Wednesday, 25 March 2009.
Arrangement of Business
Before the Minister moves that the first order be considered, I remind noble Lords that in the case of the two orders, the Motion before the Committee will be that it do consider the order in question. I should perhaps make it clear that the Motions to approve the orders will be moved in the Chamber in the usual way.
Local Government (Structural Changes) (Miscellaneous Amendments and Other Provision) Order 2009
Considered in Grand Committee
That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Local Government (Structural Changes) (Miscellaneous Amendments and Other Provision) Order 2009.
As Members of the Committee will know, this order is consequential on the local government structural change orders that Parliament agreed in early 2008. The order makes specific provision to ensure that various matters relevant to the new single-tier councils are dealt with before the reorganisation date.
These changes are necessary to update the statute book in light of the changes made by the structural change orders. Without these provisions, some of the new unitary councils would have to continue to refer to themselves as county councils, which is extremely confusing for their communities. Areas with historic traditions, including city status, would be lost to local residents. For example, Chester City would no longer be Chester City; new unitary councils would not be able to appoint members to relevant national parks or areas of outstanding natural beauty conservation boards within their areas; and there would be no administering authority for the Cheshire and Bedfordshire pension funds. I am sure that noble Lords would agree that these are necessary and sensible measures.
I shall take a little time to go through the order in more detail. Part 2 of the order makes provision to ensure that members of the new Central Bedfordshire Council’s shadow executive can continue as members of that executive until the June election notwithstanding that the authorities from which they were appointed will cease to exist before that date. Provision is also made to amend the electoral arrangements for some parish councils in Bedfordshire so that their elections are properly synchronised with the election cycles for the new Bedford Borough Council and Central Bedfordshire Council.
Part 2 also adds provisions to the structural change orders for Cornwall, Northumberland, Shropshire, Wiltshire and County Durham to make provision regarding the names of the new councils, essentially allowing them, subject to resolution, to omit the word “county” from their legal names. This is entirely sensible. It was requested by the councils themselves to provide the new unitary councils with the opportunity to adopt truly new identities in the eyes of their residents and, just as importantly, to make a fresh start in the eyes of the new council staff, whether they are from the previous county or district councils.
Part 3 of the order makes provision for the appointment of charter trustees as appropriate bodies in which historic rights and privileges may vest for parts of Cheshire West and Chester, Cheshire East, and County Durham. As has been requested by both the new and outgoing councils in the areas affected, we are creating charter trustees for the cities of Chester and Durham, the towns of Crewe and Macclesfield and the historic area of Ellesmere Port, to which historic rights can be transferred until such time as an appropriate parish council is established to which those rights can transfer.
Members of the Committee should note that the actual transfer of historic rights and privileges to these charter trustees is made in regulations of general application which have been laid before this House. Special provision is also made in this order in relation to market rights in Chester, where we have provided that these rights vest in the Cheshire West and Chester Council, essentially allowing the new council to continue to run the Chester market.
Part 3 also provides for the retention of the ceremonial counties of Cheshire and Bedfordshire by amending the Lieutenancies Act 1997 and the Sheriffs Act 1887 to update the definition of counties for the purposes of these Acts.
Part 4 of the order makes provision for the vesting of the local government pension fund maintained by the Bedfordshire County Council and the fund maintained by Cheshire County Council. It provides, further to the results of the consultation with those affected, that these funds will vest in Bedford Borough Council and Cheshire West and Chester Council respectively.
Part 5 of the order makes amendments to a number of port health authority orders. These orders are amended to reflect the changes as a consequence of the new local government arrangements in Cheshire, Cornwall and Northumberland, and provide for the new single-tier unitary councils to exercise the port health functions after 1 April.
Part 6 of the order makes provision regarding the membership of the conservation boards for the Chilterns area of outstanding natural beauty and the Cotswolds area of outstanding natural beauty to reflect the changes to local authority arrangements as a consequence of reorganisations in Bedfordshire and Wiltshire. Similar provision is made for the membership of the national park authorities, the New Forest and the Peak District, to reflect the changes as a consequence of the changes in local government arrangements in Wiltshire and Cheshire.
Part 7 of the order makes a number of miscellaneous amendments. These include amendments to primary legislation which use local authority boundaries to define geographical areas and which are updated to refer to the new local authority arrangements. Provision is also made in this part for the membership of the River Tweed Commission consequential upon the restructuring in Northumberland. Provision is also made to designate Central Bedfordshire Council as the relevant council for Bedfordshire and Luton coroner’s district within the meaning of Section 1(1)(a) of the Coroners Act 1988. The relevant council is responsible for the appointment of coroners and has other functions in connection with coroners under the 1988 Act.
I am sure that Members of the Committee will agree that the provisions in the order are sensible and necessary consequential amendments following the structural change orders that Parliament has already approved.
I propose to speak now to the Cornwall (Electoral Arrangements and Consequential Amendments) Order 2009. This order contains necessary and sensible provisions which are consequential on the Cornwall (Structural Change) Order that was approved by Parliament in February 2009. The order makes provision for the 2009 local government elections to be held on the basis of 123 electoral divisions, implementing the Boundary Committee’s draft recommended warding arrangements as published on 2 December 2008. These changes are necessary as without them the elections in Cornwall would be held on the basis of 71 wards returning 82 councillors, a number which is widely recognised by all in Cornwall and all involved in electoral administration as not sufficient to provide the strategic leadership that is needed for the new unitary Cornwall Council.
As we come to debate the order we find ourselves in unusual circumstances, to which the Merits Committee has referred, and I will address some of the issues it has raised. The circumstances are unusual because, in most cases, provision for electoral arrangements would be made by the Electoral Commission on the basis of recommendations by the Boundary Committee. However, Members of the Committee will be aware of a series of events which explain why we are in this unusual position today. I shall explain the background and put it on the record as part of understanding the order.
In February 2008, when the structural change orders establishing the new unitary councils were approved by Parliament, we planned that three of the new unitaries based on existing county areas—Cornwall, Shropshire and Wiltshire—would have elections in May/June 2009 on the basis of new ward electoral divisions, together with a new number of councillors, reflecting the new unitary status of the council. It was for the Boundary Committee and the Electoral Commission to decide the number of councillors there would be in future and to designate new wards, which would be established by a non-parliamentary order made by the Electoral Commission following a process of consultation undertaken by the Boundary Committee.
The Boundary Committee commenced its electoral review in Cornwall, Shropshire and Wiltshire in February 2008. The Electoral Commission and the Boundary Committee have essentially done what was expected of them and completed the review in Shropshire and Wiltshire. We understand that the orders for these authorities specifying the new wards which will be used for the 2009 local government elections in June were made by the commission on 6 March.
However, in the case of Cornwall, the Boundary Committee and the Electoral Commission have, for a number of reasons, failed to deliver the new electoral arrangements in time for the June election. This is unfortunate. Delay has largely been caused because of the difficulty that the Boundary Committee and the council have about agreeing the appropriate size of the new council.
On 15 August 2008, the Boundary Committee wrote to the leader of Cornwall County Council, confirming that on the basis of the evidence available to it, it was minded to base its draft recommendations on a council size of 123 members for the new unitary authority. However,
“given the serious delay to which this review of Cornwall has been subject, the view of the Boundary Committee is that there is now no possibility of any new electoral arrangements being implemented in any combined elections in June 2009”.
Members of the Committee can see the difficulty we face. All, including the Boundary Committee, are in agreement that there should be 123 councillors for the new unitary council, instead of the existing 82 for the current county council. However, the Boundary Committee is not in a position to specify the new electoral divisions. Indeed, it only finished consulting on a draft of what the new wards could be on 10 February 2009, and there is no prospect of it making an order specifying new wards in time for the 4 June elections.
When the Merits Committee said in its report that the decision to proceed with North Cornwall council elections in June 2009 had not been an obvious one, I would point to this process and the reason why there has been delay, and the admission by the Boundary Committee that there was no prospect of it making an order specifying new wards in time for the 4 June elections. Furthermore, when it became clear that the Electoral Commission was not going to be able to make an order in time for the elections, in the debate on the draft Local Elections (Ordinary Day of Elections in 2009) Order 2008, the Minister for Local Government stated that he was,
“minded to introduce for consideration an order that would, exceptionally, move the election date for Cornwall from the beginning of June to the end of October 2009”.—[Official Report, Commons, 20/11/08; col. 771W.]
However, before introducing such an order, the Minister proposed to take soundings seeking views from those affected in Cornwall and, as necessary, from the Boundary Committee and the Electoral Commission. That exercise was commenced on 1 December last year, when the Minister wrote to Cornish MPs, all Cornish councils, the Electoral Commission and the Boundary Committee. As part of the exercise, he made it clear that central to any decision on deferral was the likelihood of the Electoral Commission putting in place the new electoral arrangements in time for an October election. If there was any significant likelihood of this timetable not being met, he believed that it would be wrong to defer the election and a preferable course might be to hold elections on 4 June 2009, but on the basis of interim electoral arrangements to be specified in an order which, if Parliament approved, the Secretary of State could make under the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007. The Minister was quite clear that there was an option here, and a condition being set. That is in part our answer to the concern of the Merits Committee.
The Electoral Commission’s response to the soundings exercise stated:
“Aiming to hold elections in October 2009 using electoral arrangements which have been approved by the Electoral Commission relies heavily on meeting an uncertain timetable for implementing the electoral review recommendations and could involve considerable risk to effective administration of the electoral process”.
In other words, the commission could not guarantee what the Minister had asked for—that the arrangements would be finalised for an October election. Given this position, the Government felt that it would be wrong to proceed on any basis other than a June 2009 election.
On 19 February 2009, the Minister for Local Government confirmed that the local elections to the new unitary council for Cornwall would go ahead on Thursday 4 June 2009 and that the Government intended to lay an order before Parliament that would provide for the elections to be held on the basis of the draft electoral arrangements that the Boundary Committee has been consulted on, which would have the effect of returning 123 councillors for the new unitary council. As I have said, without such an order, the elections in Cornwall would be held on the basis of 71 wards returning 82 councillors, a number which is widely recognised by everyone in Cornwall and everyone involved in electoral administration as not sufficient effectively to run the council.
Accordingly, we have laid this order before Parliament, and we find ourselves debating it this afternoon. If it is approved, we will make the order under the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007, specifying the electoral divisions for the Cornwall 2009 local government elections on 4 June.
Some have questioned whether the Government’s objective of providing for democratic legitimacy—that is, a fully elected council—for the new Cornwall Council as soon as possible after its inception could have been more fully achieved if elections had taken place after the Electoral Commission had completed its electoral review. This question was also raised by the Merits Committee. However, as I have just explained, even in January when the Boundary Committee responded to the soundings exercise, it felt that the timetable for implementation was uncertain and that it could not be sure that it would be able to make an order in time for an October 2009 election. It appears that there is still no certainty about when the order will be made.
Is there then some suggestion that the council should have to wait until an unspecified later date when the Electoral Commission has decided on finalised boundaries before it has a newly elected and mandated council of sufficient size to lead the new council? When would this election be? Would it be in May 2010 or May 2013, when there would be more and unforgiving uncertainty?
If the local elections are not held in June, the council will continue to be run, until elections can be held, by the implementation executive, which, as noble Lords will remember from our debates, is essentially an appointed body made up of county councillors and some district councillors whose councils are being abolished on 31 March 2009. I cannot believe that that is a situation that noble Lords would wish to see. It certainly was not a situation that the local MPs in the area wanted to see.
