[Sir Alan Meale in the Chair]
It is a pleasure to speak under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. We have 90 minutes, but I will keep my remarks relatively short because there is an appetite for further speeches, although I admit that I would have preferred it if there were more MPs here for this debate on an important issue. I am here to defend a jewel in my constituency, but I am not here because Kew gardens is in my constituency. Kew gardens is a national, even an international, treasure, and I will briefly explain why.
Kew gardens has been a world-class centre for botanic research for nearly a quarter of a millennium—250 years. William Hooker, who was a director of Kew gardens in the mid-19th century, was Darwin’s principal sounding board for his theory of evolution, and it is said that “On the Origin of Species” would not exist without Hooker and Kew, certainly not as we know it today. Kew gardens goes back a long way, and today Kew has the world’s largest collection of living plants. It has one of the world’s largest botanical library collections, and it has more than 7 million specimens in a herbarium, including 350,000 “type specimens,” the original specimens on which new species descriptions are based.
Kew gardens is a UNESCO world heritage site. It attracts 2 million visitors a year and is one of the UK’s leading tourist destinations. Each year, 100,000-plus schoolchildren go to Kew to learn about plants. The extraordinary millennium seed bank, which I will address in a few moments, is the largest plant conservation programme in the world and I am told that by 2020 it will hold seeds from 25% of the world’s plant species. People will know what I mean when I say that Kew gardens is not just a constituency concern.
It is easy to see all that as nice to have, as of academic interest only, but at the risk of stating the blindingly obvious, plants are central to our life. Without plants we would not exist, so I will briefly focus on the world-leading science at Kew. Before this debate I received many letters from Kew’s members, staff and scientists, as well as from general lovers of Kew gardens. I had one letter from a member of Kew’s staff that cited one key area of Kew’s scientific work. She said:
“Taxonomy is something Kew excels in, in fact we are the world leaders. Taxonomy is a science that will rarely hit the news headlines or draw in funding. However; taxonomy underpins all biological scientific research. If we didn’t know one species from another, or how many species there are; or where they exist in the world, how would any other biological, conservation, climate change, ecological restoration, food security, or medicinal research take place? Taxonomy underpins science the world over, and Kew is currently the world authority. It would be a terrible mistake and an irreversible loss to science to jeopardise this.”
She is right, and that is just the start of Kew’s science. Kew has been involved in cutting-edge plant chemistry research to identify anti-cancer, anti-inflammatory and anti-diabetic properties in British plants. Kew is building a one-stop-shop register of medicinal plant names and researching medicinal uses of our own British plants. Our flora consists of some 1,600 species, of which 400 are believed to have medicinal properties. A quarter of all prescription drugs come directly from plants, and right now, as if just to prove the point, Kew is looking for potential Ebola drugs based on the tobacco plant.
Kew’s work on climate adaptation is also world-leading. It is using the natural characteristics of wild relatives of mainstream commodity crops such as coffee, which is among the most important economically, to breed climate resilience into commercial varieties. If we consider that, as a species, 80% of our calorie intake comes from just 12 dominant crops and that 50% of our calories come from just three big grasses—wheat, maize and rice—the in-built vulnerability of the global food economy is self-evident. Imagine what would happen if we were to lose any one of those crops. Kew is leading work on building resilience into the essential commodities on which we all depend.
Kew is leading studies on wild bees, which are hugely important given our dependence on pollinators and the fact that pollinators are declining rapidly in this country. Kew provides the Government with top-level advice on climate change, biodiversity and the illegal trade in wood from endangered species—the list goes on and on. We face countless challenges across the world, but the challenge that dwarfs all others is the environment. As the world’s population continues to grow, and as our appetite for resources continues to escalate, we are ravaging the very ecosystems on which we all depend. It is a mathematical certainty—this is not my opinion but a fact—that, unless we change dramatically, we will find ourselves scrambling to compete for ever-dwindling resources, and Kew is part of the solution. Kew is more important than ever, yet we have chosen this moment in our history to jeopardise its future.
I will put that in context. In 1983, 31 years ago, 90% of Kew’s funding came from Government. That has dropped below 40% this year. In April 2014, it was announced that there would be further cuts of £1.5 million and that up to 125 jobs, mostly in scientific research, would have to go, and Kew faced a £5 million hole in its budget. As of 1 December 2014, there had already been a 22% reduction in core science staff. The very small silver lining is that that appalling threat to Kew’s future has caused people from all over the world to rally to its defence. Here in the UK, 100,000 people signed a petition in a matter of weeks, and I was pleased and honoured to deliver the petition directly to No. 10 with my friend, the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell). Outside of that process, ecologists, conservationists and scientists from across the world have expressed real anger about the decision. The brilliant biologist Jane Goodall described the cuts simply as “unbelievably stupid”. I am thrilled to hear that, starting tomorrow, the influential Science and Technology Committee will be holding an inquiry into those cuts.
In the face of that storm, the Government felt compelled to offer some kind of reprieve. In September 2014, the Deputy Prime Minister was wheeled out to announce that funding would be maintained until April 2015. I think that he and other members of the Government had hoped that that would be the end of it, but it was only a pause. People could see that it was a delay, a temporary reprieve, so the campaign persisted. On the back of today’s debate, the Government have felt compelled to move yet again. This morning, just a few hours ago, they announced that a further £2.3 million will be awarded during the 2015-16 financial year, which is clearly good news. It gives Kew time to prepare and adjust, but it is only a reprieve.
It is worth noting that Kew has already lost a considerable number of its scientific staff, so the reprieve is not good news for them or, frankly, for their work. What it shows, however, is that the Government know that they massively miscalculated and misunderstood the level of anger that their decision would provoke and the value that we all attach to Kew and its work. The petition demonstrates that public campaigning can work, and I pay tribute to all the members of the public who signed it, as well as to all the celebrated ecologists, conservationists and scientists who succeeded in shifting the Government’s position.
