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Health Protection Agency (Porton)

Volume 512: debated on Tuesday 22 June 2010

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

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker, for the opportunity to bring the issue of Porton Down’s future to the House this evening.

My purpose in requesting this debate is to highlight the critical role that the Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response plays in the life of this country, and to raise the question whether the current outline business case that the chief executive and board of the Health Protection Agency have put before the Department of Health to move the CEPR to a site in Harlow is right for the country’s public health needs and right for many of my constituents who work at Porton.

First, it may interest colleagues to know that Porton Down came into being almost 100 years ago, as a response to the horrific chlorine attacks on allied soldiers during the first world war. The institution has been active and working for almost 100 years. It was a chemicals research centre in 1916. In 1930 it became the Chemical Defence Experimental Station, and in 1940 it began looking at biological warfare and carrying out experimental investigations into anthrax.

The current CEPR building was built between 1948 and 1951 and named the microbiological research department. Thirty years later it became the Public Health Laboratory, and subsequently it split from the Ministry of Defence facility at Porton Down, now the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, which is co-located next door.

In 1993 Porton became an independent agency of the Department of Health, and in 2003 it became one of the founder establishments of the Health Protection Agency, being renamed the Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response. Now co-located on site with DSTL, it is treated as one site by the Health and Safety Executive. DSTL provides a back up of containment level 4 laboratories for the highest microbiological risks. The work at Porton is complex, involving the study of dangerous pathogens of humans, animals and plants. They can be a major threat to public health and include anthrax, swine flu and foot and mouth.

Porton is a world leader for examining diseases that spread rapidly: for example, insect-borne diseases such as West Nile fever and malaria spreading to new areas. It is a world-class centre for translational research that helps to ensure that new discoveries are developed and translated from the mind of the scientist into real benefits of tested medicines for patients. It routinely works with partners to develop tuberculosis vaccines and vaccines for whooping cough, meningitis and anthrax. Porton has the biggest TB group in Europe. It also has an aerosol delivery function using specialist equipment.

The CEPR is routinely asked to do work by the US Government, as it is one of very few centres in the world with the capability and experienced staff to carry out that work. Through its work, Porton manufactures Erwinase, a drug developed there for the treatment of childhood leukaemia, estimated to save 1,400 lives annually. It has the rare capability to manufacture emergency vaccine in response to emerging disease threats. Porton receives a massive amount of its funding—between 70% and 80%—from the work that it does for academia and Governments overseas.

I wish to make the point that the CEPR at Porton Down has been very long established in my constituency, and it does critical work that is vital to this nation and to the world. However, I am a reasonable man, and if I felt that the proposed move was in the best public interests of the country as a whole, I would have to concede reluctantly and accept the proposals that have been tabled. I do not believe that that is the case.

On the day when my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has indicated that future capital spending should be prioritised on those items of expenditure that give “significant economic returns”, and at a time when £1 in every £4 is being borrowed, why has the option of allowing more operational autonomy for the CEPR not been examined carefully? It is my contention that the best way to maintain excellent service for the public health needs of the country, while achieving cost-effective solutions, is not to spend the estimated £400 million on a move to Harlow when the financial benefits set out in the outline business case would accrue after 60 years. I believe that a cheaper solution exists, whereby the risks of investment can be shared with a new co-operative led by experienced Porton-based scientists who are keen to take on the challenge of building new revenue streams from the US Government and academia while maintaining their vital commitments as an HPA establishment.

Let me move on to the background behind the outline business case proposing a move to Harlow. In 2008, the previous Government announced a major funding initiative—Project Chrysalis, a rebuilding programme to update the facilities at Porton, which was, I acknowledge, much required. Then, in October 2009, out of the blue, a proposal for Terlings Park in Harlow emerged as a option. Then, in January 2010, a new preferred option emerged—the GlaxoSmithKline New Frontiers site in Harlow. Now, the outline business case is being pushed through.

Project Chrysalis has already spent about £10 million on the plans for the rebuild at Porton Down on an site adjacent to the current one. It has been ongoing, assessed and developed over two years. The move to the GSK site in Harlow has been considered only since January this year, and it is thought that the project team is still undertaking assessment of the site. There is therefore significant cause for concern that insufficient information is available to substantiate a compelling business case to make this decision. The £85 million that was budgeted for the moving costs has not been fully scrutinised, and it is likely significantly to understate the true costs of the work required. The GSK site currently undertakes neuroscience research, and the laboratories are mainly chemistry-type labs that are not suitable for easy conversion to the sort of work that is undertaken at the CEPR. At so many levels, the move does not make sense.

