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Agricultural Research: Policy Review

Volume 492: debated on Thursday 28 January 1988

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3.12 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government what is the purpose of their current review of agricultural research, development and advisory work; and what consultations they propose to have with the agricultural industry and those employed in research, development and advisory work.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food
(Baroness Trumpington)

My Lords, the review is taking place against the background of the July 1987 White Paper on civil research and development and of the Government's policy that industry should fund more of the work from which it benefits. It is part of the normal process within government of reviewing policy. Its objective is to reassess priorities so as to achieve the most effective use of R&D resources. We are not formally consulting outside government. But we are receiving views from a number of interested parties which are being taken into account.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for her reply. Does she agree that the policy review has some similarities to the review of the National Health Service which was announced this week by the Prime Minister? It is being conducted behind closed doors at breakneck speed and is designed to produce the answer that the Prime Minister and the Treasury want. Will the Minister tell the House what she regards as the Government's own responsibility in agricultural research and development? We hear a great deal about near market research. How near is "near"? Will the noble Baroness also explain how it is intended that farmers as an industry, who are required to fund research and development—which they may be willing to do—are to do that without some form of compulsory levy? As she will know, there is a mechanism for that in virtually every sector in the industry.

My Lords, as I said in my original Answer, this review is an internal scrutiny of policy, as there are many reviews. However, there have been informal discussions with a number of bodies, such as the AFRC, development councils, producer organisations, research associations and trade unions. As regards the definition of "near market", which I think is what the noble Lord, Lord Carter, asked me about, it is not a term of art and there is no formal definition. However, part of the purpose of the review is to seek to identify the areas of R&D which should be classified under that heading.

My Lords, I wonder whether the Minister can tell us what is the situation in Scotland at the present time, because it appears to me that the review has been carried out too late and that Her Majesty's Government applied the cuts in Scotland before the review, which appears to be the wrong way round. Is she aware that half the good people have already left the college service in Scotland; and what steps is she going to take to get them back?

My Lords, as the review is going on, I cannot talk about what will actually come out at the end. However, with regard to various people leaving, I understand that Ministry staff have faced a great deal of change over the past few years, and I pay credit to the high level of dedication and professionalism that they bring to their work. Inevitably, there could be change, but it would be very wrong for me to pre-empt anything that comes out of a review which is in progress at the moment.

My Lords, I hope that this question is close enough to the subject matter. I wonder whether my noble friend can say something about the Agricultural Advisory Council, which has been studying for 38 years how to isolate the virus of scrapie in sheep. Does she feel that perhaps we may have an interim report?

My Lords, that being so, will the Minister tell us whether the review will be wide enough, detailed enough and swift enough to bring some hope to those farmers in west Wales and on the peripheral areas of agriculture, whose livelihood has been threatened by recent changes, including the failure of the milk quota system to give any help to the milk industry of Wales?

My Lords, I very much take the point about the worries of farmers in Wales and indeed in Scotland, but it is too early to say. We will consider all these items in due course.

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware of the formation of a Select Committee of this House which is embarking on an investigation into agricultural and food research and development? Is she proposing to take cognisance of that? The subcommittee concerned is under the chairmanship of the noble Lord, Lord Butterworth, and we hope that our labours may be of some assistance to the Government, if they are prepared to wait until we have reported.

My Lords, I am aware of the formation of this committee. I should like to point out to your Lordships that the total of MAFF R&D this year is over £200 million, and that is not peanuts.

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that because of what has happened in the reviews in the past few years—as she well knows, at her very own doorstep there was the taking over of the PBI, etc.—any review now is looked on as suspect by the staff in all these research stations, in ADAS and elsewhere? It really would be better if they could be given some indication of what is happening as soon as possible, because there is no question that morale is going down again.

My Lords, our aim is to ensure a service which provides what the industry wants. The industry itself will therefore have a major role in determining the future size and shape of ADAS. That said, we have no present plans for cuts in the advisory areas.

My Lords, is the noble Baroness aware that over the years ADAS officers have done invaluable work in helping to resolve conflicts between those who live and work in the countryside, and those who visit the countryside for recreational purposes? Does she agree that it is imperative that that work continues, and will she assure the House that it will do so?

My Lords, it gives me great pleasure to second what the noble Lord has said in his praise of ADAS. I think that I have virtually answered that in my last reply. I accept that industry needs time to adjust, but it is a question of degree. We have always tried to announce future spending plans in time to allow for adjustments to take place. I should especially like to mention ADAS again and thank it publicly for the work it carried out following the gale havoc.

My Lords, I should like to ask a question on the essential matter of funding. Will the Minister say whether agriculture R&D is to be separately funded as at present, or is there any implication that it will depend on industrial funding after 1991? Is the Minister aware that any move in that direction would be frowned upon by the agricultural community?

My Lords, the noble Lord's question to me is relevant to the outcome of the present review. I am sorry to sound as though I am stonewalling, but it would be wrong for me to anticipate what the review will bring forth.

My Lords, will the noble Baroness tell the House whether the review is considering the use of pesticides, especially nitrates, within the industry? Does that come within the purview of the review that she has announced?

My Lords, inevitably, pesticides must be considered as part of R&D, but that is not the prime purpose of the review. After all, in the past year we have agreed safety, efficacy and various other measures concerning pesticides. A code of conduct is coming out soon.

My Lords, from the interest shown in my Question, it is clear that your Lordships' House is extremely interested in the outcome of the review. Will the Minister undertake to publish the review when it is finished?