Where now for Kew? I do not doubt that structural improvements can be made and that savings can be found. Kew has been run by scientists for many years, and it has suffered decades of underinvestment. From our conversations I know that Kew’s management and staff are up for the challenge, but the Government have to provide a realistic trajectory, over years not months. Kew is not looking for the odd reprieve. Kew cannot look to the long term if its funding arrangements are so short-term and so uncertain. Yes, Kew scientists know that they will have to look for other sources of revenue, but there is also a risk in that. There is value in, and a desperate need for, public-interest science, which does not always lend itself to commercial considerations. An obvious example of that is genetically modified food. Governments and businesses fall over themselves to invest in GM, but so far all the promises of cheap pest control, and crops that tolerate floods, salt and extreme weather, simply have not materialised. A different type of biotechnology, traditional hybridisation, has delivered those products, and at a tiny fraction of the cost. Using new technologies such as gene marker mapping and genome sequencing, conventional breeding has quietly delivered—
Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.
Before we were interrupted by the Division, I was making the point about the importance of pure public-interest science and saying that such science does not always lend itself to commercial considerations. The example that I was giving was GM food. As Members will know, GM food has attracted an enormous amount of Government time and commercial investment, despite the fact that it has not lived up to its hype. GM food has not delivered on the promises that have been made over the years, of cheap pest control and crops that tolerate salt, extreme weather, floods and all the rest of it. By contrast, more traditional biotechnology—traditional hybridisation—has delivered those products. For example, in recent years it has delivered drought-tolerant and flood-tolerant varieties of rice, with high yields and so on, using techniques such as gene marker mapping and genome sequencing. However, it has not received anything like the level of investment from industry or the level of energy from Government that GM food has.
The cost of bringing a single GM crop to market is roughly $136 million, but the cost of bringing a non-GM variety, through these more traditional means, costs one fiftieth of that sum. Businesses and Governments are not falling over themselves to back traditional biotech because there is very little money in it for them. Improving crop varieties that farmers can use year after year is clearly not as profitable to industry as a GM model that requires farmers to purchase patented seeds year after year, locking them into dependence on the giant companies, just three of which control a staggering 70% of global seed sales. I give this example, and there are many other such examples, simply to show why we need pure public- interest science. It is important and if we push Kew purely to the commercial, which is where I think it will head if these cuts continue, we risk losing something inherently important and valuable.
I will end by quoting Richmond’s greatest living resident, Sir David Attenborough, who, as people can imagine, has taken a keen interest in this issue. He said:
“The important thing to remember is that Kew is the premiere botanical gardens in the world scientifically. People who think it is just a place to go to look at pretty flowers and flower beds are mistaking the importance of Kew Gardens. The Seed Bank is of world importance and it should be supported by the Government like a proper institution or university. And the continuing idea that Kew Gardens is merely a playground and that it should just put up the prices to look after itself is a misguided assessment of the value of Kew. The Government and the scientific departments should recognise that and support it properly.”
Like Sir David Attenborough and so many other people, I urge the Government to rethink their plans—even further than they have this morning—and to provide a genuine, long-term plan for Kew gardens.
I declare an interest as a member of the Friends of Kew.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith), who has been campaigning so hard on this particular issue—not just as a constituency matter, but as a genuine commitment to the work that Kew undertakes.
I will echo some of the expressions that the hon. Gentleman used. If Members look at the correspondence received by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee for its hearing tomorrow, they will see that it sets out in significant detail the role that Kew has played. There are more PhDs per square inch in this correspondence than in any other Select Committee correspondence I have seen, which reflects the intensity of the scientific debate about the future of Kew, and that debate is absolutely fascinating. I am not completely sure what “Angiosperm Phylogeny (Group 3)” is all about, but the reference to it demonstrates the breadth of the work that goes on at Kew and confirms what has been already said about Kew—namely, that it is a world leader in scientific research.
I also say that for any west London MP, for any London MP and for many other MPs beyond London, Kew gardens are themselves a world heritage site. In addition, Kew is a park enjoyed by literally millions of people. Many of our constituents enjoy it as one of the most important open spaces in west London.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Kew is important to the whole world and certainly to the whole of this country, but it has a special place of trust for those of us who have grown up and lived in west London. We want to see a sustainable future for Kew. While I acknowledge that the announcement today is welcome, there has to be a long-term future, and we have to preserve something that is unique in the world.
May I remark on the success of this campaign so far? It started way back in April, when concerns were being expressed by members of staff at Kew through their trade unions—PCS and Prospect, among others. As the hon. Member for Richmond Park said, we delivered a petition of more than 100,000 names. Unfortunately, we were unable to take the wheelbarrow containing the petition up to No.10, but we took the petition itself. The campaign built up a head of steam. We held a public meeting down at Kew; there were at least 200 people there, who were incredibly enthusiastic about the campaign. That effort secured £1.5 million, which the Deputy Prime Minister announced and which was very welcome, and we have received £2.3 million today. If we keep on talking, we will be up to the £5 million needed to cover the gap identified some months ago.
I am grateful for the new money but there is a long-term problem, mentioned by the hon. Member for Richmond Park: we need stability now. We cannot keep on going through these ups and downs of budgeting, in which one month a £5 million gap is found and then the Government come up with the occasional £1 million in the short term. What we are looking for is a long-term consistent plan.
The difficulty at the moment is about the funding of Kew itself. I have been looking through the figures, as set out in the House of Commons Library briefing. If we look at the funding in recent years, to be frank we see that the money has been ricocheting around, and up and down, in that time. There is the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs operational budget. In 2007-08, it was £17.6 million; it went up to £19.85 million in 2008-09; then it went down in 2009-10 to £17.65 million; and it is now down to £14.4 million. Again, the message that comes across from managers, trustees and others is the inconsistency and unreliability of the funding, which means that they are unable to plan from one year to the next because many of the decisions about the funding of Kew are made quite late in the year. Consequently, the management find it almost impossible to plan.
