circumstances? Does my right hon. Friend acknowledge that unless funding is maintained we shall lose research capabilities—as an example, I cite aspects of the work of the National Vegetable Research Station at Wellsbourne—which are not only of proven and continuing value to our economy, but, through our aid programme, would enable us at minimum cost to confer immeasurable benefits on some of the poorest people in the world?

My hon. Friend will remember the announcement that I made on 24 May, that consultations would be held with the industry, and that it would be invited to consider a system of sectoral contributions. Those consultations are now in progress. It is valuable that the Priorities Board is in being. It is looking at the whole realm of agricultural research. My hon. Friend may like to read the Select Committee's report of two years ago and the Joint Consultative Organisation's report on the same subject, which were critical of certain aspects of the structure and organisation of research and development.

Will the Minister tell us when the institutes concerned will know about the effect of these reviews on staff numbers and, in particular, where the cuts will fall? Not the least hardship is the uncertainty that they all feel by reason of these cuts.

Responsibility for the reseach councils falls upon my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science. However, I appreciate the current uncertainties. Our aim is to provide clear guidance as soon as possible.