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Scottish Agricultural College

Volume 404: debated on Wednesday 7 May 2003

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3.30 pm

I am particularly grateful to lead this debate in this parallel Chamber. I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Sandra Osborne) and the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Duncan) would like to say a few words if they are able to catch your eye, Mr. Deputy Speaker. That is certainly okay with me, and I understand that it is okay with the Under-Secretary of State.

One or two eyebrows were raised in one or two quarters, including those of the Under-Secretary of State, about the relevance of the topic to Westminster. I must confess—honest as always—that it is, of course, principally a matter for the Scottish Parliament and the Scottish Executive. However, there are significant British and overseas interests that it is our duty to consider and to protect. Indeed, as the chairman of the Scottish Agricultural college says in the foreword to its 2002 annual report:

"This report details activities which will aid Scottish agriculture, and agriculture in other parts of the UK."
Page 13 of the same report notes that:
"consultancy and training have been carried out in countries as dispersed as New Zealand, Poland, Japan, and the USA."
When I was a Minister at the Department for International Development, I visited the Auchincruive campus to see the excellent and much-needed work that was being done to help the developing world, funded by DFID.

Page 15 of the annual report describes the pressure from the general agreement on tariffs and trade and the World Trade Organisation, for which we have responsibility, to phase out headage payments. On page 30, where the college's research and development funding is broken down, we see that the UK Government contribute more than £2.3 million. Research councils, levy boards and the European Union also make significant contributions. Therefore, this matter is of importance to us. Some, or all, of us are threatened by the plans being considered by the board of the SAC. Owing to funding pressures, the college has, understandably, been looking at ways of saving money. I do not object to that. However, the proposal that it has come up with flies in the face of all logic.

In 1990, the SAC was created by the merger of three agricultural colleges in Scotland—those at Ayr, Aberdeen and Edinburgh. The staff, students and public in Ayrshire and in Dumfries and Galloway contend that there was a clear commitment at that time to maintain and indeed to expand the teaching and research presence at Auchincruive. Any proposal that goes against that is a clear betrayal of trust.

I accept that the SAC board has a duty to ensure that the college does not continue to run at a loss, but I challenge the options that it has been considering and the basis on which they have been arrived at. The Deloitte and Touche report of 20 February 2003 was mischievously described by Dr. Maitland Mackie, whom my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr knows, as the Finnie report, because it was called for by the Minister for Environment and Rural Development.

That report comes to the wrong conclusion. Its analysis is based on a faulty remit and subjective weightings, with no justification whatsoever.

The remit was drawn up and the options were assessed by the executive management team. That team, under Professor Bill McKelvey's leadership, favours centralisation of the operation in Edinburgh. Therefore, the assumptions that it has made inevitably favour the Edinburgh option. The conclusions fly in the face of logic and of fact. To suggest that it is cheaper to centralise all operations in Edinburgh—where we know that costs are substantially higher, the economy is overheated, transport is congested and housing is scarce and expensive —is manifest nonsense. To attempt to recruit a further 1,100 full-time student equivalents to King's Buildings in Edinburgh, where, at present, only 115 have chosen to study, is pure fantasy. That policy, which would transfer staff from Ayrshire and Aberdeen to Edinburgh, runs contrary to the Scottish Executive's policy of dispersal from Edinburgh to other parts of Scotland. That is quite apart from the nonsense of having an agricultural college in the middle of a city.

Staff and students at Auchincruive are against the plan, as was evident at the meeting that I convened in Ayr at the end of March, which was attended by my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr. At that meeting, MPs and MSPs from all parties, including my MSP, Cathy Jamieson, who is a Minister in the Scottish Executive, expressed strong opposition to the proposal. The National Farmers Union in Ayrshire issued a press release saying that it opposes plans for the closure of the Scottish Agricultural college; all the local NFU leaders are quoted.

I have also had letters, e-mails and phone calls from constituents opposing the plan. Indeed, I have had more communications on the subject than 1 had on the war in Iraq, so strong is the feeling in Ayrshire. A member of staff writes to me:
"The last few years have been very difficult with the mind set of the new management regime pro Edinburgh centralisation and clearly uncaring about operations in the south west of Scotland."
Things have indeed been difficult for staff. I know of staff who have felt pressurised and threatened by the attitude of the management team.

In a memorandum to me, the member of staff points out that over half of the second year HND agriculture students at Auchincruive are from Dumfries and Galloway. I am sure that the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale will have something to say about that. My correspondent also says that it is not uncommon for local Ayrshire students to do the milking and to feed the stock before starting college in the morning. Both those things would be impossible if the college were centralised in Edinburgh. He adds that Edinburgh now has the highest housing costs in Scotland and the Scottish Agricultural college has no hall of residence facilities to offer students.