The money I have mentioned is the core operational funding, which pays for staffing. In addition, if we look at the capital budget, which also comes from DEFRA, we see that in 2007-08 it was £7.6 million; it went up in 2012-13 to £17 million; and it is now back down to £13.6 million, but that includes some elements that take into account redundancy costs and other costs. Again, even on the basic infrastructure costs, let alone the staffing, the inability to plan for the long term is affecting the efficient management of the organisation itself.
Kew has done all it can to raise its own funds. We can see from the trust itself the operations that it has undertaken, including the charitable work that has taken place and the charitable donations that have been made. In addition, the hon. Member for Richmond Park and I met Marcus Agius, the chair of the trustees at Kew, who set out for us the discussions that had been taking place about the restructuring, which aims to secure additional funds. However, at the end of the day that was overridden—well, the backdrop to all this was the reduction in core income. So even though the restructuring is there to ensure that there is enhanced income, particularly with regard to the scientific work, it is still based on an overall cut in expenditure from DEFRA itself.
Again, part of the problem is that the income comes from DEFRA, whereas the work that Kew does actually spans a range of different Departments. Kew plays an important educational and scientific role. A range of aspects of its work could properly be funded by other Departments, particularly its work in the developing world. However, it relies on DEFRA; unfortunately, DEFRA’s budget has been cut in recent years, meaning that the cuts have followed through to Kew. There is volatility about the whole funding process, both in terms of DEFRA’s funding and Kew’s ability to secure funds from elsewhere. That means there is lack of clarity about the future of funding and an inability to plan and invest in Kew’s long-term future.
As the hon. Member for Richmond Park said, the tragedy is that this year there have been significant cuts: 125 posts have been cut, with 65 staff having already gone, and there is now a group of staff in 51 posts who, although there are 42 vacancies, are declared surplus. Although it is possible that they will able to compete for some of the 42 vacancies, not all the vacant posts are suitable alternatives for those staff.
Kew’s expertise is described as a mosaic of individuals with their own individual expertise in small teams. In recent years, that expertise has been whittled down. For example, the voluntary redundancy scheme has meant that, in certain areas of activity, the expertise has either been reduced significantly or lost altogether. I shall give some examples that have been provided to explain the situation to us.
Expertise in legumes, one of the world’s economically important plant families, has now almost entirely gone and expertise in pollen has almost gone, with implications for health, forensics, conservation and the study of pollen in the archaeological and geological contexts. Capacity in many other areas has also been reduced, meaning that potential skills shortages are being faced in a number of areas. Kew relies on some world-renowned experts in these particular fields. It is absolutely admirable that a large number of staff who have retired or gone from Kew as a result of voluntary redundancy have come back voluntarily and are now offering their expertise as volunteers. What greater commitment can be demonstrated than that?
In addition, there is concern that the gap in funding from DEFRA is having an impact as Kew desperately tries to seek funding from elsewhere.
The entrance fee for Kew is £15 and there is now a discussion about whether children should be charged. For my constituency, Kew has become an oasis of calm within west London—particularly for families, who visit and enjoy it. Any further increase in fees will, unfortunately, deter many people from visiting Kew and there will be a self-fulfilling prophecy of decline as a result. More importantly, at the moment Kew offers the opportunity for all families to be able to visit. Any increase in prices will deter those least able to afford it and possibly those who need it the most in terms of being able to break away from the duress of their everyday lives.
There are other concerns. Yes, of course fundraising activities have to take place at Kew, but there has to be a balance as well. We do not want Kew turning into a base for funfairs and other activities that crowd out the environmental enjoyment of the park itself.
I have listed the range of issues put to us in the various public meetings that we have had. There is real concern that unless we get some agreement on stable funding over the longer-term period—the next five to 10 years in particular—the additional money that came in September and the additional money today, which of course is welcome, will tide us over perhaps for another 18 months and then we will be back to square one. In the meantime, we will have lost expert staff and—pardon the pun—their expertise does not grow on trees. These people have been trained throughout their lives and have dedicated their lives to Kew. Their expertise must not be lost.
Although Kew got some investment from the significant funds that other institutions gained—particularly the museums, with free access and investment over a longer period—because of its link to DEFRA in particular it never gained the scale of funding needed to tackle its long-term issues of physical infrastructure and the long-term financing of its staffing and research, particularly its scientific research capacity. Many people feel that, as a result, Kew has been discriminated against and that now is the time to stand back and look at where we go from here.
The triennial review is coming up in the new year—the scientific review is coming back to us as well—and that will give us some opportunity to look at the long-term role of Kew, but that must be linked to a long-term financial and investment plan. If that means looking at DEFRA’s or other Departments’ budgets, that discussion needs to go on within the Government.
I have a specific request for the Minister to take away with him. Kew management are desperately keen to work closely with the Government. There has been some close liaison between Kew management, the trustees and the Government in trying to look at a long-term financial plan for Kew, but we are nowhere near securing a sufficient deal on that.
My request is that the Minister should go back to his Department and convene a meeting with all interested parties—all the stakeholders—including the Friends of Kew, the relevant local MPs, trustees, the management of Kew and the trade unions. In that way, we can get absolute clarity on the current financial position and the Government’s plans for the long-term future of Kew. We cannot have the budget ricocheting around as it has done in recent years. A long-term, stable funding plan for Kew needs to be agreed between the Government and all parties. I ask the Minister to get everyone around the table in the coming months.
The £2.3 million on top of the £1.5 million has given us the breathing space to consider long-term staffing needs and examine a long-term plan, based on the restructuring that has taken place so far, in respect of the ambitions of Kew.
When we met the chair of the trustees, he outlined the work that had gone on: the development of a scientific vision; the way in which work force activities, in individual silos at the moment, were being broken down; the co-operation across areas of expertise; and the introduction of a better career development plan for the staff. However, at the end that was all clouded by the reduction in the core income. Unfortunately, I think that the plans that Kew is putting forward will hit the financial rocks—perhaps not in the next 18 months, now that we have the additional money, but after those 18 months, unless we have a clear commitment from the Government.
