House of Commons
Monday 9 July 2007
The House met at half-past Two o’clock
[Mr. Speaker in the Chair]
Committee of Selection
That Mr John Randall be discharged from the Committee of Selection and Mr Simon Burns be added to the Committee.—[Mr. Nicholas Brown.]
Oral Answers to Questions
The Secretary of State was asked—
There will be a review of the effectiveness of antisocial behaviour interventions and we think that the contract will be let some time in September or October this year. The hon. Gentleman will know that there have been extensive studies from a range of sources on the efficacy of antisocial behaviour interventions, and we have always sought to adjust the practice of implementing them accordingly.
According to Milton Keynes community safety partnership’s latest survey, a massive 72 per cent. of respondents listed antisocial behaviour as their principal concern, and only two weeks ago, a former Labour councillor was convicted of punching a young mother in the face outside a school in Milton Keynes. As actions speak louder than words, what will the Minister do to reassure my constituents that he is serious about tackling antisocial behaviour in Milton Keynes?
First, I would ask them to find another MP, rather than one who treats a serious matter in such a cheap and partisan fashion. My hon. Friend the Member for Milton Keynes, South-West (Dr. Starkey) is more than aware of the antisocial behaviour difficulties with which the partnership in Milton Keynes is dealing and I would venture to say that she has done a tad more than the hon. Member for North-East Milton Keynes (Mr. Lancaster) to try to resolve those matters—good luck to her.
My hon. Friend is no doubt aware of the success of antisocial behaviour orders in assisting communities to tackle the problem of antisocial behaviour. May I draw one aspect of the issue to his attention so that he is aware of it when he carries out the review? Police officers in my area are concerned that when somebody breaches an ASBO and they are taken back to the magistrates court, the matter is not treated severely enough, given that it is a severe breach of a court agreement. Will my hon. Friend take that into consideration when he carries out the review?
Many people up and down the country have expressed that concern relating to communities. I will seek to ensure that the subject of the efficacy and effectiveness of the local magistracy when dealing with repeat breaches of antisocial behaviour interventions is part of the broader review that we will take forward towards the end of the year; I agree with my hon. Friend on that.
May I tell my hon. Friend that we have had considerable success with antisocial behaviour interventions in Salford? In fact, there have been almost 900 different types of interventions and 40 antisocial behaviour orders. That has resulted in crime falling by 13 per cent. overall; in particular, criminal damage has been reduced. However, we do have some way to go. On the review, does my hon. Friend agree that councillors working with the safer neighbourhood teams will ensure success? That is what has happened in Salford to make our antisocial behaviour interventions so successful.
My hon. Friend is entirely right. Anyone who is fair and consensual, as I am, would acknowledge that Liberal Democrat and Conservative councils across the country, and the odd recalcitrant Labour council, are finally getting on board in dealing with antisocial behaviour—the police have certainly been on board for a long time. My hon. Friend is right: the system is at its most powerful when all those local partnerships come together and draw up a broader antisocial behaviour strategy for the entire region, rather than just focusing on recalcitrant individuals.
I have had several discussions with the chief executive of the Border and Immigration Agency since my appointment. Progress has already been made in meeting our key priorities, which are to strengthen our borders, to fast track asylum decisions, to encourage and enforce compliance with our immigration laws and to boost Britain’s economy through managed migration. Agency status for the BIA, including a new regional structure, is encouraging greater focus on delivery, flexibility and speed of decision making.
I welcome the Home Secretary to her new position and wish her good luck in it, and I thank her for her response. We have been impotent or unwilling to deport immigrants who are undesirable or who may pose a security threat to us. In light of the recent terrorist attacks and the increased threat level, will she adopt a tougher, more proactive policy on deporting “doctors of death”, or Muslim clerics who seek to radicalise young men in Britain?
Public protection and security has to be at the heart of our approach to immigration policy. The hon. Gentleman slightly underestimates the action that has already been taken. We have signed memorandums of understanding, which include assurances, with Jordan, Libya and Lebanon, and we have agreements with Algeria; they will enable us to deport suspects to those states. Nine people have been deported on national security grounds in the past two years, and 124 people from the UK have been excluded on national security grounds in the same period. We take the threat very seriously. We will do what is necessary and, by taking action and by making changes to the law when necessary, we will ensure that we can continue to do it.
My right hon. Friend will recall that the review identified what have become known as legacy cases—the 400,000 to 500,000 cases that were supposed to be cleared within up to five years. However, will she look at how the issue is being handled, because people applying for extensions of leave and humanitarian protection, rather than making fresh claims, are simply getting a standard letter saying, “It will be decided within five years, ” which is very unhelpful both to the constituent and to those of us who deal with their cases.
My hon. Friend is right. We have made a commitment to deal with all those cases—roughly 450,000—in the next five years. My predecessor set out the priority order on which that would be done, starting with harm first. Obviously, I will want to look carefully at the progress that is being made on that programme and I will take into consideration points made by my hon. Friend. We expect to be able to report on progress on that work later this year.
Given that the Health Department claims that we have a uniquely ethical policy of not recruiting doctors and nurses from Africa, will the Home Secretary, in her review, examine why the Home Office has issued more than 60,000 work permits to nurses and doctors from Africa since 2000, quite apart from the many issued to doctors and nurses from Asia? Although the issue was recently highlighted by the appalling fact that a handful of these people were apparently involved in terrorism, is it not also appalling that we are asset-stripping Africa of the resources that it so desperately needs to cure its own people?
Thanks to the considerable investment that the Government have put into training medical staff and ensuring recruitment into our NHS, it is no longer necessary—certainly with respect to consultants—to recruit from abroad. However, where people would like to come and contribute to the NHS—and, incidentally, in many cases, to take back skills that they have learned here to their own countries—I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would not want us to prevent that from happening. The related issue of the concern about security checks on those who come to work in the NHS is, of course, the subject of the review that the Prime Minister has asked the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, Admiral Sir Alan West, to undertake, and we will look carefully at whether there is more we need to do to tighten the security arrangements in those very specific circumstances.
May I ask my right hon. Friend whether, as part of the immigration review, she could reflect on the impact that migrant workers are having on indigenous workers in all our communities? There is clear evidence that unscrupulous employers are bringing these vulnerable workers into this country and exploiting the current employment laws. Will my right hon. Friend speak to her colleagues in the relevant Department to close those loopholes?
It is in order to make sure that the economy and the British people benefit from migration, but also to manage the risks and allow people to come to this country on the basis of their skills and the contributions that they can make, that we have set up the migration advisory committee, which will meet for the first time in October to look precisely at those issues. It is also—this relates particularly to some of the areas that my hon. Friend was concerned about—why we are increasing our enforcement capacity to tackle illegal working where it is happening and, more broadly across Government, looking at how we can ensure that the minimum employment standards that we expect in this country are taken into consideration and enforced, regardless of where workers come from.
The Home Secretary will be aware of previous announcements of the shortage occupation lists by the migration advisory committee and of ongoing consultation on the prevention of illegal working. There is, of course, also the immigration review that she is discussing in this question. Is she confident, given that a plethora of different bodies are doing similar and related work, that the output from each will be consistent and avoid any conflict between the necessary job of preventing illegal working and the equally necessary job of ensuring that labour shortages in certain sectors continue to be dealt with?
I am confident that we are putting in place the necessary bodies in working order to ensure that. That is why the migration advisory committee, which I mentioned in my previous answer, has a clear remit to assess the economic benefits of migration and the way in which we should manage that for the benefit of the British economy. The migration impact forum, which met just this month, has a clear responsibility to examine the impact of immigration across, for example, public services and other aspects of our communities. Taken with the wide range of other activities that I outlined in my first answer, those give us a clear view of our priority objectives, and we are increasingly putting in place the machinery to make sure that they are delivered.
I am glad to welcome the Home Secretary to her new role. I am sure she will fulfil it with the calm good sense that she has already displayed. On the migration review, people like me who were elected on a platform of a firmer, faster and fairer immigration process have been concerned that we deliver on the speed of the process. One of the welcome aspects of the migration review was accelerating the pace of change, speeding up decision making and making decisions more effective. One of the difficulties that I have had in looking at the speed of decision making is the fact that the asylum statistics do not report on the end-to-end model—
My hon. Friend the Member for Slough (Fiona Mactaggart), is right. It has been a clear focus of the work of the Border and Immigration Agency to reach those decisions more quickly and to get them right. That is why the decision for the majority of asylum seekers will be made within one month. Before the end of the year we will achieve the milestone that we set ourselves, for 40 per cent. of asylum cases to be completed in six months from the decision through to the disposal of that decision. My hon. Friend raises an important point about how we report the asylum statistics. That will be the subject of a review of asylum statistics being led by my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Home Department, the hon. Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Byrne) over the summer. I hope to be able to report back to her when we have carried out that review.
I welcome the Home Secretary to her first Home Affairs questions. The Government have made much of the role that identity cards will play in the management of our immigration system. Her Minister for Immigration and Asylum said to me on the Floor of the House in February that up to 70 per cent. of the cost of ID cards would be absorbed by the introduction of biometric passports. Given that in the High Court the Government are blocking a request from the Information Commissioner demanding publication of the Government’s own early cost estimates for the project, will she agree today to allay growing public concerns about the ballooning costs of that vast project? Will she agree to place before the House as soon as possible a full, detailed analysis of the costs of the project from beginning to end?
The hon. Gentleman and his party, as well as the official Opposition, have taken a consistently oppositional approach to the use of identity cards to support our objectives in relation to immigration, how we counter terror, and how we make sure that people in this country get the things to which they are entitled—[Interruption.] Sometimes that opposition is hidden behind concerns about costs, and sometimes it is hidden behind more supposedly principled arguments. Nevertheless, it is opposition, and Opposition Members have to face up to the consequences when difficult decisions are being made. On the case to which the hon. Gentleman refers, it is about the release of information being prepared for and provided to Ministers to allow the most rigorous analysis to be made of the ongoing costs of delivering a very important policy—ID cards. I am, of course, completely in favour of freedom of information, but it is also my view that there will be—[Interruption.] There will be important areas such as advice to Ministers and ongoing analysis of policies that the original legislation never proposed should be subject to freedom of information. If we are to ensure that those reviews are as rigorous as the hon. Gentleman and I both hope they are, that is an entirely reasonable position to take.
Only a few days ago, I signed off a letter to the Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Hodge Hill (Mr. Byrne) describing a set of circumstances that I am sure is common in the constituencies of most hon. Members, which is that a good number of people who are working in local residential care homes as carers are foreign nationals who have been here for several years. When will the Border and Immigration Agency’s new system for processing work permit applications be up and running? In the interim, an awful lot of applications are being rejected, with all that that entails for the stability and fair treatment of the foreign nationals who are here, and indeed for the quality of care that will be available in residential care homes without the services of those people.
My hon. Friend makes an important point about the potential contribution that migration can make to our economy. Improvements have already been made to the work permit process, but of course one of the challenges is how we can, as we go forward, bring some consistency and coherence to what has developed over the years into 80 different routes for immigration into this country. In order to do that, the very good progress that has been made so far on the points-based system of dealing with immigration is absolutely crucial. That is why I have been encouraged by that progress.
The Home Secretary says that progress has been made, yet the head of Interpol stated that the Government are failing to check visitors against its database of stolen documents and suspected terrorists. The Government’s own counter-terrorism adviser, Lord Stevens, has criticised our porous borders. Only this weekend, we discovered that a convicted French terrorist has been allowed into Britain. Just hours ago, Muktar Said Ibrahim was found guilty of conspiracy to murder for his role in the 21/7 attacks—a man who, despite the fact that he was facing criminal charges for extremism at the time, was allowed to leave the country, go to Pakistan to train, and come back and plan the attempted murders of 21/7. The Government’s own e-borders policy will not be in place for seven years. What immediate action is the Home Secretary planning to protect the public?
On the right hon. Gentleman’s first point in respect of Interpol, I hope that I can provide reassurance to the House that it is already the case that all known and suspected terrorists declared by Interpol are placed on the warnings index by the Serious Organised Crime Agency. That warnings index has 17 million entries and is routinely used for the scanning of passports of all those who enter this country. However, work is also under way with SOCA to provide access and searching functions against the Interpol stolen travel document database at the border. We have already carried out a study, and I am expecting a report on that next week.
On the right hon. Gentleman’s general points about the security of our borders, I have to say that he fails to recognise the considerable progress that has been made. That progress already enables us to check and verify the fingerprints of those applying for visas on entry to this country. Through measures that we are taking in the UK Borders Bill, foreign nationals in this country will be subject to biometric ID cards. In the past two years, airline liaison officers have already turned back more than 150,000 people—the equivalent of two jumbo jets a week—because of a failure to have the correct papers or because of concerns about them. The first stage of the e-borders scheme has already enabled us to track 22 million passenger movements, has issued over 12,000 alerts to border agencies, and has—
The Home Secretary says that action is being taken. However, the weaknesses in our control and security do not just apply to doctors: bogus student applications are an even bigger loophole. Her predecessors—all of them—have made tough promises. Let me quote just one—the right hon. Member for Sheffield, Brightside (Mr. Blunkett) said, three or four years ago:
“We are going to tighten up dramatically on students coming in, the colleges which take those students…Secondly, making sure that those students who do come actually turn up on their courses, and don’t disappear”.
Since that promise, one university alone—Portsmouth—has notified the Home Office of 2,500 students who were given places, and presumably got visas on the back of that, but did not turn up. What did the Home Office do about it?
Well, I had only just got started.
Let us get on to the subject of foreign students. They bring considerable economic benefits to the UK, contributing more than £5 billion a year to our economy. We are determined to ensure that the student route is not abused, which is why it is already the case that students found ineligible for a visa are refused entry to the UK. Visa applicants, including students, are checked on application against the warnings index of 17 million entries. From April 2007, a package of rules changes have taken effect, which tackle the abuse of the student route.
With respect to the right hon. Gentleman’s specific question, there is already mandatory reporting of enrolment and attendance of students, when requested by the Border and Immigration Agency. Failure to do so would result in a college being removed from the current Department for Education and Skills register. The introduction of the points-based system with a much stronger focus on sponsorship will mean that all sponsors will have to be accredited, and any college or university that does not do so will run the risk of being taken off the list, and will thus be unable to sponsor students and get the benefits that come from that process. We have taken strong action to tackle the abuse already, and further is planned.
I understand that illegal raves have been a problem in East Anglia. Operational decisions on the use of the powers available to deal with them are for the police to take. The Association of Chief Police Officers met on Thursday 5 July and my officials tell me that they are taking forward work nationally to look at intelligence gathering, partnership working and current legislation regarding the issue of illegal raves.
The Minister will be aware that there was a time when raves were generally low-key, good-humoured events. During the past few weeks, there have been a number of illegal raves in my constituency where there has been substantial criminal damage and violence, a great deal of damage to property and the peddling of illegal drugs. The local police are fully stretched and are doing their best, but does he agree that the time has come for records of raves to be centrally recorded? The Government should look again at the powers the police have. Will he consider the matter urgently?
I am not aware of being present at any illegal raves, and I am not sure if the hon. Gentleman has been to any either.
The issue of illegal raves is important; they cause considerable disquiet, distress and law-breaking in many areas of the country, including the hon. Gentleman’s constituency. ACPO has set up a sub-group to look at the issue, and one thing it might consider is whether to take on board the central recording of illegal raves—a point made by the hon. Gentleman. I also point out to him that there are considerable powers available to the police under section 63 of the Criminal Justice and Public Order Act 1994, which was amended by the Anti-social Behaviour Act 2003, to prevent raves from taking place, and to deal with them if they come to pass. I hope that that gives some reassurance to the hon. Gentleman.
Internet Service Providers
The Government continue to work with the internet industry to ensure that inappropriate material is not hosted in the UK and that there is a greater understanding of and clarity about when criminal offences have been committed on the internet.
As part of that approach, there is ongoing co-operation between internet service providers and law enforcement agencies. Most service providers have acceptable use policies in place that enable the removal of material from any site if it is illegal, distasteful or otherwise unacceptable.
I thank the Home Secretary for her answer and congratulate her on her new role.
Given the huge increase in videos that depict scenes of violence, antisocial behaviour and criminal behaviour, which are being uploaded on to such internet services, does my right hon. Friend agree that it is time for the police to have more powers when dealing with internet service providers who persist in the glorification of such acts?
It is clearly unacceptable for such criminal acts to have been committed in the first place and then uploaded on to the sorts of sites that my hon. Friend mentioned. We need to look at the matter in two stages. First, criminal law already covers the first offence of the attack—whether it is assault, wounding, actual or grievous bodily harm or antisocial behaviour, which my hon. Friend mentioned.
Secondly, someone who records a violent offence could be criminally liable for uploading it either because they have committed the offence being filmed or because they were involved in planning it and would therefore be open to charges of conspiracy, incitement, aiding and abetting or being involved in a joint enterprise to commit the offence.
Uploading the video as well as taking part in the offence could be an aggravating factor when sentencing is considered. It is important to keep the matter under review and my hon. Friend has put her finger on something that concerns many people. However, the law is in place and we need to continue working with the police and internet service providers to ensure that we limit that unacceptable activity.
The Home Secretary will know that paedophiles regularly download some appalling child abuse videos and films on to their computers. Increasingly, they are encrypting the material so that the police cannot get access to it. The police have been waiting about five years for the statutory instrument relating to encryption and the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000. When will they get it?
I know that the hon. Gentleman has taken a strong interest in the matter. Since coming into the Home Office, I have been impressed by the work of the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre and the work that the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, my hon. Friend the Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker) is leading. I understand that we are looking at that specific matter to bring it forward. I hope that we can get back to the hon. Gentleman with news on that soon.
May I draw my right hon. Friend’s attention to a substantial piece of work that Zentek Forensics in my constituency carried out? It showed that it is ever so easy to google one’s way around the firewalls that prevent children from accessing some very undesirable material. That is happening in schools, libraries and children’s bedrooms in the evenings at home. Will my right hon. Friend look at the providers of commercial filters and try to get them to strengthen their firewalls?
I am happy to look at anything we can do to protect children from some of the dangers of the internet. I recognise, of course, that the internet plays an important role in the lives of children and young people—at their schools, in their social lives and in their ability to research. However, it is clearly unacceptable if we cannot put the technical safeguards in place. We have been considering how we can, for example, kitemark some of the products that are involved in filtering and monitoring software. Perhaps, as part of that activity, the company to which my hon. Friend referred could make some progress. However, we take the issue extremely seriously.
Although I welcome the Home Secretary’s comments, does she agree that it is a tragedy that what used to be the place where childhood innocence was protected and preserved—the home—is now often the place where it is corrupted and destroyed?