As a representative of an urban constituency, I am at a loss to understand some of my right hon. Friend's arguments. However, what I cannot figure out is how students are ever going to get practical experience of milking cows, herding sheep, or delivering lambs in a city such as Edinburgh. The best method of learning such things is to do them. How will that be achieved in Edinburgh?

I was happy to give way to my hon. Friend because it is his birthday today—we all congratulate him on that—and because he has a lot of experience. He may represent an urban constituency but he used to be a shepherd, so he knows what he is talking about. He is absolutely right. Auchincruive has a farm on campus and other farms all around it, so it is easy to get practical experience. King's Buildings. however, is right in the centre of Edinburgh and it would be impossible to get such experience.

I understand that Professor McKelvey has a vision of Auchincruive not as an agricultural college but as a high-level research establishment linked to the university of Edinburgh, and that he is prepared to sacrifice agricultural and horticultural education to that vision. I am not prepared to accept that, and I hope that others feel the same. My correspondent tells me that, at a staff briefing at Auchincruive, the principal said:
"We intend to implement this plan regardless of the Scottish Executive's views."
That coincides with my own perception. I understand that one official from the Scottish Executive Environment and Rural Development Department—I hope that the Minister will look into this—told the principal:
"it doesn't matter what the politicians think—this is going ahead."
That kind of arrogance and lack of sensitivity to local wishes gives Governments a bad name. Unfortunately, it is politicians who get it in the neck in this area, as in other areas.

I want to leave time for other hon. Members to speak, so I will move on to my requests to the Minister. When my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr and I met the chairman and principal of Scottish Agricultural college in Edinburgh last month, they agreed, under sustained pressure from us—we really laid it on the line—that they would consider other options if directed to by Scottish Ministers, so long as the financial consequences were taken account of. The board later confirmed that. Will the Minister, or the Secretary of State, arrange a meeting with colleagues in the Scottish Executive and ask them to review all the options for the Scottish Agricultural college? All the options given in the Deloitte and Touche report should be reviewed. I also respectfully suggest to the Minister that, once the Rural Development Committee of the Scottish Parliament is reconstituted, it might consider conducting an inquiry into the matter and reporting on it to the Parliament.

May I ask that all the points that I have raised, that other hon. Members will raise and that other Ayrshire MPs and MSPs have raised, should be taken into account before a final decision is made? I accept that the decision must ultimately be taken by the Scottish Executive and the Parliament. However, I hope that, when they take that decision, they will remember that it will have an impact throughout the United Kingdom and overseas. It is vital for the people whom I represent—staff, students and the community. I am concerned about those people and that is why I am grateful to have the opportunity of putting their case—forcefully, I hope.

3.40 pm

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) for allowing me a couple of minutes to demonstrate the cross-party strength of feeling on the issue, which does not divide us: it unites the south-west of Scotland and particularly Auchincruive. I will leave the advocates from Aberdeen to speak about that area.

Auchincruive is Scottish farming in south-west Scotland. The right hon. Gentleman rightly said that farming in that area is critical to our development. At the point in our regional development when farming is becoming more difficult and more sophisticated, and when the need for training in farming is greater than ever before, we face the prospect of having the greatest vehicle for the delivery of that training taken from us. That is extremely regrettable. The sense that nothing will change, irrespective of how many politicians speak out against the proposal, is also deeply regrettable, and I hope that the Minister can offer some reassurance that that may not be the case.

The proposal runs directly contrary to all the directives on decentralisation, and to all the wise words about getting agricultural and rural-related jobs into rural areas. It is not possible to run a farming-related course in the centre of Edinburgh. A sophisticated research base can be operated in Edinburgh. That is not what Auchincruive was meant to be.

On behalf of my party in south-west Scotland, I am delighted to lend support to the right hon. Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley, and hope that the Scottish Executive and the Minister will think again.

3.42 pm

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Do on Valley (Mr. Foulkes) on securing the debate. He has been a marvellous supporter of Auchincruive, and never more so than at this crucial moment. He ably underlined the importance of Auchincruive to the UK and internationally, which is why it is important to raise the matter in the House of Commons.

Although Auchincruive is in my right hon. Friend's constituency, many of my constituents work or study there, so I share all his concerns about the issue. I am grateful to him for organising the public meeting and for mobilising support throughout Ayrshire—across the political divide, as he and the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Duncan) said—among students and staff, in the local council and in the local community in Ayrshire and Dumfries and Galloway. All unanimously oppose the proposal and will fight to get it reconsidered.