We need to address the issue on a cross-party basis. Bearing in mind its international and global scientific role, Kew’s budget and long-term planning cannot be dependent on changes in Government. I would welcome the opportunity for all stakeholders to come together and for a cross-party agreement on the long-term financing of Kew, agreeing a base budget from which the fundraising activities could be developed as well as some of the scientific project work, to bring in additional funds. There should be solid agreement between parties and all stakeholders on a long-term financial plan for Kew.
I turn to the current staff difficulties. Following the £2.3 million announced today and the £1.5 million announced earlier, the message to the management now should be to hold off any further redundancies and cutbacks because there is real anxiety about the loss of expertise as a result of the cuts and the voluntary redundancies that have already taken place. It is important that the message to management is that they hold on to what staff and expertise they have until there is a much better and deeper discussion about Kew’s long-term future.
I hope tomorrow’s Select Committee visit will produce a report that gives us some indication of what the Committee sees as Kew’s long-term future. The evidence that has already been provided emphasises Kew’s scientific role and the importance of holding on to Kew’s solid bedrock of scientists. However, those presenting evidence tomorrow will present ideas about how to establish a long-term budget. There is a spirit of co-operation between all the stakeholders now, and the Government should seize that opportunity. As I say, I hope that is done on a cross-party basis.
As a friend of Kew, I know that many of us have enjoyed the gardens over the years. Kew is a world heritage site and a beautiful park. Underlying all that, however, is the magnificent role that Kew plays in scientific research. If we do not address Kew’s needs now and seize this opportunity to secure its long-term future, many of us will feel extremely guilty in years to come when it is degraded as a result of waves of cuts and the instability of its funding base.
I hope the Minister will agree to meet us all and to bring all stakeholders together. We can create a long-term plan for Kew. In that way, we will not need to have another Adjournment debate in a few months’ time. Indeed, every time we go for an early-day motion or an Adjournment debate, it produces an extra couple of million pounds, so, in the long run, it would be cheaper for the Minister to bring us all together.
There are three reasons why I want to contribute to the debate. First, I was the last Minister of State in the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food—the Labour Government abolished it when they came into office in 1997. At the time, MAFF had responsibility for Kew gardens. For a while, therefore, I had ministerial responsibility for them, and they were an oasis of calm, especially when one was having to deal with things such as BSE and slaughtering millions of cattle. However, the case of Kew makes the machinery of governance point that non-departmental public bodies ricochet from one Department of State to another, depending on how the architecture of Whitehall responsibilities is made up. I will come back to that in a second.
My second reason for wanting to contribute is that, as my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) and the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) have made clear, Kew is one of the country’s outstanding assets. Indeed, in an oral question about Kew—looking at the House of Commons Library brief, I think I am one of the few colleagues who has asked one—I said that we all see it as a “national treasure”.
The third, personal, reason why I want to contribute to the debate is that my very first date with my wife was at Kew gardens. I therefore have a particular sentimental reason.
The hon. Gentleman’s machinery of governance point is very much the nub of the issue. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to be Ministers know that, each year, the Chief Secretary agrees a spending provision with the Secretary of State for each Department. Once that overall spending envelope is agreed, Ministers have to go through the Department to see how it will be shared out among the various commitments and statutory provisions it has to undertake. Inevitably, non-departmental public bodies come at the tail end of those negotiations because Departments tend, understandably, to look first at their core activities and then, if one is not careful, to say, “We are having to take an x% reduction in our public spending, so we have to apply that across the Department as a whole.” That leads, even if there is a three-year review, to the figures one sometimes sees.
As the hon. Gentleman fairly observed, and as the House of Commons Library brief demonstrates, the narrative here is not one of recent sudden cuts to Kew’s funding: there has been considerable yo-yoing over the last eight years or so. For example, in 2013-14, Kew’s funding was £28 million. In 2007-08, however, it was only £25 million. In the following years, it was £26 million, £28 million, £24 million, £28 million and £32 million, so it yaws around quite considerably over the years. In those circumstances, it is difficult for any organisation or institution to plan.
If one keeps Kew as a non-departmental public body, it will be hard for the Department of State to ring-fence funding for it, as against everything else it has to provide for. Of course, the figures are not small. DEFRA provided £32.5 million in funding in the financial year 2012-13, out of Kew’s total income of nearly £60 million. Kew’s budget is therefore quite substantial; indeed, I cannot think of any similar non-departmental public body with a similar budget. The hon. Gentleman spoke about the museums, but they tend to get direct grant in aid, while other research organisations tend to be parts of universities.
One of Kew’s great assets is its seed collection. I know from my time as a Minister with responsibility for the Overseas Development Administration and from chairing the International Development Committee that the seed collection is a global resource. However, that is really the responsibility of the Department for International Development, not DEFRA.
I rather find myself agreeing with my hon. Friend and the hon. Gentleman that we need to see how Kew, which is, by every account, an exceptional body, can be removed from the non-departmental public body, machinery of governance funding process. Permanent secretaries across Whitehall—in DFID, the Department for Culture, Media and Sport, DEFRA and, indeed, in the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills, which is responsible for innovation, science and connections with universities—should put their minds to determining what value the nation places on Kew and then work backwards from that. If the nation places a value on Kew, it may be more sensible for Kew simply to get a grant in aid directly from the Treasury.
As a London MP, I wish to make it clear that Kew is not just a museum piece or a phenomenally important research institution, but a wonderful part of London. It is used by many of my constituents as a place for general recreation and leisure. It is very much a 21st century asset, as well as having an important history.
I think the whole House would agree with that observation.