In an ideal world, we would see an election held in June on the basis of boundaries made on the final recommendations of the Boundary Committee, and the Electoral Commission would have made an order to establish them in time for the election. However, this is not the situation in which we find ourselves. It is most important now that we ensure that the new Cornwall Council gets off to the best start and that it is of a sufficient size to ensure that it has the strength of leadership to deliver improved service delivery from the earliest opportunity.
The Merits Committee said that the Government should have willed the means to ensure that the preparatory stages were completed in time. Both the Electoral Commission and the Boundary Committee are independent of government. There is no role for government in influencing the electoral review process.
As I said, the order provides for the draft electoral divisions on which the Boundary Committee has been consulting. There were suggestions in another place to modify these boundaries. Referring to the debate in another place, I am sure that noble Lords understand that it would be quite wrong for the Government to amend boundaries on an ad hoc basis following representations from individuals who may have a vested interest without the means to test the validity of the boundaries suggested by local people.
It has also been suggested that boundaries could be amended where there is consensus among parties or councils. However, altering boundaries is not a simple decision based on agreement. Representations would have to be considered against the key criteria of electoral equality, community identity, and effective and convenient local government. Indeed, those representations have been made to the Boundary Committee and not to the Government. The Government are not in a position to test representations without regard to the key criteria. The only way in which to proceed with any safety while recognising, as we do, the imperfections, is for the elections to go ahead on the basis of the boundaries proposed by the independent Boundary Committee.
The approach that we are proposing will therefore give the new Cornwall Council full democratic legitimacy as soon as possible as a newly elected body of councillors in June. In the expectation that the next election to the council will be held in May 2013, on the basis of the Electoral Commission’s final electoral arrangements, our proposals will allow the new council from its early days to have the strength and stability necessary to pursue innovative and demanding improvements in service delivery and give it clear and effective leadership particularly at this time of great economic challenges.
A final issue is capacity to implement new arrangements to a very tight timetable so close to the election. The timing of this order specifying the wards for the 4 June elections in Cornwall is about the same as the Electoral Commission’s own orders for Shropshire and Wiltshire. We accept that electoral administrators in Cornwall, unlike those in other counties, have not been certain about when or on what basis the elections would be held. The Minister for Local Government announced his decision as soon as was practicable, on 19 February, in order to provide all those in Cornwall with clarity as early as possible.
We know that the work being undertaken in preparation for an election on the basis of new electoral divisions is challenging, but it is significant that Cornwall Council is confident that it can meet it. Indeed, senior officers of Cornwall County Council have commented that they believe that the 4 June combined local and European elections can be organised on the basis of new wards. They have sufficient resources to deliver this, they have dedicated resources, and they have sufficient programme management resources to ensure that the election is delivered successfully.
With the correct support, the job is entirely doable. Officials in CLG have facilitated discussions between those leading the preparations in Cornwall and Ministry of Justice officials, the Electoral Commission, the Association of Electoral Administrators and SOLACE’s electoral panel, about providing support for Cornwall. All of them have been incredibly helpful. Following the discussions the Electoral Commission and the AEA are working with the council directly, undertaking a series of assurance reviews to support the combined election within Cornwall. An initial review undertaken on Tuesday 10 March looked at, among other things: the overall approach to delivering the combined elections within Cornwall to ensure that a low-risk approach is being undertaken; the governance, management and reporting arrangements relating to the project; the risks and issues, with associated mitigating and corrective activities; the process for generating polling districts’ electoral registers from Boundary Committee draft recommendations and verifying those registers; the polling district review approach and evidence; and polling day arrangements. I have gone into this degree of detail because they are precisely the challenges that we need to know Cornwall is capable of meeting.
This initial review was very encouraging. Both the AEA and the Electoral Commission were impressed with the amount of work that had been done in Cornwall and the progress that had been made. I am told that they are confident that, on the basis of the plans to date, sufficient programme management arrangements and measures are in place to deliver a successful election.
Following the initial review, the AEA and the Electoral Commission are continuing to provide periodic review check points in line with the key stages of the project plan and to provide further assurance. In addition, the AEA will review the council’s plan and the risk register weekly to ensure that any areas of concern are addressed quickly. My officials, too, are in contact with the council on a weekly basis as a minimum, and they have very recently visited the council as part of a stock-take exercise on unitary implementation progress that the Minister has asked them to undertake.
The immediate challenge for administrators in Cornwall is finalising and publishing the updated registers on the basis of the new electoral divisions for 1 April 2009, ahead of the notice of election on 28 April. That, too, has been a challenging deadline but I am told that the council is on track to meet it. Following the publication of the register the council will essentially move into business as usual as far as preparation for the elections is concerned.
Of course the timing is tight and of course we wish it had been otherwise. However, in our judgment the risks posed are wholly manageable. The alternative—no new electoral mandate for the council, and the implementation executive, which was always meant as a temporary forum, continuing to lead the new council—presents a serious risk to the success of the new unitary council and puts in jeopardy the delivery of local services in Cornwall. That is a risk we cannot run. As the Minister for Local Government made clear when he confirmed the decision to proceed with an election on this basis, what is most important at this point is to provide effective local leadership and improved service delivery for Cornwall’s people and to ensure that the council has real democratic legitimacy at the earliest opportunity, which would give it the best start possible. I commend the orders to the Committee.
I am grateful to the Minister for setting out so comprehensively the case for the orders and explaining them in considerable detail. She has a well deserved reputation for going through the detail on these things and that is very much appreciated.
We cannot miss an opportunity to mention again the big-picture issue here: consequential orders on the reorganisation of local government. These orders are necessary because of the introduction of the five new unitary authorities that are coming our way. This side of the Committee tried to resist the change because we felt it was taking decision-making away from small local authorities that were closer to the people whom they represented and the place where they raised taxes. Moving to these monolithic, giant authorities, particularly in the case of Durham and Northumberland, is detrimental and has a democratic deficit attached to it. I speak and declare an interest as a council tax payer of the County of Durham—or should I call it Durham now? I am not quite sure. Perhaps it is the Shire of Durham. I remember being taught in my history lessons that, when it was originally founded, the proper name for the County of Durham was the area of St Cuthbert between the Tyne and the Wear. I am not sure that we need to go back that far, with all due reverence to St Cuthbert, but the point is that County Durham has a traditional position, as did the district authorities in places such as Sedgefield and the City of Durham where the local authorities were making a real difference and working very well.
The change was sold to us on the basis that it would reduce expenses and be a much cheaper way of conducting local government. In her comments on 21 February 2008, at col. GC48 of Hansard, the Minister said that in the case of County Durham, for example, the savings would be £11 million annually. If that is so, we in Durham do not understand why it is proposed that our council tax bills should increase by 5 per cent this year. That is causing a lot of people and a lot of businesses a lot of hardship in the present climate.
An opinion poll conducted in Durham found that a massive 76 per cent of people across the whole of the county were against this single unitary authority. The people of the north-east have a long tradition of their views expressed in opinion polls and referendums being overridden by this Government. Of course, we had a referendum on a regional assembly, which was rejected by 78 per cent to 22 per cent.
I take the opportunity to say that we would have preferred it if the orders had not been necessary. We think that the previous arrangements represented something closer to the aspiration of the local people and something that local people clearly said they wanted. I have not seen a reorganisation in local government that does not end up costing a lot more money than the previous arrangements.
Perhaps I may run through some parts of the order. I turn, first, to ceremonial matters. The Minister mentioned that the charter trustees would hold on to these ceremonial rights until a parish authority or another authority could be formed. It would be useful to know what it is envisaged that authority should be and when it will come into being. There is some reference in the order to how charter trustees, which is a very grand name, will be appointed. We would want to resist and probe further anything other than charter trustees being elected representatives and being democratically accountable. Perhaps the Minister could look at that.
The next issue that I want to mention briefly is local government pension funds in Cheshire. The order, in Article 13 under Part 4, makes provision for the division of rights and liabilities in respect of the fund to rest with Cheshire West and Chester Council. There may be a miracle under way here whereby the complex negotiation concerning who falls within each pension fund and who is liable for the contributions as between the two councils of Cheshire West and Chester Council has been resolved amicably, but it would be good if in her response the Minister could tell us whether that has now been formally agreed between the two councils or whether there is still some element of dispute.
I was interested to see that Part 5 refers to the amendment of port health authority orders. Last week, we debated the very distressing effect of the backdating of the rating revaluation on ports. I hope that I will be forgiven if I take this opportunity to remind the Committee about the rating revaluation in the context of these port health authority orders. I should be interested to know, for example, whether the port health authorities are classed as port-side operators. In other words, will these health authorities, whose buildings are on the port side, be hit like other businesses by the backdated rating revaluation? If so, that adds further strength to what was demonstrated by a vote in the Chamber last week to resist that revaluation.
Part 7 deals with amendment of the European Parliamentary Elections Act and concerns some changes that are going through. In the context of the Minister’s remarks about elections and the timeliness of elections, is it acceptable to be putting through amendments with regard to boundaries for European parliamentary elections and to be passing them in relation to Bedford and Bedfordshire with name changes this close to the European elections? Will it not lead to confusion? Could it not have been done at an earlier date?
Perhaps I may also ask for clarification in respect of the amendment of the Scotland Act 1998 (River Tweed) Order 2006. This provision suggests that governorship of the River Tweed will now become a joint responsibility; the council for the county of Northumberland will take over from Berwick-upon-Tweed. As someone who is regularly in Berwick, I am interested in where the actual boundary falls between England and Scotland. What consultations took place with the Scotland Office and what is the arrangement? Fish, I am reliably informed, often swim between England and Scotland, and not only to get free prescriptions and avoid tuition fees. It would be useful to know that.
On the Cornwall (Electoral Arrangements and Consequential Amendments) Order, some real concerns were mentioned. The Minister has explained at considerable length the background to the order, so I do not intend to test her patience or that of the Committee in going through it further. However, it is important to place on record our support for the conclusion of the Merits of Statutory Instruments Committee. It said:
“It is clear that the decision to proceed with Cornwall Council elections in June 2009 has not been an obvious one for the Department to take”.
In parliamentary draftsman-speak, I suppose that means that it was the wrong decision to take. It continues:
“The proposal advanced by DCLG at the outset of the December 2008 sounding exercise was the postponement of these elections from June to October 2009, and this proposal was supported by the existing County Council … DCLG now say that, in confirming June 2009 as the date for the elections, the Minister for Local Government believed that this would give the new Cornwall Council ‘full democratic legitimacy as soon as possible after its inception’”.
There seems to be some confusion because when Mr Khan referred to this on 16 March in the Committee considering the order in another place, he said:
“The approach that we are proposing will give the new Cornwall council full democratic legitimacy as soon as possible. In the expectation that the next council election will be held in May 2013 on the basis of the Electoral Commission’s final electoral arrangements, the new council will, from its early days, have the strength and stability necessary to pursue innovative and demanding improvements in service delivery”.—[Official Report, Commons, Second Delegated Legislation Committee, 16/3/09; col. 5.]
That suggests that Sadiq Khan believes that that democratic legitimacy will come into effect in May 2013, as opposed to June this year. That is regrettable. It is not as if these orders are new; the draft Cornwall (Structural Change) Order 2008 was debated in Standing Committee on 7 February 2008 and approved by the House on 18 February. A whole year has passed, and it would seem that it was not too difficult to have the Boundary Committee look at those issues. When this issue was taken to judicial review before Justice Cranston, he found on 8 January 2009 that,
“consultation could properly proceed in stages so that the decision to defer the issue of affordability was not improper; nor was it irrational; … While it was correct that consultation should not be narrowly confined to expert opinion, but should extend to the public as a whole, and that consultation required the publication of sufficient information in a timely fashion, the Boundary Committee had not failed in these respects; … The Boundary Committee had given proper consideration to the earlier Exeter proposal and had duly reached its own decision on the matter … Nor had it been in error in considering the requirement that any proposal must ‘in aggregate’ have to deliver outcomes specified in the five applicable criteria … Its considerations had, however, been constrained by legal advice that it could advance only one alternative proposal”.
