[Relevant documents: Third Report of the Science and Technology Committee of Session 2019–21, A new UK research funding agency, HC 778, and the Government response, HC 1363, and oral evidence taken before the Science and Technology Committee on 17 March 2021, Session 2019-21, on A new UK research funding agency, HC 778.]
Consideration of Bill, not amended in the Public Bill Committee
New Clause 1
Human Rights Abuses
“No ARIA resources may be used in any way that would contravene human rights.” —(Stephen Flynn.)
This new clause is intended to ensure that ARIA is not able to contravene human rights.
Brought up, and read the First time.
I beg to move, That the clause be read a Second time.
With this, it will be convenient to discuss the following:
New clause 2—ARIA’s primary mission: health research and development—
“(1) The primary mission of ARIA is to support scientific research into human health and the development of new medicines and health technologies.
(2) In carrying out its primary mission under subsection (1), ARIA must prioritise research and development according to the policy objectives of the Department of Health and Social Care.”
This new clause would set ARIA’s primary mission as supporting health research and development and would make the Department of Health and Social Care the Agency’s main client.
New clause 3—Transition to net-zero carbon emissions—
“(1) ARIA must be certified carbon-neutral at the end of each financial year.
(2) 25% of ARIA’s annual budget must be directed towards scientific research and development that will support the UK’s transition to net zero carbon emissions by 2045.
(3) In exercising any of its functions under this Act, ARIA must have regard to the requirement under subsection (1) and the UK’s transition to NetZero carbon emissions by 2045.”
This new clause requires ARIA to be certified carbon-neutral annually, and to direct 25% of its annual budget to research and development that will assist the UK’s transition to net-zero. In carrying out its functions, ARIA must have regard to its carbon-neutrality requirement and the UK’s transition to net-zero.
Amendment 1, in clause 2, page 1, line 7, at end insert—
“(A1) ARIA’s primary mission will be to support the development of technologies and research that support the UK’s transition to net zero carbon emissions or reduce the harmful effects of climate change.”
This amendment sets the primary mission for ARIA to support the development of technologies and research that support the UK’s transition to net zero carbon emissions or reduce the harmful effects of climate change.
Amendment 2, page 1, line 17, at end insert—
“(2A) Where ARIA provides financial support or makes rights or other property available under subsection (2) to an individual who has a family or business connection to a Minister of HM Government—
(a) that individual must make a declaration of the connection as part of the application for support or property; and
(b) the Minister must make an oral statement to the House of Commons within 3 months of the decision being made under subsection (2).”
This amendment would allow for Parliamentary scrutiny of any contracts awarded by ARIA to a person connected to a member of the Government.
Amendment 12, page 1, line 17, at end insert—
“(2A) In exercising its functions, ARIA must have regard to its core mission.
(2B) In this section “core mission” means—
(a) for the period of ten years after the date on which this Act is passed, undertaking activities which support the achievement of the target established in section 1 of the Climate Change Act 2008,
(b) thereafter, mission or missions which the Secretary of State establishes by regulations every five years, and
(c) regulations under this section—
(i) shall be made by statutory instrument, and
(ii) may not be made unless a draft has been laid before and approved by resolution of each House of Parliament.”
This amendment would require ARIA to consider its core mission in exercising its functions. For the ten years following the Act passing, that core mission would be supporting the achievement of Net Zero. Thereafter, its mission will be established by statutory instrument subject to the draft affirmative procedure.
Amendment 13, page 2, line 18, at end insert—
“(7) In exercising its functions, ARIA must have regard to its impact across England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland and each region thereof.
(8) The annual report prepared under paragraph 15 of Schedule 1 must contain—
(a) the geographical distribution of ARIA’s investments over the past year, and
(b) the economic impact of this investment in each region and nation of the United Kingdom including the number of new jobs created.”
This amendment would require ARIA to have regard for the benefits of its activities across the nations and regions of the UK in exercising its functions and includes a reporting function, with Parliamentary oversight, on the impact of those activities in each nation and region of the UK.
