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House of Commons Hansard
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25 January 2017
Volume 620

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I beg to move,

That this House has considered the photonics industry.

It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mr Flello.

The usual reaction to any comment about photonics is, “What’s photonics?” It is worth pointing out that photonics is nothing to do with fold-down sofas and that it is not the study of protons. Photonics comes from the word “photon” and is the science of light.

Scotland has a great tradition in science, with figures such as Lord Kelvin, James Watt and Thomas Graham featuring strongly. The most famous physicist in the photonics field, although he is probably much less well-known than those other figures, is James Clerk Maxwell. Maxwell was born in Edinburgh in 1831 and brought up in rural Kirkcudbright, before moving back to study at Edinburgh University. A brilliant mathematician and physicist, he moved to Cambridge at the age of 19. On arrival, he was given a list of rules and told that the 6 am Sunday church service was mandatory. Reportedly, Maxwell paused before replying, “Aye, I think I can stay up that late.”

Maxwell’s most notable work was formulating the classical theory of electromagnetism, which for the first time brought together electricity, magnetism and light. His development of the Maxwell equations, which describe a wave as having an electric and magnetic component, are fundamental when describing the propagation of light. Many argue that Maxwell’s contribution to physics is on a par with those of Newton or Einstein. Indeed, Einstein himself said:

“The special theory of relativity owes its origins to Maxwell’s equations of the electromagnetic field.”

Those equations changed the world forever and are the bedrock of photonics. In recognition, 2015 was designated the international year of light, to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Maxwell’s electromagnetic theory of light, thus marking his contribution as the father of photonics.

I knew none of that when I was considering university courses. I chose my course—laser physics and optoelectronics—because I enjoyed physics and, frankly, because the name sounded impressive. As a 17-year-old, I had no idea that Strathclyde University was one of the UK’s leading institutions for photonics. I want to make special mention of Professor Robbie Stewart, whose enthusiasm for and expertise in photonics was matched by his burning desire to see every young person—even those who were sometimes reluctant students, such as myself—achieve success in physics.

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My hon. Friend is making a very interesting speech, although I suspect that she will be too modest to say that she has a PhD in photonics—

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It is not a PhD.

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Well, a postgraduate qualification in photonics.

My hon. Friend mentioned Strathclyde University. She will also be aware that Heriot-Watt University, which is in my constituency, is a centre for the study of photonics and quantum science. I have been very privileged to meet Professor Duncan Hand and other researchers and staff there, who showed me that photonics applies in a variety of practical fields, including cyber-security, cancer treatment and the protection of civilians in war zones.

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I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, and I will talk later about some of the applications of photonics. As she suggests, the central belt of Scotland is a hotbed for photonics, from Glasgow and Strathclyde in the west to Heriot-Watt and Edinburgh in the east.

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First, I congratulate the hon. Lady on bringing this matter to Westminster Hall for consideration. Whenever we did research on this issue, one point that emerged was that UK photonics companies export between 75% and 90% of their products, so their importance to the UK economy is immense, even though it is not well known and often overlooked. Does she agree that if the photonics industry across the UK is going to continue to succeed, it needs to be supported, which is something the Minister should consider?

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The hon. Gentleman makes some really important points and I will come on to some of the challenges that the photonics industry faces. Of course, one of them is that it is a relatively unknown area of the economy.

In Scotland, the presence of a number of major multinationals, combined with the outstanding research base, has enabled the central belt to become a world leader in the design, development and manufacture of high-value lasers. Laser sales are in excess of £200 million per annum and 90% of those sales are exports, bringing significant wealth to the region.

Scottish companies in the laser sector currently provide employment for around 3,000 people. The largest industrial players in Scotland are Thales, which is based in Glasgow, and Selex, which is based in Edinburgh, but other small and medium-sized enterprises are doing excellent work.

Another renowned company, Coherent Scotland, has gone from strength to strength in the last decade. It is not in my constituency but in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady). It manufactures lasers for industrial environments, such as the semiconductor market, as well as focusing on microscopy and micromachining. In the same area, we also have M Squared Lasers, which has won a string of awards for its innovative work in sensing.

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I congratulate my hon. Friend on securing this debate and I join her in paying tribute to those two outstanding companies, which are based in my constituency. It has been a real delight to welcome representatives of M Squared to the House of Commons on several occasions.

My hon. Friend has spoken about both the importance of the research base—Glasgow University, which is in both of our constituencies, is important to that research —and the significance of exports. Does she share my concern about the potential impact of Brexit on both the research base and the opportunities for exports?

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Brexit is one of the biggest challenges that the photonics industry faces just now, and we need some clear answers about how the industry will be supported through the Brexit process. I will come back to that point later in my speech.

The strength of the Scottish photonics industry is underlined by the fact that when the UK Government invited the Fraunhofer Society of Germany—Europe’s largest research and development provider—to work with the UK, the first centre was established in photonics and was in Scotland at the University of Strathclyde. Of course, photonics features in every part of the UK and there are other major photonics clusters around the UK—Southampton also has a high photonics concentration.