Some questions need to be asked about the proposed move to Harlow. As there is to be a break of synergy with the DSTL, which is immediately adjacent to the CEPR at Porton, will it be acknowledged that the new CL4 lab in Harlow, which is to be the same size as the one formerly proposed for the new build at Porton, will cost more in reality? There will be no benefits from having a similar lab next door, as we do at Porton, because there will be nothing next door. What costing and risk assessment has been undertaken with respect to the travel arrangements between Porton and the densely populated town of Harlow?

Has the planning process to allow the construction of such sensitive facilities, where such difficult work is undertaken, been examined? During any proposed transition, staff will need to be trained on both sites in both CL4 labs to ensure that there is no interruption during a national emergency. How will that be achieved initially and kept workable if the CEPR is in Harlow, when I am told that up to 80% of the experienced scientists do not want to move? Has a skills availability assessment been made as part of the outline business case?

What functional dependencies exist with other agencies of the HPA? It is my contention that although their technologies may be similar, the functions of the different HPA agencies are very different. Does the outline business case set out explicitly the financial business case for the co-location of the different agencies of the HPA? The head of the CEPR has said to me that the detailed synergies have not been worked out yet, but it seems that the logic for the business case relies on the notion that all the HPA agencies can be brought together at some time in the future. He also said that potential synergies would be looked for, but they have not been established yet. At a time when every penny counts and the health budget is facing severe pressure, why should we back a move in relation to which the co-location potential and synergies will be “looked for”? Furthermore, if co-location is such a panacea for the operational effectiveness of the HPA, can it be confirmed whether the costs of moving the other HPA agencies from Chilton and Colindale to Harlow have been worked out? When are those moves likely to take place?

Having visited Porton, I am unsure of what overlap there really is. There is the possibility of some animal facilities being shared with the National Institute for Biological Standards and Control, and that some microbiology labs may also be shared. However, any sharing is not really possible, and money cannot be saved, until all agencies are on the same site, and there are no plans in sight for that to happen. Currently, the plans are therefore notional, uncosted and unproven. If the proposed move goes ahead, it will break up translational research—that is, scientists taking stuff from the desk to tested medicine. Manufacturing will remain at Porton, but the key translational function will be lost.

It remains my contention that the proposed Harlow move has not been properly thought through. The benefits of co-location had not been mentioned before the first Harlow site came on the scene, so opportunistic were the uncosted arguments for co-location. The well- intentioned arguments to move the Porton Down facility to Harlow have not taken into account the opportunity that exists for Porton to generate its own income and increase its own revenue. That should be explored before the Government back a move to Harlow, which would be expensive, is unproven and would put at risk the unique, world-class facility that we have been operating successfully at Porton.

The CEPR has its own funding stream from royalties from various vaccines, and it is almost self-sufficient. To upgrade its facilities, it would need help only with capital costs, which it could repay if given the operational freedoms that I have suggested. It has unique synergies with the defence establishment next door. Eighty per cent. of the work force would not like to move. It is important when working in those high containment laboratories to have experienced staff—their combined experience stretches back over many hundreds of years. If those people will not move, the challenge to the public health of this country is significant, putting it at risk.

I thank my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) for being utterly decent in giving me a couple of minutes to respond, given our conflicting constituency interests. It is much appreciated.

Mr. Deputy Speaker, you would expect me to seek investment in Harlow—I am the local Member of Parliament. However, that view is not just mine; it is also that of the Health Protection Agency. Its board concluded that, for pure cost-effectiveness and value for money, the HPA must move to Harlow. The foreword to its “Outline Business Case” states:

“Relocating to Harlow is the preferred option. It offers excellent value for money. In addition to significant savings, and reduction of overheads, there are major benefits.”

What are the facts? We know that the 50-year-old site in Porton Down is rapidly approaching the end of its life and that it would be expensive to refurbish—it would cost almost the same as buying the GSK facility, and offers little strategic value. We know that the option of staying at Porton Down was fully considered in the business case and rejected on the ground of poor value for money. We know that GSK will sell its Harlow facility to the HPA for 30% cheaper than the construction cost, so moving to Harlow is a bargain for the taxpayer. We also know that there are strategic benefits for the HPA in Harlow—the London-Cambridge corridor is the heart of biomedical research in the UK. Moving closer to its north London facilities will ultimately save HPA money because it can substantially reduce its overheads. Moving to Harlow would increase the HPA’s capacity. The economic benefits have been assessed as “in excess of £100 billion” over the lifetime of the new site.

For the record, I must say that GlaxoSmithKline is a huge local employer in Harlow, and that it recently announced up to 1,000 redundancies. Unemployment in my town is already the highest in west Essex. Sadly, some estates in Harlow are among the most deprived in Britain, but the investment would transform economic prospects in Harlow.

The 50-year-old site in Porton Down is too expensive to repair. We have a good deal in Harlow, and we must take it. The huge regeneration that it would bring to the town is desperately needed, but I urge my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for Health to base the decision primarily on the business case and value for money.