During our visit to Edinburgh to meet the management, I was amazed to see what King's Buildings was like, and that anyone would think of siting an agricultural college in a landlocked city, compared with the site of outstanding natural beauty at Auchincruive. Anyone would regard that as ludicrous but it seems to be a serious proposal. As my right hon. Friend said, to move from a prized educational site such as Auchincruive to a highly pressurised area flies in the face of the Executive's policy of decentralising jobs throughout Scotland. That is one of the most important issues to underline in relation to south-west Scotland.

At our meeting, it was clear that the management seemed, as my right hon. Friend said, to regard the research element of their business as more important than the agricultural college. No one would deny the difficulties of the farming industry, but it seemed ludicrous that Scotland would not want to support and to develop a thriving educational facility for the farming community. A fundamental reaffirmation is needed by the Scottish Executive and the management that that facility and the funding to support it are absolute requirements for Scotland.

Like my right hon. Friend, I have been extremely impressed by the way in which the staff and students have worked together to rebut in great detail the consultants' report. At our meeting, the management signalled that they would take no irreversible action until there could be further discussion. Although it took some persuading and we put a bit of pressure on them—my right hon. Friend certainly did so in his inimitable fashion—we secured that agreement. That provides us with a window of opportunity. I know that, in Ayrshire, people are getting together to ensure that we use it to the nth degree.

Auchincruive college is important for Ayrshire economically, for tourism, for the rural community and for ensuring that there is a fair spread of Government jobs. I hope that the Minister will take on board my right hon. Friend's comments and do all she can to influence the decision and to retain Auchincruive as a marvellous facility.

3.46 pm

I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Member for Carrick, Cumnock and Doon Valley (Mr. Foulkes) on securing this important short debate on a matter that is clearly very close to his heart. I did not so much raise my eyebrows as stand back in awe at his undoubted skill in persuading the Speaker's Office to hold this debate in the parallel Chamber. I have known of Auchincruive for many years. When I was young, wide-eyed and innocent—if I ever was, and that saves anyone else from saying that—I was going with a young accountant who used to do the audit of Auchincruive. I ended up marrying him. I do not know whether it was the good Ayrshire air, but something worked.

As my right hon. Friend, my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr (Sandra Osborne) and the hon. Member for Galloway and Upper Nithsdale (Mr. Duncan) have acknowledged, the Auchincruive campus delivers a range of services to the local farming community and far beyond. It also has links, mainly on a project-funding basis, with Government Departments other than its core funding and sponsorship by the Scottish Executive. The fact that the agricultural college is currently working with the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, Bristol university and various other research institutes across the United Kingdom may have encouraged my right hon. Friend to consider that there was a hook for Scotland Office interest and intervention. I will come back to that, as I suspect that that may not be the case.

My right hon. Friend argued that those links raise issues that could be realistically described as coming within the reserved policy interests of the UK Parliament. As he and others have identified, primary responsibility for matters related to Auchincruive's current and prospective position lies with the Scottish Executive. However, it may be helpful if I outline the factual position in relation to the matters raised in the debate.

The Scottish Agricultural college was created in 1990 through the merger of three existing agriculture colleges, with campuses at Ayr, Edinburgh and Aberdeen. It provides services to land-based communities and businesses of three main types: advisory and consultancy, research and development and education and training. As of December last year the SAC had just over 900 staff, comprising 166 at Aberdeen, 225 at Auchincruive, 328 at Edinburgh and 208 at area offices. Analysed by function, those figures break down at just over 200 staff in research and development, more than 100 in education and more than 400 in advisory consultancy. There are about 160 staff in general administrative duties.

The college has a turnover of around £45 million per year, including approximately £18 million in sponsorship from the Scottish Executive. I understand that, in recent years, the SAC's student numbers have decreased and the college has been making a loss. As a result, the SAC is seeking to rationalise its estate so that it can reduce costs and operate more effectively and efficiently.

I turn now to the specific issue of the debate. In September 2001, the SAC announced plans to withdraw from its Auchincruive campus and to consider a partnership with the university of Paisley in Ayr. For those colleagues who do not understand the geography, there are all sorts of connections in Scotland. It wished to build links between its Aberdeen campus and the university of Aberdeen. The plans attracted considerable opposition, which prompted a debate in the Scottish Parliament in March last year.

Scottish Ministers concluded at that time that the SAC's proposals were not grounded in a clear strategy; nor had the SAC produced a detailed analysis to support its conclusions. They asked the SAC to conduct a full review in consultation with stakeholders of what services it should be aiming to provide, and then to conduct an appraisal of the options for delivering those services.

