MPs attack research privatisation style

July 26, 1996

The Government's handling of four research institutes being considered for privatisation has been described as "far from satisfactory" by the House of Commons science and technology committee.

The four institutes are among more than 40 public sector research laboratories that the Government could privatise under its prior options review. They are allied to the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council and include the Institute of Arable Crops Research and the John Innes Centre.

The four are in a group that has undergone the prior options review but which is being further considered for privatisation by Sir Peter Levene, the Prime Minister's adviser on efficiency.

But the committee is worried that Sir Peter will overlook the long-term implications for science and instead focus on issues such as the transfer of pensions from the public sector and redundancy deals.

Deep concern among MPs about the four institutes and the prior options review in general is revealed in an exchange of letters between Sir Giles Shaw, chairman of the select committee and the science minister, Ian Taylor.

Clarifications requested by Sir Giles from Mr Taylor about the review and its impact did not satisfy the committee. In a letter to Mr Taylor in June, Sir Giles says: "I am afraid the announcements made so far and your replies to us have not allayed our concern. It is now difficult even for Parliament to discover what is being considered."

He says it is clear from Mr Taylor's replies that information about reasons for changing an institution's status will be provided by the Government only when decisions have been made. Sir Giles adds that those with an interest in the health of the science base are being given little chance to discuss the proposals.

The committee has increasingly been forced to comment on the basis of "hypothesis and rumour" about funding arrangements for laboratories should their ownership change.

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