If that were the sole impact of the internet and some of the new methods of communication, I would agree with the hon. Gentleman. However, as the parent of a teenager, I have had my eyes opened and been amazed by the scope for friends to communicate with each another and talk to each other through sites like Bebo. Sometimes I wish that they would talk face to face; nevertheless, important elements of social networking take place through such sites. We need to put in place the technical safeguards necessary to educate parents and children about how to use them safely. That is an important part of CEOP’s work. I know that work is going on to consider especially those social networking sites. We will soon produce guidance on the technical matters and the way in which we can better advise parents, who need to take responsibility for what their children do in the home.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend the Home Secretary on her new role. Will she join me in paying tribute to Liz Longhurst, who has campaigned tirelessly since the horrific murder of her daughter, Jane, for the outlawing of extreme images of violent internet pornography, which will be made illegal in the recently published Criminal Justice and Immigration Bill? Will my right hon. Friend tell the House when that welcome measure is likely to receive its Second Reading?
I think that the legislation to which my hon. Friend refers is due to receive its Second Reading in the autumn. He is right that the campaigning of Liz Longhurst, ably supported and championed by him, has brought the issue to the fore and applied the necessary pressure to bring about those legislative changes, which will be important in offering protection in this area.
Special Constabulary Employer Supported Learning Scheme
In February 2004, the Home Office, the Metropolitan police, Dixons and Woolworths launched the ShopWatch initiative, which recruits employees as special constables from retail establishments to patrol their own retail areas. The ShopWatch programme succeeded in reducing retail crime by a half in 2004 in the participating stores and is a prime example of proactive partnership working across the community and forces. The freedom to decide whether to go ahead with the scheme lies with individual police forces and their partners. They need to decide whether it would suit their area and be useful. The National Policing Improvement Agency offers support to any areas that wish to take the scheme up.
May I welcome the Under-Secretary to her position, congratulate her on her promotion and, somewhat rarely for me, congratulate the Government on a project that is very worth while? While thanking employers for allowing staff to join the ShopWatch scheme, I should like to place on the record our appreciation to them and urge the Under-Secretary to encourage every police force to introduce it. It is the best news that we have had for special constables, with the first six in Essex joining last week, in Colchester.
I know that the hon. Gentleman is a great supporter of the scheme and has been a driving force behind its introduction in Colchester. I am certainly happy to congratulate Colchester’s “business specials”, as they have been dubbed, and congratulate the participating stores, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Tesco, Colchester borough council, Bluestone and Essex police for getting the scheme off the ground. The best advert for the project is a successful scheme, as well as the hard work that the hon. Gentleman has put into highlighting it. I shall be watching with interest and I hope that other hon. Members will highlight the project in their areas, too.
Does my hon. Friend agree that volunteering in the police force, the ambulance service or the fire brigade is an excellent way of creating sustainable communities and getting collective responsibility within them for their safety and well-being? If so, is there any way that we can expand the ShopWatch scheme to other private and public sector bodies?
I agree with my hon. Friend that it is important that we all take collective responsibility for our safety. It is fair to say that my hon. Friend Sir Alan West highlighted that at the weekend, which is an important aspect—[Interruption.] As someone asked from a sedentary position, “Is he a friend?” He is indeed. A man who has held such a high position in the Navy, patrolling our waters, certainly has my friendship and, I am sure, that of other hon. Members. My hon. Friend the Member for West Ham (Lyn Brown) asked whether we could extend the scheme to other areas. It is worth highlighting the fact that although we are discussing ShopWatch, we also have hospital watch, campus watch and borough beat, which run in conjunction with hospitals, universities and local authorities.
May I ask the Minister whether there are any arguments of principle against a paid special constabulary, as with retained firemen or the Territorial Army? If there are no such arguments, why have not the Government put a paid special constabulary in place during the past 10 years?
One of the special aspects of the special police is that they are volunteers; they are paid only out-of-pocket expenses. The Government introduced police community support officers, who play a vital role in our neighbourhood policing teams in constituencies up and down the country. It is worth noting that while the Government supported the introduction of police community support officers, the right hon. and learned Gentleman’s party voted to delete some of their powers of arrest in April 2002, when the Police Reform Bill was in the Lords.
We in the House agree that these schemes are excellent and provide a good way forward for community cohesion. How should we expand them? What work is being done with employers to persuade them that the skills that volunteers learn as special constables are transferable to their place of work, and to encourage more of them to take up those schemes?
My hon. Friend is right to highlight the importance of employers being on board in terms of such schemes—special constables might require their employers to allow them some time off work. ShopWatch special constables have highlighted that the transferable skills that they have gained have given them confidence in spotting potential shoplifters, for example. The scheme has contributed to a reduction in shoplifting when those specials are off duty as well as to the safety of the area when they are on duty.
According to the Office for National Statistics, the number of special constables has fallen from 19,900 in 1997 to about 13,000 today. When does the Minister expect the number of specials to rise and to get back to the 1997 level that new Labour inherited?
The Conservatives can hardly criticise the Government, given the enormous increase in numbers in the Metropolitan police service, whose numbers are now at their highest level ever, and the introduction of police community support officers. As for special constables, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that it would be great to see more volunteers, and we need to encourage employers to support the various schemes that I have outlined. We have seen a small increase in numbers. Up to 2006, we had 13,405, and we are awaiting the figures for this year, which will be published on 26 July.
Border and Immigration Agency
The Home Secretary plans to visit the Border and Immigration Agency in Croydon when her diary permits.
When the Home Secretary visits the agency, perhaps with the Minister of State, would they care to look into the in-trays, the filing cabinets and the post room controlled by the director general to get an explanation as to why it takes so long for Members of Parliament to get replies to simple questions and to obtain information requested from Ministers? I know that the Minister will try to deal with this question with his usual boyish charm, but these are serious issues that affect our constituents, and we need to get basic replies to our letters.
In much of his analysis.
My right hon. Friend will know that we have systematically dealt with our priorities over the past year. We started off by tackling the problem of foreign national prisoners, and moved on to ensure that we had the right amount of resources in immigration policing. He is right to say that resolving the legacy that has built up over the past few years must be tackled. We make something like 1.4 million immigration decisions a year, and about 85 per cent. of right hon. and hon. Members’ letters are now dealt with inside 20 days, compared with 32 per cent. in 2003. We need to go further, however, and that is why further investment is required and will be delivered.
But is the Minister aware that on 5 August 2005, in response to the July bombings, the present Government made their top security priority the need to establish new grounds for deportation there and then? Is he also aware that in a written reply of 6 June this year, the Government said that since then there had been only one deportation? That means that in the intervening two years we have had three times as many Home Secretaries as we have had deportations—even if a small number of deportations have taken place since 6 June. Why is it that, as with Hizb ut-Tahrir, so many dangerous individuals are still with us?
The hon. Gentleman has pursued this line of inquiry for some time and with some interest both in this Chamber and on the Home Affairs Committee. He is wrong to say or pretend that the full picture is about deportation, when so much of the important work is not just about undertaking deportations, often with assurances, but excluding those people who should not be here. Looking into the role of exclusion and removal as well as deportation is therefore important. Over the past couple of years, there have been about 176 occasions on which the previous two Home Secretaries used their powers to exclude or remove people. That demonstrates a very clear readiness to use the available powers to protect the United Kingdom.
On the very question of deportations, does the Minister agree with the previous Home Secretary’s statement of 24 May, in which he said that the deporting of criminal and terrorist suspects was being prevented by the European convention on human rights—a situation that he described as “outrageous”? He further claimed that it was leading to a situation in which
“we have an inadequate apparatus with which to fight terrorists.”—[Official Report, 24 May 2007; Vol. 460, c. 1433.]
Does the Minister agree with the previous Home Secretary on the ECHR, and, if so, what is he going to do about it?
The then Home Secretary provided a full answer to that question at the time. The judgment under ECHR is one that dates back, if my memory serves me correctly, to 1996, and is known as the Chahal judgment. We believe that it prevents us from weighing the right considerations in the balance when we are making those decisions, but that is precisely why the UK Government are seeking to intervene in the Dutch Ramsey case, as we want the correct balance of considerations to be applied when taking such decisions.
Before I ask my question, may I tell the Home Secretary what a good job the Under-Secretary of State for the Home Department, the hon. Member for Gedling (Mr. Coaker), has done on the trafficking of human beings and that the all-party group, as well as many other non-governmental agencies, are grateful to him for that.
When the Home Secretary goes to Croydon, will she have a word with the Paladin team, which deals with missing children, and ask how it is that 183 children have gone missing from local authorities in the last 18 months? No one seems to know where they are and nobody cares about them. Should not the Home Secretary now take a serious interest in the number of children missing from local authority care who are never found? Should she not be doing something about that?
My hon. Friend the Member for Gedling is grateful for the praise. The point about how we look after children who arrive here and claim asylum—the so-called unaccompanied asylum-seeking children—is an important one. We think that it is vital that the Border and Immigration Agency, along with other agencies, have a closer relationship with children while they are in care. That is why we suggested introducing tighter reporting arrangements for children. I have to say to the hon. Gentleman, however, that when it came to debates in Committee, it was his party that opposed those measures.
May I thank the hon. Member for Totnes (Mr. Steen) for his remarks? I think that my wife, and perhaps my children, would be surprised at his pronunciation of my constituency!
The Government have recently legislated to reform the criminal law to ensure that the Computer Misuse Act 1990 is fully up to date and able to cope with developments in e-crime. We continue to work with industry and law enforcement partners on crime prevention initiatives, including Get Safe Online, and we maintain regular contact with stakeholders to monitor the effectiveness of our efforts.
I am grateful to the Minister for that reply. He will know that anyone with a credit card, which I guess is most people in this country, can receive e-mails saying, “Please can you send information about your card, because it needs to be updated”. That is what they call phishing, which is wrong and can lead to computer fraud.
There have been more and more instances of such e-fraud. Yet it seems at times that the police do not turn up any more when they are contacted, because the tide of such crime is rising higher and higher. The Minister said in his answer that there were numerous agencies to tackle that crime, but what steps are he and the Home Office taking to try to ensure greater co-ordination between those agencies to stem that ever-rising tide?
Part of the solution is for people to recognise the real risks that may be involved in so-called advertisements on the internet, and our education programme Get Safe Online seeks to achieve that. As for co-ordination, the hon. Gentleman will know that as part of its remit the Serious Organised Crime Agency has an e-crime unit, which I have visited and which is dealing very effectively with some of the most serious aspects of internet crime. Meanwhile, we await a business case from Commander Sue Wilkinson of the Association of Chief Police Officers, who will give us ACPO’s views on what we should do about a co-ordination unit.
Co-ordination on a cross-force and indeed a cross-border basis is mission-critical. Legislative changes may be necessary to enable money to be chased, because if we do not chase the money we will never get to the root of the crimes. My hon. Friend is right to praise the work of Get Safe Online, but will the Home Office use some of its advertising budget to promote that work to the parents and businesses who could benefit from it?
I think that the easiest way in which to answer my hon. Friend’s question is to say that of course we will consider his suggestion. As I have said, education abut the internet is crucial. We will think about the budget: at present the Cabinet Office funds Get Safe Online, but we will consider whatever we believe may be necessary to make use of the internet safer.
Since April, it has no longer been possible to report incidents of online banking fraud directly to the police. Instead, victims must notify their banks, which have discretion to decide whether to refer the matter to the authorities. Does the Minister accept that that sends a confused message about the seriousness with which this type of crime is treated—although it has risen by 45 per cent. in the past year—and suggests that his Department either cannot cope or cannot be bothered with e-crime?
It certainly does not indicate that the Department is confused. Nor does it indicate that the Department is not bothered about the whole issue. What we have done, with the agreement of ACPO and the Association for Payment Clearing Services, is change the system so that instead of going to the police station and not being sure what response they have received, people will tell the banks when they believe that fraud has occurred. The banks will then determine whether it has occurred, collate the reports, and give them to the police. That means not only that people will be recompensed for losses they have incurred but that the law enforcement agencies will be able to detect patterns of criminal activity, as a result of which far more perpetrators of fraud will be caught and dealt with by the courts.
I do not expect my hon. Friend to safeguard foolish people from giving details of their bank accounts or passing their money to conmen, but is he as anxious as I am to ensure that necessary safeguards do exist? I want to be certain that if I make a purchase online from a small company using my credit card details—or if one of my constituents does so—that company has a firewall to prevent others from hacking into the system, taking my details, and using my card to purchase other goods. Will small, and indeed large companies have a duty to safeguard my details, and how will that be achieved?
I thank my hon. Friend for his question. He is right that it is not only members of the public who have a responsibility to protect themselves—one of the purposes of Get Safe Online is to encourage people to be aware of the difficulties they might face—but that small and big companies also have a responsibility to protect their customers. We are constantly in discussions and negotiations with them to discover what more they can do in that regard so that we ensure that we minimise fraud.
There are two key steps to countering illegal immigration: biometrics to lock visitors down to a single identity, and intercepting and stopping illegal immigrants as far from our shores as possible.
I endorse what the Minister has said, but Migrationwatch UK states that there are 875,000 illegal immigrants in the country, and that 50,000 of them are detected every year but only one in four are returned home. We should thank goodness that we are an island. May I suggest three steps? First, we should link fingerprints to passport details in the worst offending countries so that no one can say, “I’ve lost my papers”, in between boarding an aeroplane and getting off it. Secondly, we should have a national border police so that we can secure our borders better. Finally, when illegal immigrants are detected and they fail asylum procedures, 100 per cent. of them should be returned to their country of origin.
I saw some of the news associated with that Migrationwatch report. As the hon. Gentleman is aware, since exit controls were phased out from 1994 it has been difficult to know how many illegal immigrants are in the country; that is why we are introducing a system to count people in and out. I think that the hon. Gentleman will agree that it is a good idea to keep the problem as far away as possible from our shores. We are now introducing biometric visas, which have already led to us finding 4,000 people with an immigration history we had reason to be suspicious about who were trying to get back into the country. E-borders, which screens people at check-in, is already up and running and has already resulted in 1,000 arrests. Increasing our offshore border control will be an important part of what we do. However, more money is needed in order to remove more people who are here, but when we brought forward proposals this year to raise visa charges to provide an additional £100 million for immigration policing, Front-Bench Members of the hon. Gentleman’s party sat on their hands in Committee.
I welcome my hon. Friend’s comments. Does he agree that human trafficking is extremely damaging to the home economy, potentially devastating to the lives of the individuals who are trafficked and very profitable? Will he undertake to talk to the Serious Organised Crime Agency with a view to increasing the scope of offshore controls of such illegal immigration?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. I am sure that he is aware of and welcomes the measures in the UK Borders Bill that ensure that where human trafficking or human smuggling offences are organised or perpetrated anywhere on earth we now have the chance to prosecute them. I will raise the matters he mentions with SOCA, which I am meeting in a few days’ time.
May I draw the Minister’s attention to a written answer he gave me on 14 June, Official Report, column 1234, where he told me that there was no evidence to support speculation that illegal migrants were entering Scotland via the Faroe islands? When he gave that answer, was he aware of the report in The Scotsman newspaper on 4 June which stated that two groups of Asian men arrested for entering the country illegally had told the authorities that they had done so by travelling to Denmark and on to the Faroe islands and then to Shetland? How much evidence does the Home Office need before it can see a risk that is so blindingly obvious to the rest of us?
The Minister knows that one of the reasons why illegal immigration is an attractive option for too many people is that there is the possibility of an amnesty for those who are here illegally. He has spoken out against such an amnesty, but other more senior Ministers have spoken in favour of one. During the notorious “Newsnight” debate between the Labour deputy leadership candidates, the successful candidate—now Leader of the House—was asked about such an amnesty and said:
“People who have worked hard here and paid their taxes should be allowed to stay.”
I think that she is wrong and the Minister is right. Can he reassure the House that the deputy leader of the Labour party has no influence whatsoever on the Government’s immigration policy?
Biometric Identity Cards
Constant assessment by the police, Security Service and the Home Office continues to confirm the value of ID cards in disrupting terrorism by linking individuals to a single identity.
The House will remember words said by my right hon. Friend the Member for Enfield, North (Joan Ryan) who quoted some of the material that has been found in al-Qaeda training manuals encouraging would-be terrorists to proliferate the number of identities that they have. It was the former director general of the Security Service who put it well when she said:
“Widespread use of false documents is an essential aspect of terrorist activities… ID cards will make it more difficult for terrorists to operate.”
With permission, Mr. Speaker, I would like to make a statement about recovery efforts following the recent flooding. Above all, I would like to express my deepest sympathy and the sympathy of the whole House to the friends and families of those who have lost their lives. Our thoughts are with them.
The scale of devastation in the flood-hit areas is enormous. Our current assessment is that 31,200 homes and 7,000 businesses have been affected. Many roads and rail links remain closed. Schools have been damaged. Agriculture has been hit hard and the lives of thousands of people have been disrupted.
The recovery effort will need support from across central, regional and local government, businesses and voluntary organisations. The Prime Minister and I have agreed that the Minister for Local Government, my hon. Friend the Member for Wentworth (John Healey), should take the lead to co-ordinate Government support. He has been working closely with colleagues across Whitehall to do so and I am grateful to him for all the work that he has done so far. He, like my right hon. Friends the Prime Minister and the Environment Secretary, has visited some of the worst affected areas. Indeed, just this morning he met the chief executive officers of key affected local authorities. We will follow that up with a further meeting in Leeds on Wednesday, and other visits from colleagues are planned.
Media reporting has tended to focus on particular areas such as Hull. But the fact is that a large number of areas and a very large number of people have been affected across the country. We recognise that and our commitment is to mobilise assistance to every community that has been affected.
I myself have visited communities in Toll Bar in Doncaster, and in Sheffield. Physical damage is the most obvious effect of flooding, but I was struck by its emotional impact, too. I have met people who have been devastated by what has happened: such as the elderly man living alone who had lost not just his possessions, but the phone line that was his link to the outside world. Luckily for him, his daughter was around to help him. I recognise, too, that many others feel angry about what has happened. We must help them to try to pick up the pieces of their lives.
I have also met some of the brave men and women who have made a real difference at a difficult time. Families and friends have helped each other out. The fire and rescue service, the ambulance service, and the police have done an excellent job. Local authorities have stepped up to the mark and I would like to acknowledge their resourcefulness, and the way that they have prioritised to give most support to the most vulnerable. The voluntary sector has really come into its own.