The Minister touched on that point, but, for the record, in a debate on this issue in another place my colleague Hugo Swire said that he believed the Boundary Committee had misinformed Devon Members of Parliament by saying that the status quo was not an option. Following a legal challenge for judicial review by East Devon, Mr Cranston made the point that I have just made. It would be good to have the Minister’s response to that. Other than that, we are happy to accede to the orders going through.
I thank the Minister for her long and detailed introduction, as the noble Lord has just said, in her usual careful fashion. I do not wish to rehearse the background or the arguments that we have had on the decisions that underlie the order; I suspect that the influx of people into this Room is not to hear this debate but is for the next business.
Before anyone teases me about it, I should offer that, on future legislation, if I protest about reserve powers held by the Secretary of State, this could well be an instance of why they are sometimes necessary.
In the debate in the Commons, my honourable friend the Member for Falmouth and Camborne asked for the Minister’s comments. They were not given, and I ask the Minister here to comment on what decisions took place regarding Cornwall between the Boundary Committee and the Electoral Commission. She asked what reasons it accepted as decisive in giving carte blanche approval to the proposals. If the Minister has anything she can say on that, I would be grateful.
On the other order, I ask about the position in Bedfordshire, where the shadow executive is to continue as a member of the new council’s executive until the June election. What happens to the other things that go on in that interregnum period? In particular, are overview and scrutiny arrangements in place—one would expect there to be arrangements to hold the executive to account if executive powers continue—or do they have to hold their fire until after the election? If it is the latter, I suppose they will be holding to account people who may no longer be in an equivalent position.
The noble Lord, Lord Bates, mentioned pension funds. They are topical, given that we are hearing suggestions that there may be shortfalls in certain places. I was interested to see that the pension funds have been vested in the outgoing councils, if I may put it that way. I assume that that is the case, as they are to vest in the new authorities. I had thought that there would be separate pension trustees rather than vesting in the authorities themselves. I hope the Minister can give us some assurance that there is no residual liability and that the rights of the pensioners are in no way prejudiced by the transfer. Other than that, we welcome the two orders.
I, too, thank the Minister for her long explanation. I am sure that I learnt a number of things. I shall apply my comments to the Cornwall order and, in doing so, I declare an interest: there is a possibility of my being a candidate in that election.
The most important thing about this issue is democracy. I feel strongly that, with a new local authority as important as Cornwall unitary will be, representing some 500,000 citizens, it is important that that authority has renewed and legitimate democratic control early in its life. The authority starts on 1 April but we will have to wait until 4 June to hold elections, as that is the earliest possible date. But we are now able to hold elections. I welcome that strongly, as do a number of my colleagues in Cornwall. At this time of unprecedented economic challenges, it is important that local authorities have proper leadership and the legitimacy to move forward, agree strategies and plans, and implement them. It is important for the business community in particular to know the direction of a local authority. To have left matters to the end of the year, with a none-too-legitimate interim executive in the mean time, would have been far from satisfactory. From all those points of view, this is a good decision.
My only concern is that there will be 123 members. I have just received news that the Government of the Czech Republic, which hold the EU presidency, have just fallen. It occurred on a vote of 101 out of 200 members of the Czech Parliament. If 200 MPs can represent the whole of the Czech Republic, an EU member state, then the figure of 123 for Cornwall is perhaps rather large. However, I recognise entirely that the Government accepted the recommendations of the local authority. Those are purely my personal views.
Although I accept the Minister’s explanation, there were a number of clear clerical errors in the initial boundary review that could have been put right. There are a couple of anomalies, particularly in north Cornwall, and I regret that they were not put right. However, all the boundaries—into which parish councillors in particular have put so much work with their recommendations—can be put right during the term of office and can be made perfect, if these things ever are perfect, by the time of the next elections.
The noble Lord mentioned Devon. Although it is nothing to do with this order, I would plead with the Government not to have another unitary authority as small as some of the existing ones in the traditional, historic Devon area, and to make Devon outside Plymouth and Torbay one unitary authority. Neither the business community nor possibly anybody outside the City of Exeter itself can understand why a second option, an enlarged Exeter, is still on the table, because it just would not work. But that is for another day.
I am grateful for the welcome given by noble Lords opposite. I think that we would all agree that nothing is perfect in the restructuring of local government; we have empirical and historical evidence to show that. I am sorry that the noble Lord, Lord Bates, was not part of our debates two years ago on the 2007 Act. I am sure that we would have some very lively debates around his perspective.
I am conscious that a large and lively body is waiting to debate a fascinating report, so I shall make my remarks as swiftly as I can and try to pick up some rather detailed points raised especially by the noble Lord. If he will forgive me, I shall not rehearse any of the arguments that we had about the merits of moving to unitary status, nor shall I pick up most of the comments about the Merits Committee. However, I shall come back to some of the things that he said about restructuring as a whole.
In relation to the specific arguments, the name of Durham council has exercised a lot of people. Under the order the council could choose to call itself Durham Council, although we understand that it will call itself Durham County Council. That is slightly perverse, but that is the local choice, which is absolutely fine. I have to say that the council tax in Durham will increase by an average of 2.9 per cent, not nearly 5 per cent, because it ranges from a 1 per cent reduction in council tax for the current district of Derwentside to an increase of 4.75 per cent in Easington.
The point on the ceremonial issues is interesting. The parish councils, when they come into being, will be the authorities which inherit the ceremonial rights. It is very much a local decision for the new unitary council on how it manages that.
We had a good and extremely detailed debate the other evening on port health authorities. The point is that they are public authorities which consist either of the local authority or a joint board of a number of local authorities. If they occupy portside hereditaments, the same rating arrangements will apply to them as to anyone else. Again, it will be a matter for decision in each individual case.
The noble Lord mentioned the combining of these elections with the European elections. All the evidence provided by the electoral authorities suggested that they were perfectly conscious they were handling combined elections and that they had the resources to deal with them. They were not concerned about the combination of elections in that instance.
In relation to the River Tweed—we are ranging far and wide—we had discussions with the Scotland Office and will write with details on the nature of those discussions.
As for the quotation from the Minister in the other place, he was perfectly clear that the approach we are proposing—elections in June, on the basis of 123 members—will indeed give the council full democratic legitimacy as soon as possible, which will be from 4 June.
The noble Lord raised issues about the timetable. The Boundary Committee started work immediately after Parliament approved the order; it did not waste time. Finally, he raised issues about the Boundary Committee’s undertakings on Devon. I am very glad that the noble Lord, Lord Teverson, took part in this debate, given his role in Cornwall. That order related to changes in structure. Here we are talking about electoral boundaries, but I acknowledge that he wanted to put his point on the record.
On the questions raised by the noble Baroness, Lady Hamwee, and the issue that a Member for a Cornish constituency, Julia Goldsworthy, drew attention to, we did not discuss adjusting the boundaries with either the Boundary Committee or the Electoral Commission. Even if those discussions had taken place, it would have been quite wrong, as I said, for the Government to try to adjust the electoral division boundaries on the basis of representations, because they would have been parti pris. It is not a simple decision based on local agreement; there must be objective criteria, concerns about electoral equality and community identity, and effective and convenient local government. I hope that that will satisfy the noble Baroness.
The noble Baroness also asked what happens during the interregnum in terms of overview and scrutiny. Central Bedfordshire will from 1 April be a full council and will therefore have normal arrangements for its committees, including overview and scrutiny. Bedford Borough Council is a continuing council and therefore its overview and scrutiny arrangements will continue between 1 April and the election in June. We debated the difference between continuing and full councils when we looked at the original arrangements.
The local government pension fund in every case is vested in the responsible administering local authority. Unlike private pensions, there are no trustees and the use of local government pension funds is controlled by the superannuation legislation and pensions regulations.
Finally, on the political question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Bates, the councils in Cheshire are in agreement that Cheshire West and Chester, which is one council, will hold the pension funds for all local government employees in Cheshire, so any outstanding difficulties there appear to have been resolved.
Cornwall (Electoral Arrangements and Consequential Amendments) Order 2009
Considered in Grand Committee
That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the Cornwall (Electoral Arrangements and Consequential Amendments) Order 2009.
Systematics and Taxonomy (S&TC Reports)
Considered in Grand Committee
That the Grand Committee do consider the reports of the Science and Technology Committee on Systematics and Taxonomy: Follow-up (5th Report, Session 2007-08, HL Paper 162) and Systematics and Taxonomy Follow-up: Government Response (First Report, HL Paper 58)
In introducing this debate, I pay tribute to those who prepared and published two previous reports on relevant and related matters: the late Lord Dainton, whose report was published in 1992, and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, happily a member of this committee and still with us, whose report was published in 2002. It is on those foundations that the present report was built, and they were the benchmarks by which we measured progress, or the lack of it, in government and public sector responses. I am also deeply indebted to the superb team of committee members, the committee secretariat and our special scientific adviser, Professor Geoff Boxshall from the Natural History Museum.
Let us begin at the beginning, with definitions. The opening paragraph of the report says:
“Taxonomy is the scientific discipline of describing, delimiting and naming organisms, both living and fossil, and systematics is the process of organising taxonomic information about organisms into a logical classification that provides the framework for all comparative studies”.
If I was in any doubt about the need to restate these definitions clearly, the Word package on my computer prompted me to do so by indicating that it regarded the word “systematics” as of dubious provenance.
The next question that the report addresses is why these skills are important. Consider the case of Charles Darwin, whose 150th anniversary is, as we all know, being widely and royally celebrated this year. Question: what do Charles Darwin and Andy Capp have in common? Answer: a fascination with pigeons. For Andy Capp the fascination had to do with their racing capacities. In fact, had they been contemporaries, they might well have met, for Darwin tells us that,
“I have associated with several eminent fanciers, and have been permitted to join two of the London Pigeon Clubs”.
There is a thought to tempt the imagination—a meeting between Darwin and Andy Capp. I wonder how David Attenborough would have handled that one.
To return to the original point, Darwin tells us in the first chapter of The Origin of Species that it is always best to study some special group. His chosen example, “after deliberation”, was domestic pigeons. One might even say that the mighty edifice that we have come to know variously as “natural selection” or “evolution” was based initially on a minute and detailed study of what we all see daily in Trafalgar Square. But, of course, the difference is between how we see and how Darwin sees.
We see grey, sometimes intrusive birds whose aerial gifts are to be avoided. Darwin saw and was “astonished” by the variety of breeds—the carrier, the short-faced tumbler, the common tumbler, the runt, the barb, the pouter, the turbit, the Jacobin, the trumpeter, the laugher, the fantail, not to mention,
“several other less distinct breeds (which) might be specified”.
He goes on to say that,
“at least a score of pigeons might be chosen, which, if shown to an ornithologist … would certainly be ranked by him as well-defined species”,
but not, he adds, as “the same genus”.