Amendment 4, in clause 4, page 2, line 25, at beginning insert—
“Subject to paragraph 3(1B) of Schedule 1,”
This amendment is consequential to Amendment 3.
Amendment 6, page 2, line 25, at beginning insert—
“Subject to paragraph 2(3B) of Schedule 1,”
This amendment is consequential to Amendment 5.
Amendment 9, in clause 6, page 3, line 2, at end insert—
“(2A) ARIA must provide the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee with such information as the Committee may request.”
This amendment would require ARIA to share information with the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee when requested.
Amendment 14, on page 3, line 15, at end insert—
“(7) ARIA shall be—
(a) a public authority within the meaning of section 3 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and Schedule 1 of that Act shall be amended accordingly, and
(b) a central government authority within the meaning of regulation 2(1) of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015, and Schedule 1 of those Regulations shall be amended accordingly.”
This amendment would make ARIA subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Public Contract Regulations 2015.
Amendment 10, in clause 8, page 3, line 26, leave out “, and” and insert—
“(ab) the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee, and”
This amendment would require the Secretary of State to consult the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee before dissolving ARIA.
Amendment 5, in schedule 1, page 6, line 22, at end insert—
“(3A) The Secretary of State may not appoint a person as chair unless the appointment of that person has been approved by resolution of each House of Parliament.
(3B) ARIA may not exercise any functions under this or any other Act, nor may the Secretary of State make any grants to ARIA under section 4 of this Act, until its first chair has been appointed.”
This amendment requires both Houses of Parliament, under the affirmative resolution procedure, to approve the name of the proposed Chair. ARIA may not exercise any functions, nor may the Secretary of State make any grants to ARIA until its first chair has been appointed.
Amendment 3, page 6, line 26, at end insert—
“(1A) The Secretary of State may not appoint a person as Chief Executive Officer unless the appointment of the person has been approved by resolution of each House of Parliament.
(1B) ARIA may not exercise any functions under this or any other Act, nor may the Secretary of State make any grants to ARIA under section 4 of this Act, until its first Chief Executive Officer has been appointed.”
This amendment requires both Houses of Parliament, under the affirmative resolution procedure, to approve the name of the proposed Chief Executive Officer. ARIA may not exercise any functions, nor may the Secretary of State make any grants to ARIA until its first Chief Executive Officer has been appointed.
Amendment 11, page 7, line 1, at end insert—
“(6) The Secretary of State may not make executive or non-executive appointments to ARIA, nor determine the renumeration of appointees, without approval by resolution of the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee.”
This amendment would require the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee to approve the Secretary of State’s nominated executive and non-executive members, as well as their remuneration.
Amendment 7, in schedule 3, page 13, leave out paragraph 11.
This amendment would remove ARIA’s exemption from the Public Contracts Regulations 2015.
Amendment 8, on page 14, at end insert—
“(12) In Part VI of Schedule 1 to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 (“Other public bodies and offices: general”), at the appropriate place insert ‘The Advanced Research and Invention Agency’.”
This amendment would make ARIA subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000.
Before I call Stephen Flynn, I must point out that there has been quite a significant number of withdrawals from this debate, for obvious reasons. Should anyone else wish to withdraw, will they please do so through the Speaker’s Office so that we can be notified? Also, anybody who is working off the call list and thinks that they are, say, five off, will need to think again. Anyone intending to participate in the debate physically really should make their way to the Chamber.
I cannot imagine why so many people have withdrawn, given the exciting topic that we are going to discuss here this evening. I will speak to amendment 1 and in favour of all the following amendments and new clauses in the name of myself and my honourable colleagues. Of course, the context for what we are about to debate has changed markedly from this morning and, indeed, much of the last week. For the avoidance of any doubt, my colleagues and I were very much in favour of new clause 4, and while the Government may have not been defeated today, their card has certainly been marked.