I do not think the House should look on this as a beat-up for the Minister who has to respond to the debate. Nor do I think anyone would disagree with the Deputy Prime Minister when he said:
“Kew gardens is one of the world’s most important botanical research and education facilities…The Millennium Seed Bank is of global scientific significance, and scientists at Kew are heavily involved in research in the vital fields of biodiversity and climate change.”
All those things go pretty much across every Department. Climate change involves the Department for Energy and Climate Change. It is very hard that the responsibility for funding the whole of Kew should come within the budget of just one Department of state.
I would therefore hope for cross-party and cross-departmental discussions, not just about the funding of Kew, because such discussions would bring us perennially back to the same issue, but—although it may be rather boring talking about the machinery of governance—about where within the machinery of governance Kew sits and who is responsible for funding it under the National Heritage Act 1983. Changing that structure might make it possible to give Kew more certainty than it has had—and not just on the present Government’s watch. In fairness, I have not looked back to before 2007, and the Library has not given the figures, but I suspect that if I look back even to the time when I was the Minister, the figures tended to yo-yo around from year to year, depending on the departmental spend. I suspect that a cross-Government and cross-departmental review is required of where Kew should fit within the machinery of government and how it can be given sustainable funding. If we regard it, as I think we all do, as a national asset, we need to treasure it as one.
I am delighted to take part in the debate. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) on presenting such a cogent and comprehensive case for the support of the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. I agree with every word that the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) said. I hope the message will go out that there is substantial unanimity across the House about something that is not just a national but an international treasure—an important and fantastic resource for the United Kingdom.
I have been going to Kew gardens since the days when it cost one old penny piece to go in. I see the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington nodding. He and I are of a similar age and I suspect that we both delved into our pockets to obtain that coin, which perhaps had Queen Victoria’s head on it. The price has gone up, of course; it is now £15 to get in, I think. I declare an interest as my wife is a friend of Kew gardens, and I have a constituent who is one of the most distinguished scientists in the world in her field, Professor Monique Simmonds. She is the deputy director of science and the director of the Kew innovation unit. She was awarded the OBE last year for the extraordinary work that she and her team have been doing, not just in the United Kingdom, in the Jodrell laboratory at Kew where they do scientific research, but around the world. She, with her team, makes a fantastic contribution through visits and making connections, and identifying plants that can produce life-saving medicines. So I wholeheartedly support the campaign to ensure that Kew is properly funded.
I am a Thatcherite Tory—I see you nodding, Sir Alan; thank you—and I recognise fully the need for the nation to balance the books. Unquestionably it is the big challenge of the Parliament to address the budget deficit, but the nation still spends £700 billion a year, and therefore how to spend that money on services, even if the amount is reduced, is a matter of legitimate political and public debate. I feel strongly that the nation needs to capitalise on one of its greatest assets: the talents of its people. We face a competitive world out there, with countries such as China and India snapping at our heels, and the only way this nation will survive is by harnessing the innovative talent that fortunately runs through it.
I argued repeatedly when I was a Defence Minister that we need to spend money on defence research. We need to be at the forefront of technology, and that also applies to Kew, in the field of medical science. We have the means to do it. We have the talented and skilled people at Kew, who are able to deliver. Rather than cutting them back we should expand them for, if I may be permitted to use the expression, they are the seed corn of our future prosperity as a nation. One of Britain’s most successful businesses, apart, of course, from the defence industry, is the pharmaceutical industry. There is a synergy; what the scientific research at Kew produces complements one of Britain’s most important industries.
Kew is not an ancient monument to be preserved, although I entirely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Cities of London and Westminster (Mark Field) and the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington—as well as my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry), who mentioned his personal attachment to Kew—that it is a lung in west London, serving a wider purpose beyond the one that we have predominantly discussed today. That is important, but what is fundamental to the salvation of this nation is that we harness technology. In Kew we have a jewel in our crown, and I hope that we shall continue to fund it.
Another aspect of Kew’s work is the involvement of the Royal Botanic Gardens in the fight against crime and terrorism. We face a bio-threat, and without places such as Kew we would lack some of the expertise with which to address it. Some hon. Members may remember when a boy’s torso was found in the Thames. It had no head. The origins of that child were established by the forensic work done at Kew gardens. By analysing the contents of the stomach it was possible to tell which part of Nigeria the torso came from. I use that as a graphic but simple illustration of the depth of expertise that we cannot, as a nation, afford to lose.
I will not discuss the question that my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury raised of how we structure government. I just believe, as others do, that there must be a long-term solution. My right hon. Friend suggested direct funding from the Treasury. In a sense, I do not mind how it is done, but done it must be, in the interest of the nation and the exchange of information and samples around the world. A huge amount of work has been done through fundraising at Kew, to raise funds without relying wholly on the Treasury; but as for the director saying it can all be done by selling more, that is what Kew has already been doing, and some of what it does involves payment in kind. By giving expertise it gets access to plants and other facilities available around the world. Much more bartering, as opposed to pounds, shillings and pence, may be happening.
I am left with the words of that magnificent magazine Country Life, to which I am sure the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington is a regular subscriber.
Absolutely; required reading. The article said:
“The nation would, of course, be mad to let this treasure go, but that, in the worst possible sense, is what our elected representatives are doing already.”
Notwithstanding the funding that has been given, which I regard as temporary plastering, we need a fundamental, long-term solution, to preserve the fantastic work being done at Kew.
I start with the usual courtesies. It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Alan. You were a Minister who had responsibility for Kew in his time in government, so this debate will no doubt be of keen interest to you.
I apologise for the absence of my hon. Friend the Member for Brent North (Barry Gardiner). He has shadow ministerial responsibility for this brief, but he is indisposed, so I am standing in on his behalf. I wish him well for a speedy recovery. Finally, I of course congratulate the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) on securing this debate, which has turned out to be incredibly effective. If it has served any purpose, it seems to have triggered, along with the e-petition, the decision to announce a further tranche of funding for Kew gardens. His contribution was passionate. He led the debate off with an excellent set of remarks that underlined the key point, which is the need for stability in Kew’s funding.
