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Public Health England: Porton Down

Volume 597: debated on Wednesday 24 June 2015

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

The first debate I secured as a Member of Parliament was five years ago on Monday, and it was on the future of the Public Health England site at Porton Down in my constituency. I did not imagine then that the first debate I would secure in the 2015 Parliament would also be on the future of that critical site, but I can think of no issue of greater significance to my constituency.

Porton Down is known across the world for the work that Public Health England and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory do there. It would not be right to open this debate without first paying tribute to all the staff for the work they have done to tackle Ebola in Sierra Leone in recent months. It has been truly humbling to hear the stories of my constituents, who have travelled at great risk and put themselves on the front line in the fight against Ebola. Their expertise has been vital to the people of Sierra Leone, and it is testament to the UK’s reputation for excellence in infectious disease research. I welcome the recent decision to award a medal for their commitment and dedication, which I know a number of my constituents will be very pleased to receive.

It is almost seven years since the Department of Health authorised Public Health England, then the Health Protection Agency, to develop an outline business case for the refurbishment of the facilities at Porton Down. That was after the Science and Technology Committee found the category 4 containment laboratory facilities at Porton Down

“to be in need of significant investment given their age”.

It recommended in 2008 that

“the Department of Health consider the redevelopment of the HPA’s Porton Down site as a priority”.

Project Chrysalis, the proposal for that multi-million pound redevelopment, was put forward shortly after the Committee’s report was published. In January 2010, a former GlaxoSmithKline site where Public Health England could consolidate its assets in one place was proposed as the preferred option, and a business case was put to the Department of Health just six months later. That was rejected—rightly, in my opinion—after scrutiny and further work were commissioned, but not as part of Project Chrysalis. Instead, Public Health England began putting together the case for a single science hub programme, which some might argue was a clear signal of an intention at an early stage to centralise before the business case work had even concluded.

The new outline business case was finalised in July 2014, and recommended that the facilities at Porton, Whitechapel and Colindale should move to a single campus in Harlow. The PHE board asked for a decision to be made by September 2014. I would like to take the opportunity to ask the Minister why, if the outline business case is so rock solid, it has still not been signed off nine months after Public Health England wanted it to be and 11 months after it was submitted.

There are certainly doubts remaining among many of my constituents about the decision, for a number of reasons. First, co-location in Harlow was recommended as, according to Public Health England’s officials, it

“offers the best value to the taxpayer and delivers the lowest cost over the 60 year life of the programme”.

PHE also stated in its publicly disclosed annexe, however, that

“the differences in cost between the options are relatively small”.

Professor George Griffin estimated in his review of the single science hub work in 2012 that the difference amounted to 2.6% over 68 years, which I maintain is disputable given the complexities associated with modelling over such a long period. The resultant cost to the taxpayer might well be marginally smaller, but it is important to remember that the costs to my constituents will not be. The fact remains that they are being asked to uproot their lives and transplant to Harlow. For many of them, Salisbury has been their home for years. It is where their children go to school and where their family responsibilities lie.

Increasingly the trend in science is not to co-locate assets on single sites, but to harness the power of technology to work across larger areas. Centralisation remains an approach that the private sector left behind, in many cases a long time ago, in recognition that smaller specialist sites can be more effective. The direction of travel towards greater use of genomics and big data reinforces the argument for smaller entities such as Porton to continue to leverage global partnerships. I was previously told by Public Health England that it favoured the single hub model because of the approach taken at the Francis Crick Institute, but this is not a co-location of one entity’s assets; six distinctly different players all operate across multiple sites themselves and, in many ways, will continue to do so.

Secondly, the unwillingness to grasp the potential opportunities at Porton or fully to engage in a conversation about them is disappointing. Public Health England says that

“the Harlow campus has the potential to become a campus with an international reputation for public health science”.

Porton Down already has an international reputation. It has 250 external partnerships across the world and is supported by $55 million of investment from the US Government. It already partners more international universities than universities in the UK, eight US Government agencies, five international health bodies and nine global pharmaceutical companies.