And so, in nine beautifully lucid pages in the opening chapter of his great book, Darwin distinguishes his interest in pigeons from those of Andy Capp and the tourists in Trafalgar Square. How does he do this? He sees in a different way. He provides detailed observations. He describes some experiments in breeding. He marshals his evidence. He offers a hypothesis or two. He even explains where his opponents go wrong. And so, monumentally, he begins to build the intellectual edifice which changed our understanding of the world in which we live. The Andy Capps of this world focus on details relevant only to the dual primary purpose which he saw of pigeons—speed and endurance. Darwin comments that,
“they win their prizes by selecting such slight differences, yet they ignore all the general arguments, and refuse to sum up in their minds slight differences accumulated during many successive generations”.
So I ask again, why are taxonomy and systematics so important? I have given one example already. One answer is that they lie at the very foundation of our understanding of the natural world, and not only because Charles Darwin shows us that in a most spectacular fashion. For even if, per improbabile—to invent a Latin phrase—he were wrong, it would require a similarly rich cocktail of observation, experiment, analysis, hypothesis and evidence-based conclusions even to begin the argument with him. I am tempted to add, “Fundamentalists please take note”, but that belongs to a different debate.
A rather different answer to the question of importance lies in a concept which we have all learnt to use with respect—biodiversity. We have come to understand more fully the importance of the variety to be found in the natural world and the complex interrelations within that variety. I recently read with delight of the fact that Scotland—it was not because it was Scotland; it was just a good example I happened to have to hand—has amazing biodiversity: 10 species of reptiles and amphibians; 63 species of mammals; 242 species of birds; 240 species of fish; 20,000 species of plants and fungi; 24,800 species of invertebrates; and, at an estimate, 40,000 species of virus bacteria and protozoa. I dare say some noble Lords in this Room could correct me on the specific numbers, but I was simply staggered and amazed. How do we know this? Because we have in our society the skills and techniques of taxonomy and systematics.
Of course, a fundamental and important question follows: does it matter that we know this? The answer is a resounding yes, for many reasons. The big reason is that changes in biodiversity can be either consequences or harbingers of climate change. Equally important, therefore, is to enhance even further our ability to measure changes in biodiversity, and that requires the skills of taxonomy and systematics.
The implications of these measurements for food supply and safety are central to our capacity as a race, let alone as a society, to prepare for that change. The absence of bees and butterflies, of which we heard something last summer and the summer before it, will affect my crops of fruit and vegetables, but their continued presence has much greater significance than that—ultimately, the capacity of the human race to feed itself.
If changes in biodiversity have such potential gravity, the importance of the study of taxonomy and systematics is beyond question. For coherent thought and therefore policy preparedness in such matters, the measurement and analysis of change in the biodiversity of our community is essential. For that, we need taxonomists and practitioners of systematic biology.
I began by setting out the social and economic reasons for the importance of these disciplines, because I realise that I am in a political context and utilitarian arguments are important. The disciplines are essential for our survival as a human race. Other important arguments will be elaborated by my colleagues who speak after me. I shall briefly mention just two by way of an amuse-bouche for the wider discussion that will follow.
First, sheer intellectual curiosity about the natural world is of value in itself. From a utilitarian point of view, that almost always has to be the forerunner of the technologies and understandings which change our society for the better. Sheer intellectual curiosity is a driving point. The pursuit of such curiosity must be based, as it was in Darwin’s case, on observation, experiment, analysis and evidence-based argument, and on learning to see as a taxonomist and as a systematician. It must be based on taxonomy and systematics.
I advance a further argument. In this country, due in part to our adventurous history during the past 200 or 300 years, we have three of the most important, relevant collections in the world: in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew, in the Natural History Museum and in the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh. These collections must be curated, maintained and expanded; we have an intellectual as well as a moral responsibility to do so. Other societies, some of which were once our colonies, are often the source of these collections. They will want to use them as reference points for understanding changes in their own regional biodiversity. Whether we like it or not, we are the curators; we are responsible for the maintenance and expansion of those collections.
I have given two examples—there are many others—of why the disciplines are important. I turn briefly to how we assess government awareness and policy in these matters. First, I acknowledge and thank the Government, whose response indicates acceptance of a number of our central recommendations. There has been significant progress following the reports of 1992 and 2002, and the signs are that, with the help of our continued prompting—and that is a manifesto of the Science and Technology Committee—there will be further progress from 2009.
I shall give some examples of acceptances and moving forward. NERC will commission a study which will deal, I hope, with our concerns about numbers of future scientists in this area—so there will be hard evidence. NERC and the Natural History Museum have agreed to study further the national priorities that we should formulate in this area. BBSRC and NERC will provide funds for the development of a road map for delivery of internet-based taxonomy. I am happy to say on a very specific point that our pleas concerning the needs of the fungal reference collection at Kew have been heard and, in part, answered.
There are a number of further positive responses that will doubtless be discussed by my colleagues, one of which I will mention because I am particularly pleased by it. In their response, the Government imply an understanding of the importance of biodiversity-related topics in schools. However, lest the Minister believe that he can now relax, I reassure him that there is a “can-do-better” coda to this report, and doubtless we will hear much of that in the debate that follows.
I highlight two examples to which, for various reasons, I attach particular importance in that regard. The first is the rejection of our recommendation that there should be a lead department in this area. We thought hard about that, and we had many arguments for and against. We came to the conclusion that a lead department would enhance our capacity significantly in important respects. The policy needs in this area are great. Significant developments of policy will be required whether we, or the Government, like it or not. Their commitment to one of their central focuses being climate change indicates that, for the reasons I have already given, a lead needs to be taken, rather than things falling between the cracks. That is at the core of our recommendation and our disappointment that it has not been accepted. We see that there are dangers to our traditional strengths in the supply of sufficient numbers of well trained people in these fields.
My second example also perhaps relates to the need for a lead department. We noted that the notion of co-ordination, or joined-up government, as it was once called, was not being fully exercised. A good example is an apparent failure on the part of the government response properly to consult the regime in Scotland. The evidence for that is a short and rather pathetic paragraph—I speak now as a Scot—that apparently summarises its response to what we believe is quite a significant report. That is underlined by the fact that one of the three great national collections is in Edinburgh, and therefore significantly the responsibility of the current Scottish Parliament. There was a lack of joined-upness there, which was a pity. I hope that we can do better next time.
I look forward to the contributions that are to come, including the Minister’s response. I beg to move.
I join the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, in thanking our clerks and our special adviser for all their hard work. The noble Lord reminded us that your Lordships’ committee has been concerned about the state of systematics and taxonomy since 1992. Since then we have been bringing this concern to the attention of the Government by reports, follow-up reports, correspondence and debate. Frankly, we are not sure if the decline has been halted or reversed. Have committee members been banging their heads up against a brick wall, or are we getting somewhere by wearing away the stone with a constant drip, drip, drip?
I apologise to my academic colleagues, who are probably giving me nought out of 10 on my report card for mixing my metaphors. I agree with the noble Lord that we are getting somewhere—but my metaphors are mixed because the messages are mixed, as are the messages from the Government. The greatest mixed message of all is the assurance that Defra will monitor the ecosystem. That requires the expertise of taxonomists, but nobody is sure if there are going to be a sufficient number to carry out the work. We are told that NERC will commission a study this year to find out the number and trends. Hopefully, we will then know.
We are all agreed that web-based taxonomy is having, and will have, an enormous impact on taxonomy services and knowledge. We believe that a road map for delivering internet-based taxonomy should be developed. But the Government are referring to biodiversity data, whereas the committee wants to use the internet as a means of identification. Is that a mixed message or just confusion?
During our debate with the Government there has been an exchange of views about the management and culture of science within the Government. The noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, explained the importance of understanding environmental sustainability. This is why taxonomy and systematics should be firmly in a powerful lead government department, such as DIUS—a department strong enough to halt its decline. At present, though, the responsibility for systematics and taxonomy is spread over many departments.
Again, the response we get is mixed. We are told that the Government’s role in science is to set the overarching strategy, and it is left to the research councils and others to decide how research money is spent, yet we are told that occasionally cases arise where Ministers rightly provide strategic direction. Is that a message to try harder to persuade the Government that systematics and taxonomy are of sufficient importance for Ministers to give strategic direction? Or is it a message saying, “Don’t talk to us, talk to the research councils and others”?
I come back to my original question: are our concerns being acknowledged and acted upon or are they being ignored? Our concerns are clear—recruitment, funding, governance, availability and distribution of knowledge—but the response is mixed. Yes, there will be a study of numbers and trends; yes, there will be dialogue on priorities and some work on distribution. Very good, but is it enough?
I am a lay member of this committee. I do not have any special scientific knowledge. But our report reflects the thoughts of many well informed people who are concerned that if we do not boost the taxonomic community, both professional and voluntary, then we will miss out on some important aspects of environmental sustainability through ignorance or neglect.
I am an unashamed supporter of this Government. I know that the economic crisis dominates government thinking at the moment, as it should. But fairly soon politics will be moving into election mode, a time when many issues are raised and when perhaps climate change will again come to the top of the agenda. During that debate, it would be nice for the Government to be able to say “Yes, we listened to your concerns about ecosystem services and have done something about it.” There is nothing mixed about that message.
I join with others in thanking our chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, for proposing that we return to the subject of systematics and taxonomy. I can record with some pride that I am the only person, I think, who has served on all three committees. I know that others present gave evidence in 1992, but I suspect that I am the only survivor of the committee, so at least I represent historical continuity. I am certainly familiar with some of the issues that are pleaded on behalf of the systematics community, and indeed with some of the criticisms, which should be acknowledged, that sometimes the taxonomic community does not always sell its wares as effectively as the user community would wish.
The 1992 report chaired by Lord Dainton was well timed. That was the year we signed the Convention on Biological Diversity at the Earth Summit at Rio. With that, we assumed responsibilities formally—to which I hope we had already committed ourselves both nationally and internationally—for conservation of the diversity of species and to put policies in place, both nationally and internationally, to achieve just that. We see that working through the system at the moment. We should give credit to the Government—to successive Governments in fact—for having led the way in many ways on national conservation policies. They have not always been effective—that is the nature of things—but at least a big subject has been addressed.
Since 1992 the agenda has changed. As we heard from the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, it has become more immediate. Climate change was obviously not the issue in 1992 that it is today. There was concern about deforestation, which has certainly increased; land-use change; overexploitation of natural resources; and the limited availability of water, not just for our own purposes but to sustain habitats, particularly those that rely on water for their nature. In all these areas systematic biology has a role, some would say a fundamental role. After all, you cannot conserve something unless you understand it. However, we have to acknowledge that taxonomy and systematics is only one of the scientific disciplines that has to be brought to bear on these issues, and it is there to complement, to provide underpinning and to provide the fundamental understanding of the contribution of other scientific approaches which are critical.
I must declare two interests: I chair the trustees at Kew and the partners board of the Living with Environmental Change programme. I mention that programme in particular because it is mentioned at paragraph 3.21 of the government response as one of the interdisciplinary programmes that will determine what issues taxonomy and systematics can contribute to. That is absolutely right. Living with Environmental Change is an umbrella programme straddling all the research councils and a number of government departments, including the Environment Agency and many others. It is all about collaboration on meeting these environmental changes, not just climate change. I suspect that taxonomy and systematics will indeed make a contribution to just about every programme, whether it is to do with the environment and human health, the depletion of natural resources, land-use change, and much else. It is one contribution alongside others.
As the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, reminded us—I am sure that this is absolutely correct—whether we like it or not, we have inherited a historical obligation. We have these national collections. These are the type specimens, the voucher specimens, for countries, not just our colonies, all around the world. You have to refer to these specimens if you are to determine the nature of your diversity and the extent to which it is changing. Indeed, the astonishingly effective modern techniques of DNA sequencing and the like still ultimately rely on these voucher specimens to determine the type specimens. Whether we like it or not, the Natural History Museum, Kew and Edinburgh have not just a moral obligation but—something rather stronger—a duty to curate those specimens as well as add to them.