To the matter at hand, which is of course the Advanced Research and Invention Agency. Much of what I seek to say will repay repetition. Many of the points were covered on Second Reading and in Committee, but I feel it is important that we cover them again, because, despite the concerns that we have expressed on these Benches and that have been echoed by the official Opposition, the Government have not sought at any stage to amend the Bill up until this juncture. That is something of a missed opportunity. The reality is that across the Chamber, nobody is criticising the ethos of the Bill or the aim of the Bill to try to improve the UK’s standing in relation to this specific topic, but we feel that the Government can and should be going further.
The first matter on which that is fairly obvious is the lack of a mission, a purpose, a raison d’être for the Bill. There is no clear mission for ARIA as it stands, despite much to-ing and fro-ing on this topic. The Government have been clear on their reasoning as to why they do not want that to be the case, but I find it extremely regrettable, when we know there is a climate emergency—hopefully everyone across the Chamber is in agreement on that—that the Government still refuse to make the climate emergency a core purpose of ARIA to ensure that meeting our net zero targets is the aim of this agency.
On a point of clarification, could the hon. Gentleman tell the House whether there is no mission for ARIA, or is it just that ARIA does not have the mission he has just outlined?
That is an interesting point that. I believe it is regrettable that there is no set mission. The mission should be to combat climate change and to meet our net zero targets.
As the hon. Gentleman knows, we had these exchanges in the Bill Committee. It is not so much that ARIA had not got a mission; its mission is to discover areas of research that could potentially be high risk but deliver high rewards, but we do not know what those will be. That is its mission, and tying it to specifics such as health research or climate change, although they are very important, would potentially hamper its ability to find that cutting-edge science and make the most of it.
I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, and I am loth to repeat what I said in Committee. I certainly will not mention any of the “Star Trek” references that he made in relation to that specific point. The reality is that we have seen, with the likes of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, how successful things can be when there is a specific mission. I accept that we disagree, and disagree on good terms, in relation to that point, but I re-emphasise that this is a missed opportunity for the Government.
I was not on the Committee, but there is a fundamental point here. I recall from the debate on Second Reading that the objective of ARPA is to think beyond what is normally thought about. The issue about the climate emergency is that we know it is a problem. We know that there are multiple solutions in multiple areas, which people are already working on. We also know that there is tremendous commercial interest, from the point of view of people investing in relation to the climate emergency and companies that are trying to sell products in that area. To what extent does the objective that the hon. Gentleman proposes fit that “beyond beyond” mission that I thought was the original purpose of ARPA?
I think it absolutely fits that point. Of course, there could be new solutions that we are not aware of at this moment. On Second Reading, the hon. Member made a similar point, and I said that he should not be so narrow in his view of climate change because to meet net zero we need to operate in a vast landscape. The Government do not seem to be acknowledging that through ARIA. To repeat myself, I believe that that is a missed opportunity.
The Government will point to their energy White Paper and point to the 10-point plan, and perhaps they will point to the North sea transition deal in terms of their aims in relation to combating climate change. That is fair and reasonable, but—notwithstanding the arguments we might have on those points, of which there are many—it does not mean that we stop there, particularly in the year of COP26. I urge Government Members to reflect on that as we move forward in the debate.
That covers amendment 1, which we hope to press later, but we have tabled other amendments. Perhaps the clearest, and the one that needs to be debated in this Chamber, notwithstanding what I have already said, relates to scrutiny—the fact that the Government have sought to put ARIA outwith the Freedom of Information Act 2000. It is no longer going to be applicable to public procurement regulations. That is simply unacceptable and there is no justification for it.
I listened closely to what the Minister had to say in that regard in Committee and on Second Reading, and I have read on numerous occasions remarks made in relation to that point by those on the Government Benches, yet I simply do not understand the logic of why they are doing this. From looking at DARPA, we know that there are 40-odd freedom of information requests—40-odd for DARPA, which is on a scale vastly superior to that of ARIA—yet the Government still seek to move away from that scrutiny. From a public perspective, that does no one any favours. I am sure that, if the Government had their time back, they might do things differently, because ultimately this benefits nobody. All it does is create more clouds of suspicion around what the Government’s activities are.
