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Porton Down

Volume 506: debated on Tuesday 2 March 2010

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—(Mr. Heppell.)

Most people in south Wiltshire are very proud of the achievements of both establishments at Porton Down: the Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response, and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. If they did not exist, they would have to be invented. In the fevered minds of journalists, they are shadowy and mysterious homes of the dark arts, and likely to generate extravagant language, but to most local people the reality is very different. We know that the work of all involved, from the scientists of international repute to the staff who keep the place going, is vital to our national interest and well-being.

It all started in 1915 when chemical weapons were first used against British troops. The carnage was appalling. In 1916, work started on anti-gas defence and respirator development, as well as research on how chlorine, mustard gas and phosgene were disseminated. Porton Down was chosen because it is an isolated, 7,000 acre site with very little human habitation downwind for many miles.

By 1956, the United Kingdom had abandoned any sort of chemical and biological warfare capability and restricted work to hazard assessment and defence. In 1979, the Government split off the Ministry of Defence Porton Down biology department to the Department of Health, which established the Centre for Applied Microbiology and Research, which is now part of the Health Protection Agency and known as the Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response. However, the two establishments, which are treated as one by the Health and Safety Executive, work together, adding resilience to both. That relationship should not be broken.

Dangerous pathogens of humans, animals and plants are a major threat to public health and the nation’s economy. At Porton Down, research is done to understand dangerous pathogens, and how to detect and treat them. Pathogens evolve constantly, so we must always be one step ahead—some 38 new species of human pathogen have been found in the past 25 years. Climate change will affect the emergence and characteristics of infectious diseases, and their transmission in the UK. Globalisation and the ease of international travel allow infections to spread rapidly.

Dangerous pathogens can be weaponised and the security services are alert to the potential for the malicious use of pathogenic material as a terrorist weapon. Anthrax was used as a weapon in the USA in 2001. Porton Down has always been a world leader in that work, as I discovered when visiting the US Centres for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta, Georgia, and the US Government’s Lawrence Livermore Laboratory in California. Indeed, the US Government have invested in HPA Porton Down and currently commission work there.

The HPA has been at the forefront of tackling every biological problem in the past 25 years. In 1986, bovine spongiform encephalopathy was identified, and later the human variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease. In 2001, more than 6 million animals were destroyed in response to foot and mouth disease. Swine flu put HPA Porton Down under pressure in terms of public health planning, anti-viral stockpiling and accelerated vaccine manufacture.

Smallpox, Ebola, anthrax, plague, botulinum, clostridium difficile, ricin, West Nile disease, swine flu and other pathogens that are continually evolving and changing are all in a day’s work at the centre. They are the most deadly pathogens in the world. I salute the scientific work force and their supporters whose research, developments and trials at Porton Down help to protect our nation every single day and prepare us for the worst, whether natural or man-made. Also manufactured at Porton Down is life-saving Erwinase, used to treat leukaemia, the most common childhood cancer, saving some 1,400 young lives every year.

All Governments have recognised the growing importance of this work. In 2008, the Government announced a major multi-million pound rebuilding programme to give the HPA state-of-the-art, world-class high-containment laboratories to levels CL3 and CL4. They would take full advantage of the highly specialised science community at Porton Down and rebuild on the 85-acre North Field site. The high-level security of the site, co-located with the Ministry of Defence laboratories, is ideal. This redevelopment is known as the Chrysalis programme.

The local community is supportive. Indeed, generations of scientists are the local community, and their presence has seen the development of exceptionally large and successful science departments in local schools. Wiltshire council is proactive in providing infrastructure and community services as well readily granting planning permission and promoting the emerging Porton science park. In September 2009, the chief executive of the HPA wrote to me saying:

“We continue to be on track to finalise and submit the Outline Business Case for the project in Spring 2010”.

In October 2009, out of the blue, someone mentioned Terlings Park in Harlow, and the possible conversion of a mothballed 30-year-old pharmaceutical plant, as an alternative to the on-site rebuild, on which the HPA had already spent £10 million. Last month, Terlings Park became the HPA board’s favoured location. This about-turn was met with shocked disbelief by the work force at Porton Down. Both management and trade unions, on behalf of the whole work force, have made the argument against such a misconceived move. HPA management claims that the short-term risks of disruption and hiatus will be outweighed by the 50-year, long-term advantages of synergy with other HPA sites not very far from Harlow. We do not know how they arrived at that conclusion because they have refused to allow us to see the two key documents, their consultants’ reports on the outline business cases and the preferred options analysis. I ask the Minister when those documents will be available for public scrutiny.