I congratulate you, Mr. Deputy Speaker—I do not think I have stood at the Dispatch Box with you in the Chair, so it is a pleasure to be here this evening.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) on securing his first debate. I also congratulate him on securing his seat, and thank him for continuing the work of his predecessor, who also argued passionately on behalf of the establishments at Porton Down. He is sadly missed in this place. My hon. Friend has taken up the cause and pursued it with similar vigour. I am grateful to him for his correspondence on the matter and for sharing some of the issues that he mentioned this evening, including planning, relocating staff, skills availability, costs and the detailed synergies.

I also thank my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow (Robert Halfon). Oh my, the difficulties of government. In time, I will upset one hon. Friend and please the other.

As my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury knows, the issue came before the House just a few months ago, when he was still a candidate and I was an Opposition Member. How times have changed. Our roles have substantially changed since then, and I am grateful for the opportunity to set out the Government’s position. For the benefit of Members present, I will set out the situation as it stands before responding to my hon. Friend’s points in detail.

As my hon. Friend pointed out, the history of chemical and biological research at Porton Down is long. Throughout many changes in name and number, the centres continued to provide research and production programmes of the highest international quality. Today’s debate concerns the future of the Health Protection Agency’s facilities at the Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response. The centre is a specialist facility providing protection against some of the most dangerous organisms in the world. From identification to containment, and from research to production, it fulfils a critical national security function, as well as providing valuable expertise internationally.

As the world of microbiology has grown, so the centre’s responsibilities have also expanded, yet its current home says more about its past than its future. The site is 60 years old, the building structures are in a poor state of repair and the laboratories clearly do not meet modern safety standards, so something must be done. The centre’s work is vital to protect the nation’s health, and it is important that the facilities at Porton Down are fit for purpose not just over the next Parliament, but over the next dozen years or so. That is why it is so important that we make the right decision about the centre’s redevelopment. I appreciate that both my hon. Friends believe they have the right solution to the problem of the centre’s location.

I understand that in September 2008, the Department of Health authorised the HPA to develop an outline business case for the improvement of the laboratory facilities, a process known as Project Chrysalis. That case was submitted to the Department on 4 June 2010, and the Government have not made a decision on it. As I am sure my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury will appreciate, a proposal with so many implications—not least cost, safety and security—must be thoroughly scrutinised. His concern that that will not be the case is probably the basis for this debate. Officials at the Department are considering the business case and will make a recommendation to Ministers as soon as possible. Provided that we are content, the business case will then be passed to the Treasury, where it will be subject to further scrutiny before final sign-off by the Chief Secretary.

My hon. Friend raised concerns about the way the business case is considered. For his benefit and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Harlow, let me be clear that the Department of Health’s assessment of the business case will be rigorous, fair and grounded in this simple set of principles: first, that redevelopment is necessary to protect this critical national infrastructure, and to allow it to provide an even better service to the country and its international customers; secondly, that all options must be examined on the basis of cost, value, safety, security, sustainability and strategy; and thirdly, that our assessment must be forensic in its analysis, unprejudiced in its conduct and unbiased in its conclusions. That means looking closely at the risks and benefits, and at the selection criteria. It also means checking that the proposals are affordable and sustainable and that they represent real value for money, and that the investment fits with the organisation’s long-term strategic aims. We are pressing to ensure that every consideration, particularly cost, is taken into account. There is an explicit requirement that the successful proposal must represent value for money, even when weighted for the various external factors such as relocation, staffing and business opportunities, which both my hon. Friends mentioned.

I understand that the business case also includes details of the possible effects on the work force, including the cost and security impact of any relocation. The impact of any disruption to the centre’s work, whether financial or operational, will also be taken into account, as it must be. At each stage of the assessment process, the HPA will provide any data or analysis that might be helpful in reaching a decision.

My hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury mentioned other options, including splitting the Centre for Emergency Preparedness from the HPA to create a co-operative at Porton Down. I thank him for his suggestions, and I trust he will be reassured by this debate and our correspondence on the matter that we remain open to new ideas. I hope he will acknowledge, however, that any decision about the future of the facilities must be taken with the national interest in mind. The issues facing the HPA at Porton Down will be solved not by simply changing ownership or management, but by a significant redevelopment of the existing site, or a move to a more suitable location.

The work that the centre does is vital to protect the nation’s health, but my hon. Friend rightly stated that it is vital across the world as well. It is in all our interests that we arrive at the right decision, which means taking the time properly to assess the business case put forward, and exposing it to detailed scrutiny. It also means being unafraid to listen to new ideas. As he said, every penny counts, so close scrutiny and robust analysis of the business case will be vital. I ask my hon. Friends the Members for Salisbury and for Harlow to have a little faith. The Government will take every precaution to make sure that the future of this work is secured, and we will look closely at every reasonable consideration before reaching a decision that is right for the centre and the nation.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.