Public Health England has not yet articulated publicly precisely how being in Harlow will improve on that. How many new commercial partnerships does it believe will be generated from the site? What will be the impact on Public Health England’s revenue streams? Have those factors even been modelled thoroughly as part of the business case? I have long been concerned that the outline business case focuses too narrowly on Public Health England’s objectives as an organisation and the benefits it allegedly accrues from centralisation, not the wider opportunities for UK life science industries.

Thirdly, centralising in Harlow flies in the face of the Government’s agenda to promote more prosperous regional economies. The Chancellor said:

“The south-west contains some of Britain’s greatest economic strengths. It should be as central to our nation’s future prosperity as any other part of these islands”.

He said that it

“already has a strong reputation for life sciences”,

and even asked the chief scientific adviser and the chief medical officer to

“explore the potential for new proposals for investment in life sciences in the south west”.

In the light of that ongoing work, will the Minister assure me that the chief scientific adviser has been consulted about the single science hub, given its implications for the entire south-west?

I appreciate that not all of Public Health England would move to Harlow, should the business case be approved, and that Porton would retain the manufacturing facilities. I also recognise that Public Health England management have given an assurance that they will not be abandoning those remaining facilities, and that they are meeting representatives of Wiltshire Council on Friday to examine how Public Health England can facilitate the optimal exploitation of opportunities that will derive from a new science park, which this Government have supported, right on its doorstep. However, it is unacceptable to assume that that would be appropriate consolation for the loss of the remaining facilities and capabilities, and I remain concerned that, if the Porton site were cannibalised in that manner, the temptation to examine commercial opportunities for those remaining facilities would be high.

Indeed, I understand from a letter that was recently sent by the Under-Secretary of State for Life Sciences, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), to an interested party on 10 June that Public Health England is

“continuing to investigate commercial opportunities for its activities at Porton”.

I have long been an advocate for greater capitalisation on the commercial potential at Porton, but I would like assurances that the vaccine manufacturing facilities will be treated with the respect they deserve and not simply sold off to provide a quick win to allow the Government to balance the equation. This is not just a vaccine factory, and any proposal to maximise its potential needs to recognise its value to the south Wiltshire and regional life science economy.

More importantly, how do these concurrent agendas best serve the interests of my constituents? Can the Minister reassure me that individual Government Departments are not operating on different agendas? It seems to me that any discussions about commercialisation in advance of a decision on the outline business case would be premature and potentially misaligned.

Fourthly, the opportunity to consider the more effective use of existing public sector assets has still not been fully considered. The Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, located on the same site, has existing synergies with Public Health England and the two organisations work together closely. DSTL also has category 4 containment facilities which were refurbished relatively recently and are considered to be of the highest standard. Indeed, it has spare capacity in its facilities, and when the size of refurbished labs at the Public Health England site was being discussed, the decision was taken to request a smaller facility on the basis that DSTL would be expected to provide back-up capacity in an emergency. Professor George Griffin also told the Science and Technology Committee in 2008 that

“the Ministry of Defence has a facility at Porton…there is spare capacity there, we know, and we would be able to use that if necessary”.

However, I have been told that there are conceivable emergency scenarios in which DSTL and PHE would need to occupy the entire space at the same time, resulting in a conflict of interest with severe implications for national security. Those scenarios have never been articulated—they may well be considered above my pay grade—but I would ask the Minister to put on record that the DSTL collaboration option has been fully explored with DSTL management and examined independently, and that the security concerns about the laboratories proved irresolvable.

DSTL and PHE have an important collaboration that benefits from their physical proximity. They are treated as the “Porton campus” by the regulator, enabling pathogenic samples to be transferred between the two sites without the need for additional licensing. Both are licensed for animal work, and I understand that PHE manages some of the sensitive resources occasionally used by DSTL. They can currently be safely transported at minimal risk, but a move to Harlow would completely remove that capability.

Fifthly, I again take the opportunity to emphasise that Porton Down is embedded in the Salisbury community. We support its staff and recognise the sensitive nature of the vital work they carry out. Porton’s relatively isolated location makes it an ideal secure site. Harlow remains untested, and rebuilding the relationship and acceptance of the sensitive work that Public Health England does will take valuable time and effort. As many of my constituents tell me, it is simply common sense to keep that work where it is, not move it to a more densely populated suburban area.