That is what is happening. With the increased interest arising from the Convention on Biological Diversity, most member states which have signed that agreement are progressing well on preparing their conservation plans and that obviously requires an inventory of the habitats they value most. That means that we get specimens coming back to the Natural History Museum, Kew or Edinburgh. The speed of accessions is increasing and it is actually a problem keeping up. It is a question not only of curation but of working on these specimens. Modern molecular morphological phylogenetics, which is determining the evolutionary relationship of these species, is advancing enormously fast with the new techniques to which I referred.
If we are to measure how successful taxonomy and systematics are in serving the user community, we have to ask not just whether we are continuing to collect and identify new specimens or curate existing specimens but, much more practically and more importantly, whether this information is useful. Can people access it? Is it relevant to the sort of studies that are arising from our obligations under the Convention on Biological Diversity and other international obligations?
The measure of output is quite a challenge, and this is where I think we have to ensure that the taxonomic community—led, one would hope, by a government department, but at least by a champion within government—has a sort of checklist from time to time. What is the product of taxonomy and systematics? Is it helpful? Does the user community find it timely and relevant? Are we developing a better understanding of the role of individual species in ecosystems? From that, does a prediction flow of which habitats are vulnerable? It should. Is there a determination of which management policies would be most appropriate for these ecosystems, and a formulation of conservation policies and restoration policy programmes? I am delighted to say that, as a result of the seed bank programme that Kew introduced at the turn of the millennium, we are now seeing this part of the collection being used for restoration ecology around the world. It is a great success for those who had the vision 12 or more years ago to start that very ambitious programme.
I have referred to the great advances in recent years in phylogeny—that is, determining how organisms are evolutionarily related. I do not think that there is any doubt that the integration of phylogeny into other areas of biological research has become standard. However, the area where there is continual debate—and the written evidence is in the report—is what is usually described as “descriptive taxonomy”. The problem, which causes people to throw their hands up in the air with horror, is that there is never an end to it. However, there has to be some determination of priorities. We can probably list all the plants and vertebrates. In 2010, we are due to do what Darwin asked for—that is, to produce the definitive list of plants in the world. It will be a draft list, not a definitive one, but at last a list is coming out. However, no one is going to attempt to do that for invertebrates or nematodes and many other such species. Therefore, when you come to descriptive taxonomy, you clearly have to determine priorities and this is the difficult area.
The other problem, which is always being addressed by the taxonomic community, with perfect justification, is that taxonomy in universities has melted away, or at least there is very little left. Our three reports seem to suggest that the United Kingdom is particularly bad in this respect, but it is also true of Europe and other countries. Therefore, the obligation to do training and research in taxonomy falls more and more on the national centres of excellence: the Natural History Museum, Kew, Edinburgh and, indeed, regional universities. That, again, is an inescapable fact, although I should not give the impression that no systematics is going on in universities. The modern techniques to which I referred—relying on DNA sequencing and the like—clearly does happen in universities and is a growth area.
So we need appropriately qualified specialists to carry out this inventory and these conservation assessments in areas to be agreed as priorities. Someone has to determine priorities. There is always an individual who determines for himself what he or she wants to work on, but that is not good enough. There has to be international collaboration; we cannot all duplicate, and we must certainly think of ourselves as Europeans, and perhaps as a much wider community. As has been said, it is essential to embrace these exciting new practices in the web-based environment. That is much easier for new accessions—you can put them on to the web because you collect them in a form that is immediately available. It is much harder when 250 years or more of material has to be digitised, put on the web and made accessible. That is essential. The report says that the taxonomic community needs more money for this. In practice, there are charities around the world that we rely on—American charities and one or two others. The sums are enormous and it will take a long time for even the priority areas to be fully digitised, cross- referenced and accessible, but that must be determined as a priority.
The way in which these issues have shot up the agenda arises from the consequences of the Convention on Biological Diversity. I know that the Addison rules prevent me from speaking in any sense for Kew; therefore, I cannot thank the Government for their support on mycology, but were I allowed to do so I certainly would have wished to. I remind the Committee to what extent mycology has collapsed. In the 1992 report, we pointed out that plants and fungi go together in many communities; you really cannot study one without the other, certainly when it comes to restoration. But mycology is in dire straits, more or less, as it was in 1992, and I am delighted that there has been some temporary support.
Why does the Science and Technology Committee keep on returning to this issue? Some people must think that we are obsessed with it. The noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, made it very clear how central it is to so many policies. If there remains a concern, it is that because this is an area which can and should contribute to any number of scientific endeavours to underpin policy, it is for the taxonomic community to demonstrate effectively what its role is, how it can contribute and how it can ensure that it is focused on the areas of greatest priority. It is reasonable for the Government and the research councils—not just NERC—to engage in a debate with the systematics community to make it clear what is expected and to measure the outputs so that some sort of clarity is achieved. At the moment it is fragmented and, as the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, pointed out, there seems to be a lack of adequate consultation between government departments in formulating the first response—at least as far as the Royal Botanic Gardens, Edinburgh, was concerned.
There is a live issue here: we keep on challenging the taxonomic community to make itself relevant, to be focused and to underpin. It points out that because of a lack of recruitment, training and research, some areas of its discipline is declining, although not all. That is why, ultimately, an overall review would be enormously helpful to that community.
I join with others in thanking all the committee members—particularly the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, for choosing the topic and providing excellent leadership—our outstanding secretariat and our adviser, Professor Geoff Boxshall, FRS.
I mention FRS because, as will emerge in my remarks, one of the problems we have encountered is a feeling that much of descriptive taxonomy is not a sexy subject. On the other hand, it is worth emphasising that the Royal Society, which is often thought of as a rather stuffy institution, has elected in recent years quite a few taxonomists and systematists, not all molecular people but many classical people who would be at home in a 19th-century institution. We need to recognise that.
I begin with a digression that will circle back to relevance. On a personal note, I find one of the extraordinarily interesting features of the House of Lords Select Committees—no other country’s upper house can say this—is the way we can put together, partly but by no means exclusively through the Cross Benches, individuals with the highest levels of expertise, authority and standing in the subject under study. At its best, this leads to a harmonious engagement between civil servants and Ministers, who can take advantage of constructive reviews to reinforce strengths and to address weaknesses. It is like the visiting committees that well run universities bring in every couple of years to take a critical view of departments. At its best, I have had the pleasure and privilege of being involved in some things; on the other hand, at its worst, you tend to get a clash between independent expert opinion—which, admittedly, can sometimes shade into independent expert opinionatedness, but which is always eager to help—and self-satisfied bureaucratic rigidities which are resentfully dismissive of any call for change.
The saga that has already been sketched a couple of times about the taxonomy and systematics Select Committee 1 in 1992, Select Committee 2 in 2002 and Select Committee 3 in 2008 has interesting examples of the best and the worst. That brings me to the wonder and hope that the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, will still be around for taxonomy and systematics Select Committee 4 in four years’ time.
Amusingly, my noble friend Lord Krebs and I appeared together as a duo on the 1992 committee. Lord Dainton’s inquiry had good outcomes, partly, but by no means wholly, because my noble friend Lord Krebs shortly afterwards took over as the chief executive of the Natural Environmental Research Council. The 2002 inquiry of the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, also revisited many of the things that had been promised but had not been done and had another go at things that had not been accepted. There has again been some progress. From what we have heard and what has been described—I shall not revisit this in any detail—there have been some good things and some bad things, and I shall speak to two particular bad things.
However, before I do so, let me reinforce some of the good things, but in a shaded way for one of them. The NERC is to commission a study of the state of taxonomy, including the number of taxonomists, trends, job openings and so on. This goes back to 1992, when it was called for but not done. This prompted me at the time to get together with Kevin Gaston in the Natural History Museum to produce a paper in Nature on the taxonomy of taxonomists. Part of the fault is that the taxonomy community is not as introspective as it could perhaps productively be and, shamelessly to digress, it is a community where roughly one-third of it works on vertebrates, particularly birds and mammals; roughly one-third of it works on plants of all kinds; and roughly one-third of it works on invertebrates, the small things that arguably run the world. In fact, if you use the number of species, both known and probably there but not yet known, in relation to the workforce, the workforce is out of whack with its proper job description by a factor of 10 vertebrates to plants and a factor of 100 invertebrates to vertebrates. I digress, but that is a very welcome study.
The conjunction between the Natural Environmental Research Council and the Natural History Museum to convene a dialogue on priorities for the UK systematics community is praiseworthy, as is Defra’s recognition of its proper obligation to bring the fungal collection from CABI into Kew. The commitment by NERC and SERC to web-based taxonomy has been welcomed, but, even here is a foreshadowing of the negative points on which I shall now dwell, because absent in those plans is a commitment to the associated taxonomy qua taxonomy; as, for example, simply in online identification tools.
The first of the two hobbyhorses that I wish to ride, I shall ride briefly, and it pertains to the Department for International Development. Our committee recommended in its report,
“digitisation projects that focus on the biodiversity conservation and sustainability needs of developing countries”.
This was sent to DfID’s address. The recommendation is a paraphrase of DfID’s stated priorities; that is, the sustainability needs of developing countries. In a tour de force of cognitive dissonance, DfID’s response was to reject that recommendation on the ground that it did not match its priorities. I would ask the luckless Minister, the noble Lord, Lord Drayson, whose fault it is not, whether that is one of the things that he would undertake to address in connection with DfID. The response was a little puzzling, although—I shamelessly and probably improperly digress again—I half suspect that it might be a hangover from agitated interaction between DfID and the Royal Society five years ago, when I was its president and Clare Short was the Secretary of State, over the department’s plans essentially to dismantle long-standing research collaboration with developing countries in Africa, partly on the ridiculous grounds that such tertiary education projects in countries that were in crying need of primary education were elitist and therefore taboo. That disappeared with Clare Short’s tenancy of that office, and Hilary Benn quickly righted it, but I suspect that in some dark corner of DfID is the person who rejected that recommendation.
There are two more serious, overarching themes. One of them has been referred to already, although it will not prevent me revisiting it; namely, the lack of a lead department to co-ordinate addressing issues which involve in various combinations, at the very least, six government departments: DIUS, DfID, Defra, DCMS, which funds the research in the Natural History Museum, the FCO, which is responsible for overseas territories—I could speak also about those, but I shall let them go—and Research Councils UK, which, when I had tenancy of the Office of Science and Technology, was effectively a ring-fenced entity, separate from the DTI.
The second of my concerns is the seeming lack of awareness of the nature of the subject of taxonomy and systematics, much less of its current health, within Research Councils UK more generally. Our worry about that is expressed quite trenchantly in the report. Particular emphasis was laid on the Natural Environment Research Council, whose approach we found “confused”, but there is a more general failure of co-ordination in Research Councils UK.
I return to the theme with which Professor Sutherland began by quoting from an article written by Dr Sandy Knapp in the magazine of the Linnean Society of London, in which she pointed out that the scientific world was different in the day of Charles Darwin. In those days, it was natural history. Observation and description were very much a part of mainstream science, whereas today there is often a feeling that biology means work in laboratories and testing hypotheses. We encountered that in an explicit quote from the Natural Environment Research Council, which said in response to our worries:
“Research proposals including classical taxonomic approaches may have the best chance of success if they take account of … the hypothesis testing science that typifies responsive mode grants”.