In fact, a whole range of organisations has worked together to give people the practical help that they need. I have seen fantastic co-ordination of services, such as the Sheffield humanitarian aid centre which was set up immediately. In Sheffield, the local authority visited 2,000 families in the first 48 hours. I have been impressed by how very testing events have brought out the best in people.
Communities want to get back to normal as swiftly as possible. Our priority now is to support them in doing so. My hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government will continue to work closely with the local authorities, the fire and rescue services, the insurance industry and other partners, who have already done so much, to ensure that everything possible is being done.
We are providing vulnerable people with access to crisis loans and community care grants, so that they can afford basic essentials such as fresh clothes and bedding. We are giving people advice so that they can help to keep themselves and their families safe and healthy. We are meeting the Association of British Insurers tomorrow to ensure that hard-hit households and businesses get the support that they need urgently.
We are working to protect jobs. The regional development agencies have set up a range of funds to support small businesses affected by the floods but there is much more to do. We are now gathering information daily on the scale of the challenges, and the visits will carry on. We know that we need to maintain our efforts and that there are long-term problems that we have to face across a range of areas. Where schools are still closed, councils have swiftly arranged alternatives to ensure that children are educated. The Department for Children, Schools and Families stands ready to work with schools to look at re-profiling some capital expenditure to help get buildings up and running again as soon as possible, and especially by September. While local authorities have undertaken sterling work in assisting with short-term homelessness, many homes are going to be uninhabitable for some time and we know that medium to long-term temporary accommodation will be needed.
The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is keeping the situation under review and remains in close contact with the National Farmers Union. Transport and infrastructure is an issue; rail links have been affected, some roads are closed and others are seriously undermined. The Department for Transport will assist local authorities once the full scale of the damage has been assessed.
It is because there is much more to do that, on Saturday, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister announced that the Government will be providing a rescue fund of £14 million. We are working to get these resources to local authorities as soon as possible. These funds will be in addition to the significant extra resources that local authorities can access through the Bellwin scheme.
Some £10 million will go direct to local authorities in the flood-hit areas to support the work that they and other organisations are already doing, particularly to help those who have lost everything and need immediate support. We will work closely with the Local Government Association to help local authorities deliver this support quickly and effectively, and with the minimum of bureaucracy. Communities told me that they wanted the money to get to them as quickly as possible. Some £3 million will meet immediate claims from local authorities to help with the cost of repairing roads and bridges, and £1 million will help some of our most vulnerable people to replace essential household items, such as cookers and beds.
The Prime Minister also announced that we are making changes to the Bellwin scheme, which is designed to help local authorities reclaim costs in emergencies. Instead of having only two months to claim under the scheme, local authorities will now have six months. Instead of being able to claim 85 per cent. of the expenses incurred, local authorities will now be able to claim back the whole costs of eligible expenditure. This will help to ensure that assistance reaches those who need it most. Debate has already started about what more we can do in the long term to reduce the chances of this kind of destruction happening again. This is a real concern among those who have been hardest hit by the flooding.
It is clear that we need to continue investing in the fire and rescue services, so that they have the equipment they need. The Government have invested £200 million in “new dimension” equipment for the fire and rescue services. I saw the crucial difference that this could make, with new high-volume pumps being used to drain flood water in the midlands and the north.
We also understand the need to continue investing in flood defences. As my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs announced to the House last Monday, Government investment in flood defences will rise from £600 million this year to £800 million in 2010-11. We have strengthened planning policy on development and flood risk; this makes sure that planners and developers work together to locate new developments away from flood risk areas where possible. It also makes sure that any necessary new development in a high-risk area is safe and does not increase flood risk.
We must learn from the events of recent days. These rains were unprecedented, but it would be wrong to suppose that such an event could never happen again. We must consider what more could be done to prevent this scale of damage in the future. It is right to be thinking for the long term, but we should not let that detract from the urgent business of giving practical help to the people who are suffering now.
The new measures that I have outlined today are essential, but let me reiterate that they are a first step. In the weeks and months to come, we will continue to work closely with local leaders to help all our communities get back to their normal lives as quickly as possible.
First, I congratulate the right hon. Lady on her new appointment and wish her well in her new role. I also thank her for the advance copy of her statement. I join her in paying tribute to the emergency services, councils and voluntary workers who have worked tirelessly over the last fortnight to help the victims of these terrible floods. I also join her in expressing sympathy to the victims of the flood. It will be a long time before those communities can enjoy anything like normal family life. It was evident from watching her on Saturday that she had seen people’s distress from visiting those dreadful scenes, as has my hon. Friend the Member for Vale of York (Miss McIntosh). We should not be in the game of laying blame, but I have several questions regarding the right hon. Lady’s statement. Financial support from central Government is essential to ensure that councils are able to rebuild; otherwise, they face cuts in local services or hikes in council taxes due to the cost of reconstruction. In Saturday’s statement, the Department said that the Bellwin scheme reforms would not be permanent. Why is that? In 2001, its predecessor Department warned that the “main live issue” with Bellwin was
“local authority expenditure on flood protection and response to flooding”.
Is there not a case for a complete review of the Bellwin scheme, including the capital costs of flooding, rather than using these short-term fixes? Councils such as Herefordshire and Carlisle have previously introduced local council tax discounts for the victims of flooding. Will the right hon. Lady encourage councils to adopt such measures? Can such expenditure by flood-hit councils be claimed back under Bellwin?
Does the right hon. Lady agree that the public are entitled to have the best information available on flood risk? The National Audit Office has warned that fewer than half the country’s high-risk flood defences are at “target condition”. Will she place in the Library a list of the defences that are below target condition? Do not residents deserve more information not just about coastal and river flooding, but about urban drainage problems and our creaking sewerage system?
If the right hon. Lady believes in openness, will she speak to the Environment Agency about its clampdown on websites such as OnOneMap, which seeks to make the agency’s public flood map data more accessible to the public? Insurers are calling for full access to the agency’s national flood and coastal defence database. Should not both the public and insurers be given free access to that data, provided that insurers continue to insure at-risk properties?
The Government are planning extensive development on the Thames Gateway, much of which is floodplain. What plans does the right hon. Lady have to revise building regulations to ensure that new homes are built in a way that will minimise damage if there is flooding? What funding mechanisms will be used to ensure that the new developments are constructed with robust flood defences? What steps are being taken to encourage the use of natural wetlands and the restoration of natural floodplains to prevent upstream flooding?
The Secretary of State says that the rains were unprecedented, but we have witnessed a succession of major floods in recent years. The Government created the regional resilience team and regional civil contingencies committees to improve co-ordination of emergency responses. What role have they played in tackling recent flooding, and what lessons can be learned to improve their responses to other disruptive civil emergencies?
The Chief Fire Officers Association has criticised the “institutional confusion” among the myriad public sector agencies responsible for tackling flooding incidents and has called for a single lead agency to co-ordinate responses, but was that recommendation not made three years ago after the Boscastle and Carlisle floods? Will the right hon. Lady place in the Library a copy of the conclusions of Exercise Trident, the flood contingency planning exercise of 2004, so that we can judge what advice was given? Will she confirm that the £14 million that the Chancellor announced is to replace last year’s £14 million cut in the budget? Are new moneys to be made available?
If the Minister is not to come to the Dispatch Box with ever-increasing frequency, we need to understand why our infrastructure could not cope with changes in the weather. We need to learn the lessons and to improve co-ordination. Above all, we need to know who is in charge.
I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his promotion and thank him very much for his kind words in welcoming me to my role. I am grateful for his tribute to the emergency services in these circumstances. I am delighted that he started his contribution by not seeking to allocate blame to any organisation. It is absolutely right that we all try to come together to ensure that we provide practical help to people.
The hon. Gentleman asks me about the financial support. In these circumstances, the Bellwin scheme will be extended to cover 100 per cent. of costs, and he asks why that is not the norm. We have made the change because we are looking at exceptional circumstances; the rainfall was unprecedented. It is right that the Bellwin scheme should continue and that we should have the flexibility to extend it in exceptional circumstances.
The hon. Gentleman asks whether the Bellwin scheme should cover capital costs, as well as resource costs. I understand that, in exceptional circumstances, if resources would be better used for capital rather than revenue expenditure, we could consider some claims for capital costs, but that it would be very unusual for us to do so. More often than not, local authorities need revenue for things such as immediate rest centres and immediate cleaning up. They are not really looking for capital moneys in these circumstances; they are usually looking to cover revenue costs.
The hon. Gentleman asks whether local authorities could offer council tax discounts. One of the issues raised in my initial discussion during my visit to Doncaster on Saturday was whether there might be some relief from council tax in cases where people cannot occupy their properties. That is a matter for the local authorities concerned, and I have no doubt that it will be an issue in the longer-term discussions.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman that information is absolutely vital. People have been reassured when they have been given good, timely and swift information about what is happening and about the resources available. Our flood defence programme is indeed not just about physical flood defences; there is also an extensive programme of flood warnings and other information made available locally to people.
The hon. Gentleman asks whether the Environment Agency database is available to other bodies, and I will certainly look into that with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs. Information is important, but what is crucial is getting the right information, not information that could lead people to panic about the circumstances or to make hasty judgments.
As for the Thames Gateway and building on floodplains, the hon. Gentleman will know that about 10 per cent. of properties in England are constructed on floodplains. We have recently revised our planning guidance in planning policy statement 25, which provides a much more rigorous planning framework for building on floodplains. Plans must now be submitted to the Environment Agency for it to take a view. The presumption is that we try to direct development away from floodplains, but where development is necessary, there is now much more emphasis on risk assessment. I recently saw a scheme that diverted the watercourse to enable the water to spill over on to a wetland area, instead of it being constrained in a rigid watercourse, which in the past had led to flooding problems. Being more innovative and smarter about the planning regime will help in those circumstances.
The hon. Gentleman asks about the regional resilience teams established under the Civil Contingencies Act 2004. I hope that he would agree that that Act has put in place an effective framework whereby people can carry out exercises to cover the various eventualities. I was delighted to learn that the last exercise carried out in Sheffield in May dealt with the possibility of wide-scale flooding. Perhaps that contributed to the excellent provisions, including a humanitarian aid centre, that were put in place.
The hon. Gentleman raised the issue of institutional confusion and the absence of a single lead. I do not accept that, because there is a clear single lead under the 2004 Act. The police have the lead for a whole range of different emergencies. They establish Gold Command to take strategic decisions and Silver Command to look at situations across the area, and they usually have Bronze Command, which involves the taking of detailed tactical decisions on the ground. That kind of organisation has been proved to work in very many circumstances.
The hon. Gentleman asked about money, which was inevitable. The £14 million package, £10 million of which is from my Department, is new money and I am sure that he will accept that.
The hon. Gentleman’s final point was about whether our infrastructure can cope with changes in the weather. What we have seen over the past few weeks—and the devastation that has been caused to thousands of people, businesses and homes across the country—is perhaps a little more than a change in the weather, but he is right that we need to think ahead, to look at how the climate is changing and to see whether we need to take any further steps. The one overwhelming message that I received from my visits was that people were coping extremely well with what had happened this time, but that they would find it very difficult indeed if there were to be similar events in future.
As a Back Bencher, I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. I echo the praise of the people of Hull for the emergency services, the voluntary services and the local authority workers—they all worked tremendously hard. The floods damaged more than 5,000 houses in Hull, closed many schools—4,000 children were looking for a school—and caused great damage. Tragically, a man was killed in the process of trying to stop the floods and help a neighbour. In those circumstances, it is easy to understand why the people of Hull think that they are the worst affected on this occasion.
Does my right hon. Friend recognise that in the past seven years, we have had floods in Carlisle, York, and Boscastle, and now we have floods in the Yorkshire area? These events are not just a matter of exceptional weather, although of course that is part of it. They are happening much more frequently. We had better begin to recognise that we have fundamentally to review our whole water management system. In particular, I draw her attention to the drains and sewage that have contaminated so many houses and schools. Cleaning those buildings will take a long time—even before the repairs start. No doubt we will determine the long-term consequences. In view of the fact that the Government have committed some money for immediate application, will my right hon. Friend ensure that that clean-up is considered not only by her Department, but by the Department for Children, Schools and Families, so that we can get youngsters back to school and people back into their houses? We have to do that. Will she send some officials to Hull to discuss how we can use that money immediately? I thank her for all her efforts, and particularly for agreeing a few days after the floods to send a Minister to Hull.
I thank my right hon. Friend for all the work that he has done in Hull both to try to alleviate the problems experienced by local people and to bring together the various local agencies, so that they were able to be very effective. I extend my sympathy to the family of the gentleman who died in Hull, Mr. Mike Barnett. That was a terrible tragedy and I know that there is to be a full coroner’s inquest into the events that happened.
My right hon. Friend is right that there have been recent incidents in Carlisle and Boscastle. In my previous role as Minister with responsibility for the police, I had occasion to visit both those areas and I was particularly struck by the fact that the effects were apparent many months after the initial events took place. One of the things that I am concerned to ensure is that the action both of central and local government continues for the long term, because many families will need support in the long term. Sometimes it is easy for the media circus to come and go. We have to ensure that all our agencies are working to support people.
My right hon. Friend mentioned schools. Many primary schools, in particular, have been affected. We are having discussions with the Secretary of State for Children, Schools and Families to see whether we can re-profile the capital programme in relation to “building schools for the future” to make sure that improvements are made, and to see whether some immediate extra funds will be available to get schools up and running as quickly as possible, and particularly by the start of the new school year. That will give the families security.
May I first welcome the Secretary of State and her new team? We have regional and sub-regional connections and I look forward to meeting her across the Dispatch Box from time to time. I thank her for today’s statement. It is extremely important that recent significant events be tracked carefully by Parliament and Government, and that we understand exactly how they will unfold and how the Government will engage with the problems that have arisen.
We associate ourselves with the sympathy that the Secretary of State expressed for the many thousands of families who have been affected and the businesses that face disaster as a result of the flooding. We also associate ourselves with the thanks given to the emergency services, the local councils and the voluntary sector—they have done so much work.
We welcome the extension of the Bellwin scheme, but will the Secretary of State confirm that there is to be no threshold on claims made under the scheme by local authorities? Will she also say more about the exceptional circumstances in which capital claims might be considered? As the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) made clear, some of the damage is significant and, in some cases, it will be more cost-effective to demolish and rebuild than to clean out and refurbish—one course of action involves capital, and the other revenue. Clearly, if the reconstruction process is to represent value for money, the Bellwin scheme should reflect that fact; it should not be a difficult case that has to be argued. Those decisions need to be made within days and weeks, not months. The plan of action for Hull, for instance, which has many schools out of action and 4,000 damaged council houses, must be developed quickly.
In the medium term, we must consider the resources available for assessment, as loss assessors from the insurance industry seem to be in short supply. There is perhaps a capacity problem in the building industry, too. Will the Secretary of State undertake closely to monitor those issues and to ensure that, if necessary, resources are drafted into the affected areas to maintain steady progress? She herself has said that it is important that the effort should not be relaxed once the media circus has gone. Previous disasters overseas have shown that that is exactly what happens. Those apparently trivial points about capacity are often at the heart of the difficulties that people face in resolving such issues.
Will the Secretary of State give special consideration to the pleas made by one or two local authorities for additional help and support in dealing with the crisis that they face? I am particularly thinking of Hull as, by all accounts, it is the most severely affected local authority. Looking to the longer term, she has referred to the changes that will be made under planning policy statement 25. However, she will be aware that a large slice of the planning applications to which the Environment Agency objected, on the ground that they would result in building on floodplains, has been approved. I would like an assurance that those cases will be given particularly careful consideration, so that we do not build in problems for the future.
Finally, the Secretary of State mentioned the £800 million for flood prevention work, and said that the work would take place up to the year 2010-11. Will she say what the phasing is for that increase? Will she give the House an assurance that that money will kick in, and will be available for expenditure, at the earliest practical moment?
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his kind words of welcome. I have no doubt that Greater Manchester will figure significantly in our discussions. He asked me to make sure that progress is tracked carefully; I entirely agree that we need to make sure that we keep our focus on the events that occurred.
I am particularly pleased that our regional Ministers will also be playing a role, and I am very grateful to my hon. Friend the Minister for Yorkshire and the Humber, who has been extremely involved in taking these issues up in recent days.
The hon. Gentleman also raised the matter of support to businesses, which is important. I visited Meadowhall, the shopping centre in Sheffield, which had been quite badly affected by the flooding, and that was particularly true of the retail businesses. Yorkshire Forward has set up a scheme and has provided £1 million to help small businesses. Advantage West Midlands is looking at something similar, and there is something similar in the east midlands as well. The regional development agencies will therefore help businesses with their immediate costs.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether the Bellwin threshold, which is 0.2 per cent. of local authority budgets, will still be in place. We have extended the grant to cover 100 per cent. of costs, which is a significant expansion, but the threshold will still be in place. He asked about the capacity of the insurance industry, particularly in relation to assessors. The Association of British Insurers indicates that the process of getting assessors in is well under way. Certainly, on my visits, I found some variation in the responses of different insurance companies. Indeed, my hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government, and the relevant Ministers from the Treasury, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and, I hope, from the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform are meeting the insurance industry tomorrow, so I hope that the House appreciates how seriously we are taking the issue of insurance to make sure that claims are dealt with speedily and fairly and that there is sufficient capacity to get on with things, because that is a top priority for members of the public. The hon. Gentleman mentioned builders, and we need to be careful that reputable builders are involved in the restoration work.
I mentioned the new planning guidance, PPS25, and we need to make sure that it operates properly, that we manage the risk of building on the floodplain and, where there is development, that it is appropriate to the area. We will continue to keep a close eye on that. The £800 million for flood prevention is to be made available for the next comprehensive spending review period. I am not in a position, and nor is my right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary, to give the profiling of that expenditure as yet, but I take note of the hon. Gentleman’s request that it kick in as soon as practicable to meet requirements.
In Wakefield, 2,000 homes were directly affected by the flooding, and I was contacted by Rev. Mike Croft of St. Catherine’s church on Doncaster road about the lack of information that people received about personal hygiene and about their inability to wash their hands. That was solved by a generous donation from Boots the Chemist in the city. However, when I tried to write to the homes that were affected last week, the Environment Agency told me that its useful eight-page guide about what to do before, during and after a flood was available only online and that I had to download it and photocopy it. When I rang the agency up again this morning to say, “Actually, I think you should deliver that guide to me”, I was told that it would take three to five days for 500 leaflets to travel from Leeds to Wakefield—a distance of only 10 miles. May I ask my right hon. Friend to make sure that information on hygiene and Environment Agency advice are distributed to every household affected in the country?
