Public Health England (Porton Down): 11th September 2013

John Glen (Salisbury) (Con)
The purpose of this debate is to seek an update from the Minister on the discussions on the future of Porton Down in my constituency. Since the debate I called in June 2010, to which my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Anne Milton) responded, I have had numerous interactions with Public Health England, formerly the Health Protection Agency, about the future of the Centre for Emergency Preparedness and Response, which is located at Porton.

Porton Down is a world leader in high-quality microbiological research and testing, playing a vital role in preparing, co-ordinating and manufacturing responses to health care emergencies. It is at the forefront of the UK’s research into infectious diseases, holds four international culture collections and has an international reputation as a centre of excellence.

Public Health England’s site at Porton Down is therefore unique. It possesses two distinct world class capabilities: first, the translational research facility, which partners with academia, international agencies and companies seeking specialist expertise in turning research concepts into tangible products; and, secondly, the production, development and manufacturing capability, which represents about a third of current operations. It is important to emphasise that, although the facilities are separate, their co-location means they work closely together and ensures that there is a cohesive resource to support the Government in the event of a national microbiological emergency.

Immediately adjacent to Public Health England’s facilities at Porton are the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory’s new multi-million pound headquarters. Some DSTL functions are complementary and contribute to the overall emergency response capability. Indeed, originally, the PHE and DSTL sites worked under the same banner. They continue to work closely together. DSTL chose recently to relocate its headquarters to Porton Down as a result of its own estate consolidation, which was a vote of confidence, and a demonstration of the value that the Ministry of Defence attaches to being close to the CEPR.

As was acknowledged in the debate three years ago, the laboratory facilities are in need of modernisation, both because of wear and tear and in order to reflect the increased demands placed on Porton owing to the expanded responsibilities of Public Health England. It was to address those problems that Project Chrysalis was created in 2008 under my predecessor. The project was designed to investigate the cost of refurbishment and subsequently to explore the possibility of moving some of Porton’s facilities to a new site in Harlow, where they would be consolidated with other laboratory sites in the Public Health England portfolio.

In theory, this would create a single science hub for Public Health England. In practice, the complexity of a move has generated as many questions as it answers. The geographical distance between the various PHE sites has never been raised as an issue before. This is because there are few functional dependencies between the different agencies, so I still maintain that the assumed ​advantage of geographical proximity will not, by itself, validate the business case for a move. However, there is a natural synergy between the research conducted at DSTL and CEPR. A single hub proposal also potentially loses the advantage of a site surrounded by Ministry of Defence land, which minimises the risks of working with animals and the most dangerous diseases in the world.

I was therefore relieved when, in August 2012, the decision was made to delay the conclusions of Project Chrysalis because the Treasury believed that considerably more work needed to be done on the outline business case to demonstrate value for money. At this point, Public Health England also commissioned a review by Professor George Griffin to look at whether the concept of a single science hub was worthy of further investigation. He concluded that it was, and in April this year Public Health England began a further review into how the business case fits with its vision for the future of its facilities overall. Running in parallel with this review, I understand that the Cabinet Office has recently instigated a separate examination of the future of the development and production facilities at Porton. It is these two reviews that have prompted me to seek this second debate today.

Although I fully accept that it is not for me to dictate the outcome of any studies examining the options for Porton Down, it is imperative that decisions are made on the basis of the evidence and have the broadest possible terms of reference. My concern is two strategic projects are now under way, both of which have implications for the wider scientific infrastructure of the UK, and we must get those decisions right.

The first piece of work, now termed the single science hub, is essentially examining the business case for a consolidated PHE facility in Harlow. Public Health England, as an arm’s length body of the Department of Health, has a specific core mission to secure and improve the health of the population. From that perspective, it is understandable that the wider commercial activities around translational research may not be deemed integral to PHE’s core purposes. However, from a UK plc point of view, they are critical for the growth of the life sciences industry in the UK. Some of the projects being carried out by this team include the largest pre-clinical TB vaccine evaluation in Europe, and supporting the US human health services with vaccine development. I have no wish to see the UK’s expertise dispersed across the globe in future due to the fact that it conceivably exists within PHE but has ended up under the umbrella of a Government Department with a narrower mission, where the skills could be seen as no longer entirely fitting.