Finally, I reiterate that this is not just a conversation about keeping jobs in my constituency; it is a debate about what is best for our life science industry and the partners that depend on Porton’s expertise. I said in my previous Adjournment debate that my primary concern is that the decision is motivated by a desire to tidy up different entities within the PHE organisation on to a single site, when the advantages of co-location are notional, uncosted and unproven. Until I am permitted to see the full business case, my concerns will remain about the logic that is being used.

I appreciate that this is a decision that will have significant implications for our national security and I have always stressed it is imperative that we get it right. However, the Department of Health was informed in 2008 that the category 4 labs at Porton were

“built over 50 years ago and refurbishment and upgrading work is becoming increasingly difficult.”

In my debate five years ago this week, the then Minister with responsibility for public health, my right hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton), told the House:

“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.”—[Official Report, 22 June 2010; Vol. 512, c. 273.]

I believed her, yet five years later nothing has been done. The facilities are deteriorating and my constituents have lived in the shadow of this decision for five years, not knowing if they will be moving to Harlow, although we have had the positive news of a science park, which will, I hope, open in the next year or so. I will persist in my questioning on this matter, because, frankly, some of my questions have gone unanswered.

When I last met the PHE leadership team in November, I was told by the most senior official that he was the boss and he would decide how any re-examination of Porton’s potential would be evaluated, but I have heard nothing from him for six months. I have a responsibility to my constituents to seek assurance that the decisions that will have an impact on their lives are being made on the basis of rigorous analysis of the facts. I urge the Minister to finally clarify for my constituents, one way or the other, where their future lies. We owe the staff based at Porton Down that much.

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) on having secured a hat-trick of debates on the future of Porton Down, which is a very important subject not just for his constituents, but for the whole country, given the work done there on a wide range of public health threats, including the Ebola outbreak in west Africa. I join him in paying tribute to his constituents for their service both in the UK and on the frontline in Sierra Leone. The medals are hugely deserved.

My hon. Friend has been a tireless campaigner for his constituents on this matter and on the creation of Porton science park, which I will turn to later. Through this campaigning he has shown a passion for growth and job creation in his area, and we all admire that.

Scientists have been doing invaluable work at Porton Down since the 1950s. As my hon. Friend has said, in previous debates it has been stressed that the buildings are more than 60 years old and are increasingly becoming unfit for purpose. I know that my hon. Friend agrees with the need to find a solution to the problem—indeed, he devoted his speech to that—to ensure that the vital work can continue. It is important that scientists have the benefit of state-of-the-art facilities that reflect the latest technological advancements, including the shift from Petri dish to big data. So much has happened in recent years and so much change is going on. There is a clear consensus that the status quo is not acceptable and that it will not enable Public Health England to deliver the public health scientific expertise that the Government and the nation require.

My hon. Friend ran through the options. He knows that Public Health England has looked at a number of options to meet the challenge it faces. It has had to consider a wide range of longlisted and shortlisted options, all of which have to demonstrate the best value for money to the taxpayer. The main focus of the options has been on the existing Porton Down and Colindale sites, and the former GlaxoSmithKline facility in Harlow, Essex.

As my hon. Friend mentioned, Public Health England has briefed him and the local MPs, local authorities and other key stakeholders, and has consulted the chief medical officer and chief scientific officer, about the three sites affected and considered in the option appraisal. As my hon. Friend will be aware, PHE’s case is that there are significant benefits from bringing together the range of public health science functions that it manages at disparate sites. I accept that he expressed scepticism about some of the arguments, but PHE believes that creating an integrated national science hub rather than reproviding the same facilities on the same sites would be its ideal. For that reason, in the PHE outline business case, the preferred option was to create a public health science hub based at Harlow.

My hon. Friend asked what was included in some aspects of the outline business case. I can confirm that no additional revenues from any relocation have been included, in line with the rules and guidelines of what is and can be included in such cost-benefit analyses. However, it is hoped that new facilities will lead to increased academic and commercial income.