That ties in with our amendment 2, which relates to cronyism and the need to avoid it. The Government’s record and reputation over the last year and a half have been deplorable. The hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) shakes his head, but that is the reality. There is a reason that his Prime Minister is so disliked and distrusted in Scotland: it is what we have seen over the pandemic—not just from the Prime Minister himself, but from his Ministers and friends, the donors, and the family members who have benefited from contracts. What we do not want to see—what we cannot see—is ARIA becoming a vehicle for that to happen. Our amendment would clearly stop that.
On FOI and procurement regulations, the Labour party has said something similar to us, just with a lot more words. It is within the Labour party’s gift to do so, although I am not quite sure why it did not just agree with us. It can do so on occasion; we will not take it personally.
I thank the hon. Member for his kind words. Of course, the SNP amendments were simply agreeing with Labour’s amendments during Committee. We sought to improve—as we should do—from Committee to Report.
If I heard that correctly, the Labour party is not agreeing with the amendments that it tabled in Committee and that the SNP has agreed to at this point in time, so it had to add more words. But I suppose that is the nature of this place.
That takes me to transparency and scrutiny, and a key token and standpoint of those on the Government Benches: to take back control. I do not suspect that they will agree to the SNP’s view on a mission for ARIA. That being the case, the mission—to all intents and purposes, what ARIA seeks to do—will be determined by the chair and chief executive officer. They will decide what happens. In that regard, the House will, of course, have no say and we suggest that the House should have a say. It is important that this place has a role to play in the process. I would be incredibly surprised if Members who fought so hard to take back control did not seek to have their say on such matters.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Och, why not?
Why not? I am grateful to him. If we had too much influence over the agency, we could breach the Haldane principle, which I am sure he holds close to his heart, as do I.
I thank the hon. Member for his intervention, but we will have to heartedly disagree on this point. The House, and we as democratically elected representatives, should seek to play as key and active a role as possible. Of course, all this could be avoided by the Government simply agreeing on what ARIA’s mission should be in the first place.
Our new clause 1, on human rights, would ensure that ARIA’s record in that regard is of the highest standing. I certainly hope Members across the Chamber would agree to that. If they did not, I would be somewhat concerned. We saw that in Committee, which took me a bit by surprise, but perhaps some of the Government’s Back Benchers were not galvanised enough to encourage the Government to take a different stand. The SNP tabled the new clause because ultimately we do not know where ARIA will seek to put its investments. We do not know what it will seek to invest in, where it may even take a share in an organisation. It will have the freedom to do that, but that freedom means it may delve into areas we find unsuitable in relation to human rights. That is particularly pertinent when we look at the situation in China with the Uyghurs. I encourage Members on the Government Benches to take cognisance of that fact this evening.
Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention the role of Scotland in relation to the Bill, because I very much like talking about that. The reality is that, where the Government are seeking to spend money, that Government money should be spent fairly and evenly across the United Kingdom—that is, while we still remain a part of the United Kingdom. To that end, there should be a Barnett share of money spent on Scotland. Where that money is spent, it should not seek to bypass devolution, as the Government seek to do in a number of areas, from the shared prosperity fund to the levelling-up fund and the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020. Scotland should have its fair share.
May I reiterate again that anybody who wishes to withdraw from the debate—we have had 35 people withdraw already—should please do so through the Speaker’s Office? If you are on the call list, please do not assume that the people above you have not withdrawn. The chances are that they have.
Mr Deputy Speaker, I am not sure whether your reiteration just before I stood up to speak, that you hope that anybody who wants to withdraw will do so, was a hint. When I put in to speak in the debate, I had intended to speak on a new clause that has not been selected, but after looking at the other amendments and new clauses, there is one aspect that I want to speak on briefly.
I apologise to those Members of the House who were on the Committee, because I can see that there was quite an exchange on these matters in Committee, but I want to pick up on an issue that was raised by the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn), who talked about the need for a mission and, in a sense, to restrict this organisation’s mission. He spoke particularly about climate change, which I know is a key issue. I was the Prime Minister who put the 2050 net zero emissions target into legislation, and the UK can be very proud of having been the first major country to do that.