Kew remains one of the leading botanic gardens of the world. As my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington (John McDonnell) pointed out, it is important not only to London, but to the whole of the UK and the world. It makes an essential contribution to our understanding of the world’s flora and to the conservation of plant and fungal biodiversity. It is clear that Kew’s committed team of scientists are highly valued internationally. Indeed, one could argue that it is difficult to overestimate the value of their contribution to plant science. They thoroughly deserve their reputation for world-leading research and for their essential conservation and curation work. In 2012, Kew was judged to be
“well placed to continue to make a significant and globally important contribution”
by the independent review panel chaired by Professor Georgina Mace. That review considered the position of Kew in 2010 and 2011. After a decade of investment from a Labour Government who understood the value of sound science, Kew was well placed to manage a slight real terms cut in its operational budget. That is where we were four years ago.
Today we have Richard Deverell, Kew’s director, warning of possible bankruptcy and a £5.5 million shortfall in Kew’s operational budget. I will refer to today’s announcement later in my remarks, because it alters things slightly. There is a stark difference between where we were and where we are, but that is what happens when we have a Tory-led Government who believe that protecting the environment holds back the economy. They seem to believe that we have to make a choice about whether we protect our economy or our natural environment.
Will the Minister clarify the evidence behind his Government’s approach to Kew, notwithstanding today’s announcement? Does he believe that Kew will be able to increase significantly its level of external funding, which seems to be the long-term plan, including for its core work? If so, why does he believe that and how will it be done? If not, he should be clear about the reasoning behind the Government’s initial decision to degrade the UK’s natural science capacity. The independent committee’s report contained a clear warning that
“Kew must guard against the risk that the allocation of its core funding is distorted by the need to chase external money.”
There is real concern that, in a context of declining resources for animal and plant science, Britain will not be able to deal with potential risks or new outbreaks of plant disease. I refer specifically to the recent outbreaks of ash dieback and oak processionary moth. Earlier this year, the Natural Capital Committee said that the incidence of disease has accelerated over the past 50 years. It also said that the current outbreak of ash dieback is expected to destroy all but a very small percentage of the total population of ash trees in Great Britain. Every time I go out walking in my constituency, I think about that and the difference that it could make to our landscapes and precious woodlands. With such a host of new pests and diseases attacking the United Kingdom’s native treescape, Kew’s scientists are more important than ever.
Climate change and the increasing presence of pests and diseases are placing additional stresses on our natural environment. We do not know exactly what impact they will have, but we must prepare properly for the increasing risks, and we simply cannot do that without Kew. Those who have a long-standing interest in the natural environment, as I do, will be asking why we are forced time and again to make basic arguments in favour of maintaining the levels of investment in environmental science. The Government clearly just do not get it, so it is worth rehearsing some of the basic points.
As many Members have said, Kew is a leader in plant conservation. It plays a major role in global assessments for the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s red list. The millennium seed bank supports the long-term conservation of wild species and the use of seed for innovation and adaptation in agriculture, horticulture, forestry and habitat restoration. Kew has a long tradition of global leadership and influence in plant discovery and description and in pure and applied research.
The Government’s failure to appreciate the value of Kew is one of the clearest signs that they do not take the environment seriously. Despite the sensible recommendations of the 2010 Chalmers independent review of Kew and the 2012 independent science review, Kew has been left on an unsustainable footing. That key point has been raised in, and crystallised by, today’s debate—the instability that Kew faces in the long term. It was illustrated perfectly by the hon. Member for Richmond Park and my hon. Friend the Member for Hayes and Harlington.
Today the Chief Secretary to the Treasury and the Deputy Prime Minister announced that an extra £2.3 million of Government funding has been secured through to April 2016. The right hon. Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) made the point that Kew should perhaps be funded by the Treasury, but some of us might argue that it already is effectively being funded by the Treasury, because this is the second time that the Treasury has bailed Kew out. That leads, however, to a few questions. Is the money additional grant funding or has it been moved from another part of DEFRA’s budget? If so, which programme is the money being transferred from? Does the £2.3 million include expected efficiency savings either from Kew or from elsewhere? Is the £2.3 million for operational or capital budget purposes? Will Kew receive all the £2.3 million in 2015-16?
The key point is that the announcement today—let’s face it, our Deputy Prime Minister is quite good at these kinds of announcements—does not negate the hand-to-mouth feel of the Government’s approach, which is one of the key reasons why the Science and Technology Committee is conducting an inquiry into the issue. I hope the Government will do more than just pay lip service to the Science and Technology Committee and its deliberations, because the £2.3 million does not deal with the issue, as Members here today have said repeatedly. As John Wood from the department of plant sciences at the university of Oxford said in his submission to that inquiry:
“The lack of core funding is forcing Kew to abandon its traditional roles and research and instead head in the direction of research to which it is not suited. Much will be lost if this process continues.”
Today’s announcement does not deal with that fundamental point.
Environmental science should be a priority of the Government’s, but it could not be further down their list of priorities. Just look at the Environmental Audit Committee’s report published in September; it has an environmental traffic light scorecard that has no green on it. Would you expect a Government with an environmental scorecard coloured red, red, red and amber to understand the value of Kew? Of course not. Labour is committed to halting and reversing the decline of our natural environment, and we are clear that Kew has an important role to play in meeting that ambitious goal.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship today, Sir Alan. I, too, congratulate the hon. Member for Richmond Park (Zac Goldsmith) on securing the debate and all hon. Members on their contributions made both today and at other times when the future of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew has been discussed. I also congratulate Kew on its approach to refreshing how it delivers its science in the 21st century.