My hon. Friend makes an important point. Although, like her, I am grateful to Boots for helping out in these circumstances, it is our responsibility to make sure that households have proper health advice. Clearly, there are problems relating to toxic water, drainage and sewage, and it is essential that those are dealt with for public health reasons. I take on board what my hon. Friend said about the Environment Agency not having leaflets available, and I will certainly work with my right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary to make sure that that is remedied as a matter of urgency. My hon. Friend makes an important point, and we should get that information out to the households concerned.
Does the Secretary of State appreciate the frustration of people in Ripon, who have been expelled from their homes for the second time in seven years, as they were told that the scheme that was approved three years ago does not have sufficient priority to go ahead? Losing one’s home must be treated as a priority. Will the Secretary of State look at agro-environmental schemes to give farmers an incentive to hold water on the land through the way they manage their farms? At the moment, those schemes do not incorporate that element. Will the right hon. Lady also discuss with the Treasury whether local authorities, which contribute a derisory amount to local flood defence committees, can increase their contribution without those amounts falling foul of the capping criteria?
The right hon. Gentleman makes a telling point about the effect of repeat flooding on households. Having recovered from one flooding episode, there can be nothing worse than to be faced with the same circumstances again. I entirely understand that. On the flood scheme priorities, I will speak to my right hon. Friend the Environment Secretary about these issues. The matter of farmers holding water on land has been brought to my attention. It may well be that more can be done with innovative planning schemes and by finding different ways for the water to be held or to be discharged harmlessly, rather than causing the flooding problems that we have seen. We will certainly look into that. The right hon. Gentleman raises the issue of the various capping criteria and whether there is the possibility of some leeway. That will have to be considered as and when we get to that position. I hope that we do not get to that position, and no doubt the right hon. Gentleman shares that hope.
I am fresh from the retraining course for ex-Ministers, so I shall try to keep within the rules. I associate myself with the comments of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, and I thank all my colleagues for the work that they have put in over the recent past. It has been welcomed and appreciated in the affected areas.
In relation to my constituency and its industrial base, there are some serious problems. The industry there is heavy industry, and eight or a dozen of the major companies—large companies—are facing real difficulties. Even smaller companies which have not been affected by the flooding but which are in the supply chain to the larger companies view the situation with concern. The chamber of commerce, in discussions with many of us in Sheffield, has asked us to raise the matter in the House and ask the Government to look specifically at the large companies in the Don valley, which are major producers and on which the smaller companies in the supply chain rely. That is important. In this world of globalisation, many of those companies are not funded from within the UK. Foreign investors and the parent companies will be looking at those companies, as some will have to relocate. That relocation may not be in the UK. That are some genuine concerns, which I hope my right hon. Friend will convey to our right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform, as that wealth creation is extremely important to the whole of south Yorkshire and, indeed, to the nation.
I am grateful to my right hon. Friend for his—as ever—incisive, succinct and effective contribution on behalf of his constituency. I am well aware of the effect on businesses. I know from visiting Sheffield last week that companies such as Forgemasters and Corus Engineering, which are big employers, have been very badly affected. I understand that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform—I do not know whether we call it DBERR, or perhaps DEBRA—is visiting tomorrow and will meet representatives of the chamber of commerce to discuss the matters. The chief executive of the regional development agency, whom I met last week, is conscious of the need to give assistance. I am concerned about the message that this sends out, both to investors and to developers. We need to be conscious of the fact that in many areas, for regeneration and for industrial investment, it is important that proper steps are taken to maintain the confidence of those communities. Many of our areas are now thriving through regeneration and we need to keep that confidence going.
I thank the Minister for her statement, and I thank her colleague the Minister for Local Government for visiting my constituency last Friday afternoon to see the damage. Three rivers flooded in Chesterfield—the Rother, the Hipper and the Whitting. Between them, they closed three of the six main roads into town, and affected 60 businesses and up to 1,000 houses. That they flooded is no surprise, because they have a track record going back well over a century. Prevention, of course, is better than cure and cleaning up afterwards. The defensive works on the River Rother are planned to start in 2011 and the feasibility study for the River Hipper is drawn up but with no date attached to it. Will the Minister assure me that she will be lobbying her colleagues in Government to make sure that money for these planned preventive works are brought forward, otherwise we will be back in a few years, going through the same story?
Yes, I am aware that in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency there has been significant damage. It has not figured quite as much on the media as some other areas, but I understand that 500 homes, two retail parks and between 60 and 80 other premises have been quite badly affected. Obviously, we want to ensure that we help people as far as we possibly can. He makes a telling point about prevention being better than cure. These matters will be considered across Government. There is always a need to prioritise, but with events such as these and thinking of the changes in climate, we need to make sure that we put our money where it can be used to best effect to try to protect as many people as we can.
Wherever flooding occurs, it disrupts lives and homes. Will the Secretary of State particularly consider rural communities such as Lowdham, Woodborough and Lambley in Nottinghamshire to ensure not only that they get their fair share of resources for the immediate clear-up but that, in the longer term, they are given priority when it comes to allocating resources for flood defence measures?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend, who, in representing his rural communities, always ensures that they are not left out and are at the centre of concerns. He makes an important point. People in rural communities can often feel more isolated and, particularly where there is a settlement of only a few houses, the effects of flooding can be devastating. That is why I said earlier that it is important to ensure that the Government keep a long-term focus on these issues. When I went up to Carlisle after the flooding there, I found that some people’s mental health problems had lasted for a significant period, so help from health and social services was important, as well as dealing with physical flood defences. I will certainly ensure that rural areas remain a focus of our concern.
At the present moment, the Environment Agency has to allocate funds competitively among schemes in very large areas. That means that a town such as Banbury, which has the River Cherwell and the Oxford canal going through it, and has had a scheme worked up for some time, suddenly discovers that although it is still at risk—weather patterns are changing, as the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) said—it is losing out because the Environment Agency thinks that there is a higher priority scheme in the Thames Gateway. I support what my right hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) said. When this has settled a bit, could the funding of flood defences be considered on a cross-party basis? Under the current system, local government does not seem to be able to make much of a contribution, we are all dependent on going to the Treasury cap in hand, and a lot of communities are starting to feel very vulnerable.
This is clearly an important issue to people right across the country. Inevitably, there will be limits to the amount of money that can be put in. However, I would draw to the hon. Gentleman’s attention the fact that in 1997 we spent about £300 million on flood defences, whereas we are now spending double that—£600 million—and it will go up by another £200 million over the next couple of years. Significant extra investment is being put in. I have no doubt that it will never be enough to meet every single scheme that is proposed. However, as I said to the hon. Member for Chesterfield (Paul Holmes) who raised this in relation to his constituency, we must try to ensure that our finances are spent where they can have best effect and where they can protect people who are most at risk. I have no doubt that that assessment will be ongoing.
Northern Lincolnshire was also badly affected by the severe weather; in fact, we are just on the other side of the River Humber from Hull. I appreciate the comments that my right hon. Friend has made about helping the local authorities that have been affected. When I was out and about in Barrow upon Humber looking at the rescue work that has gone on there, everybody was full of praise for the emergency services. However, people have obviously been devastated, so can she give a little more detail about the rescue funds, particularly the £10 million extra for flood-hit areas?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for mentioning an area that perhaps has not had a great deal of the public spotlight, although clearly the problems for people there will be just as dramatic. I understand that 160 residential properties in north Lincolnshire and 400 residential properties in the whole of north-east Lincolnshire have been affected, together with businesses, so it is a significant problem. In terms of the rescue funds that are available, £10 million will go direct to local authorities, and we hope to have that money in their hands very quickly. We want to ensure that that is then distributed to people with the minimum of red tape and bureaucracy and that it is allocated to the people who are in the greatest need. That is rightly a matter for local authorities; central Government cannot micromanage it, and nor should we. However, we want to ensure that we help local authorities to do it as quickly as they possibly can to try to help people who in some cases literally walked out of the door with what they stood up in. The crisis loans and community care grants should therefore be available so that we can get a reasonable package to people who have found themselves in such distress.
Why were more than half the flood defences maintained by the Environment Agency in an unsatisfactory condition last year? What urgent action will the Government take to improve the standards of maintenance carried out by the agency, and to do the most important capital works to increase capacity where people are most at risk?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, the events of the past couple of weeks have in everybody’s terms been unprecedented. It is inevitable that whatever the defences we had put in place some would be breached in such circumstances. As I have explained, a significant amount of extra investment has already been made in flood defences, and even more will be put in during the next couple of years.
Rightly, the right hon. Gentleman calls for urgent action. We all want action to be taken as quickly as possible, but it is important that extra investment is targeted at the areas where it will have the most effect, and where we will get the best value for money. It is without doubt that there is a significant amount of investment, which I hope will help in future, but it would be tempting fate for any Minister to stand at this Dispatch Box and say that we could have prepared for what has been a series of unprecedented events.
I thank my right hon. Friend for visiting Sheffield so promptly, and for the rightful praise she gave to the efforts of the city council. I also thank the Government for the initial financial help of £14 million, the improved Bellwin formula and the help given to small businesses through Yorkshire Forward. However, one of the major needs in Sheffield is help with the capital costs of the repair and, in some cases, replacement of roads and other public infrastructure. Initial estimates say that in Sheffield that could run into tens of millions of pounds. I know that my right hon. Friend cannot give a commitment to a particular sum of money, but will she give an assurance that when the assessments are made of these detailed costs, she and her colleagues will listen carefully to the requests made and respond positively to them? There is no way that the city council can meet such significant costs out of its existing budget.
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his kind comments. I was particularly impressed with Sheffield’s co-ordination of information for the local community. It has been one of the areas that piloted the 101 number, bringing together a whole range of services, which was extremely impressive.
On the capital costs, assessments will be carried out and we need to deal with the immediate practical help that we can give. My right hon. Friend, the Minister of State, Department for Transport is more than willing to visit Sheffield, and to sit down with the local authority to ensure that we have a proper assessment.
My constituency suffered enormously 18 months ago from the Buncefield explosion, and I share my community’s concern about residents who have left their homes. Losing a home is one of the greatest difficulties that anybody can go through, and 18 months on from the explosion there are still people in Hemel Hempstead living in hotels.
During the next few months, will the Secretary of State look carefully at how the loss adjusters and builders carry out work? In Hemel, building work has been done and people have returned to their homes, but they have had to leave them again because cowboy builders had been in. The loss adjusters are not so friendly once the cameras are gone. As the right hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull, East (Mr. Prescott) knows, it is a really difficult situation. Perhaps some of the experiences we have had in Hemel will help hon. Members in other areas.
I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Clearly his constituents have been through a pretty harrowing time following the explosion. When I went to Doncaster on Saturday, one of the things that left an impression on me was the fact that people were very reluctant to leave their homes. Many were seeking mobile homes that could be established in the local area, so that the community could stay together. The Toll Bar area has a strong community spirit, and people wanted to stay there. The impact of having to leave home is very significant indeed, particularly for elderly people.
The hon. Gentleman makes a point about loss adjusters. It is important for us to keep close to the insurance industry and to ensure that the builders who carry out the work are up to standard and reputable, that they complete work to the right standards and that it is properly checked and assessed. The hon. Gentleman made some extremely useful practical points. Perhaps he could let us have the benefit of his experience from his area.
The European Union has a solidarity fund for natural disasters and floods from which up to £2 billion can be claimed for great events and from which much smaller sums can be claimed in the case of serious regional economic damage, which clearly applies to South Yorkshire and east Yorkshire. Why are the Government not accessing that fund?
My right hon. Friend will be pleased to know that we are looking at the matter urgently. There are specific criteria for accessing the European Union solidarity fund. As my right hon. Friend said, it is normally for major disasters such as volcanoes erupting and earthquakes. However, I assure him that, if there is any prospect of our making a claim and getting some resources for this country from the European Union, I shall pursue it with the utmost vigour.
We rightly pay tribute to our emergency services, but the death of Mike Barnett near Hull was tragic. What is the Secretary of State doing to achieve better co-ordination between the services so that another tragic death of that magnitude does not occur? She has repeated time and again that the weather was unprecedented, but this is now the norm. Weather patterns are changing and we need to act appropriately. Surely it is better to take more preventive measures rather than wait until the event has happened. That needs to be done. We saw what happened in New Orleans when the United States was shown to be unprepared for a disaster. I believe that the same will happen here unless we take action now.
The whole House will want to extend its condolences to Mr. Barnett’s family about the terrible tragedy that happened. I think that I have already said that the emergency services that attended on that day found themselves in an especially harrowing situation. There will be a coroner’s inquest, which will look at the circumstances, and it would be inappropriate to jump to any conclusions about what happened.
The hon. Gentleman says that we need better co-ordination. My experience has been that the police, the fire services, the ambulance service, the voluntary sector and business support organisations have come together as a result of recent events in a tremendous way. When he tries to say that they have not responded, he makes an unfair criticism. We have a system in this country of proper civil contingency preparation and we can be proud of it.
The hon. Gentleman also said that the climatic conditions are now the norm. Most organisations said that the weather was unprecedented: the amount of rain that fell in such a short time is the greatest since records began. That does not mean that it will not happen again—we must be prepared in future; prevention is better than cure—but the hon. Gentleman’s failure to recognise that the circumstances are pretty unique does not reflect reality.
I was glad that my right hon. Friend acknowledged in her statement that the floods were not only in the big cities. There were several localised floods in my constituency. The numbers affected were not large but the floods were as traumatic for them as for anyone else, as I found when I met several victims over the weekend. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that we learn the lessons of maintenance? It appears to me that several incidents were caused by obstructions in the drainage system and a lack of clarity about which authority is in the lead—the Environment Agency, the local authority, the internal drainage board or the water company. Will she ensure that those parties work together in future so that whatever problems weather brings, co-ordinated and improved maintenance will lead to less flooding and fewer victims?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support for the emergency services and for his constituents. I have no doubt that it is appreciated. He makes an important point about maintenance. Although the rainfall was unlike anything we had ever known, continuing maintenance is important. If the drains and the sewers are in good condition, they can absorb more water when it comes through. We will examine that matter to ensure that there is clarity about who is responsible and that good maintenance can contribute to better outcomes in the long term.
It is clearly not just maintenance that requires good co-ordination. The Environment Agency is responsible for fluvial and coastal flooding, but floods are increasingly to do with drainage problems. Will the Secretary of State review the responsibility for flood prevention—including the responsibility that appears to rest on local authorities and that which rests on, for example, the privatised water companies—to ensure that drainage systems are adequate and that Ofwat, the industry regulator, allows the companies where necessary to proceed with investment, in order to ensure that there is not an enormous discrepancy between the capacity of a drainage system in one part of the country and another?
Yes, the drainage problem is important. I have no doubt that increasing urbanisation has impacts on our planning framework, which is why we have been looking at PPS25, to try to ensure that we properly manage the risks of building on floodplains and of the kind of developments that are taking place. It is one of the issues that we can pursue. My hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government is leading a group of Ministers across Government to ensure that we look at the issues. What is also important is that we learn the lessons from such events, and we absolutely mean to do that, so that we can best inform our policy for the future.
Point of Order
On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. More than 10 days ago, the new Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform was created and Ministers were appointed. However, 10 days since that Department was created and those Ministers were appointed, I and other hon. Members have been told in response to our inquiries that not only does the Department not know individual Ministers’ responsibilities, but that it cannot say when it will be able to inform us of those facts. In the light of important and pressing issues to do with energy, international trade and, indeed, small businesses that face flooding, as we have just heard, could you use your offices to press the Secretary of State for that Department and have that information made available to us, so that we can put our points to those Ministers? It cannot be right that that Department can be allowed to drift on in this way.
I am sorry that I cannot help the hon. Gentleman, but what I say is this: answers to parliamentary questions are a matter for Ministers. The hon. Gentleman should persevere and keep questioning the Minister concerned, both at oral questions and through written questions. Also, the hon. Gentleman has the opportunity to raise an Adjournment debate. There is another thing that we need to have in this House of ours, and that is patience. I ask him to have patience.
3rd Allotted Day
Department of Trade and Industry
[Relevant documents: Seventh Report from the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2005-06, HC 900, Scientific Advice, Risk and Evidence Based Policy Making, and the Government response thereto, First Special Report, Session 2006-07, HC 307.]
This Estimate is to be considered in so far as it relates to scientific advice, risk and evidence-based policy making (Resolution of 2nd July).
Motion made, and Question proposed,
That, for the year ending with 31st March 2008, for expenditure by the Department of Trade and Industry—
(1) further resources, not exceeding £4,098,506,000, be authorised for use as set out in HC 438,
(2) a further sum, not exceeding £3,294,715,000, be granted to Her Majesty out of the Consolidated Fund to meet the costs as so set out, and
(3) limits as so set out be set on appropriations in aid.—[Liz Blackman.]
May I begin by welcoming the Minister of State, Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Dudley, South (Ian Pearson), to his new position? I wish him every success in what promises to be a challenging time for the science community.
I should also like to put on record my support for the new Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, or DIUS. The move to bring together our universities, research communities and the Office of Science and Innovation, underpinned by the emphasis on the development of skills, makes good sense and puts science and scientific method right at the heart of the new political agenda. As ever, the devil will be in the detail; but given the widespread support from the scientific community for the new Department, it would be disappointing if between us we could not make it work effectively.
I should also like to put on record the appreciation of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, which I chair, of the work of the Office of Science and Innovation. We had an excellent relationship with the OSI during its time within the Department of Trade and Industry. We have greatly valued the support that we have received from Sir David King, the Government’s chief scientific advisor, and Sir Keith O’Nions, the director general of the OSI. It is perhaps a testimony to the success of Sir David King, Sir Keith O’Nions and the OSI that science is now at the heart of a new Government Department.
I have two initial concerns, however, and I am sure that other hon. Members will expand on these themes. The first relates to the fact that the word “science” does not appear in the title of the new Department. The widely held view in the science community that this is a significant omission was summed up by the president of the Royal Society, Lord Rees, who said:
“we would have preferred the word ‘science’ to have appeared in the new department’s title.”
Indeed, there is concern that the new Department will be dominated by the university agenda, including the inevitable political battles over student fees, and that the focus on science and innovation may be diminished. I trust that the Minister will have time in his closing remarks today to assure the House that science will be the key driving force for his role and for the Department as a whole.
My second concern is about the future of parliamentary scrutiny of science. Alone among Select Committees, the Science and Technology Committee has a dual role, for departmental and cross-government scrutiny of science, yet it appears that although departmental scrutiny may be accommodated within a DIUS Select Committee, the important scrutiny of science across government will disappear.