In more detail, NERC spends only about a quarter of its money on responsive mode, responding to the best proposal—blue skies; about a quarter on proposals directed in particular areas, not one of which encompasses taxonomy and systematics; and half on national capabilities, which are mainly its own institutions. That is a bit of a change from when John Cadogan was head of the Office of Science and Technology. Our aim then was that half the money should go on responsive mode. That means asking the best people to say what the best proposals are. The notion that they have to be judged against some simple-minded notion of how you do science by testing hypotheses is just plain batty. It is ignorant and it is stupid. I have lived four decades of lucky life in a variety of areas, and there is no recipe for doing science. Certainly an important ingredient is just doing descriptive things.
In conclusion, I seriously hope that the rejection of the idea of a lead department responsible for co-ordinating the various needs that we will hear more about will be yet one more time revisited and that abrupt rejection will be overturned.
My Lord Chairman, may I have your permission to speak seated in my wheelchair?
Thank you very much.
I join with others to congratulate the chairman of the committee, the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, and the supporting staff, whom I found particularly helpful. I was very pleased to be invited by the chairman to serve as a co-opted member of a committee on systematics and taxonomy, as in my early scientific days I started off as a systematist interested in taxonomy. My particular interest was in metazoan invertebrates and their role in disease, particularly nematodes and transmitting arthropods.
The committee concluded that systematics and taxonomy are of fundamental importance to our understanding of the natural world and, I would add, to a full understanding of the threats of pathogens, their transmission and their control. These pathogens are at the periphery of our country and will come out in the tropics we know not when.
The committee also concluded that disciplines such as sequencing and taxonomy were in decline in the United Kingdom and that if that decline were allowed to continue, there would be serious consequences for the country’s ability to deliver a host of policy aims, including disease identification and surveillance of exotic threats, and an effective response to climate change, wildlife biology, and so on. We said that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills should take a lead role, a recommendation which was not accepted. In particular, the report identified fungal taxonomic problems. Fortunately, that has now been attended to, at least partially. My noble friend Lord Selborne has a strong association with Kew and, no doubt, will be guiding the work there.
Another area where taxonomic development is hard hit is entomology. An excellent article in the February issue of Biologist by Dr Simon Leather of Imperial College London gives a succinct analysis of the future of entomology, while one of his colleagues has written bluntly that British entomology may be on the verge of extinction. The decline has been progressive since the 1970s. Although there was only one entomological department in the United Kingdom at that time and one BSc entomology degree, at Imperial College, seven UK universities offered a degree in agricultural zoology, essentially specialising in entomology and parasitology, including plant nemotology. Now there are no entomology departments, no undergraduate entomology degrees and only one Master of Science degree in entomology, which is at Imperial College. Typically, students registered for zoology or biology degrees will cover the whole of invertebrates in 12 lectures.
Hitherto, much of the enthusiasm for entomology has been taken up by amateurs, who have often been parsons and other men of the cloth who have studied part time. Some of us will be familiar with the natural philosophy or natural biology of so-and-so in so-and-so village. Here, too, there has been a marked 35 per cent decline in membership of the Amateur Entomological Society.
When exotic disease strikes this country, as it has quite recently with bluetongue, there is a scramble for experts who can identify the transmitting insects—the Culicoides, or midges, as they are often called—to assess the vector potential of the various strains of the midge. Although we do a reasonable job, we have to rely somewhat on people on the continent of Europe to help us out. The number of species in the phylum Arthropodium is massive. Many of them are still unknown and likely to remain so until we have many more people looking at them in detail. The dearth of entomologists and the lack of entomological training are an important issue. That should be compared with the vertebrate situation where, with few exceptions, the fauna is well known, well studied and well written up.
How do we compare with other countries? The country that I know best is the United States, where I worked for 15 years. Now, with homeland security developments, it is keen to develop science across the board, including invertebrate science. For example, in the United States there are 16 universities with departments of entomology, offering Bachelor of Science and Master of Science degrees in entomology, and an additional 22 universities that offer entomological minors.
In the United States, the major funding agencies—the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation—are aware of the importance of entomology, and grant applications to these bodies in entomology, for example, are given the same scrutiny as other proposals via the section on tropical medicine and parasitology, of which I declare an interest, having been the chairman of that study group several years ago. Additionally, the US army and US navy have their funded research programmes, although I understand that the navy is closing down its research facilities.
The problems in the United Kingdom are not unique in Europe. For example, in France concern has been expressed about the shortage of medical and veterinary entomologists. At present, there are approximately 100 such people, of whom half are over 50. That indicates that recruitment is not as good as it should be.
In my opening comments, I mentioned my interest in nematodes, which includes parasitic as well as free-living and soil parasitic nematodes. Often, soil nematodes are included with arthropods—wrongly, of course; nevertheless one has to put up with it. However, as with arthropods, little is known about the free-living nematodes, except where they cause plant diseases, such as the genus Caenorhabditis, which has been used at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge in the development of a vast understanding of cell biology. As with many other invertebrates, their importance could be crucial, especially where climate change may cause changes in their populations and also in relation to their vector potential for viruses and other pathogens.
I have pointed out on more than one occasion that with parasitic nematodes, which cause disease in man and animals, the free-living stages that occur in the soil vastly outnumber the parasitic forms that occur inside animals or humans. We know so little about them but suspect much of them. An example of this suspicion, although we do not know it for certain, is their role in the genetic exchange of anti-parasitic resistance between the parasitic stages that occur in the soil.
Having been somewhat negative about science and the support for science, I am pleased to acknowledge what I consider to be an innovative project on the gene sequencing of Caenorhabditis in California, USA, in relation to these free-living forms of parasitic nematodes. It will provide a strong base for diagnosis, surveillance, the development of anti-parasitic compounds and a better understanding of drug resistance and vaccine production. As I said, much basic information has been gleaned on cell replication biology by the study of these free-living nematodes at the Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge.
The downstream application of the genome sequence data will provide a powerful tool for the way in which we do science in the field. Especially, it will provide enhanced preparedness for potential exotic invaders. I have often said that the price of freedom from exotic infections, which is likely to increase with climate change, is constant vigilance with regard to what is going on. For constant vigilance, a stronger base of systematics and taxonomy than we have at present is needed.
I, too, thank my noble friend Lord Sutherland of Houndwood for his excellent chairmanship of the committee and for introducing the debate. I also extend my thanks to the committee secretariat and our special adviser, Professor Boxshall. As has been mentioned, I have been involved with the story of the Select Committee’s interest in taxonomy since the Dainton report, although I do not quite have the pedigree of the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, who has served on all three Select Committees.
Following the 1992 Dainton report, I prepared a separate report for the Natural Environment Research Council on taxonomy. I then became the chief executive of NERC and had the pleasure of implementing my own recommendations, which included the introduction of a taxonomy training initiative. I should also mention an interest as chairman of the Natural History Museum in Oxford.
I re-read my 1992 report just before the debate and the questions that we are raising now have a depressing ring of familiarity about them. It is almost as though there has been a dialogue of the deaf between the Select Committee and the taxonomy community on the one hand, and the Government on the other. I hope that the Government’s ears are open and listening today.
In my contribution I will refer to three topics, some of which have been covered but bear repeating. First, I will make a brief comment on why taxonomy matters; secondly, I will refer to the current lack of strategic vision in the UK; and, thirdly, I will speak about the role of regional museums.
In his novel The Magic Mountain, Thomas Mann wrote:
“You ask what is the use of classification, arrangement, systematization. I answer you: order and simplification are the first steps toward the mastery of a subject—the actual enemy is the unknown”.
Taxonomy is the science of bringing order and simplification to the bewildering diversity of the natural world. Indeed, Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish botanist and father of taxonomy, liked to say:
“Deus creavit, Linnaeus disposuit”,
which translates as,
“God created, Linnaeus organized”.
Linnaeus based his classification on observable anatomical characteristics of plants and animals. While many present day taxonomists still rely on such features, molecular taxonomy, which relies on gene sequences, has, to a substantial degree, eclipsed the more traditional methods of determining the relationships among living organisms. Increasingly in the future, taxonomy will be based on gene sequences and be internet-based. This reality should be recognised in any future strategy for this country.
As we heard in the introductory speech of the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, classification reflects the evolutionary tree of life. This was famously enunciated in the debate in Oxford on 30 June 1860 between Bishop Wilberforce and Thomas Henry Huxley when the Bishop—described on another occasion by Disraeli as “unctuous, oleaginous and saponaceous”—asked Huxley whether he was descended from a monkey on his grandmother’s or his grandfather’s side. In the oft-quoted reply, Huxley said that he was not ashamed to have a monkey for his ancestor but he would be ashamed to be connected with a man who used great gifts to obscure the truth. One member of the audience, a certain Lady Brewster, is said to have fainted.
Thanks to modern molecular taxonomy, things have moved on. Lady Brewster would surely have fainted all over again had she read the Sun headline on 20 June 2007, “Grandad was an anchovy”. It is pretty unusual for the Sun to carry major stories about taxonomy, but this one was a blockbuster. Gene sequences have shown that an eldritch and unprepossessing fish-like sand-dwelling marine animal called amphioxus is close to the 550 million year-old common ancestor of all vertebrates, including you and me. It has many blocks of genes in common with humans, a phenomenon known as synteny.
As we have heard, taxonomy is not only intellectually exciting, it has many practical applications. Let me provide just one instance. We know from taxonomic and phylogenetic studies based on gene sequences that the virus that causes AIDS, HIV, has been transmitted to man more than once from chimpanzees and sooty mangabeys, and first became established in humans in Kinshasa in the middle of the last century. Taxonomy of the AIDS virus today provides essential information for public health issues such as the spread of drug-resistant mutations and the introduction of new strains by immigration. Taxonomy of the AIDS virus also proved the innocence of Bulgarian nurses who were under a death sentence in Libya for allegedly transmitting the virus in a children’s hospital.
If taxonomy is so interesting and so important, what is the problem that has led the Select Committee to hold three inquiries in the past 17 years? The problem with taxonomy, in my view, is that it is an underpinning science for a whole host of other branches of biology. Indeed, no experimental or observational scientific paper in biology can be published without reference to taxonomy, since the author must refer to the species that he or she has studied. The fact that taxonomy is underpinning means that too many of the funders of research take it for granted or believe that it has all been done. However, as we have heard, taxonomy is by no means a completed task but a rapidly changing branch of biology. In my research career, the group of species that I have spent many decades of my life studying, the Paridae or titmice, are now designated as belonging to different genera, whereas 30 years ago when I started out on my research they all belonged to one genus.
I repeat, taxonomy is part of the infrastructure that enables biologists, whatever their field of interest, to carry out and report their work. However, while in areas such as space science, particle physics, oceanography and molecular biology the research councils and the Government accept the need to invest substantial sums in underpinning infrastructure, this is, sadly, not true of taxonomy. There simply has been and is no strategic programme of investment in research or training in taxonomy. Nor did we detect in our inquiry any associated strategic direction for the subject, although we hope that as a result of our recommendations that strategic direction should appear. All the funders of taxonomy from whom we took evidence said that they were users of taxonomy, not funders of the underpinning scientific knowledge.
We are all users of the roads and the trains, but someone has to take responsibility for building and maintaining them. The same is true of taxonomy. As we have heard, the situation is exacerbated by the lack of leadership among government departments. Although we heard claims of co-ordination, a more honest and accurate claim would be one of confusion. I hope that in his response the Minister will assure us that if we come back to this in five years the situation will have changed, there will be a strategic vision for the future of taxonomy and there will be a lead government department.