As lead Government sponsor for Kew, the funding that the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs provides helps to support the institution as an international, collections-based, centre of expertise in plant and fungal identification, taxonomy, conservation, sustainable use and related research. It helps to support Kew in its role as a UNESCO world heritage site and supports Wakehurst Place, which is managed by Kew and is home to the millennium seed bank. The funding also supports Kew in its roles as the world’s most famous botanic garden, an important visitor attraction, which has been highlighted by hon. Members from London, and a provider of science-based education to the public.
Kew was founded over 255 years ago. The Government and Kew’s shared challenge is to ensure that its structure is resilient and fit for purpose to meet the challenges of the 21st century. Its new science strategy is vital. Kew is recognised throughout the world for its unrivalled assets and expertise, and we want further to enhance that reputation. Kew is not simply another academic institution; it maintains a world-renowned collection, which enables it to be unique in the science that it can provide. This debate and the Science and Technology Committee’s hearing tomorrow on the future of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew will help to inform the final details of a new science strategy for Kew.
We have been able to offer relative protection to Kew in terms of total Government funding. Average funding has been more than £27.4 million a year over the past five years. Between 2007 and 2010—the last comprehensive spending review period—the average was less than £27 million. Others have already mentioned it, but I am pleased to confirm an extra £2.3 million unrestricted resource funding for 2015-16, which the Government secured through the recent autumn statement and which was announced today by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister.
I thank the Minister for giving way so early in his speech. I want to echo the point made by the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington about the need for a full, open stakeholder meeting. The grant that the Minister alludes to is a one-off, a reprieve, a delay and nothing more than that, so there is a need for such a discussion. I ask him to address that point directly. If he could facilitate that meeting, I am sure that we would all appreciate it.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. I will return to that point and some of the long-term issues later.
The funding announced by the Deputy Prime Minister today maintains Kew’s resource funding at 2013-14 levels right through to April 2016, which is in recognition of the need to embed the restructuring in order to deliver a sustainable future for Kew and the globally recognised science work that it provides. The funding is in addition to the announcement made by the Deputy Prime Minister in September that unrestricted resource funding for RBG Kew will be maintained until April 2015 at 2013-14 levels. Kew was provided with an additional £1.5 million to honour that.
We fully support Kew’s efforts not only to balance the budget, but to increase commercial and other sources of funding. That approach not only reduces reliance on Government funding, but potentially opens up additional and new opportunities. In support of that, I can confirm that we have extended to Kew more of the freedoms that are available to certain museums and galleries, to which my right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury (Sir Tony Baldry) referred. In particular, that will mean that Kew can bid for preferential Government loans to pursue projects that will enhance its ability to grow self-generated income. Kew has been asking for that and I am pleased that the Deputy Prime Minister confirmed that today.
Kew is already a valued partner in delivering DEFRA’s strategic evidence priorities. It has unique assets and globally respected expertise and is a top performing scientific institute that helps to deliver DEFRA’s science objectives. I welcome Kew’s approach to refresh how it delivers that science in the 21st century. In turn, that will help to deliver what people want of Kew and what the Government need. I support Kew’s restructuring as it will enable the right skills to be in place to secure long-term success, to maintain a world-class facility and to be able to respond to future challenges. Kew’s scientists directly support DEFRA’s work in several ways. For example, they contribute to international biodiversity, to tackling climate change globally and to a resilient, sustainable and growing food and farming industry. They help with the bio-security system and our ability to respond to plant, pest or disease outbreaks and contribute towards halting the loss of biodiversity in England by 2020.
Kew has a dedicated, committed and professional work force, but it needs the right skills to deliver a new scientific vision and to respond to future global challenges. It cannot afford not to change. It may be easy to think that it is all about reducing costs, but the restructuring is about securing long-term stability for the institution and creating and maintaining a world-class facility for future generations. That will enable it to make a unique contribution to meeting the 21st century’s great social and environmental challenges, to which the hon. Member for Richmond Park referred in his opening remarks.
Restructuring will also ensure succession planning by introducing new career and development opportunities for staff, so that future generations have the capability to continue its science legacy. Kew cannot afford not to change if it is to continue to be the world-class organisation that we all want it to be. The restructuring clearly impacts on individuals in different ways. It is too early to tell what that means for every person working at Kew, but Richard Deverell and his team are offering every support to the people affected by the transition.
I worry that the Minister is approaching the end of his speech, so I want to make a point before he finishes. Some of Kew’s key work, as the Minister and other Members have identified, clearly crosses over into the realms of the Department for International Development. Has the Minister’s Department approached DFID at any point to ask whether what would represent an almost immeasurably small pinprick in its budget could be diverted to support specific work at Kew that relates to poverty alleviation, building resilience into the global food economy and dealing with climate change?
May I make a little progress? I want to refer to the points made by other hon. Members and, indeed, those made by the hon. Gentleman.
Turning to heritage, it is an important Government priority to meet our obligations as a state party to the world heritage convention. We are working with Kew to ensure that it is using resources effectively and looking for innovative ways to maintain and secure a long-term effective use of the assets that it manages. We will continue to involve our colleagues in the Department for Culture, Media and Sport in those discussions. We have invested considerable capital funding in recent years to help Kew reduce operational costs and increase self-generating income, including support to the temperate house restoration project, where we underwrote £10 million, which is a UNESCO management priority.
On the issues raised by hon. and right hon. Members the debate, I have sought to set out that the coalition Government have had to deal with public spending challenges to reduce the deficit. The hon. Member for Aldershot (Sir Gerald Howarth) was at pains to point out his ideological leanings. Mine might be slightly different, but we can agree that we need to tackle the problem facing the country in order to deliver growth and guarantee future investment in public services. Although DEFRA has faced a budget reduction, as have all Departments, Kew has done slightly better than DEFRA more generally. My right hon. Friend the Member for Banbury was concerned that non-departmental public bodies are at the end of the queue. That is a bad pun, but it is not the situation with Kew.