I will give some facts and figures about the UK photonics industry. It is a growth sector, with 1,500 companies employing more than 70,000 people. Its economic impact is impressive, with a sustained growth of 6% to 8% per year over the last three decades, and an annual output of £10.5 billion. That is comparable to the pharmaceutical industry, but of course photonics is far less well-known, partly due to a lack of public understanding, but also to the industry’s high number of businesses, including SMEs. In order to give the industry a voice, the Photonics Leadership Group was set up, with John Lincoln at the helm, and I was delighted that he was able to be present at the inaugural meeting of the all-party group on photonics in October.

A key point about the photonics industry is that it enables other industries to be competitive, with 10% of overall UK jobs depending on it. Photonics is a key enabling technology, encompassing everything from lasers and cameras to lighting and touch screen displays. Photonics is also critical to increasing manufacturing productivity, delivering efficient healthcare, and keeping us digitally connected and secure.

The range and depth of the photonics field is vast, but I will highlight a couple of examples. The first is sensing systems in autonomous vehicles. Those cars navigate using radar, lasers and cameras linked to a computer. A horizontal laser can send out pulses, and by measuring the time taken for the pulse to return, the distance to obstacles can be established, in much the same way as bats use echolocation, so the cars can detect hazards and slow or halt as appropriate.

Lighting and displays are one of the most visible expressions of photonics as an enabling technology. Light emitting diode—LED—lighting is progressively replacing traditional fluorescent bulbs and is finding its way into new areas including signage, illumination, consumer electronics and even clothing. LED technology is projected to become the dominant lighting technology before the end of the decade. By 2020, more than 95% of lighting turnover will be based on the technology.

Another area where photonics has been revolutionary is in the detection of counterfeit goods, which are estimated to cost businesses £3.5 billion per annum. A technique has been developed by the National Physical Laboratory in Teddington to determine whether items of clothing are fake. The technology involves terahertz radiation. When a fabric sample is placed within the beam, the composition and structure can be ascertained, as different types of materials give rise to varying rates of scattering and absorption. The fabric’s unique signature will indicate whether it is genuine or a clever copy.

In healthcare, we are all aware of laser eye surgery and endoscopy technologies, but the photonics impact in that area is massive. A new technology known as photodynamic therapy, or PDT, uses light-activated drugs to kill cancerous cells. Plasters embedded with LEDs developed by the Scottish firm Ambicare Health are being used to treat skin cancer in combination with light-sensitive drugs. PDT is simple to operate and portable, meaning that patients can go about their daily routine while receiving it.

The timing of this debate is particularly useful, coming off the back of Monday’s industrial strategy Green Paper. While the 10 pillars of the strategy have the potential to support the continued development of photonics, the vital role of enabling technologies, such as photonics, needs to be fully recognised. They provide the competitive edge in product performance and manufacturing.

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My hon. Friend has spoken much about entrepreneurship and SMEs in the area of photonics. Does she agree that universities such as Heriot-Watt in my constituency are important engines in entrepreneurship and innovation in photonics? For example, in the past five years alone, three spin-off companies have come out of the institute at Heriot-Watt.

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I thank my hon. and learned Friend for her intervention. What we see with a lot of these industry-facing universities is great and rich partnerships between industry and research that allow SMEs to flourish.

Less than 5% of the value of high-technology goods, from mobile phones to aircraft, is in the final assembly. Most value is in the design, the critical components, which are often photonics such as cameras, screens, sensors, and the manufacturing equipment, which is also often photonics, such as laser marking or cutting. Manufacturing strategy must therefore be refined to ensure support for the research, design, development and manufacture of the hidden technologies that will secure a productive future. The UK has globally leading photonics research and a strong export-driven photonics industry, but as a global industry, photonics is sensitive to changes in international trade. Care is needed to ensure we continue to develop and manufacture this enabling technology in the UK.

As with many other industries, the shortage in science, technology, engineering and maths skills poses a threat to the photonics industry. Those shortages are well recognised, but still they persist. Difficulties in the recruitment and retention of STEM teachers only add to the problem. What practical steps are the Government taking to address those shortages? What role does the Minister see enabling technologies taking in the industrial strategy?

The biggest concern for the photonics industry, as has already been mentioned, is Brexit. Access to the single market and to skilled and experienced staff is vital to many photonics companies. With the Government driving on towards an increasingly hard Brexit, what steps are being taken to ensure that this key part of the economy is secure? Why is there no chief scientific adviser in the Department for Exiting the European Union? Photonics is one of the key industries for the future. I encourage all Members to find out how photonics affects their lives and how photonics is on a path to making the 21st century the century of the photon.

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I start by thanking fellow Members, including the hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West (Joanna Cherry), and the hon. Members for Glasgow North (Patrick Grady) and for Strangford (Jim Shannon), for their passion for this under-appreciated sector. In particular, I thank the hon. Member for Glasgow North West (Carol Monaghan) for calling the debate. As she mentioned, it is particularly timely, given the launch of the Government’s industrial strategy Green Paper by the Prime Minister earlier this week. I congratulate her on her initiative in setting up the first all-party group on this exciting sector.