I am slightly confused. The hon. Gentleman began by welcoming the new Department, yet his subsequent remarks have raised the same doubts that I have—namely, that science will be relegated under the new system. Indeed, I think he is about to make the point that this could mean the end of the Science and Technology Committee. I would share his great dismay, if that were to be so.
Given that the new Department was set up only last week, it behoves all of us to have a little patience while we see how the Minister and the Secretary of State approach the issue of science. I tried to make it clear earlier that it must be right to bring together the research councils, the universities, the Department and the Leitch skills agenda. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and I share the views expressed in that agenda. I am disappointed that “science” is not in the title of the Department because this does not reflect the central position that the Prime Minister, when still the Chancellor of the Exchequer, gave to science when he devoted two Budgets to it.
On my second issue, scrutiny is extremely important. The hon. Members for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) and for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) are in their places today. There is no doubt that they—along with other members of the Select Committee who have served for a long time and been strong devotees of science, together with many members of the scientific community, including the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Royal Society—feel that the scrutiny of science is crucial for moving forward. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us his thoughts on that later.
The main focus of today’s debate is the report of the Science and Technology Committee’s report on scientific advice, risk and evidence-based policy making, as part of our consideration of the estimate relating to the trans-departmental science group within the Department of Trade and Industry, headed by the Government’s chief scientific adviser. This is slightly redundant because the DTI is no longer. The structures of government may have changed, but the relevance of our report is by no means diminished.
Scientific advice and risk management play a key role in policy making. Indeed, many of today’s most high profile policy issues are critically dependent on the input of scientists. Those issues include: securing the economic development of the UK through the knowledge economy; protecting the population of the country against avian influenza and other epidemics; mitigating and adapting to climate change; safeguarding the UK’s energy supply; detecting and averting terrorist threats; and tackling obesity. In each case, effective policy development requires both an effective scientific advisory system and the appropriate use of evidence and advice on science by the Government.
Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in order to qualify the science, particularly on avian influenza, it would have been really helpful if the Government had had a proper investigation into how the Hungarian strain of avian influenza arrived in East Anglia?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. On two occasions, the Science and Technology Committee—and, indeed, other Select Committees—have looked into the Government’s preparedness for avian flu and its arrival in the UK. When we met the Government’s chief scientific adviser, we were certainly satisfied that appropriate policies were being put in place to ensure that we remained ahead of the game. I do not believe that the position has changed significantly since then. What we are at times trying to do is avoid scaremongering over what are, quite frankly, small and isolated outbreaks. The efforts made at the Bernard Matthews farms were excellently handled by all the relevant agencies.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that, however good the science and however much it is evidence based—it is right that that sort of science should influence Government policy and the legislation that comes before the House—we sometimes see trigger words being used and subjects falling prey to the tabloid press through lack of understanding? That problem is holding us back from delivering scientific advances that could benefit so many people, not just in this country but around the world.
The hon. Lady makes a wholly valid point. I pay tribute to organisations such as Sense about Science, which try to bring about a good public understanding of science. I shall return to the point in some of my later remarks, but what happened over MMR—measles, mumps and rubella vaccinations—or genetically modified crops, for example, was media-led. The Government and Government agencies did not take a sufficiently strong scientific lead, but left it to the media. I believe that that is a genuinely important task for the Government and, quite frankly, we need to spend a great deal more time applying our efforts in that regard.
I congratulate the Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee on his work. I was particularly interested in paragraph 67 of the section of the report dealing with risk and communications, which states:
“We believe that the Government’s communication strategy would benefit from the adoption of a higher public profile by departmental CSAs on policies with a strong evidence or science base.”
That is indeed correct, but does the hon. Gentleman agree—if I may take him back to his previous occupation—that we need to do some of that work in the classroom in order to get a better understanding of risk throughout society?
The hon. Gentleman makes two excellent points. In respect of departmental chief scientific advisers, it was largely as a result of the work of the previous Select Committee under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Norwich, North that the expansion of departmental CSAs became a major thrust for the Government. What we say in our report—the hon. Gentleman has picked up the relevant paragraph—is that if the departmental CSAs are to be effective, they must have an independent voice. That is so important when it comes to communicating science.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to mention what happens in our schools. When it comes to the calculation of risk, our society is incredibly bad at it. It is important that we get realistic risk management in schools. If I may digress a little, my wife took a group of children to the Twenty20 cricket at Headingley last week and I helped her fill in the risk assessment forms. Quite frankly, it was like writing a thesis—just to take a group of school children in a bus to watch a game of cricket. Apart from analysing the bus chassis and establishing whether it was roadworthy, virtually every other conceivable question had to be answered. We have to get away from that and have proper assessment of risk—but I digress.
We need to ensure that there is an emphasis in the new Department on improving the use of scientific advice, management and risk assessment in the use of evidence to support policy. There are, of course, many different ways in which scientific advice reaches policy makers—whether it be through formal scientific advisory committees, departmental chief scientific advisers, the Council for Science and Technology, or scientists and engineers within the civil service.
Since 1992, numerous measures have been introduced to ensure that scientific advice reaches policy makers and is then used appropriately. In 1997 Sir Robert, now Lord, May produced guidelines on the use of scientific advice in policy making, updated recently by the Government’s current chief scientific adviser, Sir David King. In 2001 the Government issued a code of practice for scientific advisory committees, and I am pleased that they have accepted our recommendation that it too should also be updated.
We note that the Government issued a consultation on the code on 25 June, and we are pleased to see that the new code addresses our concerns about monitoring of scientific advisory committees. However, it does not state the Government’s position on lay membership of such committees, an issue about which our Committee was particularly vexed. Given that it was an area of disagreement between the Committee and the Government, I should be interested to hear from the Minister what the code will say about lay members.
The year 2002 saw the introduction of chief scientific advisers in Departments that use or commission significant amounts of research. We welcomed that step. I reiterate our belief that whenever possible, there should be external appointments of people who have occupied senior positions in the scientific community. Curiously, the one Department with no scientific adviser is the Treasury. I should be grateful if the Minister could tell us whether, now that the former incumbent of the Treasury has moved to a new post, the Government have any intention of remedying the omission.
There is little doubt that the Government have taken the right steps in creating departmental CSAs, but the Committee was concerned about the more general decline in scientific capacity in the civil service. That concern was highlighted by Sir David King’s comment that many civil servants hid their scientific skills or qualifications because they saw them as an impediment to promotion. Disappointingly, there are no accurate figures for the total number of scientists and engineers in the civil service, despite a recommendation in the 2002 cross-cutting review of science and research. May I ask the Minister whether the common employee record will be used to collect data on qualifications to ascertain the number of engineers and scientists in Government?
The Government said that their skills “sub-department” was conducting a sector needs analysis to identify skills gaps. Given that skills are the key responsibility in the Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, I should be grateful if the Minister would tell us its findings in relation to science and engineering.
Without the capacity to be an intelligent customer, able both to frame the questions and to analyse and interpret the responses, the Government are potentially at a huge disadvantage. A classic example of the way in which things can go badly wrong was the Health and Safety Executive’s response to the EU Physical Agents Directive relating to MRI equipment. The HSE’s failure to understand that the directive could potentially halt the use of MRI for research and use in invasive procedures from 2008 was missed. I can report, however, that following the publication of our report “Watching the Directives” and a frank recognition by the Government that errors were made, there has been a significant change of heart in the European Commission, and an amendment to the directive increasing the limits for use of MRI is now highly likely.
In past years, the Government could have relied on a steady stream of highly qualified scientists and engineers working in their own laboratories for advice, but the changing status of Government scientific facilities such as the Laboratory of the Government Chemist, the Forensic Science Service and QinetiQ means further loss of capacity. Given those different factors, we recommended two solutions to the Government. The first was the establishment of a Government scientific service along the lines of the Government Economic Service. The Government told us that they recognised the need to create an effective structure to support the integration of scientists in Government, but were not convinced that formalising a single system across Government was the right action to take now. I would be grateful to hear from the Minister whether now is the right time, and whether the Government have reviewed their decision not to create a Government scientific service, particularly given the emphasis on the new departmental responsibilities.
I am intervening because I was the science Minister who took the decision that we should change the status of the National Physical Laboratory and the Laboratory of the Government Chemist, and I am well aware that that moved the scientific echelon of the civil service out of the civil service. I am listening carefully to what the hon. Gentleman has to say, and I hope that the Minister will be supportive of the idea that we should re-establish the science and technology aspect of the civil service.
I was not in any way trying to make a political point; I was merely musing that there had been a huge loss in capacity. During the hon. Gentleman’s time as Minister, the Government could go to such organisations and command that they delivered responses; that has been lost.
The second proposal, which we felt was very important, is that there should be greater involvement of learned societies in peer review and the assessment of scientific evidence that comes to Government. That would have the added value of possibly reducing the Government’s dependence on external consultants. To that end, we recommended that the Government discuss with the learned societies whether aspects of the scientific advisory system in the United States could be adopted in the UK. The Government said that they would “reflect further”, and I would be interested to learn what reflections there have been.
I wish at this point to pay tribute to the work of the Royal Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry, the body representing physics and the other learned societies which regularly give evidence of the highest quality to our Committee. Such evidence could be made available to the Government in exactly the same way it is to a Select Committee. Without their evidence, it must sometimes be difficult for Government to form conclusions of the kind that our Committee is capable of reaching.
Scientific capacity is important, in terms of both social sciences and the physical sciences. If Government policies are to be evidence based—which the Government claim is the case—they need good scientific capacity. Since 1997, the Government have increasingly emphasised the importance of evidence-based policy making. In 1999, the “Modernising Government” White Paper and the Cabinet Office report “Professional policy making for the 21st century” emphasised the importance of the use of evidence in policy making. I also note that the National School of Government now runs analysis and use of evidence courses. Policies are thus increasingly promoted as evidence based—I am glad it appears that the Minister is nodding from a sedentary position. Unfortunately, however, few outside Government were prepared to accept the term “evidence based” as an accurate description of Government policy and we did not have to look far to find examples of a stark disconnect between evidence and policy. The former Secretary of State for Education and Skills, the right hon. Member for Bolton, West (Ruth Kelly), had almost no evidence when she announced her ban on junk food. Sir John Krebs, former chairman of the Food Standards Agency, was scathing. He claimed that
“the policy was developed with no evidence that it would work; no scientific definition of junk food; no cost benefit analysis; and no public engagement.”
The policy announcement broke every one of the Government chief scientific adviser’s rules of engagement. Yet despite the presence of a departmental chief scientific adviser within the then Department for Education and Skills, the policy was allowed to run unchallenged.
If the Government cite evidence in support of a policy, we believe that it should be able to bear robust scrutiny and that it should be communicated convincingly to the public. If there are problems with the evidence base, the consequences for public confidence can be grave, as was the case with MMR—measles, mumps and rubella—or damaging to scientific progress, as was the case with genetically modified crops, or potentially disastrous, as with the weapons of mass destruction issue and Iraq.
In our report, we highlighted four key issues on the use of evidence. First, the Government should take steps to strengthen the evidence base by establishing a cross-departmental fund to commission independent policy-related research. Will the Minister tell us whether he will set up such a central fund for independent research? We also acknowledge that it is not just a question of money, especially for academic researchers who are struggling to put together publications in time for the next research assessment exercise—or RAE. Indeed, for that reason we recommended that the Government work to rectify the situation in which the RAE acts as a disincentive to engagement by the scientific community with policy. The Government responded that the new metrics will achieve that and I would be interested to know how they will measure the success of the new metrics-based RAE in that regard in terms of public policy.
Secondly, the Government should ensure that the evidence they use is of the highest quality. The use of evidence and its quality should be peer reviewed. We recommended that the Government commission pilot reviews of the extent to which policies are evidence based. The Government accepted that recommendation, and it will be interesting to hear from the Minister whether such pilot reviews have taken place.
Thirdly, the Government should be gathering evidence to inform their future policy and undertaking horizon scanning. We recognised the excellent work of the foresight programme and the horizon scanning centre, but note that horizon scanning should be embedded within the policy-making process. It is no use if foresight produces excellent reports, but no one takes up the findings. Professor Paul Wiles, the Home Office departmental CSA, clearly stated to our inquiry that
“doing horizon scanning is one thing, getting an organisation to actually lift its head from immediate problems and think ten or twenty years ahead and use that horizon scanning is sometimes a challenge”.
It is a challenge, but it is a necessary challenge.
Finally, we were concerned that when the Government undertake pilots or trials or runs consultations, the results should be published and their effect on the policy-making process made clear. We have looked at the trials of biometric technology for identity cards and emphasised to the Government that if those trials raise any doubts, the policy should be amended accordingly. Similarly, the Government need to ensure that the purpose and remit of consultations are clear and that feedback is given to those who have contributed. Problems such as the recent consultation over civil nuclear power undermine public confidence, not just in the consultation process but in the use of evidence in policy making more broadly.
I understand that the Cabinet Office has recently launched a consultation on consultations. I would be interested to hear from the Minister whether there is any early feedback from the process. As with scientific advice, it is important that the Government are open about the evidence underlying policies and we believe that evidence should be published and reviewed. That will ensure that evidence is not misused or selectively published in order to prop up policies.
It was deeply disturbing to hear the allegations from Professor Tim Hope of Keele university that the Home Office had actually interfered with the publication of research. He said:
“It is with sadness and regret that I saw our work ill-used and our faith in government’s use of evidence traduced”.
It is essential that the policy-making process and the use of evidence is fully transparent, and that where policy is not based on evidence, that should be made clear.
We acknowledge, and make the point strongly in our report, that not all policy needs to be evidence based. The Government have every right to promulgate policies that are not evidence based. Some policies have a mainly political or ideological basis. We accept that. The Government should acknowledge openly the many drivers of policy making as well as any gaps in the relevant research base or where policy is made despite the evidence. If the Government promote the idea that all policy is evidence based, they are undermining those policies on issues such as MMR, GM and climate change, where it is crucial that there is public confidence in the evidence.
Furthermore, if the Government change their mind about a policy as a result of a poor pilot or on the basis of new evidence, the Opposition—I include my party and the Conservatives—should not use that as an opportunity for political point scoring. Changing policy on the basis of evidence, pilots or research should be seen as a political strength, not a failing.
The third main plank of our inquiry into these cross-cutting areas was the management of risk. We did not attempt to deal with individual areas of risk, but focused instead on the communication of risk to the public—the issue that the hon. Member for Tiverton and Honiton (Angela Browning) raised. Successive Governments have attempted to deal with risk and it has risen up the agenda. We have seen green books, orange books, a Treasury guide on management of risk to the public, appraisal guidance and a risk management assessment framework; there have been lots of them. There is a long way to go, but I welcome the progress and urge the Government to continue to seek ways to sustain and improve risk assessment in policy making.
During the inquiry, we looked at the ways in which risk is communicated to the public and considered good examples, such as nanotechnology, which was communicated well to the public, has been widely accepted and is being well used, and bad examples, such as GM. The way in which risk is communicated to the public is crucial, particularly given the weak scientific and numeracy culture in this country. We recommended that the Government develop a scale of risks that could be used by all Departments. Rather than saying that the risk was very low, or one in 100,000, one could say it was as likely as being murdered. People understand that. If one wanted to express a negligible risk, such as one in 10 million—that means nothing to most people—one could say it was as likely as being hit by lightning.
The hon. Gentleman is making an extremely good point. Did his Committee look at the fact that the public see risks imposed by the state and organisations such as the railways differently from the risks they take themselves? For example, we see the numbers of people who happily expose themselves to excess doses of sunshine, when that occasionally occurs. It would be crazy for the Government to suggest the banning of package holidays to Malaga, but risks from the railways, which are much lower, are higher up the agenda from the public’s perspective.
This is not an easy area and the Committee is not suggesting that. Our conclusion was that it is important to communicate risk in a way that people can understand, and we compared different types of risk in that way. The problem that the Government and all political parties have is the compensation and litigation culture that has come into this area. Small risks are now built up into major things; for instance, one cannot play conkers—a use for horse chestnuts, I say to the Minister—within school grounds because of the risk. We need to get that into balance.
The Government said in response to our report that they would have discussions with the media to try to maximise public understanding. I would be grateful if the Minister explained what that meant and what the Government have done in this area. The Government also told us that they were establishing an expert resource centre for public dialogue on science and innovation to help all parts of Government to enable public debate on science and technology-related topics. As far as we are aware, this is still just a Government plan. If so, when will it become a reality?
Finally, may I return to the impact that the machinery of Government changes will have on the scientific advisory system within Government? The chief scientific adviser, Professor Sir David King, was situated within the DTI as head of the Office of Science and Innovation. He therefore had a dual role combining a cross-departmental co-ordination and advisory function with the post of head of the OSI. We were concerned that these roles did not sit comfortably alongside one another and that the GCSA was unlikely to have time to develop both his cross-departmental role and his administrative functions within the OSI. It seems that these roles have been reviewed and that the changes are much more far-reaching than we suggested. We suggested that the GCSA should have a desk in the Cabinet Office and a seat in the Treasury. For him to sit with the Government’s chief economic adviser, who also has a seat in the Treasury and the Cabinet Office, would be a strong bolstering of the independence of the Department.
Obviously, the DTI has been split, and what was the OSI has been moved into the new Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills. We understand that there will be a new office for the Government’s chief scientific officer within that Department and that the OSI will cease to exist. Will the Minister clarify what the remit of that office will be? Will the chief scientific officer focus solely on trans-departmental scientific advice, or will he continue to have administrative responsibilities within the Department? The whole issue of scientific advice is important, and it should be at the heart not only of the new DIUS but the whole Government. I welcome the Government’s response to our report.
I congratulate the Minister of State, Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Dudley, South (Ian Pearson), on his new appointment, and wish him luck in the battles ahead. I also congratulate the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), as Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee, on building on the work of the past eight years in this area. He has taken it on rather well.
Before we discuss scientific advice, we must address the question whether science is important. That battle has still to be won, not only in this country, but in large sectors of the rest of the world. If we cannot win that battle, we can give all the advice we want, but no one will listen to it or want it. Most hon. Members present can probably cite many occasions on which science has contributed to the betterment of the world or of health. For example, there is a lot of hyperbole around the science of stem cell research at the moment, but there are also great hopes and wishes that something will come out of the research. The evidence might not always be there, but people have a right to try to obtain it to improve conditions for people on this planet.
I confess that I am a member of the UK Stem Cell Foundation, which was set up by Sir Richard Sykes and various other people, such as Jon Moulton, for whom the Treasury Committee does not have much time at present. The foundation can raise £90 million almost overnight from its connections, and it wants to make a connection with the Medical Research Council to ensure that work is done in this country, and goes all the way from blue-skies thinking to product formation in this country, so that we do not see, for example, antibodies being developed in the States. That culture is beginning to take off.