The point that we were trying to make is that Kew has missed out on other opportunities. Even though it plays a role as a heritage centre, it comes under the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and so it did not gain additional money from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport that others, museums in particular, received. Even though it plays a key education role, it did not gain the protection of the education budget. It was the same with regard to the Department for International Development. As Kew is funded directly by DEFRA, it has missed out on all those other funding opportunities over the past 15 to 17 years.
I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point, his commitment to the institution and his desire to look at every opportunity to secure its work and underpin it for the future. The triennial review offers an opportunity to look at the position of the institution and where it sits in the Government structure. He has referred to that chance, and that is the proper time, rather than asking the question separately today.
Hon. Members have raised issues to do with science and the crucial work that is done. The hon. Member for Richmond Park talked about the need for succession planning, to which I referred a little, and Kew is looking at the courses and other work it does as academic provision to ensure that it is bringing through the next generation of expertise for the future. That is an important part of its work.
Hon. Members from all parties have been campaigning to keep Kew at the forefront of debate in the House and outside it among people at large. I have been on the receiving end of that, too, not only from the hon. Member for Richmond Park, but from Opposition Members. I have heard from Liberal Democrats in Richmond and elsewhere. Today, we had the announcement of my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister. So there has been pressure from throughout the country to ensure that we are doing the absolute best to protect Kew and all that it does.
As for the prospect of a further meeting, I will take that to my noble Friend Lord de Mauley, who is the responsible Minister. Given the Science and Technology Committee inquiry that is to begin tomorrow and the opportunities of the triennial review and the next comprehensive spending review, we will have to decide when the right point for such a meeting will be, but I will certainly take the proposal back to my noble Friend for his consideration. He is always happy to hear from Members of this House, as well as Members of another place, on the subject.
I also want to refute some of the little barbs sent in my direction by the hon. Member for Penistone and Stocksbridge (Angela Smith), who spoke for the Opposition. The Government have invested in science. As Forestry Minister, I know that the appointment of a chief plant health officer, the work on forestry research and so on are crucial, which is why we will continue to fund such things and take science forward.
The hon. Lady also made some points about funding generally. We heard from her party leader a few days ago about the fact that all parties will need to tackle issues such as how much Government will be able to invest in public services, how much expenditure will have to come from taxation and how much will have to be borrowed in the future. Those are difficult questions for all of us to answer.
I was merely responding to the hon. Lady’s assertion that, somehow, all would have been well and rosy for every area of public spending had a Labour Government been in office. I suspect that that would not have been the case.
The hon. Lady wanted to know whether the money announced today was new money. It is—it is not money coming from elsewhere in DEFRA’s budget. The funding is unrestricted and has no conditions attached to it, so Kew will be able to use it across the range of its responsibilities. All that money will be available in 2015-16. I hope that that reassures her and answers her questions.
I am grateful for the opportunity to place on the record the Government’s commitment to the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. I thank hon. Members of all parties for their commitment and support. I hope that the announcement today by my right hon. Friend the Deputy Prime Minister demonstrates that the money is available to help the transition that the institution is having to make over the coming years towards the long-term future that we all wish to see.
The budgetary position has now been set out for the next 18 months, as the hon. Gentleman said, and the triennial review will then give us the opportunity to look at the future of Kew and where it sits in the Government apparatus. I thank him and all hon. Members for their contribution to the debate. I thank you, Sir Alan, for the opportunity to speak.
I appreciate the unexpected perk, having spoken when I initiated the debate.
I do not know whether it is appropriate to ask the Minister to intervene, but I would welcome a clearer answer to my question on DFID funding, which is crucial. A lot of work that Kew does falls within the remit of DFID. If his Department has not yet approached DFID, will it now commit to doing so? DFID does some wonderful things, but no one would argue against the fact that huge chunks of money presided over by DFID are not as well spent as they might be. Kew would present a great opportunity to spend that money well.
I acknowledge the answer given to the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington about the stakeholder meeting. When are we likely to hear back from the Minister about that meeting? There is not a lot of time between now and the election, and the meeting should happen before it. Although I am grateful for today’s bung, my concern is that it is a political device to kick the issue beyond the general election. As Members and campaigners, we are aware that if we are to have long-term stability for Kew, it will need to be secured this side of the election, because negotiating afterwards will be much harder.
On the hon. Gentleman’s specific points, I will have to confirm with my noble Friend Lord de Mauley whether any such approach to or discussions with other Departments such as DFID have happened. The institution is going through a process and has been exploring with our officials in DEFRA the best path for getting to its future, but if we can help it to have conversations with other Departments, I am sure that that is possible and very much part of the bottom-up process of Kew deciding what would be appropriate. We would facilitate a conversation, rather than seek to push another Department to make a budget available unless it fits its core priorities. I will take the suggestion of a meeting back to my noble Friend.
On the hon. Gentleman’s political points, all the political parties are setting out our stalls for future funding. There are challenges. He and other hon. Members will look at what all the parties are saying about future funding of public services and will make up their own mind. With regard to the funding for Kew, however, the money is in place for 2015-16.
I put on record my thanks to the hon. Member for Hayes and Harlington, in particular, for campaigning so hard, which is appreciated by my constituents and by the staff and friends of Kew. It has not gone unnoticed. Personally, I am grateful to him for having pushed the issue so high up the agenda. We would not be having the debate or have seen the press release about the extra funding this morning had it not been for his leadership. I am also grateful for all the speeches.
Before my hon. Friend finishes, may I say how strongly I support his message to the Minister that he should be talking to DFID? The Department for International Development is simply awash with cash. It has had a bung of an extra £5 billion in the past four years. So much of the work that Kew does is overseas, helping developing countries, so I am sure that my hon. Friend and I can make a compelling case to the Minister to go and nick some of that cash off DFID.
With that, let us commit here and now as hon. Members and Back Benchers to visit the Secretary of State for International Development to make that case. My hon. Friend is absolutely right.
I thank you, Sir Alan, for presiding over the important debate. I hope that it is the beginning, not the end, of something positive.