I turn now to the national and regional taxonomic collections. The major centres in the UK for taxonomic work are the natural history museums and botanical gardens. As we have heard, for historical reasons the UK has some of the world’s most important, indeed astounding, taxonomic collections, which serve as reference material for researchers all over the world and as places for taxonomic research and education. They also have—this has not yet been mentioned and I shall elaborate on it in a moment—a major role in public outreach. I shall give noble Lords some figures. The Natural History Museum in London houses an estimated 70 million specimens, the Royal Botanical Gardens at Kew well over 6 million, and the national museums and gardens of the devolved countries collectively also well over 6 million specimens. However, the English regional collections are also of great importance. The second largest collection in England is in Oxford, with more than 6 million specimens in the Natural History Museum and the Fielding-Druce Herbarium, and Cambridge and Manchester also have very large and important collections.
How are these institutions in England funded? Kew and the Natural History Museum in London, as we have already heard, receive grants-in-aid from Defra and DCMS, but the regional museums do not. Our recommendation 3.29 was that the Government provide continuity of funding for regional museums but the response from DCMS, in my view, was disappointingly vague. I hope that the Minister will confirm to us that DCMS will indeed provide a guaranteed continuity of funding for the regional museums in England and for the important work that they do.
I return, finally, to the role of museums and collections in education. Our recommendation 3.28 referred to the disappearance of taxonomy and biodiversity from the school curriculum. In their positive reply, the Government recognised this issue and, among other things, referred to the role of the Natural History Museum in London in providing high quality out-of-classroom learning.
I emphasise that, in addition to the Natural History Museum in London, which does a superb job, the regional museums also play a key role. I have some illustrative figures for the Natural History Museum in Oxford. It is visited by 72 per cent of the primary schools and 94 per cent of the secondary schools in the local education authority area, and the majority of these visiting groups receive a taught session from an education officer. More than 400,000 visitors arrived at the museum last year, many of them children, and more than 1 million visitors went to the website, yet the funding for this important work is very precarious. I am sure that similar figures could be produced for the other major regional museums. Again, I hope that the Minister will confirm that the Government are committed to continuing their funding for educational and outreach work in regional, as well as national, museums and collections.
I end with a quotation from the late American biologist and writer, Stephen Jay Gould. In his book Wonderful Life he writes:
“Taxonomy (the science of classification) is often undervalued as a glorified form of filing, with each species in its folder, like a stamp in its prescribed place in an album: but taxonomy is a fundamental and dynamic science, dedicated to exploring the causes of relationships and similarities among organisms. Classifications are theories about the basis of natural order, not dull catalogues compiled only to avoid chaos”.
I hope that the Minister’s reply will both be more than a dull catalogue and show how the Government intend to avoid future chaos in their approach to taxonomy.
It is a great pleasure to start the winding-up speeches at the end of this fascinating debate. As I listened, it occurred to me that, had the Minister not had such an eminent background, he might have been slightly intimidated by the galaxy of scientific talent ranged against him today, of which I count myself as very much the most junior. However, I am sure that none of them would dream of using their great gifts to obscure the truth, to quote the noble Lord, Lord Krebs.
The committee was very well served by its scientific adviser, Professor Boxshall, its Clerk, Christine Salmon Percival, and her team, and its chairman, the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, who today has given me a unique experience, as I never expected to hear Andy Capp debated in your Lordships’ House.
As the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, and others have said, the Science and Technology Committee seems to return to the issue of systematic and taxonomy with monotonous regularity. However, one should not confuse the word “monotonous” with the word “boring”. The subject matter of the report and this debate is far from boring; indeed, it relates to one of the most fundamental scientific disciplines affecting our ability to survive the threat of climate change and to mitigate the effects of man’s activities on the biodiversity of the planet. That is why we keep returning to it. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, underlined its underpinning role in many scientific disciplines, and the subtitle of my 2002 report made reference to the fact that it is the science underpinning conservation.
Maintaining the biodiversity that this generation has inherited on our blue and green planet is one of our most serious responsibilities. There are those who think it is easy and we just have to stop doing a lot of the things we are doing; there are those who think it is impossible; and there are those in the middle ground, like me, who believe that we can tackle the threat of climate change by making sensible adjustments to our lifestyle that will not cause us too much grief nor hinder the development of less developed countries, which have a right to strive to live as comfortably as we do.
We must take action to reduce emissions, of course, but at the same time we must protect the living things of this planet, living within their carefully balanced ecosystems which are so easily upset. During the past 200 to 300 years, man has upset numerous ecosystems to the extent that plants and animals living in them have suffered and even died out because we have either destroyed their habitat or modified their climate so much that they cannot survive. Unlike animals, plants cannot get up on their legs or their wings and walk or fly to the next valley, so there are particular problems with plant conservation. Here I declare an interest as chairman of the board of Botanic Gardens Conservation International, an international charity that co-ordinates the expertise available within botanic gardens to secure plant diversity according to internationally agreed priorities. By the way, I was invited to take up that post as a result of chairing the committee’s previous report on this subject in 2002.
When we talk about the conservation of any species, plant or animal, it is vital that we know what we are talking about. Scientists must be confident when they note reductions in populations that they are all talking about the same thing. The only way they can do that is by having clear, internationally agreed identification and naming criteria. Here I declare another interest as patron of the International Commission on Zoological Nomenclature. Both my interests are unpaid.
The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, talked about the importance of type specimens, many of which the UK holds on behalf of the world because of our rich heritage of collecting over hundreds of years.
Despite two previous reports, the report that we are discussing highlights two key matters that are still outstanding: first, the lack of awareness of the state of health of the discipline among the relevant research councils, and, secondly, the lack of a lead government department, leading to the danger of poor co-ordination. As our specialist adviser, Professor Geoffrey Boxshall, has pointed out, these two issues interact to give a compound negative effect.
I am pleased to welcome the Government’s acceptance of the first issue and the announcement that NERC will commission a study this year of the current number of taxonomists and trends. However, once we have that report to hand, it is unclear who will act upon it if there is no lead department. The Government seem to believe that diffuse responsibility would be better than the transfer of the lead responsibility to DIUS, as the committee recommended. In my view, that will lead only to numerous interdepartmental meetings in an attempt to co-ordinate action, whereas it could be done much more efficiently by one department—that is, the department that has the responsibility for the initial and ongoing training of taxonomists through universities and other institutions. If the Government want endless meetings, so be it. A life of endless meetings seems to suit some people but I am afraid it does not suit me if there is a better way.
We are not suggesting that there should be no responsibility in any other department—that would be nonsense. Defra, for example, should have a great interest in the matter as well as the Department of Energy and Climate Change, and we have made recommendations to DfID. But we note that, in co-ordinating the Government’s response to our report, DIUS did not even consult the Scottish Government, who fund the RBG Edinburgh, the third largest taxonomic institution in the UK, as mentioned by our noble Scottish chairman. So it is no wonder that we view diffuse responsibility with some suspicion.
However, if the Government are adamant that they will not designate DIUS as the lead department, they will not be surprised when this Committee keeps a very close eye on what happens to the findings of the NERC report and asks a lot of questions. Can the Minister say how it will be decided which department will have the responsibility of ensuring that any recommendations by NERC are carried out? Indeed, will NERC be making any recommendations, or will it simply present the Government with the facts of the decline of the discipline, which this Committee has already done three times?
I turn now to the serious matter of stimulating the recruitment of taxonomists, of which there is a serious shortage. We must not be misled by some of the figures that appeared during our investigations. For example, of the PhDs under way at RBG Kew, its evidence showed that only 15 of the 80 projects included a substantial amount of descriptive taxonomy. The Government’s response to our report stated that from 2002 to 2006, 83 of the PhD studentships funded by NERC included elements of systematics and taxonomy. I strongly suspect that these were very small elements and that very few of them helped to produce expert taxonomists. The noble Lord, Lord Soulsby, gave examples of the negative consequences of this among entomologists.
One of the Committee’s most serious complaints was about the lack of awareness at research council level of the problems of taxonomy, and I make no apology for returning to this issue. We welcome the forthcoming NERC study but it is vital that it makes an effort to not only count taxonomists but to understand how they work. As the noble Lord, Lord May, pointed out, the lack of proportionality between taxonomists and the living things they study is outstanding.
As an illustration of the lack of understanding with which taxonomists have been dealing, I should like to quote from an e-mail received yesterday by the Committee’s clerk from Dr Henry Disney of the University of Cambridge. He complained that,
“NERC still fails to understand the way a leading specialist in alpha taxonomy works. This remains a major reason for the current decline in fundamental alpha taxonomy. As a recognized leading specialist on a large family of flies … I am representative of those who are unable to procure funding from NERC because of their inappropriate criteria”,
a point mentioned by the noble Lord, Lord May. The e-mail continues:
“The demand for the PRIOR specification of hypotheses to be tested when one applies for funding to revise a taxon means one has to do much research first in order to generate the hypotheses to be tested. Who funds this prior research? Furthermore, part of being recognized as a leading specialist is that the unexpected constantly arrives in the post … In practice I am obliged to routinely reject most requests which lack novel biological data or are not specimens of applied significance. Even so I have a 20-year backlog of randomly collected specimens. I concentrate on the processing of specimens with novel biological material. Since 1984 I have been funded entirely by private trusts … as NERC routinely rejects applications for undertaking fundamental alpha taxonomy. My current funding for 2008/2009 is £500 only! Despite this I have the highest publication rate and the largest number of co-authors … from the largest number of countries overseas, of anyone in my Department—the Leading Department of Zoology in the country”.
Dr Disney’s funding came from the Leverhulme and the Isaac Newton trusts, and the Wingate Foundation—all charitable organisations, like my own BGCI. So I am surprised and dismayed that the Government, who rejected our recommendation in paragraph 7.6, should give assistance and leadership to voluntary organisations and action in their efforts to fill the gaps.
In other respects, the Government response paints too rosy a picture. For example, the committee recommended that more resources should go into web-based taxonomy and that a road map should be developed to ensure correct priorities. In their response, the Government refer to NERC’s extensive use of internet resources for biodiversity. However, as the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, pointed out, most of this relates to biodiversity data, geographical data, lists of species, and so on—it does not relate to taxonomy per se. Without the development of online identification tools, which was the committee’s point, such data cannot be collected or relied upon, so the Government must be realistic about this.
I share the regret of the noble Lord, Lord May, that DfID does not regard it as part of its responsibility to the less developed countries, many of which are biodiversity-rich but cash-poor, to support online resources. That would help them to develop their home-grown capacity and expertise, and their ability to identify, monitor and conserve their own rich biodiversity. Many of the plants most in danger are used for food, medicine, shelter and warmth, so they must be protected from overharvesting and habitat destruction.
DfID no doubt believes that human beings are its major responsibility. If that is the case, it should remember that human beings live in habitats and ecosystems too. If we, by our actions or neglect, destroy our habitat and other living participants in our ecosystem, we sign our own death warrant. As the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, said, our enemy is the unknown.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, and his committee and welcome their work on systematic biology and taxonomy, which has reminded us of the importance of taxonomical skills. How appropriate that this debate should take place in the year of the bicentenary of the birth of Darwin, who was responsible for arguably the most fundamental revolution in taxonomy. He took it from a finite science to one which recognised the evolution of species. My noble friend Lord Selborne spoke of the ongoing importance of the collection and classification of specimens which evolution, among other things, makes so important. Indeed, it was Darwin who really showed us that homology of one organism with another was about both structure and derivation from a common ancestor.