There are problems with academics and researchers in general. Having been one myself, and still knowing many, I know, as other hon. Members present might confirm, that there is a great latent suspicion regarding the media and the communication of science. I have scars on my back from my frequent appearances on Radio Norfolk as a science adviser. I once tried to explain how a microwave oven works, and when I went back to the lab I was pulled apart by people who not only knew more about it than I did, but said that trying to explain a difficult concept to the public was simply a waste of time. That problem still exists. When I see my friends at meetings, as I did this weekend, they say things like, “The public will never understand; it’s much too complex.” We still have that battle to fight in this country.
As an amateur scientist—the hon. Gentleman is a professional—I sometimes get frustrated when I have to defend science, because many scientists do not explain or defend it. It is a big frustration that, too often, scientists in this country do not engage in public appreciation exercises, although they really should if they want their sector to flourish.
I absolutely agree with the hon. Gentleman, and I hope to say a little more about how we might address that problem. But, certainly, words such as “arrogance” come to mind, and there is perhaps a lack of humility in communicating with the public among some scientists whom I know, and I am sure other Members know as well. I saw that at first hand during the whole genetic modification debate, which some of us battled through, against friends on both sides of the House, a few years ago, when scientists arrogantly sat round dinner tables and said, “No need to talk to the public about it; they’ll accept what the scientist says.” That was a factor—not the only factor, but an important one—in the determination of this country and its people to walk away from GM crops and GM food. Indeed, a whole industry disappeared. Many of us learnt the lesson about that, but many scientists still have not done so.
As someone who, in a former existence, licensed the first GM food in this country, I recall being given advice at the time that it was better to put up a scientist on the television than a politician, because the public would trust the scientist rather than a politician. I wonder what the hon. Gentleman’s thoughts are about that, in the light of what he has just said.
My answer would be that there are scientists and there are scientists. There are scientists who work for companies such as Monsanto, whom I, and, I am sure, the hon. Lady, would not trust an inch, whereas independent scientists from a research institute or university are slightly better—let us put it that way—and unlikely to mess up the data or the communication. For example, I remember John Krebs once talking about food and quite blatantly saying to John Humphrys, “I don’t really know; none of us knows.” That is not the kind of answer that is expected in the media, where people are told, “Say it in black and white—yes or no?” That is the Paxman-Humphrys school, which does not always go down well with the public.
The hon. Gentleman mentions the media, and I want to question whether he is right to say that the problems of GM acceptance were due to scientists sitting around at dinner parties and not doing anything else. It seems to me that once the media had decided to treat GM as they did, nothing could have been done. Although some preparatory work could have been done, the problem lies much more with the media than with a failure of scientists in that case.
I was a member of the John Innes Centre council at the time, and I remember a dinner party where Derek Burke—who was blatantly savaged by Prince Charles for defending GM—and I talked to the scientists who were doing the work in this country. They said exactly what I said before, “There’s no problem. It’s actually going to happen.” Then one of them appeared in public. I sent him out to a small village in north Norfolk on a dark night. The village hall was packed out, Lord Melchett was there, and he was savaged to death—and will never speak again. He has got so bad at his science that he has gone to Cambridge as a professor of genetics, in dismay at having had to interact with the public on that kind of subject. He would much rather go into a sort of industrial environment in a department in Cambridge.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend. It was not just the scientists in the British media who purveyed the idea of “Frankenstein foods” and so on; the political people often did so, too. I remember that The Guardian spent all its time talking not about the value of the foods, but about Lord Sainsbury’s share interests. The political editors of the newspapers provided the focus, and the scientific editors were pushed aside. So a concerted campaign was going on—which, of course, scientists are not used to. They are used to purveying what information they can, and having arguments and so on; they are certainly not used to discussing who has more shares than someone else.
I am curious about the issue, because obviously, I was not part of the debate at the time. When a Minister has such a high-profile role in the wider debate, what is the hon. Gentleman’s feeling about that sort of message coming from those in politics and Government towards the general public, and then their understanding of science?
People’s hands must be rather clean. Of course, there are mechanisms for people working in this place, whereby they can filter some of their shares to offshore islands, such as Jersey and Guernsey. I do not think that that is any better, but it is quite legitimate, and if we are opening up transparency in this country, we should look at it carefully. In the case that the hon. Gentleman refers to, the individual did not try to defend the situation as much as the papers attacked him, and other people were defending the Government’s position.
The learned societies, too, were far from brilliant. Instant rebuttal was something I grew up with in the Labour party. Peter Mandelson was excellent at it with his team. Instant rebuttal meant 10 or 20 minutes. The Royal Society’s idea of instant rebuttal was a long tome of 50 pages, which took six months to produce—by which time it was too late and the battle was over. So, there were lots of lessons to be learned by different functionaries in the scientific and technological movement in this country.
I am not entirely sure that the Science and Technology Committee report—excellent though it is—goes into things in the depth that some of us would like. I know that there was a previous report and that this report moves the debate on, but there should have been a wider examination of the structure of science within Departments. The model that has been put forward is very like the model that we live with, but we could have been a little more radical in looking at the position of Ministers in the new Department. We do not just have one Minister with responsibility for science. There is also a senior Minister, who is in the Cabinet. That is something some of us would have died for: to have at the Cabinet table somebody who can put scientific arguments at first hand, and from the point of a view of a Department that is looking at innovation, higher education and science. I welcome that kind of initiative.
The interaction between science and innovation is extremely interesting, and is an area in which we are still learning things. That interaction will take place within the Department. We have seen the first flurry of activity in higher education, with top-up fees and so on. We are all suspicious, but that has been an attempt to address a lingering problem. Things are beginning to happen. I have spent a lot of time listening to people who talk about blue-skies research, and I also talk to bio-entrepreneurs—in fact I presented prizes to some of them last week at Lancaster house. I was really glad when the first person who came up to speak was somebody to whom I had presented a prize the year before, who had set up a small company to make antibodies, outside Cambridge university. It was a spin-out company. Within a year of the conference, he had been bought out by GlaxoSmithKline for something like £1 billion. I am sure that none of us will ever see that kind of activity, but I was glad to hear that young person say that the work that he and his team of 12 had been doing had suddenly blossomed and attracted the interest of GSK.
All the other people winning prizes live in the hope that the brilliant scientific ideas and innovations that they come up with will eventually be picked up by bigger companies. That may not be the best model. We might have to look again at smaller companies just developing into medium-size companies. The talent of individuals in this country is second to none, but I am not yet convinced that we have the structures to make sure things happen, although the openings are there for things to move on. We may need a lot more in the UK Trade and Investment area to make sure that those bio-entrepreneurs develop their particular skills.
I often ask whether we need a chief scientific adviser. I am always worried that we have been given a set system. Is a one-on-one situation with the Prime Minister, involving direct interaction, the best way to get science across? I am not entirely convinced that that is not just a reaction to a situation. The current chief scientific adviser did a brilliant job—unheralded—with the foot and mouth outbreak when he showed the curves illustrating how it was going to disappear after a period of time. That demonstrated real ingenuity, and it came from a knowledge of the scientific community, who were doing that kind of epidemiological modelling.
The new Department has many openings with Ministers and so on. There will be an arena of people in the Cabinet and across Government involved in the whole thing. I always say that a department where people drink coffee together and take part in other activities is where things happen. The success of the Medical Research Council laboratory at Cambridge—where Nobel prizes have been won—was helped by the café on the top floor. People could sit with Crick and Watson and argue and talk to them about research until the cows came home. It was brilliant. I tried to institute something similar in Norwich; I set up a café where people could interact across the boundaries, and forget what they called themselves, whether they were zoologists, botanists or molecular biologists. It was great that they got together and talked in an interdisciplinary way, but as soon as I disappeared the café was closed and people were put back into their silos, and their own professors became the bosses of the coffee club.
My hon. Friend will be interested to know that a couple of weeks ago I hosted a meeting in the Members Dining Room, in which General Motors gave a presentation about future vehicles. Its plea was for Government to sit people from the component parts of what was the Department of Trade and Industry around the same table, so that we could produce the interaction necessary to help develop ideas.
I thank my hon. Friend for that. I thought for one second that he was about to talk about Fairtrade coffee; I was sweating somewhat. Nevertheless, he makes the point that intercollegiate interaction is important these days, as science moves on. Old titles disappear, and new subjects are born overnight. Take nanotechnology, for example—although I am not quite sure what it means in detailed terms. There is an excitement about the new technologies brought about by physicists, chemists and biologists, and that brings them together. That is the way forward, and we have to do a lot more in that respect. I welcome the new Department for the chance that it gives people in different arenas, such as innovation and education, to work together and talk and argue in an interdisciplinary, collegiate way.
I am sure that I will be forgiven for saying it, but the civil service is, in the main, scientifically illiterate. That is what we have to deal with. If we come together and bring forward new, sparky ideas, they will be the civil service’s ideas tomorrow.
Is it not the case that eminent scientists, particularly research scientists, often come up with diametrically opposed conclusions, and does not that engender interest, not just among Departments and the civil servants whom the hon. Gentleman mentioned, but among the general public and schoolchildren? It shows them that science is an area for ideas, and that sometimes there is not a definitive response to a problem.
I share the hon. Lady’s sentiments entirely. I know eminent virologists who do not believe that AIDS is caused by a virus, and who argue about it at conferences. That is the nature of involvement in science; one never knows what one might find out, and what we think today may turn out to be subject to another explanation tomorrow. That is the excitement of it, and that is why young people deserve a better education, as the hon. Lady says.
I want to speak about risk. Points have been made about how hard it is to define it, and to get people to take it seriously, but I read that Natalie Angier, the science editor of The New York Times, has written a book called “The Canon—A Whirligig Tour of the Beautiful Basics of Science”, which she believes sets out the minimum knowledge required by an educated person. A similar thing has been done in this country in a book by Bill Bryson; it is an amazing read. The Royal Society of Chemistry, bless it, gave one to every school in the country. It addresses the basic questions that young people ask, such as “How do you weigh the Earth?” and “Why is the sky blue?” Some hon. Members will have heard that question asked the other week. The most eminent scientist in the country could not answer it, so narrow are the specialities. But that is the nature of science: one cannot know everything, but by interacting, we can share information.
Angier mentions an issue that the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough raised: how can we define risk in terms simplistic enough to give people an idea of what is meant? She says:
“You would have to fly on a commercial aircraft every day for 18,000 years before your chances of being in a crash exceeded 50 per cent.”
Let us not mention the effect that that would have on climate change; that is another issue. That quotation brings the subject into perspective. She goes on to raise many other points.
I have made the point that the question of how one goes about getting evidence is important. The issue of stem cells has been discussed in this Chamber and in the other place, and I remember those occasions well. Some hon. Members who are present in the Chamber today thought that we might lose the vote on the subject. There was concerted action not to argue the science in a peripheral way but to make it clear, and to involve patient groups and others. I did not see many civil servants or people from other Departments. What really won the argument was the parliamentary process interacting with people outside who ran patient groups. That was a real phenomenon, but it is not always picked up. For several weeks, we made the arguments, and we won the vote. It delighted many scientists in this country that Parliament made a decision that put us in the leading frame on this type of research. Of course there was, and is, no guarantee that stem cell research will deliver the cures for motor neurone disease and so on, but it is the chance to get the evidence that is important.
I thank my hon. Friend for that. I am very aware of that, given that I serve on the Joint Committee on the Draft Human Tissue and Embryos Bill under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, who also chairs the Select Committee on Science and Technology, which produced the report before us today. We have met religious groups, and nothing very much has changed since those late nights that we spent as students arguing for Darwin’s explanation of phenomena against the religious explanation. Yes, the issue is still there, and the battle will continue. Science never sleeps, and the battle to make sure that its voice is heard will continue.
Evidence comes from all corners of the world—science is global. Lots of people interact, not only at the academic level, but in terms of getting information. People will have noticed that The Observer on Sunday includes part of The New York Times, and the science is rather good, explaining issues in terms that anybody with some kind of scientific literacy could understand. The situation is getting better, and it will get better still.
People are suspicious, however, that much of the research undertaken to obtain that evidence is done behind closed doors. There are companies that do private research. We know about the falsifying of the stem cell data in Korea and so on, and other countries—even the United States—are privatising research. There are also conflicts of interest. Scientists are very keen on intellectual property rights. When I go to meetings—I went to the National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence the other week—I have to sign a document that says, “Anything you hear must not appear in the newspapers tomorrow.” I find it rather foreign to communication across the scientific endeavour that we cannot have open and transparent discussions because there may be a commercial interest involved.
Convincing politicians will be extremely difficult. I often ask myself why that is so. Lawyers do not care whom they defend; they will defend the victim or the alleged perpetrator of the crime—it is a job, it is money, it is what lawyers do. Scientists do not behave like that; they have a belief, a determination to be honest and an ethical code, and they talk to each other at meetings and behind the scenes—and that is curtailed only by the intellectual property phenomenon that is now with us.
As regards the stem cell debate, we should also remember that the company’s commercial interests immediately create suspicions among members of the public. There is huge, scathing distrust and a belief that certain companies that do the science hide the data to get amazing profits.
Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that the opposition to a scientific development, particularly when it is translated into legislation and argument in this Chamber, is sometimes very much influenced by very well-resourced lobby groups? The money that they can call on to mount a campaign against such developments should perhaps sometimes be balanced against the commercial interests involved in developing something that would not otherwise be developed if there was no commercial benefit to it.
I thank the hon. Lady. That is another truism. Many people are put under pressure subtly or quite openly. Most hon. Members find it difficult to say no to someone who wants to talk to them about a problem, such as a drug that they cannot get commercialised or get approved by NICE. That makes life difficult for us. To advise us, we need a grouping that is not subjected to such pressure. I do not know whether that exists anywhere in the world, but we ought to try to achieve it.
The first hour of the meeting that I attended at NICE was spent with people talking about their commercial interests. Either the laboratory had been funded by the company that wanted the drug to be approved, or some social benefit had been offered, such as a trip to Florida. It is hard to resist that, even if one feels neutral. In the decision-making arena, such pressure can influence the way one considers the evidence. I hold my hand up and say that sometimes I do not speak out when I should because I feel some empathy with the people presenting the evidence. It is disgraceful, and having been a boy scout, I should know better.
NICE is an organisation that is finding its way forward to assess the evidence and to try and restore confidence in certain areas in medicine. If any group that scrutinises medical developments does not get it right, that damages the research and the patients. Scientific endeavour generally gets a bad name, and public funding with public support can quickly disappear. I was amazed how quickly the support for GM disappeared. We lost the argument day by day, until there was little left to fight for, although I remember slanging matches with friends of mine in this place who were against it from the beginning.
Evidence that comes forward often raises expectations. Scientists should be careful about that. The hyperbole that is sometimes associated with certain types of science gives rise to the kind of scary stories that discredit science. There may initially be disagreements, but ultimately there will be agreement about issues on which the evidence is not solid. Somehow that gets in through the media or the public domain, and is believed. A friend of mine, Ben Goldacre, writes a column in The Guardian every Saturday exposing that kind of phoney science, especially in the food industry, and some of its claims.
Many people would feel let down if there were too many stories like that. Science is not precious, but we must fight to maintain its independence and integrity. The slanging matches that go on when topics are discussed must take place in the open. The public must know that there is an argument, as well as a consensual view.
Controversial areas such as stem cells need to prosper, but only in an environment where the scientists are self-critical. Science is not just about certainty; it is also about uncertainty. I mentioned the case of Krebs saying, “I don’t know.” I have never met a scientist—this may be a parallel with scientists’ so-called arrogance—who could be absolutely sure that they had done every experiment and every control necessary to achieve certainty. That is what is exciting in schools—teaching young people to be critical, to do experiments, to think things through and to ask questions, and giving them the opportunity to develop some understanding and some interest in science.
Universities have a long way to go in how they teach science. Some of what is taught there is boring, rather than radical. I question whether the PhD is taught properly now, and whether post-doctoral fellowships are the way to do science, not necessarily because they are one-year or three-year contracts, but because in many quarters post-doctoral students are still beholden to the boss of the laboratory, who gets all the credit and the kudos from research exercises, whereas a vast amount of the work that is done in this country is done by postgraduate and post-doctoral students. We should remember that we need them, although the administrative work is done by the senior member of the team. In schools and in universities, there is so much more to do to advance a subject that is very exciting.
We do science because we want to make life better for people and to have information that we can put into the system, not just in health but in other fields too. It is not always possible to devise good experiments, but we should give people the right to do that, and we should finance them to allow it to happen.
I am delighted to be able to speak in this debate. I start by congratulating the Science and Technology Committee, of which I used to be a member, on its excellent work in producing the report. A lot of effort and consideration has gone into it, and it is a valuable contribution to our debate.
I welcome the Minister to his new position. In my view, it is the best job in Government, although he does not have quite as much of it as I will recommend he should have had. Nevertheless, as Minister with responsibility for science, he will find dealing with these subjects very stimulating.
Before the Minister gets too excited by his promotion, let me give him a warning. During my period as Science and Technology Minister, the BSE crisis was suddenly launched upon us. On the very day that the information had been revealed, there was an evening reception at Downing street. The Prime Minister was saying nice things in welcoming various Ministers until he got to me, when he said, “Oh yes, you’re the science Minister, aren’t you? Look what a mess you’ve made of this.” The Minister must remember that he will get the blame for crises in science that other Ministers do not want to know about. One of the problems is that although science is at the heart of decisions in virtually every Department, most Ministers are either ignorant of, or do not wish to know about, the implications of science and evidence-based decision making. That is one of the subjects addressed in the report.
During the past year, I have been producing for my party a report on science, technology, engineering and mathematics. It is remarkable just how buoyant those subjects are in our universities. I want to make the Minister understand, in his new departmental role, that it was a mistake to put science in just with the universities, which are much broader institutions that do not just concentrate on science. I hope that he has more than his fair share of debates within the Department and that he influences other Departments, particularly the Treasury. It is critical to the future of this country that we not only do excellent science and punch above our weight in publications and citations but capture the benefits of that science as they emerge.
One difficulty is that although we as a country are brilliant at providing ideas for the rest of the world, producing 9 per cent. of publications and an even bigger percentage of citations from a very much smaller percentage of population, other countries capture those ideas. The other day, I heard that one of the key people in the development of the new Apple iPhone was at Northumbria university—a Brit—but the innovation has been captured in the United States of America. As we begin to compete in this world, even more so at the knowledge-based industry level, we will have to capture more of the ideas that come out of our science base. To put it crudely, we need to have the same esteem for engineers as we have for scientists, because engineers capture the discoveries of scientists and turn them into applications.