The SAC engaged the services of external consultants, and Deloitte and Touche produced the first of two reports in October last year. It identified the SAC's strengths as being in veterinary and advisory services and in certain parts of the research programme. The report also noted that the SAC had lost ground in its education function and needed to review objectives in that area.

The SAC accepted the recommendations in the first report in most respects. However, Scottish Ministers could not confirm their agreement of the position until the SAC had completed its analysis of its education markets and could provide a clear education strategy on the basis of that analysis. Scottish Ministers agreed, however, that the SAC should proceed with appraising the options for the physical infrastructure required for delivering its educational and research services.

The second Deloitte and Touche report was published in February this year. It identified that the SAC's combined estate is five times greater than its requirements and that significant cost savings and economies of scale and staff utilisation could be achieved through rationalisation. Of the 10 options assessed in the report, the recommended option for both financial and non-financial reasons was that the SAC should consolidate its estate at the Edinburgh and Bush campus. That recommendation has attracted significant criticism and comment in this debate.

I understand that services would continue to be provided across Scotland, with the advisory and consultancy and veterinary services—which are currently delivered from area offices and veterinary centres—remaining unaffected by the proposals. Furthermore, education outreach centres would continue and be developed on or near the existing campuses at Auchincruive in Ayrshire and Craibstone in Aberdeen.

The Deloitte and Touche recommendation to consolidate campus-based education and research facilities in the Edinburgh area is the SAC's preferred option. In order to implement this option, the SAC would require Scottish Ministers' approval for the reinvestment of the proceeds of the sale of the surplus assets at Craibstone and Auchincruive. Moreover, it would require continued funding by the Executive for its core functions of educational research and advisory services.

There is a recognition that the SAC cannot compete because of the mismatch between the level of business that it now has and the facilities that it has inherited from the three former agricultural colleges. Nonetheless, I gather that Scottish Ministers continue to have a number of concerns about the college's position.

As my hon. Friend says, Scottish Ministers have several concerns. She seemed to indicate earlier that she did not believe that it was appropriate for the Scotland Office to intervene. My understanding is that she and the Secretary of State have regular meetings with Scottish Executive Ministers. I know that some officials might say that they have to gang warily and tread carefully not to upset them, but I remind her of a mutual friend of ours who said that

"we're at our best when at our boldest."
Will she or the Secretary of State consider putting that on the agenda with Ross Finnie or his successor to ensure that the points that my hon. Friends and I have made today are properly considered?

I was coming to my response to my right hon. Friend's individual questions, and I will cover that point in a minute.

As I was saying, Scottish Ministers have expressed some concerns. The college has been made aware of those concerns and has been tasked with undertaking additional work on its strategy for education services, the impact on projected student numbers and the financial viability and affordability of the options in the second Deloitte and Touche report.

It is also worth mentioning that the SAC's preferred option runs counter to the spirit of the Scottish Executive's relocation policy, a point that was noted by my hon. Friend the Member for Ayr. The SAC has been asked to re-examine the extent to which it proposes to relocate services from the west and north-east of Scotland. In addition, it has to consider where some of these services could continue to be provided in Aberdeen and Ayrshire, either by the SAC alone or in partnership with other organisations.

I can confirm to my right hon. Friend that the SAC has been encouraged to take the concerns fully on board and come back to the Scottish Executive with revised proposals. I gather that the process is likely to take several months and, as a result, no decision has been taken on the final outcome of the option appraisal work. I have noted carefully the various points made by my right hon. Friend and other hon. Members that sought assurances about the UK Government's interest in the topic. I assure my right hon. Friend that I will follow through on that as necessary with colleagues in the Department for International Development and the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.

As a former insider in the Scotland Office, my right hon. Friend will be aware that we have regular meetings with colleagues from the Scottish Executive. I must say that there is a difference between being bold and crossing the devolution settlement, of which he is a great supporter and was a great advocate. I am sure that our colleagues in the Scottish Executive who are charged with determining Auchincruive's future will take a keen interest in this debate.

Mr. Peter Duncan rose—

I thought that the Minister might have a minute. Does she accept that this Parliament has a remit for employment and that there are significant employment issues? Jobs are once again at risk of being moved from rural to central Scotland and she has the opportunity to do something about it.

I have never been offered so many temptations in half an hour to cross a constitutional line The hon. Gentleman will understand that the issue comes under the devolved settlement for the Scottish Parliament and Executive. However, given that hon. Members are already working in partnership with their Scottish Parliament colleagues, I will undertake to ensure that the proceedings of this debate are raised with Scottish Executive colleagues when Ministers are in place. I am sure that hon. Members who have participated today will do whatever they can and need to ensure that the Auchincruive issue is kept alive during the continued consultation on its future.