The crux of the issue is that Porton’s complexity means all its combined capabilities do not sit comfortably with one Government Department or agency. The work of translational research scientists is perhaps more in keeping with the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills agenda to drive growth in the life sciences industry, while other work, in partnership with DSTL, is of interest to the Ministry of Defence. Existing departmental delineations of responsibility must not inhibit the right decisions about the future of translational research being made.

The second piece of work under way is confined to the potential of the production and development facilities alone. It might be suggested that Public Health England ​could remove the need for investment in refurbished facilities by entering into partnership arrangements or other commercial propositions, but that could entail the UK losing its sovereign capability to produce vaccines in a biological emergency. Key public functions must be safeguarded, including the only anthrax vaccine licence in Europe, as well as the emergency response training undertaken across the public and private sectors. I recognise the financial options for the production and development facilities, but their relationship with translational research scientists is an operating reality of what currently goes on at Porton and is of wider value to the UK economy. They do not just generate new products for market; they also maximise the potential receipts from the development of new ideas.

Exploring the future of production and development separately means that there is a risk that this valuable translational research capability could be lost to the UK, because its role is not about short-term commercial receipts, but about generating value for UK plc through high-level research that requires a degree of investment and flexible, innovative collaboration with other bodies and scientists abroad. The partnership between translational scientists and co-located production and development colleagues must therefore be fully analysed. Any recommendations for the future must neither damage the wealth creation potential of scientists at Porton nor put at risk the public health protection capabilities that currently reside there. Critically, the ongoing discussions must consult fully the expert staff on the ground, to get an accurate reflection of their roles, whom they interact with internationally and the ideas they have to catalyse Porton’s development.

I fully understand the logic that leads some to believe that it makes sense in principle to aim for a single science hub—as I note the project has stealthily been renamed—to create a single site of expertise for PHE. It is a neat concept on paper, but as I have stressed for the past three years, Porton Down is a unique strategic asset for the UK, and there is little sense in duplicating capability that exists elsewhere across government in a time of austerity. The need for new containment level 4 facilities at Porton could be reduced if DSTL’s similar facilities next door could be shared—something that I know DSTL is willing to consider.

My suggestion this evening, as I described in a slightly different way three years ago, is to look at a new model of ownership, based on the principle that stronger partnerships are possible between the public and private sectors without compromising important public health requirements. Porton has become a globally recognised brand that generates £18 million of royalty revenues every year through its high-quality research licences and products. It generates five times more external income than it receives in core funding from PHE and remains a pioneering example of the best public sector expertise generating growth for UK plc. The Government should therefore consider ways to capitalise on this.

I urge the Minister to examine the potential of a public-private partnership, which would give scientists at Porton the ability to leverage new facilities through their royalty income stream, as they themselves have suggested. Such a role would also enable Porton to operate more strategically, providing a cost-effective way to protect the UK’s microbiological emergency ​response capabilities. In peacetime, it would operate as a national translational research facility, with a key role in delivering the Government’s life sciences strategy. This overall vision represents a commercialisation of the facility’s scientific potential, while protecting its public role in emergencies.

As the Department of Health’s antimicrobial resistance strategy set out yesterday,

“the relevant Research Councils, industry and third sector should work together to establish a range of new mechanisms to facilitate greater collaborative working”.

Porton is one of the best-placed sites in the country to develop

“coalitions between academia and biopharmaceutical companies”

and has a proven track record of doing so. Without doubt, the scientists at Porton Down are world class. A unique relationship exists in the Wessex Life Sciences Cluster, which includes PHE and DSTL’s capabilities, alongside Salisbury district hospital, Wessex Genetics and the university of Southampton. This makes it ideally located to work with others and to take products from concept to market, as the Department of Health strategy sets out. The strategy goes on to state that the Department of Health wants to

“stimulate the development of new antibiotics, rapid diagnostics and novel therapies”

by

“ensuring excellent science is developed and has a clear route for translation”.

That is precisely what Porton does, and this emphasises why the translational facilities must be supported in the best possible way.

Perhaps the strongest indicator of Porton’s potential for a PPP is the proposed regional growth fund investment of £8 million in a new science park. This will provide much-needed space for emerging bioscience enterprises in an industry that generated £1 billion for the UK last year. Crucially, it will also create opportunities for spin-out companies based on products conceived at Porton, which have previously moved away from the site due to lack of space.