Too often, the photonics sector is unfairly and unwisely overlooked. We have heard this morning that it is a fascinating field and a great example of the types of sector that we are focusing on in our industrial strategy. It also makes a great and tangible contribution to all parts of the United Kingdom, including Scotland and Northern Ireland. As an enabling technology, it underpins a wide range of sectors and applications, including aerospace, eye surgery, LED lighting, counterfeit detecting and all the other important examples that the hon. Lady gave. There are more than 1,500 photonics manufacturing companies in the UK, together employing more than 70,000 people. They generate an economic output of £10.5 billion. Our industrial strategy looks to build on that kind of success, further strengthening our science and research base while helping to bring new goods and services to the market more simply and more rapidly.

The photonics industry has been built on the UK’s outstanding expertise. The hon. and learned Member for Edinburgh South West mentioned that it was particularly evident in industry-facing institutions such as Heriot-Watt. The Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council maintains a significant portfolio of photonics research spanning across multiple themes such as ICT, physical sciences and manufacturing. The total portfolio exceeds £170 million in value, and its significant investments include £10.2 million in the national hub in high value photonic manufacturing at the University of Southampton; £7.2 million awarded to University College London for the photonics systems development project; £5.6 million to the University of Sheffield to research semiconductor quantum photonics; and £4.9 million to Heriot-Watt University in the hon. Lady’s constituency for its industrial doctorate centre on optics and photonics technologies.

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I thank the Minister for making an interesting and detailed speech and talking about the success of the university sector, particularly Heriot-Watt in my constituency. However, he will be aware that academics in centres such as the institute in my constituency are worried as a result of the Brexit vote about two things: funding and the international pool of academic and postgraduate talent on which they draw. They are looking for assurance beyond 2020 that the sources of funding and international brain power will not be lost to them.

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We are sensitive to such concerns, which is why the Prime Minister in her speech a week last Monday made clear statements as to her objectives for our Brexit negotiations. She detailed the importance that she puts on continued collaboration with our European research partners, and on continued access to the brightest and the best—the people who make such a difference to the success of our scientific endeavour in this country. As she underscored in her powerful speech, we are leaving the European Union, but we are not leaving Europe and we remain an outward-looking and globally focused country committed to being the global go-to centre for science and research.

The Government recognise the importance of research to the UK, which is why, at the spending review in 2015—the spending review before last—we protected the science resource budget in real terms at its 2015-16 level of £4.7 billion for the rest of this Parliament, and pledged to increase the science capital budget to £1.1 billion in 2015-16, which will rise with inflation to a total of £6.9 billion over the period 2015-21. At this year’s autumn statement we made the significant announcement that we would make an additional investment in research and development of £2 billion a year by 2020-21. As I have been at pains to say on many occasions, that is the biggest single increase in investment in R and D in this country since 1979.

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The funding is very welcome and much needed, but we also need certainty over what people can do now and how able they will be to travel in future.

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We certainly recognise that concern. That is why, to refer back to the Prime Minister’s speech a week last Monday, she again repeated her desire to be able to guarantee as quickly as possible the rights of EU nationals residing in the UK. If other countries across the European Union are able to offer the same assurances to our nationals living in their countries, we will be able to put those uncertainties to rest.

As I have mentioned, it is important to ensure that the excellent research carried out in the UK can be successfully commercialised where appropriate. This is why we provide support to that effect through Innovate UK. Photonics is one of Innovate UK’s enabling technology areas. Companies can apply for funding for photonics projects in all the so-called emerging and enabling technology calls, as well as calls related to the application of photonics in healthcare, manufacturing and elsewhere. Over the past six years, typical spend has been in the range of £5 million to £10 million per annum, with most funding going to SMEs working in collaboration with research organisations and larger companies. More than £3 million has already been invested in projects in the Glasgow-based firm, M Squared Lasers, since 2008, helping the company to reach an annual turnover that now exceeds £10 million.

Up to £500,000 has been invested in innovative research and development projects through the north Wales photonics launchpad. At the Fraunhofer Centre for Applied Photonics in Glasgow, Innovate UK has funded 20 projects for the centre to collaborate with UK companies.

We have an edge in photonics, but we are not taking that for granted. Our economy has great strengths, but while many people, places and businesses are thriving, opportunities and growth are still spread too unevenly around the country. That is why it is so important that a modern industrial strategy delivers a high-skilled, competitive economy that spreads benefits and opportunities to people throughout the UK.

The Green Paper that we published on Monday marks the beginning of a dialogue to develop a strategy that will also ensure the UK remains one of the best places in the world to innovate, do business and create jobs. We acknowledge the challenges we face. Growth has not been even. Prospects and opportunities for businesses and people vary too much. We have world class businesses and sectors, but some are not yet achieving their potential. Now is the time to face up to the challenges with an industrial strategy that ensures we have a resilient economy for the future.

Question put and agreed to.

Sitting suspended.