I put it to the Minister that a number of points are clear, and they do not support the proposed move to Harlow. The main argument of HPA is that Porton Down is a long way from the other sites—the Radiation Protection Division and Chemical Hazards and Poisons Division at Chilton, Oxfordshire; the Centre for Infections at Colindale in London; and the National Institute for Biological Standards and Controls at Potters Bar. If CEPR moved closer to the other three, HPA alleges that over 50 years a synergy would develop that would outweigh the short-term risks.

So what are the risks? Terlings Park cannot accommodate all the CEPR activities and there is no room for growth, whereas all the other sites could move to Porton Down tomorrow with room to spare. The close working relationship with the military side of Porton Down would be lost and so would their joint resilience. If CEPR is moved to Harlow, it will in fact disintegrate. All the years of expertise in safe handling of the most dangerous organisms in the world will be lost, as will the animal modelling and translation on interventions. The move would also undermine Porton Down’s external income-generating capacity, which currently covers more than two thirds of the costs of running CEPR every year.

Most of the scientists have roots in the Salisbury community and do not wish to move to Harlow. Many of them work on programmes funded by the US National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, which has supplied most of the investment necessary. Would it stand by and watch CEPR walk away to Essex? Would it fund its investment all over again? The risk is too high.

The physical security of the Porton Down campus infrastructure bears no comparison to the Harlow site, which would be very vulnerable. The introduction of dangerous pathogens to the Harlow urban environment is high risk and I do wonder whether the good people of Harlow would really wish their council to agree to it. Inevitably, animals used in trials, including primates, would have to travel by road from Porton Down to Harlow, where safe animal accommodation would have to be provided to support the biological investigation services. Would that be acceptable to the citizens of Harlow?

The Minister confirmed in a parliamentary answer, on 22 February, that the CEPR has been working since 2005 to provide advice and expertise to the organisers of the Olympic and Paralympic games in London in 2012. Any incident during the Olympic games would occur at a time of maximum disruption to the Porton Down CEPR, if it were on the move to Harlow.

The proposed move of 800 Government employees to Harlow in the crowded south-east of England is exactly contrary to the Lyons review, which said that public employees should be moved out of the south-east. Such a move would also be contrary to the report of Sir David Cooksey, which concluded that too much of our excellent medical research failed to translate basic and clinical research into ideas and projects and thence into clinical practice. But that is exactly what happens now at Porton Down—a national benefit that risks being destroyed if CEPR is broken up and sent to Harlow.

I appeal to the board of the Health Protection Agency, the members of which are all extremely distinguished scientists—one has extensive commercial experience in the pharmaceutical industry—to ask itself if it really, in its heart of hearts, supports this disruptive and risky gamble, which would destroy 94 years of scientific excellence that is admired and respected all around the world, and which has a great future at Porton Down.

I have written to the permanent secretary at the Department of Health, saying that I am alarmed by the haste with which the board is seeking a ministerial decision so close to a general election, and asking him not to agree to such a request being made to the Minister. But if it is, on behalf of my constituents I ask her to consider the wider implications for national security as well as the impact on the work force at Porton Down and the wider community of Salisbury and south Wiltshire, before she makes a decision of such magnitude.

May I first congratulate the hon. Member for Salisbury (Robert Key) on securing this debate? I know him to be a passionate supporter and defender of the Health Protection Agency’s facility at Porton Down, its staff and the excellent work that it does, and I look forward to meeting him tomorrow to discuss this important matter in greater detail.

As the hon. Gentleman has said, for almost a century some of our greatest minds worked at Porton Down to protect Britain and her allies during the first world war, the second world war and the cold war. In the age of global terrorism, the work carried out there remains as important today as it ever was. All along, men and women at Porton Down have worked tirelessly in the national interest, and I share his admiration for their work and add my thanks to his. However, the facility itself is in urgent need of major attention. As we have heard, the majority of the buildings date from the 1950s and have been repaired and refurbished over the years to the point where refurbishment is no longer an option. Replacement is the way forward.

I hope that it will help if I give some background to where I feel we have come to. The first thing to say is that Health Protection Agency staff deserve buildings and equipment befitting their status as scientific world leaders. In August 2008, the Department of Health approved the strategic case for Project Chrysalis, authorising the HPA to spend up to £5 million. The agency contributed a further £5 million to this from its central Government grant. Its objective was to create the best possible environment for the work of Porton Down to continue. Although that work focused on the refurbishment of the Porton Down site, the HPA was not restricted from looking at other options. Last summer, as part of the agency’s value for money and due diligence work, an alternative site was found for consideration in Harlow, Essex.