An enormous amount of work needs to be done to ensure that we can take the decisions individually, as businesses and as a Government that will lead to net zero. Part of that will be about research, but as my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) said, there are enormous numbers of people out there doing research and companies looking for products to sell that will help to get us to that position. It seems to me that we should not restrict the mission of ARIA. It is important to give this organisation the freedom to look widely. I say that not just in a blue skies thinking way, but also because I had some interaction with the American equivalent of ARIA, on which ARIA is based, when I was Home Secretary because it was doing some really interesting research and innovative work on issues of security.
In evidence to the Committee, Professor Bond suggested that ARIA should be about
“radical innovation, which is different from grand missions and grand challenges.”––[Official Report, Advanced Research and Invention Agency Public Bill Committee, 14 April 2021; c. 20, Q16.]
That reference to “grand challenges” was, I am sure, a reference to the modern industrial strategy, sadly now cast aside, which set out grand challenges but also set out the aim for the UK to be the most innovative economy, and ARIA can have a real impact in that area.
The challenge for ARIA is that it needs to be truly innovative, it needs to have blue skies thinking and it needs to be doing what other people are not doing, but it has to have a purpose in doing that. What I hope we will not see is an organisation where lots of scientists and people get together, think lots of wild thoughts, enjoy talking about them and possibly publish a few papers, but at the end of the day, there is no practical difference to people’s lives as a result of that. The aim of this is to do that innovative thinking but, in due course, for that innovative thinking—whether it is taken up by other scientists, business or whoever—to lead to a real improvement in people’s lives.
I agree with the line that the right hon. Lady is taking, but she is missing out one really important factor in achieving the desirable objectives she has listed, which is that ARIA must be prepared to fail on a number of occasions and take high risks. Does she agree with that?
I do agree with that. Indeed, at the risk of scratching a sore for the Government, I would add that the modern industrial strategy made the point that, in terms of Government support for different areas of research and development, we must be willing to see some fail, because we cannot possibly know from the beginning everything that will be a success. That is important, but of course, I hope that ARIA will not be an organisation for which everything fails. It has to be prepared to have some failures, but obviously what we want to see is some really positive work coming out of this that can be of real benefit.
I absolutely agree with the right hon. Lady about wanting to see ARIA be successful. She talked about scientists sitting around, having a chat and producing some papers but having no real impact. Does she agree that, given the way in which ARIA is currently set up, without any freedom of information requests being allowable, that could be the reality?
No, I do not agree that there is a natural causal relationship between the two. We will see whether ARIA is successful by what actually comes out, because at some point these ideas will come out. I recognise that there are issues for scientists who are really treading new ground, to ensure that they are able to do so with freedom—without that ability being taken away by others. That will be important for this organisation.
It is exciting that this agency is being set up. With the right people, it can do really good things, but it should not be restricted to a particular area of mission. When it does that blue skies thinking, we should ensure that the aim—the reason that the Government are setting it up—is to improve people’s lives in this country. That is what we all want to do and it is what the organisation should be about.
It is a pleasure and honour to follow the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May). I am certain that the current Conservative Government could benefit enormously from her championing and promotion of an industrial strategy, and I hope that they are listening.
I thank all those who worked so hard to improve this Bill in Committee, particularly my hon. Friends the Members for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), for Luton North (Sarah Owen) and for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss), as well as the Clerks and House of Commons staff for their excellent support.
It is vital that we get the Advanced Research and Invention Agency right. Today we will hear many Members—although not as many as we had thought—raise a wide range of important issues such as climate change, regional and national economic development, international development and democratic accountability, but at the heart of this debate is science, which now plays such a critical part in all our lives.
The UK has a proud tradition in science, engineering, innovation, research and development. We are renowned across the world for scientific breakthroughs and discoveries that pushed humanity forwards. From the discovery of penicillin to the invention of Stephenson’s Rocket in my constituency of Newcastle upon Tyne Central, again and again UK scientists pushed forward the boundaries of knowledge, shrinking the vast expanse of ignorance, which, as this pandemic has shown, may threaten humanity’s very existence.