I do not have a rigid view of what the future should look like, but it is important that Porton’s fate is not decided on the basis of any short-term capital receipts through the incentive of removing refurbishment liabilities or an overriding desire to consolidate Public Health England’s estate. It is clear that there is no silver bullet solution involving relocation to Harlow or the straightforward commercialisation of the production and development facilities. It is critical that any decisions should be in the best interests of the preservation of public health in this country as well as of the proven commercial potential of translational research scientists, even if that necessitates a realignment of organisational boundaries within the agencies of Government.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Health (Anna Soubry)
I should like to congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Salisbury (John Glen) on securing this debate. I also thank him for helpfully providing me and my officials with advance details of his speech. That has been of great assistance to us, because it enables us to provide answers to some of his questions and to address the many points that he has quite ​properly raised on behalf of the people who work at Porton and of his constituents and others who are interested in the future of the facility. I know that he is an active supporter of the work of Public Health England at Porton, and that he has worked tirelessly with Wiltshire county council and others to create a science park there. I will spend a few minutes outlining the work that Public Health England is doing on behalf of the Government to secure high-quality facilities for public health. I shall then try to respond to the points that my hon. Friend has quite properly raised.

The Government created Public Health England just a few months ago, in April 2013, with the aim of creating a national expert body charged with protecting and improving the public’s health and reducing health inequalities. The services provided at Porton are essential to the work of PHE in protecting the nation’s health and preventing disease. Porton provides some of the most specialist and high-technology microbiology facilities in the country. However, the main building at PHE Porton, as it is now known, was built 60 years ago, and the Government are committed to replacing those ageing facilities with modern state-of-the-art buildings through the submission of a revised business case some time next year.

I should add that the idea of consolidating health protection facilities on a single site to make best use of scarce skills from both Colindale and Porton is not new. What is new is the vision to develop a national centre with a much broader remit, reflecting the wider purpose of PHE to improve the public’s health and to reduce health inequalities. I understand that senior staff from PHE have met my hon. Friend about this work, as he described, and they have promised to meet him again and to engage with other interested bodies, including the county council

Let me address some of the points that my hon. Friend raised. The Government are committed to retaining some public health facilities at Porton as part of the planned science park. I know that the chief executive of Public Health England wrote a letter of support for the science park earlier this year at my hon. Friend’s request. I fully agree with my hon. Friend that it is vital to maximise the commercial potential of the services at Porton—unfortunately, that probably has not been done for some time, and the Government are absolutely committed to doing it. PHE is fully committed, too, as ​part of the programme on which my hon. Friend has also been briefed, and this opportunity can be grasped now. The other review is about the 15 to 20-year future for a wider range of services, currently not only at Porton, but at Colindale and elsewhere.

My hon. Friend mentions the distance between sites. The case for change that was submitted in 2011 focused on the additional benefits that can result from co-locating services on a single site. The position is not dangerous now, but there are significant opportunities for new scientific ventures and collaborations from a new national centre.

My hon. Friend asks why PHE does not simply share high-containment facilities with the Defence Science and Technology Laboratory. We need to be clear that although PHE and DSTL will continue to collaborate closely, PHE needs dedicated high-containment facilities to ensure that public health work can proceed in the event of the DSTL facilities being fully occupied. This will provide resilience if DSTL’s facilities are closed for any reason.

In conclusion, the Government have asked PHE to lead work on the creation of state-of-the-art facilities to protect the public’s health and to prevent disease. There is a well-established programme in place, overseen by the Department of Health and the Government’s Major Projects Authority.

It is really important to finish by stressing that Ministers have yet to make a final decision on how best to create future facilities for national public health science. PHE is on track to complete the business case for a ministerial decision by September 2014.

I hope that I have answered all the points so properly raised by my hon. Friend. If I have not answered any, he can be quite sure that I will respond in the normal manner by way of letter. My door is always open, and it would be a pleasure to meet him on any occasion to discuss this matter further and to provide any further assurances that I can to him and, perhaps most importantly, to the staff at Porton, who we would all agree do an outstanding job.