My plea to the Minister is that he should not get corralled within the Department. When I was Science and Technology Minister, I claimed and exercised trans-departmental responsibility mainly because I had the full backing of the then Deputy Prime Minister. If the Minister is to make science count in Government, he will need an ally in Cabinet Committees.
Other speakers have already mentioned the fact that some key decisions that we have to take in the years to come are very science oriented. There are disadvantages to that. The hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) mentioned the importance of considering the evidence on which a decision is based. The difficulty is that politicians often have to make quick decisions without the evidence. The BSE case was a good example. It was difficult to get scientists to give evidence to the politicians—one of whom was me—who wanted to make speeches in the House of Commons in favour of this country being a leader in stem cell science. We must understand that there are pressures on politicians to which scientists have to respond, rather than just saying, “We will do it in our own time and the evidence will eventually emerge.”
Another difficulty in the relationship between scientists and politicians is what I might call the absolute statement. When in trouble, a politician is desperate to say, “I’ll do what the scientists tell me.” It is very rare that scientists will tell a Minister exactly what he should make a judgment on.
Does my hon. Friend agree that the vast majority of the general public are laymen in scientific terms? It is difficult for them to know what to believe. They read daily in their newspapers dire warnings, particularly about food science, the causes of global warming and treatments for illegal drug use. Very often, there is conflicting information, and it is difficult for them to know whether something is just the opinion of one scientist or a definitive fact on which they can rely.
I entirely agree, and that applies not just when it appears that fairly disreputable people in the science community are saying something, as in the confusion over MMR, where the scientific evidence was all weighted on one side and a lone operator was questioning it. The press, however, gave equal balance to him.
It is difficult for the public to know quite where to stand, and it is difficult for Ministers. The report is important because it deals with the advice given to Ministers and the form in which it is given. As I said, that process affects virtually every Department.
Energy is an area of great importance and food science is critical. We excel at food science in this country, but the public are increasingly concerned about it. If evidence is given in the wrong way, the scare is already in the Daily Mail—a newspaper that I would ban if I were a dictator, because it does more harm to public opinion than anything else. That probably means that I shall get a bad sketch. Actually, I will not, because there are no journalists present—even if I could see them. That is typical of the interest shown in scientific matters.
The report’s key point is that we not only have to make Ministers more literate, but that the advice to them must be more independent and should be perceived as being so. I intervened on the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) about this. I would like to claim that the 1997 election was just a matter of the public overwhelmingly deciding that I should not continue as science Minister, but the reality is that leaving the Laboratory of the Government Chemist, the National Physical Laboratory and many others outside Government meant that the concept of a technical civil service went with them. We should consider that area carefully.
Recently, I published a proposal that was widely unread because it was a press release from a Conservative Back Bencher, but it said that there should be a Department for science and innovation, with a Secretary of State responsible for it in the Cabinet. I know that the Secretary of State to whom the Minister reports is in the Cabinet, and the same applied under the previous Conservative Government: the Minister for science was not in the Cabinet, but the Secretary of State asked for briefings just before Cabinet meetings, in case something interesting came up.
I will go further. Science is now so central to Government that a department for science and innovation should be responsible not only for the things for which the Minister is already responsible, but for the co-ordination of a technical civil service, and it should work with various scientific advisers in the Departments. When Ministers are dealing with an issue—the environment, defence or transport—such a department should be a central resource whose advice is respected within Government. I would have included technology in that department, which has been put in another Department under the Prime Minister’s reforms, because the two go well together.
I have also advocated a move to smarter public procurement, which is another responsibility that could have been included in the Department. Sadly, I do not have the ability nowadays to do much more than issue press releases. However, I hope that the Government absorb some of the message that I am trying to convey because although, as a Conservative, I should like a Conservative Government in the near future, in the national interest, we cannot continue to wait.
That takes me back to the intervention of my hon. Friend the Member for Upminster (Angela Watkinson). The public are ill informed. It is not their fault—in a way, it is ours. Successive Governments have never grasped the need for more scientific literacy in schools. We are still struggling. Even according to the Government’s figures, we are doing much worse than we should be in ensuring that every school child has some understanding of basic science and mathematics—by that, I mean making our children numerate as well as literate. We do not enable them to understand risk, and then we are surprised when, as adults, they are not scientifically literate and cannot evaluate.
I did not think that anyone remembered that something had happened before 1997, but I am flattered because I suddenly noticed that the report quotes me. Paragraph 190 states that, as science Minister, I
“proposed a scale of risk which would provide ‘a series of common situations of varying risk to which people can relate’.”
I called it a scientific Richter scale. We have a Richter scale in a different context; why not have one for science?
The report goes into considerable detail, which I have no time to repeat, but we must find a way of communicating to a currently scientific illiterate public the way in which they should react in a set of circumstances. Let me make a crude comparison, which is contemporary rather than the best example. When the car bombs, which thankfully did not explode in London recently, were announced to the public, there was no panic because somehow, at the same time, the extent of risk that they should assume was communicated to them. Although the risk was high, other factors meant that there was no panic.
We are lucky that, so far, a biological or chemical attack has not taken place in London. The public will not understand degrees of risk in something so invisible and difficult to grasp. Tragically, we know about car bombs and the damage that they can do, but we are ill educated about the consequences of a biological or chemical attack in this city. We must start preparing the public in ways they can understand about how to react without scaring them. It is a complex art and I do not claim that I have an instant solution, but we must start thinking about it.
Does my hon. Friend agree that educating the lay public is not simply about putting complex scientific evidence and information into language and a perspective that people understand, but has a psychological element, which is perhaps not easy to pin down? For example, anyone who is prescribed medicine and takes the trouble to read the accompanying bit of paper, could decide never to take the medication because of all the possible side effects. I have thought that myself. However, as the medication has been prescribed by a doctor for a specific purpose, the vast majority of people will ignore the huge risks that might be included on the accompanying bit of paper and take their medication as prescribed. Psychologically, they know they need it, and a doctor—somebody whom they trust—has prescribed it. It is difficult to get a balance between raw basic science put in a simple form that people understand, and the psychology of the risks that people are and are not prepared to take.
I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend, but in some ways people are unpredictable in what they determine to be an acceptable risk and what they will not accept. I agree that some of those instructions make one’s hair stand on end—I do not have enough to stand on end—and that if people read them, they would be confused or terrified about the possible side effects.
The person whom one has trusted—the intermediary—is the doctor, or perhaps even the chemist, if one gets the drugs from a pharmacy. I am not inviting the Minister to wear his doctor’s or pharmacist’s cloak whenever he goes out, but there must be some trust between the Government and the public in communicating risk whenever it might occur.
I thank my hon. Friend for being generous and giving way again. Does he recognise that the lay public’s understanding of scientific matters can also have a commercial knock-on effect? For example, tons of blueberries have been sold over the past couple of years, because they were thought to be a super-food that counteracted free radicals. More recent information suggests that they perhaps do not do that. One can envisage sales of that product plummeting and the commercial market being affected.
My hon. Friend is right that food scares can create shifts in the market. When I was a Minister, I had to react to a headline that said something to the effect that “Grapefruit is a killer”. Not surprisingly, grapefruit sales plummeted. I looked into the matter and found that grapefruit is a killer if one has just had all one’s internal organs operated upon and some of them removed—apparently it is not terribly wise to have grapefruit in the week after major internal surgery. That might be specific to the patient who has had such a serious operation, but it is not a general risk to the public. Grapefruits eventually came back when the public realised that they were perhaps not at risk if they had not major internal surgery. It is difficult to get that message across, particularly if a newspaper headline has already done the damage, as has been said. The work then is reactive, rather than about putting a constructive case to try to explain the issue.
My point, which I am sure colleagues will share, is that we must assume that things will go wrong in that way. We must therefore prepare ourselves constantly to try to explain the situation and put a positive aspect on it. More scientists should take into account the benefits of the public’s appreciation of science in, for example, being awarded research grants. I give due credit to the Royal Society and the Royal Academy of Engineering for increasingly encouraging and perhaps even pressuring their fellows to do that.
We are all in this together. If we want active stem cell research and, ultimately, commercial applications for the benefit of the public, we must defend stem cell research in this country. We have the salutary example of what went wrong in the United States, where the Christian right decided that stem cell research was a cause célèbre and President Bush supported them, rather than science. Slowly that work is being restored in the United States, albeit at the state, rather than the federal, level.
We must all be on our guard and we must all be positive. We must increase the amount of science education in our schools. This debate is not about that, but we must never forget that it is crucial. We must do more to encourage our universities to maintain science. The Higher Education Funding Council recently improved grants to universities for science teaching, but the funding is still not enough. I have proposals on that, but the nation will have to wait until my report is published to learn of them.
Those are serious collateral issues in the context of scientific evidence, which we cannot take in isolation. This debate and the Science and Technology Committee’s report are timely and, for the Minister, an object lesson. The euphoria of his appointment is now balanced by the burden of attempting to persuade his ministerial colleagues that he is the most important man in the Government.
Order. Before I call the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), perhaps I should remind the House—without being invidious to him or to the Front-Bench speakers to follow—that there is another debate after this one, for which there is no set dividing time. Speeches have averaged 27 minutes so far, and that might put the other debate at some peril.
It is a great pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor). I also congratulate the Minister of State, Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, my hon. Friend the Member for Dudley, South (Ian Pearson), on acquiring the role of Minister responsible for science and innovation. I am sure that that is a great privilege for him.
The report on which the debate is founded is based on three separate inquiries undertaken by the Science and Technology Committee. The first was on the ABC classification of drugs, and it has already been debated—in a Westminster Hall Adjournment debate on 14 June. The second was on identity card technologies, and I hope that we have contributed to that ongoing debate. The third inquiry, on which I shall say more in a minute, was on the EU physical agents (electromagnetic fields) directive, which is a bit of a mouthful.
The Science and Technology Committee was particularly interested in how the Government use the scientific advisory system as a whole to form their policies. As the Chairman of the Committee, the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis), pointed out, the Government claim to base their policies on the evidence provided to them. I should stress that we also considered the application of social science, as well as of the natural and physical sciences.
I would like to say a few words about the Select Committee. Last Thursday morning, I was at the parliamentary affairs committee of the Royal Society of Chemistry at Burlington House. I am one of its parliamentary advisers, and a fellow of the society. Representatives of all the great learned and professional societies around the city attended that meeting, as well as representatives of the Royal Society of Chemistry. I want to convey to the House their utmost concern about the possible future of the Science and Technology Committee, to which the Chairman has already referred. They want me to tell the House that it would be almost a calamity if the Select Committee disappeared as a separate-standing, cross-cutting Committee which looks at all science, technology and engineering across Departments—a truly cross-cutting Committee like the Public Accounts Committee. They would prefer to see it survive in its present form, rather than be subsumed into the departmental Committee of the new Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills. Will my hon. Friend the Minister tell me whether, if we were subsumed into the departmental Committee, we could still enjoy a cross-cutting role? I do not think that we could, but he might have a different view.
Some of the greatest problems that the Government are facing today need advice from our scientists. They include food scares; E. coli; foot and mouth disease; bovine spongiform encephalopathy—BSE—in cattle and its transmission to man as new variant Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease; infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria; HIV/AIDS; the threat of avian influenza; substance abuse, in which I include alcohol and tobacco; the threat of terrorism and crime in general; the supply of energy; and climate change. These are all examples of policy areas that have required, and will continue to require, a scientific input. The current review of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Act 1990 is another example of the importance of scientific advice in advising the Government on the way forward. In a recent session with the chief medical officer, I got the distinct feeling that scientific research was ahead of even his thinking in this policy area.
In March 2007, the then Government chief scientific adviser, Lord May, published his “Guidelines on the Use of Scientific Advice in Policy Making”, which was updated in 2000 and 2005. In March 1998, the then Select Committee on Science and Technology published a major inquiry into the scientific advisory system, which we have followed up, as my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) has already mentioned. A number of reports, such as Lord Phillips’ report on BSE and CJD in October 2000, Government reports such as the White Paper “Investing in Innovation” published in 2002, and the Government’s 10-year investment framework for science and innovation have strongly influenced the application of science in Government policy making during the time of this Government.
The Committee has always taken the view that the Government’s chief scientific adviser should be seen to be as independent of Departments as possible. Indeed, our report recommends that the CSA should sit in the Cabinet Office with a seat on the Board of the Treasury, rather than in the Office of Science and Technology or, now, in the new Department. We shall wait with interest to see whether the new arrangement will give a greater focus to science, engineering and technology, although I am disappointed, as are others, that the word “science” does not appear in the title of the new Department. Significantly, the head of the Government economic service, Sir Nicholas Stern, has his base in the Cabinet Office, but retains a desk in the Treasury.
We have recommended that the Government’s CSA work closely—perhaps more closely than in the past—with the head of the Government economic service and with the three social science chiefs of profession. The Committee has always taken the view that there should be a chief scientific adviser in all the major State Departments. We believe that we were particularly responsible for persuading the Department for International Development to employ a CSA. He has been active and forward looking in his advice to that Department, and I believe that that has had an effect on its work.
Departmental CSAs have been appointed both from within State Departments and by secondment from positions outside. Those appointed from outside usually work on a part-time basis, for three or four days a week, as well as continuing to work for their former employer, which is often a university. The evidence that we have collected suggests that there are advantages in seconding people to those positions from outside the great State Departments. They bring in a lot of outside experience, and they can also go back and work with their research students, enjoy discussions and raise questions about their work in government with their colleagues in academia or industry.
Such outside appointments have traditionally been short fixed-term appointments, which has resulted in quite a turnover, and quite a range of advice coming into the major State Departments throughout the secondments. Our report commends the Department for Transport’s model. Its CSA has been, and still is, an outside appointment, but a deputy has been appointed from within the Department to advise the externally appointed CSA on the advice available in the Department. We feel that it is important to run CSAs and their deputies in that way, and we recommend that other Departments adopt that model.
The Committee also believes that departmental CSAs should be “on top” and not “on tap”, as the report put it, which means that they should be involved in all major policy decisions in their Department. We have collected evidence that things can go wrong if that is not the case. I shall come to the EU physical agents (electromagnetic fields) directive in a moment. In that case, things went terribly wrong because there was not full consultation. While departmental CSAs are directly answerable to their permanent secretaries, they should also be allowed to interact freely with the Government’s CSA, and with their equivalents in other Departments, so that there is a free flow of information across government in the scientific advisory service.
In my youth, there was a Government scientific service—indeed, I almost joined it—and the Committee strongly believes that it should be re-established. We have collected evidence that those scientists who are employed by the Government—we cannot find out exactly how many there are across the Departments—tend to hide their scientific role, because they feel that if they display their scientific background, they will not be preferred for promotion, which is rather sad. The civil service appears to prefer generalists to specialists, but we are dealing with some pretty specialist policy advice. We feel that State Departments need scientists to display their scientific ability freely.
In recent years, the science base of the civil service has been weakened by loss of the laboratory of the Government chemist, by the transformation of the Forensic Science Service, by the creation of QinetiQ out of the Ministry of Defence, and perhaps in other ways too. There is a Government social research service, a Government economic service, a Government statistical service and a Government operational research service, so why, I ask the Minister, do we not have a Government service for the natural and physical sciences, engineering and technology?
In all its inquiries, our Committee has always been influenced by the evidence, both written and oral, that we have received from a plethora of professional and learned societies and organisations. In engineering, for example, there are more than 40 professional organisations representing the different kinds of engineers across Britain. As I have already said, I am a fellow of the Royal Society of Chemistry. It has become clear to the Committee that the advice of all these bodies is not being utilised to best effect by Governments. The professional organisations are there. They carry out many inquiries themselves, and all this advice—from the Royal Society, the Royal Academy of Engineering and hundreds of others—is available to Governments. I know that the Royal Society of Chemistry was extremely pleased last year when its council was invited to 10 Downing street for a discussion on the future of energy supplies.
A number of other external agencies also advise the Government. We should mention the Council for Science and Technology—the top-level advisory board on science and technology that was re-launched in 2004. Just the other day, our Committee was questioning the present chief scientific adviser about the past and present CST and its role. No doubt a report will appear in the next few days. The Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs is frequently cited as an exemplar of good practice in respect of its scientific advisory system on account of its establishment of an independent scientific advisory council comprising 16 members to support the work of the departmental CSA.
Implementation of the Gershon review appears to have increased the Government’s reliance on external consultants as sources of technical and scientific advice. Sometimes the Government’s own agencies—and even in-house expertise—are ignored, while external appointments are made, which cost Departments a small fortune. For example, between 6 April 2005 and 18 April 2006, the Home Office paid PA Consulting £14,248,799.21 for its work on the identity card programme. I sometimes have nightmares wondering what the 21p was spent on!
My own professional society, the RSC, has expressed concern over
“the use of private consultants by Government which has had the effect of undermining the traditional willingness of the scientific community to contribute to the formal consultation process”.
Can my hon. Friend enlighten me about the number of scientists or outside groups that advised the Government on the recent avian flu outbreak at the Bernard Matthews plant in Suffolk? Were all those groups united, different or what—and who came up with the idea that it was a wild bird that brought in the flu from Hungary?
My hon. Friend asks me a difficult question, which I cannot answer, but I am sure that the advice came from a plethora of organisations. I have forgotten exactly which one was responsible for the advice about the bird coming from Hungary.
As I was saying, the RSC was critical of the lack of expertise in State Departments, which often led to a lack of competency to frame the right questions to outside organisations or consultants, to recruit the right advice or to understand the answers provided. The Royal Society has fellows working worldwide in every discipline of science and engineering. What a resource for the Government to tap into! Sometimes the Government do, but even the Royal Society feels that it has much more advice to offer. In the USA, the National Research Council was established specifically to provide scientific advice to the Government through the National Academies of Science and Engineering, the Institute of Medicine and the National Research Council.
Obviously, good advice is related to good research. In key policy areas—for example, supporting the ABC classification of controlled drugs—we collected evidence that the research was inadequate to support Government policies and that the Government were not investing in much needed research in key policy areas. Academics will not engage in research for the Government if they are prevented from publishing it within a reasonable time frame. We also collected evidence that Departments were not publishing all the research data amassed, but only such that supported Government policy. Much of it was not published at all, which is clearly unacceptable. I should point out that academics are often inhibited from collecting detailed advice for the Government, particularly when they are not able to publish it rapidly, because they operate under the constraints of the research assessment exercise. Perhaps that is why the Government do not receive much research from academia
Much of the legislation—a very high percentage of it—affecting our constituents is now formulated in Brussels. Personally, I do not believe that our Government are very good at scrutinising EU legislation. During our Committee’s inquiry, we came across a good example of a European directive—I have already referred to it—that will have an adverse effect on the use of magnetic resonance imaging equipment in clinical practice and research into disease diagnosis. I refer, of course, to the EU physical agents (electromagnetic fields) directive. If implemented without change, it will cause great damage in those areas.