My hon. Friend refers to some of that world-beating research. I chair the all-party parliamentary group on HIV and AIDS. There has been a great degree of concern among some of our global health all-party groups about the cuts that were and are coming to global health research. I totally support the amendments that we have tabled on climate change; there is also a critical link between climate change and global health. Does my hon. Friend agree that we absolutely need to continue that world-beating research, because it has so many benefits for health not just globally, but in this country too?
I pay tribute to the work of my hon. Friend’s all-party parliamentary group, with which I am quite familiar. I wholeheartedly agree with him about the importance of that research, and about the link between that important research and this agency. I will develop that point further in a few moments.
As hon. Members have indicated, UK science is not only inspiring; it can also be groundbreaking and is a key economic driver. Our university research base alone contributes £95 billion to the economy, supporting nearly 1 million jobs in scientific institutes, charities and businesses of all sizes. Research by Oxford Economics commissioned by the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy found that each £1 of public research and development—such as the money to be spent on ARIA—stimulates between £1.96 and £2.34 of private research and development, and we cannot recover from the pandemic without inspiring and initiating more private sector investment in research and development. Together, private and public sector research can help to address the key challenges facing humanity—from climate change to inequality, from pandemics to productivity.
That brings us very neatly to the broken promises of this Conservative Government on overseas development aid, as raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Cardiff South and Penarth (Stephen Doughty), and how that betrays the poorest among us and the critical challenges faced by us all. With over £4.1 billion slashed from overseas development aid, the £120 million cut from science and research programmes may appear minor, but that has already had a devastating impact on science here and abroad. Cutting funding from global challenges research fund hubs, for example, threatens researchers at Newcastle University in my constituency, as well as scientists in developing countries working together on water security. These cuts are a consequence of the Government’s decision to scrap the legally binding 0.7% of GDP target for overseas development aid.
New clause 4 tabled by the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), which sought to reverse that decision, has not been selected for debate, though a debate on the issue may follow; certainly, the debate is not going away. Particularly in relation to ARIA and the amendments before us, it is really important to emphasise that for UK science, research and credibility, these cuts have a significant impact. The UK has been the only G7 country to cut aid in the middle of a pandemic, and in so doing it has united hon. and right hon. Members across this House who are horrified by the harm done—harm such as, in the world’s worst humanitarian crisis, in Yemen, slashing aid by 60% without conducting an impact assessment, and harm such as cutting bilateral funding on water, sanitation and hygiene—
Order. I would like the hon. Lady to return to the Bill.
I thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker, because that is exactly the point to which I am going—to the amendments. Just to say that the funding for coronavirus research, which is the kind of world-beating or leading research that we would hope ARIA will be looking at, has been cut by 70%, which will kill the project. A Government happy to withdraw support for vital research projects across the globe are not a Government who wish to act in the best interests of science, the country or the world.
On ARIA itself, we have many serious concerns. We recognise the need for new mechanisms to support high-risk, high-reward research in our science sector, and as such ARIA is a step in the right direction. ARIA can transform our scientific landscape and we can build an institution that furthers our societal aims for decades to come, but we have concerns, which our amendments seek to address, about the lack of direction, strategy and accountability in the Government’s current proposals. Without such improvements, we fear that the agency could be used to pursue vanity projects disconnected from the public interest.
The first major issue with the Bill is the absence of a mission for ARIA, which has already been raised. What is ARIA for and what is it working towards? Labour’s amendment 12 would require ARIA to have a specific mission for ARIA’s first decade, and we want that mission to be climate change.
I am very grateful to the hon. Lady for reverting to items that are in order today. On amendment 12, she mentioned that that should be the “core mission”. The hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn) talked about its being part of a bigger whole, but it is still a relatively small amount of money. Does the amendment mean that that is the only mission? Essentially, when she says “core mission”, what she means is the only mission and the agency cannot do anything else other than that for 10 years.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for seeking to aid Madam Deputy Speaker in determining what is in order. I am not sure whether that was necessary.