On 12 October, at an all-staff briefing, Mr. Miles Carroll, the HPA’s site director at Porton Down, explained the need to explore every option in order to get the best possible value for money, which included the possible option of moving to another site. He informed the staff that a medical research facility at Terlings Park in Harlow had become available, and that this was being looked at as one of several options. That briefing was followed on the same day by an all-staff online discussion. Between October and December 2009, staff were kept informed by a series of newsletters, bulletins, intranet updates, drop-in sessions and all-staff briefings. The HPA’s chief executive, Mr. Justin McCracken, also briefed the national joint staff committee about the Terlings Park option at a meeting on 3 December. This was not publicly announced as no decisions had been made, but at every stage the HPA has sought to be as open and transparent with its employees as possible.

I understand that the outline business case, containing a number of possible options, was presented to the HPA board on 27 January for its decision. The board will formally inform the Department of Health of its decision and recommendations in due course. Ministers will then decide whether to approve the recommended option and pass it to the Treasury Ministers for final approval. The hon. Gentleman will be aware that, until the Department receives the outline business case, I am unable to comment on the HPA’s detailed proposals, as they have not yet been formed in order to come to my attention. I shall, however, endeavour to address a number of the hon. Gentleman’s concerns for the safety and security of the nation and for the best interests of his constituents, for whom he rightly speaks up.

I shall first address the HPA’s emergency response capability. The agency combines public health, scientific knowledge, research and emergency planning expertise within a single organisation. There is no reason to predict that its ability to carry out an effective emergency response will suffer while the project is being taken forward. On the contrary, one of the objectives of Project Chrysalis is significantly to enhance that capability and capacity. Of course, should a move take place, it will be important to maintain that ability during any transition. Emergency response work at Porton Down would stop only after any replacement facility was up and running and had been properly validated.

I know that the hon. Gentleman is concerned that moving the HPA’s facility from Porton Down—if that were to happen—would undermine our science base, on which so many jobs rely, now and in the future. To safeguard this, if the facility were to move, any potential negative effect on the Porton Down area would need to be more than balanced out by the positive impact of any change. That is one of several crucial factors that the HPA board and Ministers will consider when reaching a final decision. It will also be important that any potential move does not undermine the HPA’s close working relationships with the defence interests on site and with the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. These are vital issues that the HPA will fully consider as part of the outline business case.

The hon. Gentleman rightly raised the matter of the United States federal Government. He expressed his concern that any move could in some way damage or impact on our relations with the United States. The services that the HPA provides to the US Government, including the development of animal models for several diseases, will not be adversely affected, whatever the final decision. Project Chrysalis is designed to improve the UK’s long-term security, and in doing so will reinforce our relationship with the United States. If we continue to have the best facilities and to employ the best people, I have every reason to believe that our relations will remain excellent.

The hon. Gentleman has raised concerns about the security of the laboratories and their staff. I can assure him and the House that their safety will always be our No. 1 priority. The Porton Down site is clearly very secure, and if it were to be relocated, the new facilities would need to be brought up to at least as high a standard.

I know that there is also concern about the potential loss of revenue to the HPA and the Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response, particularly if there were to be any move from Porton Down. Handling the most dangerous pathogens is highly specialised work, and the income generated by the CEPR is an integral part of HPA’s finances. Any move to upgrade the CEPR’s capabilities, however, is likely to improve this income because of the improvement in facilities.

Naturally and quite understandably, the hon. Gentleman is most concerned about the future prospects of his constituents. I reiterate that the outline business case has not been submitted for approval and that no final decisions have been taken on its recommendations. The HPA employs almost 600 highly valued full and part-time staff at Porton Down. In the event of a move to a new facility, the HPA would do everything in its power, as should any responsible public sector employer, to support its staff either by helping them and their families to move to the area of the new site or to help them to find suitable alternative employment.

The hon. Gentleman understandably mentioned Sir Michael Lyons’s review, which looked at relocating a substantial number of public sector activities from London and the south-east to other parts of the UK. The principle of that review would, of course, be an important part of the decision-making process, along with the quality of any alternative facility and value for money for the taxpayer.

I hope that this initial response has been of some assistance to the hon. Gentleman in clarifying the situation and setting out the background. I am pleased to say again, as I said at the outset, that I am meeting him tomorrow in order to discuss all these matters—and, I am sure, others—in far greater detail. I am glad to do that, not least because I understand the reasons for, and the depth of, his concerns, which have been clearly and correctly put before the House this evening.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.