The United Kingdom Centre for Medical Research and Innovation

Report and commentary on the STC hearing of 2nd March 2011 | March 3, 2011

 HoC Science and Technology Committee (STC)

Thatcher Room

Committee members present: Andrew Miller (Chair) Labour , Gavin Barwell , Conservative, Stephen Metcalfe Conservative , David Morris Conservative, Stephen Mosley Conservative, Pamela Nash Labour , Graham Stringer Labour, Stephen MacPartland Conservative

Evidence given on Wednesday 2nd March 2011 between at 10.53 am and 11.32 am

UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation

Government witnesses

Rt Hon David Willetts MP, Minister of State for Universities and Science, Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS)

Earl Howe, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department of Health (DoH)

Replay the evidence at

The general conduct of the evidence

Willetts was palpably unprepared for his appearance and kept nervously flicking through his civil service briefing papers. This lack of control of his subject  frequently resulted in either an inability to give a meaningful answer or insubstantial rhetoric.

Howe dealt even more in generalities, but in his case it did not matter much from the point of view of those who oppose the laboratory because Howe’s prime interest was not in the site, cost or security issues but in how the DoH would get value out of the project for the money they are putting in.

The questioning was miserably weak, with committee members time and again failing to ask obvious questions or build a line of questioning rather than simply asking unconnected questions one after another.

Government involvement

At the very beginning of the session Miller asked why the Government “has been so visible in support “ of the project. Willetts said It was because “It is perhaps the most significant development in the biomedical science for a generation”. He also described the proposed laboratory as “a fantastic facility” and the partnership between the four partners as “an exciting model for the future”. This uncritical enthusiasm adds weight to the idea that the bidding process was a sham.

The casual nature of the political consideration given to this project was seen in two other aspects of the evidence. Neither Willetts nor Howe has taken the trouble to visit the Mill Hill site. (Unfortunately, no committee member asked if they had visited the proposed Bill Place site). Willetts also had the embarrassment of saying he did not know for certain what was going to happen to the MILL Hill site, but that it was his “understanding” that it would be closed and sold.

Howe got in on the I-do-not-know act later on when he admitted that there was no plan as how the general benefit from the laboratory would be measured – he put this down to the operational laboratory being too far ahead to make plans now. It is fair enough to change plans as things develop, but you should at least have a plan to start with on a project of this magnitude Such omissions paint a picture of politicians determined to drive this project through regardless of any difficulties or dangers involved.

Medical Research Council (MRC) Business Plan

Despite requesting the documents at the two previous hearings, the committee has not received either the business plan or the letter from BIS giving permission with conditions attached. Willetts promised to supply the plan and letter, but with the proviso that anything commercially confidential was treated as confidential. This allows a great deal of scope for mischief, including censoring any documents relating to on-going negotiations with contractors. I would not be surprised if the committee finds itself waiting for the documents until the lead contractor is signed up or even until the work begins, by which time it would be the devil’s own job to stop the project.

With regard to conditions imposed by BIS, Willetts said that the only major condition was that the agreement was subject to all planning matters being resolved. Frustratingly, the committee did not press him on the other conditions.

Cost overruns in the building of the laboratory

Willetts was asked about the likelihood of cost overruns. He cited the Government’s  Office of Commerce reviews in 209/10/11, the last of which had given a “delivery confidence level of amber/green” . Willetts claimed that was a good ranking four years out from completion. ” Amber/green suggests to me that there is significant doubt.

Graham Stringer asked Willetts whether any additional public money would be used to pay for cost overruns. Willetts gave a reply which contained such gems of jargon as “very clear financial envelope” . This did not answer Stringers’ question. Stringer tried again. This time, replete with more monstrous jargon, Willetts gave the assurance that there be no more funding from the taxpayer, although it is worth noting he did not say where any additional money would be coming from if not from the taxpayer. This raises a difficulty because if the money is to come from the consortium, one of the four UKCRMI partners (MRC) is taxpayer funded. It is difficult to see how the MRC could avoid paying its share. It is also true that the other three partners to varying degrees receive taxpayers money from research grants, student fees and suchlike. It is easy to envisage a situation where money from the taxpayer given to the three non-state partners for other purposes was transferred to the UKCRMI budget to cover a cost overrun That would reduce the amount available for overall medical research.

Frank Dobson and the Temperance Hospital Site

Miller raised the question of assurances given to the local MP Frank Dobson by the MRC that the granting of the Brill Place site to UKCRMI would result in Temperance site being given to Camden for social housing. Willetts said that he knew of no such agreement and that the sale of the site was purely a matter for the MRC.

BIS Observer on the Construction Project Board (CPB)

The CPB will oversee the building of the laboratory. Apart from representatives from the four partners, there will be an observer from BIS. The observer will not have any voting rights, his role being to keep information flowing between BIS and UKCRMI .

 The Government is represented on the main UKCRMI board by the MRC.

The size of the site

When the restricted size of the proposed site came up, Willetts said that he had been assured by the experts that it was large enough for its intended purposes. This is very interesting because one of the points made by Paul Nurse in his evidence to the committee on 16th February was that it was impossible to foresee what research would be like in ten years. If that is the case, then clearly it is impossible to say that the Brill Place laboratory will be suitable for research in the not too far distant future let alone the estimates of up to an 80 years life span given in the evidence of 16 February.

The committee also made  the point that the Cerne site in Switzerland was very large yet  the scientists there had no trouble communicating. This was met by waffle from Willetts along the lines that he had been assured by the experts that the proposed site was the only one that would work. Sadly, again the point was not pursued.

Renaming UKCRMI

Willetts said that a new name had been suggested for UKCRMI and he thought the name would be a great improvement. He thinks the new name will be announced in the next few weeks.


Although nothing of interest was said about security in the oral evidence, the written evidence provided by BIS after emphasising the need for tight security, stated “UKCRMI will provide details on these security measures to the select committee”. Para 4.2

Robert Henderson 3 March 2011


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