While this field does not often grab much parliamentary attention, it is very important that we give due consideration to these matters. My noble friend Lord Selborne said that some people might think that the committee was obsessed with this subject. Thank goodness somebody is because the scientific process of classifying organisms and understanding their relationships is fundamentally necessary to meaningful comparative research into the natural world. The noble Lord, Lord Krebs, said that it underpinned much of biological work. He described it, very eloquently, as the infrastructure. It provides invaluable data to help with the conservation of species and, indeed, entire ecosystems. As the report says, it underpins understanding of how large-scale events such as climate change and global health threats affect the world, and my noble friend Lord Soulsby has explained his concerns in the area of entomology in particular.
I am sure that Members of the Committee will join me in paying tribute to those people who work tirelessly in the fields of taxonomy and systematics, too often for inadequate recognition. It is because of that that we welcome the Government’s response to a number of the committee’s conclusions and recommendations.
In large part, the Government have said that they agree with the committee’s recommendations. For example, they recognise, as do we, that a decline in taxonomy and systematics in the United Kingdom has an adverse knock-on effect on related research in policy areas such as conservation, the monitoring of climate change, as the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, and others have said, and food security.
The report recommends—I think all noble Lords will support the proposal—that importance is attached to field trips and other practical exercises in schools, to which the noble and learned Lord, Lord Sutherland, referred, which raise awareness, understanding and early enthusiasm for taxonomy. I hope that the Minister will agree that schools and schoolchildren should be encouraged, for many reasons, to participate in this kind of activity. What steps are the Government taking to remove the fear of the compensation culture which, by frustrating efforts to organise outdoor field trips, may well stifle enthusiasm for science and the development of an early interest in taxonomy? As the report rightly points out, it is the school pupils who gain an interest in these fields who will go on to be future volunteers, creating invaluable involvement in biological recording. My noble friend Lord Soulsby, and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, have lamented the state of university-level study in this area too.
While I accept that the Government have a point when they say that responsibility for encouraging volunteering in a sector lies primarily with that sector itself, I fear that they are being a touch disingenuous in distancing themselves so fully from the report’s recommendation that they should show leadership in encouraging volunteers. The Government have a role to play here and, as the noble Lords, Lord May and Lord Krebs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, among others, have said with some force, what is currently lacking is any sense that the Government are co-ordinating their own departments properly.
This brings me to the Government’s response to the recommendation that the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills should take the lead in co-ordinating matters relating to systematic biology. I accept that there will be a need for different departments to be involved but, like the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, I fear that the Government’s response is a trifle unhelpful. The committee’s recommendation would not preclude the involvement of different government departments but it would allow for one department to co-ordinate activity, investment and information exchange among the others. A reduction in lost or duplicated material would surely be almost inevitable in such a scenario. Like the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, I wonder if the Minister could not reflect again on his Government’s response.
Having said that, I urge some caution in promoting the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills as it is currently configured as the lead department. The Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee report, published in January and based on DIUS’s first departmental report, was somewhat less than glowing. The opinion of the committee was that the department,
“has not yet found its feet”.
I hope it was not government embarrassment over this that led to their rejection of the Science Committee’s recommendation for departmental leadership.
While my noble friend Lord Selborne referred to it in his contribution today when he talked about the prioritisation of effort, I noticed no reference to Europe in the Government’s response. What effort, if any, are they making to co-ordinate work on taxonomy and systematics with our fellow members of the EU? Other noble Lords have referred to co-ordination with Scotland and my noble friend Lord Soulsby mentioned the importance of the United States in this field, particularly in entomology. Again, it would be interesting to know what co-operation was going on across the Atlantic.
We on these Benches realise that the critical importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics to our economy and our society means that improvement in our national performance in those subjects must be central to a future Conservative Government’s policies. The report indicates that we have some form on this, in that it refers back to its own predecessor, Systematic Biology Research, published in 1992, to which the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, referred and which my noble friend Lord Selborne said he was jointly responsible for. That report served to stimulate several measures that were implemented during the term of office of a Conservative Government, including the Natural Environment Research Council’s taxonomy initiative and the Wellcome Trust biodiversity initiative. The report acknowledges that those initiatives of the early 1990s were successful and that their contribution is still felt today. I recognise and welcome the resources that the present Government have made available in past years for the promotion of science, but it would be encouraging indeed if they were to use the current report as a springboard for fresh initiatives which would secure the United Kingdom’s standing in this area for another generation.
I thank the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, for securing this debate and for leading the committee in producing this report. I am grateful to him and to his colleagues for their recommendations. The report has not only focused the Government’s attention on this vital scientific discipline—an underpinning infrastructure, as the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, described it—but given me a chance to hear further the committee’s insights into, and views on, systematics and taxonomy. I recognise, as my noble friend Lord Haskel said, that there is no stone which can resist the constant drip-drip-drip of its constructive advice. I am certainly listening to the committee’s concerns and I shall take action.
It is the Government’s aim to ensure that this country maintains its position as a leading science nation. Systematics and taxonomy are important to the research base, and we are committed to protecting and strengthening them. They are, as the noble Lords, Lord Soulsby and Lord Krebs, said, essential underpinnings to work on biodiversity, understanding ecosystem services and climate change. I was struck by the point made by the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, about the value of sheer intellectual curiosity. In our efforts to develop a wider understanding of science in our community and a scientifically literate society, the communication of the power within science—of the power of curiosity about things, asking why they are as they are and going further to try to understand them—is vital.
This science has important economic aspects, too, of which I give just one example. UK taxonomists helped to identify the mealy bug attacking cassava in Africa and its natural enemy in South America. Their discovery led to savings of up to $20 billion.
The impact of this area on public attitudes to science is also vital. I have in mind the great public interest in the national collections. I agree wholeheartedly with the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, about the importance of field trips in science education, which we are actively encouraging within the Government. I share his concern about the development of the compensation culture in our society, which make such trips more difficult to organise than they would otherwise be.
We accept that the Government have an important role in encouraging volunteering in this area, and we are pursuing it. I am happy to answer the question asked by the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, about DCMS funding of regional museums. DCMS allocates £45 million to regional museums through the Renaissance in the Regions programme. That funding is committed for the remainder of the current spending period. The DCMS is also committed to funding the strategic commissioning education programme for this period, which I hope gives the reassurance that the noble Lord sought.
I listened carefully to the concerns of the noble Lord, Lord May, about the cognitive dissonance between the stated priorities of DfID. I shall look at the matter again and discuss it with my colleagues from that department.
I also accept the concerns expressed by a number of noble Lords relating to the failure to consult fully, particularly on the collection in Scotland. Scotland has an excellent research record in taxonomy and the Royal Botanic Garden in Edinburgh has a high international standing. We were originally confident in the preparation of our response to the committee’s report that the state of the discipline in Scotland was covered, but we have taken the point on board.
We have accepted 20 of the 25 recommendations produced by the committee. We agree that within these recommendations the internet will play an important role in the evolution of taxonomy. I have noted in the debate today the concern about whether or not we have missed an important point on the full potential of web-based resources, in particular in relation to taxonomy tools. I will take this back to the department and look into it further. Most importantly, we note the concerns that have been expressed by the committee around the lines of communication between the taxonomy community and the research councils. The committee has helpfully highlighted the concern in this area and I shall explore it further.
I am also grateful that the committee has given credit where it is due and has noted the progress that we have made. I am grateful to the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, for highlighting the cross-research council programme of living with environmental change. This is an example of the excellent work which the research councils are doing in working across disciplines. The noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, made a point about international collaboration. That programme has been looked at very closely by the American Administration as a model for the way in which this area should be addressed.
The committee voiced serious concerns about the health and sustainability of the discipline, and this is of concern to the Government. That is why the forthcoming review being carried out by NERC is extremely important. It will give us the data that we need for a stronger evidence base upon which to make future decisions. It will be led by an expert committee and the review will seek a better understanding of the responsibilities among the various UK institutions which cover taxonomy. The committee will examine which aspects of NERC’s four-year strategy will require new taxonomic knowledge and skills and will make recommendations on how these needs will be met. It will also look at the key issues in taxonomic research which could attract research council funding and which could make a fundamental contribution to both UK science and our society. It will be a thorough review. I hope that reassures the Committee about the Government’s commitment to sustaining systematic biology and taxonomy in this country. The review will include the recommendation of mechanisms for collaborative operations across departments and disciplines.
Following completion of the review, we will look again at whether there is a compelling case for there to be a lead department for this discipline. The noble Baroness, Lady Walmsley, asked how this would be delivered. I would point to the recent innovation of the creation of the new Science and Innovation Sub-Committee. My role as Science Minister and a seat in the Cabinet provide an opportunity for cross-departmental issues to be addressed and for decisions to be taken. That is the mechanism by which it will be done. At this point, I am unsure as to whether locating responsibility in a single department such as DIUS would be an appropriate solution. However, I am prepared to look at the matter again, based on the data which come out of the NERC review.
It is important to recognise, as Members of the Committee do, that DIUS does not have overall responsibility for particular areas of science. Funding specific activities in the research base through the science and research budget is the responsibility of the department. However, it is important to stress our belief in the crucial centrality of the Haldane principle—that decisions relating to funding are made by the scientific community—and the importance of the independence of the research council.
I noted that the committee regards the concerns around this underpinning infrastructure of the science of taxonomy to be of fundamental strategic importance. I accept that DIUS has a clear role in providing strategic guidance, and therefore I can see the argument that, where there are problems, this may be one of those areas where, in DIUS’s role as championing UK science and in my role as Science Minister, it is DIUS’s responsibility to take action.
In conclusion, I remind noble Lords that in the great majority of recommendations the Government and the committee are in agreement. We have accepted them in large part and are busy implanting them. We both want to ensure that the UK remains at the forefront of this discipline internationally, and I am grateful for the committee’s assessment that, as the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, described it, significant progress has been made. However, I take the point that over the 17-year period in which a number of reviews have taken place in this discipline, there are areas where, as the noble Lord said, we could do better.
Further work is now needed to establish the structures that will support that ambition, based on data which will be generated from the review. I am clear that, with continued prompting from this committee, we can expect further developments from the Government in this area.
I shall read Hansard to see whether there are any questions that noble Lords have raised this afternoon that I have not answered. In particular, I think that it would be useful for me to give a full description of the international collaborations that the noble Lord, Lord De Mauley, asked for, both transatlantically and within Europe, and I shall ensure that that is done by the department.
I simply thank all those who have taken part. The quality of the debate demonstrates very well what a rare privilege it is to be chairman of such a committee and such a group in preparing this kind of report. Perhaps it is going too far to say that the expertise and interest around the table is matchless, but I can say for sure that they would be pretty hard to match.
I also thank the Minister for his sympathetic and informed reply. It was, dare I say, of the kind that we might hope for from a former member of the Select Committee. We appreciate his comments and will study them in Hansard.
The message is very clear: these disciplines are of fundamental importance for science, for the nation and for the Government. We have national strengths in these areas—talented people and outstanding collections—but both might be at risk if we do not take action on a systematic and long-term basis. We do not need a knee-jerk reaction.
In conclusion, I do not know whether the Minister ever saw the film “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” but in that film Butch and Sundance—Paul Newman and Robert Redford—were bank robbers fleeing the forces of law and order. I do not press the analogy too closely but they are fleeing the forces of law and order over desert and mountain. However, the forces of law and order continue to pursue them. At one point, they turn round and one says to the other, “Who are these guys?”. The answer in this case will clearly be Selborne, Walmsley, Soulsby, Krebs and May, who have already been at it for 17 years and will, I hope, be ably supported by those of us who are rather newer to the game.
Committee adjourned at 6.34 pm.