MP protests at York lab move

MP Charles Clark has urged agriculture secretary Jack Cunningham to resist civil servants' recommendations to close the agriculture ministry's Central Science Laboratory at Norwich and transfer its research work to Sand Hutton in York, writes Kam Patel.

In a letter to the agriculture secretary, Mr Clarke condemns what he sees as pressure for the move exerted by Richard Packer, permanent secretary at the Ministry for Agriculture, Fisheries and Food.

In his letter Mr Clarke, MP for Norwich South, says: "I believe (the recommendations) are based upon a self-serving desire to justify retrospectively the decision to build the Sand Hutton laboratories, rather than a desire to increase the quality and integrity of food research in this country, and moreover do not, I suspect, have the confidence of his scientific staff in London, let alone in Norwich."

The Sand Hutton laboratory, completed in 1996, cost Pounds 134 million to build and is valued at Pounds 88 million. CSL's Norwich laboratory, a specialist in food analysis authentication that employs 110 scientists and 28 non-scientific staff, is based on the Norwich Research Park, the United Kingdom's leading centre for food research. Other bodies on the park include the John Innes Centre, the Institute of Food Research and the Sainsbury Laboratory. Over the past three years nearly 30 per cent of all MAFF food research grants have gone to the researchers on the park.

Mr Clarke says many of Dr Cunningham's staff on the Joint Food Standards and Safety Group and Chief Scientist Group have said privately that the closure of the Norwich laboratory would destroy a valuable resource without solving the problem of justifying the high cost of the new laboratory in York. Mr Clarke told Dr Cunningham that there are many questions relating to the building of the facility that needed addressing: "The previous government's policy was (like this government's and rightly) to put food research contracts out to competitive tender. Was it then wise to invest such large resources in an in-house laboratory to which work could not be diverted fairly? Some of your civil servants bear substantial responsibility for this decision."

Worse, says Mr Clarke, the closure of Norwich will not solve CSL's financial problems. MAFF estimates the move to York will cost Pounds 2.8 million, which civil servants claim can be recovered over two years by generating revenue savings of Pounds 1.5 million. But Mr Clarke contends:

"This estimate is predicated upon at least 60 per cent of the Norwich scientists moving to York, when, as Mr Packer has been directly informed by Norwich scientists, there is not the slightest chance of this being achieved. Some 30-50 per cent of Norwich scientists could not move if they wanted to because of family commitments."

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