As I have said, it is essential that the proposal taken forward offers the best value for money for the taxpayer while protecting the vital heath protection functions carried out by scientists. The scrutiny of the business case has included two external reviews organised by the Major Projects Authority. Both have concluded that the business case properly evaluates the options, including options based at Porton. Since our last debate on this topic last September, the review process has continued and the business case has been through a Major Projects Authority gateway process. I can assure my hon. Friend that that has been and will continue to be a thorough and robust process, and that the outline business case continues to be scrutinised by Ministers at the Department of Health, the Treasury and the Cabinet Office.

As I have said, PHE has considered a wide range of options in the outline business case, including those that would involve remaining at Porton Down. Alternative, third-party proposals have been put forward, including those of the Porton life sciences group, which were kindly forwarded to me and to other Ministers by my hon. Friend. I assure him that the proposals have been carefully considered.

We recognise the need for collaboration between Public Health England and its neighbours at Porton and the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory, in the interests of national security. PHE is committed to being collaborative, including having discussions about the use of specialist high-containment facilities. However, we need to be clear that, although PHE and DSTL will continue to collaborate closely, PHE needs dedicated high-containment facilities to ensure that it can properly respond to the threat our nation faces. PHE is the employer of the specialists that are registered to handle human health specimens. The DSTL facilities provide additional resilience, but they were built to meet military requirements. In addition PHE’s facilities provide resilience to the military if DSTL’s facilities are for any reason unavailable. Whatever the final decision, national security, and capabilities for national response, are paramount. It is therefore key for DSTL and all other potential agencies involved in the response to work with PHE to protect public health from current and future threats.

Public Health England has confirmed that it remains committed to the Porton site, even if it is decided to relocate the Porton research functions and staff. That would involve the PHE facilities remaining at Porton consisting of some 300 staff in development and production and regional laboratories. That has continued, with PHE spinning out development and production as a corporate company called Porton Biopharma Ltd, which is wholly owned by the Secretary of State for Health. That will allow for Porton Biopharma Ltd to take a commercial approach to growing the business. I note my hon. Friend’s consistent support for that—he has not spoken against the idea. That allows more people across the world to benefit from the specialist products it manufactures. PHE has briefed my hon. Friend on that work and on maximising the commercial potential of the production facilities at Porton. As he said in his speech, that principle has his support.

The work to increase the commercial potential of the production facilities at Porton will be closely linked to the Porton science park, which I know my hon. Friend has worked hard to bring to his constituency. Porton Biopharma Ltd is next to the new science park and PHE is working closely with Wiltshire County Council on the further opportunities in the life sciences sector that this important development could bring to his constituency.

My hon. Friend rightly focused much of his remarks on the need to support staff in the most appropriate way, and on how unsettling it is for any group of staff to not quite know where their future lies. One third of the posts currently at Porton will remain there, even if research functions and staff are relocated. If those functions are relocated, PHE would work with each member of staff at Porton who is working in a post that would move to Harlow under the new proposals, to support them in decisions about their future. He is absolutely right to make that paramount and I take it very seriously. Some staff may want to relocate to Harlow and others may wish to retire or move to other roles outside PHE. The business case includes support packages for staff that are in line with the Government standard. I hope that gives him some reassurance.

As I have set out, the work conducted at Porton Down is of local, national and international importance. However, there is a consensus that, given the ageing facilities, doing nothing is not an option. PHE has looked at a wide range of possibilities for the future of health protection laboratories in the UK and at the benefits of combining various public heath functions. This has led to a preference for the Harlow site at the outline business case stage. Regardless of the final decision, PHE remains committed to the Porton site, as expressed through the commercialisation of its development and production arm. This will be closely linked to the Porton science park. The outline business case has been through, and continues to go through, rigorous, thorough and robust scrutiny before a final decision is reached by Ministers.

I thank my hon. Friend for his continued keen scrutiny of this important issue. I congratulate him once again on securing the debate and on continuing to be such an ardent champion for the interests of Porton as a science centre of excellence and for his constituents and their future.

Question put and agreed to.

House adjourned.