The directive was adopted by the European Parliament in April 2004 and was originally scheduled to be enshrined in law in member states by April next year. In preparing it, the European Commission was heavily reliant on only one source of advice—namely, the International Commission on Non-Ionising Radiation Protection, or the ICNIRP. However, significant uncertainties still appear to exist around the scientific basis for the guidelines that were published on the use of electromagnetic frequencies.
To produce an image, MRI requires the body to be placed in a static magnetic field while it is irradiated with a time-variable radiofrequency. That causes electromagnetic frequencies to be emitted in three different frequency ranges. The directive sets EMF exposure limit values, but EMF from static fields was excluded—subject to a review in 2009—because no agreement could be reached on static fields. Although the EU advisory committee on health and safety was asked to consider an exemption from the directive for MRI, the request was initially rejected.
In the UK, the National Radiological Protection Board advised the Health and Safety Executive on the directive, urging that the HSE should take note of the ICNIRP guidelines on which the directive was founded. A regulatory impact assessment was prepared by the HSE, but despite the fact that it was aware of the possible impacts of the directive on the MRI community, it failed further to explore its consequences. We could find no evidence that the HSE had consulted its chief scientist, the CSA at the Department of Health or indeed the medical royal colleges. In that respect, both the HSE and the NRPB acted in contravention of the guidelines laid down by the Government chief scientific adviser.
Effectively, as a consequence of the lack of consultation with the MRI community and the failure of that community itself to recognise the significance of the physical agents directive on its work, the directive was cleared by the European Parliament for approval and implementation next year. As a result, if implemented without amendment, most MRI procedures will become extremely difficult or even illegal throughout British hospitals. Let us just imagine that. The European Commission was not fully aware of the work going on in the MRI community and believed that the directive would have little effect on the use of MRI in hospitals. Nothing, however, could have been further from the truth. Ironically, MRI uses non-ionising radiation, which is a lot safer than the ionising radiation technique that it has largely replaced—namely, the use of X-rays.
The fact that there is so much uncertainty about the directive’s impact some two years after its adoption reflects poorly on the influence of scientific advice on the policy making process in Brussels, to which we are subject to a great extent. Lord Hunt argued to the Commission that the ICNIRP guidelines were widely accepted and followed. He told our Committee:
“We felt that there was no need for the directive because we already have these guidelines.”
Well, we have got the directive. I am, however, pleased to report the latest news—which I received only today—that it is now unlikely to be implemented before 2009, or even 2010. Two recent studies have demonstrated that the limits set by the European Commission are much too low, and are being routinely broken by MRI scanners in clinical and research settings throughout our hospitals. The results of the study commissioned by the Health and Safety Executive showed the problem to be more extensive than anyone had expected. As a result, the European Union’s advisory committee on health and safety will propose an amendment to postpone the directive’s implementation date.
That is just one example—a very serious example—that our Committee encountered showing that if policy makers do not take scientific advice from as wide a spectrum of scientists as possible, legislation may be extremely faulty. However, I am pleased that the Commission has accepted that the directive itself is faulty and will probably now amend it.
It is a given that the Government can no longer ignore the advice that is available from all our scientists, engineers and technologists, especially at a time when Britain is increasingly reliant on their discovery of products that are, by their very nature, highly technical in production and highly sophisticated in operation. It is also a given that the Government must improve the structure of the way in which that advice is gathered—a point made strongly in our report. The Government’s response to most of our 69 recommendations is quite positive, but changes will be needed in future.
Although we believe that Government must consider the evidence provided for them, we accept that the final policy outcome is likely to take other factors into consideration, which will depend on timing in the political cycle. Ministers will still make their judgments with the political consequences in mind, but we hope that they will rely increasingly on scientific advice as well.
I welcome the Minister to his new brief. I think he will find it very exciting, and I look forward to discussing scientific matters with him both formally and informally. I have been my party’s science spokesman for some years, during Lord Sainsbury’s time and that of the Minister’s predecessor, the hon. Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks), who was in post for only eight months. He had made an excellent start but sadly, just when he felt that he had conquered the subject, he moved on. That is the nature of reshuffles. However, I wish the new Minister well.
I must declare an interest. As well as being my party’s spokesman I am a member of the Science and Technology Committee, and I was involved in this inquiry. I also have an interest in evidence-based policy making and in the outcome of the inquiry’s recommendations. The inquiry itself was lengthy and extremely thorough, and our detailed report contained a number of recommendations. It was introduced very well today by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis) in a clear, succinct and focused speech. I think that all members of the Committee, and indeed all hon. Members, are grateful for the work that he has done so far. We also recognise the contribution made to the whole debate by his excellent predecessor as Chairman, the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson).
As we have heard, the report spun off three smaller reports on drugs policy, MRI and identity cards. Unfortunately we do not have time to discuss them all in detail, and some have already been discussed in Westminster Hall debates, but one problem that the Committee identified was an occasional difficulty with terminology. Select Committees take evidence, but it is not always scientific evidence on which we would want policy to be based. That produces the sort of confusion that arose in relation to the drugs report.
Of course, not all policies are liable to be decided on the basis of scientific evidence. There may be no evidence at all when an issue that is relatively nebulous nevertheless requires Government and political parties to make policy. Sometimes economic considerations are overriding, sometimes ideological considerations are overriding, and sometimes there is a manifesto-based policy. Those who have made a commitment to do something must have very good reasons not to do it. As the report points out, however, in all those circumstances it is necessary for policy makers—both in Government and, as my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough said, in Opposition parties—to be clear about their reasons when they do not follow scientific advice. It is then incumbent on those debating in the political process to respect what has been said, as long as it is transparent.
As the report makes clear, if a policy is made on the basis that it is in line with scientific evidence and such evidence is not published, insufficiently published or selectively published, or does not appear to back up the policy, Government and, indeed, other political parties can be criticised. Policy must be introduced with a statement that is honest and transparent about the extent to which it relies on science. I have caused trouble in my party by requiring such statements.
I look forward to policy announcements from the Conservative party. I believe that the reclassification of cannabis from C to B will be flagged up in a forthcoming policy document. I should be fascinated to know what evidence there is that such a reclassification will do anything to reduce consumption and improve matters. All the evidence suggests that if cannabis is to be criminalised, it belongs in class C. There was no increase in cannabis use when it was reclassified from B to C, and that reclassification allowed policy to become more rational and more easily understood by those with whom we needed to communicate.
That is a good example of the need to be careful about the quality of scientific advice. What concerns us is not the toxicity of cannabis but the message that is conveyed to members of the public, particularly those who are unwise enough to use such substances and who may not have the hon. Gentleman’s wisdom and experience based on genuine scientific evidence.
I certainly agree with the hon. Gentleman about the health risks of cannabis, but the classification of drugs is not based solely on health risks. Otherwise, as our report makes clear, we would have had strong words to say about alcohol and cigarettes. However, the message to which the hon. Gentleman referred can be assessed scientifically. Our report, which I commend to him, makes it plain that there is no evidence that classification sends a message, or that any message it does send has an impact. We could find no such evidence, and nor could the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs. While it is a nice thought, it is not good enough to criminalise to such a degree the behaviour of so many people in a way that is counter-productive, in the hope that a message will be sent, let alone received.
Both the Science and Technology Committee and the Joint Committee on the Human Tissues and Embryos Bill, also chaired by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough, are looking closely at scientific evidence. I believe that reports should benefit from science checks of that kind. The Joint Committee will consider the policy of removing anonymity from gamete donors, which is a very contentious issue. I hope that its report will make it absolutely clear whether the evidence suggests that it would have any benefit or whether it seems likely to be counter-productive in increasing secrecy and damaging gamete supply, in which event people would not be able to be treated and no child would benefit in the long run.
The hon. Gentleman has detailed knowledge of that subject, and is probably the leading expert on it in the House. He is right to highlight that it is important that when the Government or any other policy maker produce a policy and publish the evidence, there must be a statement as to the adequacy and strength of the evidence. In many health care guidelines, grades of evidence are now attached to recommendations, rather than simply a reference. That practice was not addressed in the report, but the Government might want to learn from it.
Does the hon. Gentleman not agree that the ability to repeat data is an essential aspect of science? One piece of published work is not enough; there must be several different attacks on a problem, and several, possibly contradictory, papers must be produced. In such situations, the problem arises of whose evidence is better than whose. That is often part of the nature of science.
I was going to say that that is part of the nature of science: the situation is never clear because there are always new publications that refine the current view. That is not well understood by the public and the media. However, we need not despair and blame scientists that it is not well understood; it is inevitable that many people who are not scientists do not understand that science is, almost by definition, about a lack of certainty. Non-scientists can often be identified as such by the fact that they are certain. Some religious beliefs will never change, regardless of what evidence is provided. However, the report rightly argues that we should expect the civil service to have an understanding of science and scientific technique, and that it should not be a disadvantage to have such understanding—on the contrary, it should be shared. I was delighted that the Government response accepted the broad thrust of the recommendations and recognised that it was necessary to continue and expand the work that is being done to ensure that civil servants who do not have a scientific background understand the nature of scientific inquiry and evidence.
The hon. Member for Norwich, North raised the religion issue in respect of stem cells. People with religious views bring something valuable to the table: an ethical perspective. I also have an ethical perspective, which happens not to be religious. People can debate matters such as stem cell research, and where we stand on them will be determined by our principles and ideology. However, I urge the Government to be cautious about people who dress up their ideological views—both religious and not religious—as science, such as those who argue in respect of stem cells that everything can be done through adult stem cells and therefore we do not need to work with embryonic stem cells. That is simply incorrect. Such people must be asked, “If it turns out that work on adult stem cells is shown not to work or not to be effective, would you then support the use of embryonic stem cells?” Their answer is usually no. There is a danger of pseudo-science being promulgated to dress up what are perfectly valid ideological, religious or moral views. Such views have a place in these debates, but they should not be confused with science.
The Government have been fortunate in having benefited from the last two excellent chief scientific advisers—Lord May and Sir David King. Their reputations in the science community and among the media and the broader public have done much to underpin the Government’s credibility on science matters.
For the avoidance of ambiguity, will the hon. Gentleman confirm that he is referring to government with a small “g”, thereby including the last Conservative Government to which Lord May—as he now is—was chief scientific adviser, and with whom I worked closely?
Indeed, I am happy to do so. We in this House benefit from having the experience of Members, such as the hon. Gentleman, who have been involved on the front line of science policy—Members who have served on the Select Committee and, as in the hon. Gentleman’s case, have also been Ministers with responsibility for science and have therefore received advice from such people as my constituent Lord May.
I wish to raise with the Minister a couple of issues that were addressed in the report. There was a recommendation to do with the double-counting of non-scientific opinion. Scientific responses to consultations often put forward the science and then also say—as the Royal Society recently did in responding to the Government consultation on embryology, and especially inter-species or hybrid embryos—“This is the science, but we must of course bear in mind the fact that there will be public worries about it, so perhaps we should be cautious.” However, the anti-science or non-scientific evidence—I do not use those terms pejoratively—often does not give any credence to the scientific side and says, “We say 100 per cent. that we must not do this as it is wrong.” Therefore when the scores are added up, there are one and a half bids for caution and only one bid for going ahead on the basis of the science. When there is considerable lay membership on scientific advisory committees, there is a danger that we get diluted scientific advice instead of pure scientific advice. So when the Government consider such advice along with that of other stakeholders—which is the right thing to do—the result is a dilution of the scientific message. The Government recognised that that was a problem and undertook to do something about it. Do they have any further thoughts on that?
I wish to reinforce points made by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough and the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon), which were supported by the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor), about the future of the Science and Technology Committee. I should make it clear that some Members present have an interest in the subject as we are members of the Committee in question. However, there is a twofold danger in relying solely on a departmental scrutiny-type committee, regardless of how well it is chaired and does its work. First, there will be a tendency for it to be dominated by the university agenda, which is highly political. It is right that that should be so, as that is an important sector of public policy; it will flex its muscles both politically and in the media and by means of the institutions themselves. Secondly, and crucially, as with the Public Accounts Committee and the Environmental Audit Committee, in terms of science and technology there is a case for cross-departmental scrutiny of Government and Government agencies because that cannot entirely be invested in one Department. I hope that the Minister has established, and will develop, that important cross-departmental role. I ask him to share his thoughts on this matter—as far as he can, as it is subject to negotiation. Does he recognise the importance of there being a cross-departmental scrutiny role in respect of science and technology?
I also seek elucidation from the Minister on the Government’s policy on publishing evidence. Page 17 of the Government’s response addresses the Science and Technology Committee’s recommendations 34, 35, 37, 50 and 51. The Committee’s report made it clear that evidence underpinning policy should be published. The Government response states that they will publish that except in respect of freedom of information and data protection legislation exemptions. If those exemptions cover advice to Government, that could catch all, or much of, the evidence that one would hope would be published when the Government produce a policy. To be fair, it should be added that the Government say that it is final advice to Government that would be caught by freedom of information legislation. The Government’s response states in paragraph 25 of the introduction:
“Inputs other than evidence…will influence policy outcomes”—
we have already accepted that. It continues:
“Nevertheless, where possible, the Government agrees that processes should be transparent and the balance of evidence exposed. Transparency may not be possible in reserved areas. Examples of reserved areas include advice that precedes a final policy outcome”.
It is not clear to what extent that covers the evidence or the view taken of that evidence by a departmental chief scientific adviser, because the evidence is collected, the DCSA considers it and makes a recommendation to Ministers. It would be unfortunate if none of that process could be seen, especially the crucial latter stage. It is not clear from the Government’s response what their plan is in that regard.
I shall not go into the areas of the report covered by my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough. I strongly support his concern about the loss of capacity and, therefore, the need for a Government scientific service. I also support what he said about trials and pilots. It is welcome that the report made it clear that there is an onus on Opposition parties not to attack the Government for responding rationally to a pilot or trial that does not work. If a pilot or trial is ignored, it becomes early implementation followed by roll-out, and that could lead to a great waste of money.
The hon. Member for Norwich, North made several important points about the need for the scientific world to be quick on its feet. There is a dilemma between the need for rapid rebuttal and the need to ensure that the scientific process is not compromised by a rush to comment. The role of the science media centre has filled that gap to some extent, because it has experts on tap who, within the limits of their expertise and with care, can make a rapid response to a scare story, so we do not have to rely on the Royal Society and the Academy of Medical Sciences to set up a six-month working party to produce the definitive statement long after the story has taken off. The science world has understood that and that is why it funds the science media centre—it can redress the balance.
The hon. Member for Esher and Walton made some important points about scientific capacity in the civil service, the understanding of risk and the way in which the media behave. The first newspaper I buy every day is the Daily Mail, because it is an excellent newspaper. Although I usually disagree with it on issues of policy and ethics, it transmits its message effectively and one can understand what is going on. Of course, its interest, and that of other papers, is in selling copies, and it will never have scientific accuracy as a priority. Nor will it be willing to recognise the problem that if there is one maverick with whom 99.9 per cent. of the scientific world disagree, the broadcast and the print media will tend to give both sides, which suggests to the public that there is a more even split.
Politicians are in a privileged position, because they can think, take advice and try to find the scientific consensus on an issue. They do not have to jump on a bandwagon. MMR was handled correctly by the Government and I was pleased to support them 100 per cent. at the time. Some Conservative Front Benchers at the time—and I exclude the hon. Member for Esher and Walton—did not handle it correctly, because on public health issues there can be a high price to pay for political opportunism. Little could be done other than embark on the slow process of trying to explain to the media that the evidence for MMR causing autism simply was not there. While we cannot say that anything is 100 per cent. safe—and the Government were right not to try to claim that, because that is also a dangerous thing to say—the approach had to show that the evidence base was clear. The fact that Andrew Wakefield is now up before the GMC on charges of serious professional misconduct in connection with his research is an extra factor, albeit many years later, that suggests that those of us who considered the overall scientific picture—and not just the newspaper headlines—were right on that issue.
The report mentions the precautionary principle and the problem of risk. We came to the view that the precautionary principle was an unfortunate phrase. Indeed, the chief scientific adviser said in evidence that the word “principle” seemed to imply some rule that whenever there was a potential risk, the Government had to respond. The Committee were right to applaud the use by the Government and the chief scientific adviser of the term “precautionary approach” and to make it clear that scientific progress must not be stopped because of a small potential risk. The report went further and said that the Government should lobby within the EU to change the terminology and approach taken by the EU—from the misunderstood term “precautionary principle”, which means different things to different people, to a much more fleshed-out view of what we mean by a flexible precautionary approach. I was disappointed that the Government’s response effectively was to give up, saying that it was in too many international agreements and we would have to live with it. I think that the Government should advocate change in that area.
In conclusion, I applaud the work by the members of the Committee, not including myself in this case. I also thank the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East for going into so much detail and clarity about the particular example of MRI, which was a good example that the Committee chose to take up. I hope that this important report will be one of a series of reports that the House will continue to receive from a cross-cutting Science and Technology Committee.
I welcome the Minister to his new role. I shall endeavour to keep my comments brief, as I represent a rural constituency and the next debate will be of great importance to my constituents. I very much enjoyed listening to hon. Members’ measured tones, and I especially enjoyed the introduction of the hon. Member for Harrogate and Knaresborough (Mr. Willis). I also welcome the report. I am especially grateful for the inclusion of this sentence:
“We have argued that the phrase ‘evidence based policy’ is misleading and that the Government should therefore desist from seeking to claim that all its policies are evidence based.”
That is absolutely right, and I am delighted to see it in the report. I am sure that the new Minister will try to ensure that the Government take that advice.
It has certainly been my experience that when a change in policy has been science based, the Opposition have not accused the Government of a U-turn. The example I have in mind is the decision that the Minister for the South West, the hon. Member for Exeter (Mr. Bradshaw), took as an environment Minister to stop the reactive culling of badgers with tuberculosis, because the independent scientific group research showed that it was making the situation worse. Nobody criticised that decision: indeed, we welcomed it and it was the right thing to do, given the scientific evidence. Unfortunately the ISG did not go on to give the science-based evidence that Ministers need to make a decision on that biological problem, but it illustrates my point that Opposition parties will not jump on the bandwagon when the Government make a correct decision.