On the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, I fail to see why he thinks that pedantry can make up for a lack of argument. Climate change is a core mission. We are not seeking to hem in the agency with absolute linguistic barriers for what exactly should be done, but we want it to have a direction. We want to know where it is going and what it is seeking to do. The core mission, as I intend to set out in detail, will be climate change. I do not intend to limit its interpretation of climate change, but I will set out the reasons why climate change will be its core mission.
As the hon. Lady will recall, we had similar debates in Committee. Does she completely dismiss the idea that the mission is to find cutting-edge science, to explore it, and to go where no other agency is willing to go at the moment, because they will have to follow too many metrics to prove their effectiveness? That is its mission. This agency does not have to have a mission beyond trying to find something exciting, new and potentially really beneficial to mankind.
I have a huge amount of respect for the hon. Gentleman, but I fundamentally disagree with him on this issue. To go where no one has gone before is not a mission or a direction; it is a deliberate absence of direction. I spoke earlier about the vast expanse of ignorance that can present us with huge, existential challenges. The history of science has been about trying to reduce that huge expanse of ignorance, and for us to leave ARIA without any mission or direction in addressing that vast expanse of ignorance that is before us will severely limit its likelihood of success. That, together with other aspects of the Bill with regard to accountability and transparency, leave it open to cronyism as well as other issues.
The hon. Lady talked about lessons learned from the pandemic. May I ask her to think about the fact that we were prepared for a flu pandemic but not a coronavirus pandemic? By stating that we have to have a core aim or principle for the ARIA Bill, is she not heading for the same problem? She says that this agency must be focused on environmental matters, but if something else were to come along of equal importance, would we not have limited ARIA already?
I thank the hon. Lady for that intervention, which gives me the opportunity to clarify again that the difference between a flu virus and a coronavirus virus may be significant in medical terms, but it is not what we are talking about. We are talking about climate change—the existential challenge. We are not saying that it should be one part of climate change. To say that it is like preparing for one virus as against another virus is not an equivalent comparison. This is a much vaster challenge. Indeed, I think that she answered her own question. If something more important than climate change comes along in the next 10 years, with climate change being the existential challenge of our times, we would have significant issues to face as a Parliament. If she can think of something more important than climate change coming along in the next 10 years, would she like to intervene on me and suggest what that might be?
The UK Government have set the most ambitious climate change target, which is to reduce emissions by 78% by 2035. Would it not be ridiculous if ARIA were to pursue something that undid that good work?
Absolutely. As my hon. Friend says, the UK has set the most ambitious climate change target, but the Committee on Climate Change has said that the Government are currently on course to miss their manifesto commitment of achieving net zero by 2050. Amendment 12 aims to support the Government in that mission.
I now wish to make some significant progress in my comments, so I will not take any more interventions for a while. The lack of mission is a concern shared by many. The renowned economist Mariana Mazzucato suggested during the evidence sessions that achieving net zero should be ARIA’s mission. The Secretary of State said that ARIA needs a “laser-like focus”, but failed to provide it. The Institute of Physics said that a clear mission is “essential”, and the Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) raised concerns about ARIA’s lack of focus and purpose. The president of the Royal Society said that
“£800 million is not a large sum of money, so if we have a plethora of missions, then I think we will go wrong. ARIA has to have focus of mission and a commitment to the model over the long-term”.––[Official Report, Advanced Research and Invention Agency Public Bill Committee, 14 April 2021; c. 63, Q62.]
Finally on amendment 12, as my hon. Friend the Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler) said, we are at a critical moment for our planet and for our country in respect of climate change. We should be leading by example, bringing forward a comprehensive, fair and credible plan, with the policies and investment to deliver on our legally binding targets. Science can play a central role in solving the problems presented by the climate emergency and develop solutions to accelerate the UK’s progress towards net zero. We can harness the UK’s science and research to address this great challenge. This is an opportunity for the Government to establish a mission-led funding agency that can benefit us all, but with no mission and the whole realm of science to choose from, the risk is that ARIA will be directionless, provide no societal return for taxpayer investment or be prey to vanity projects.
Labour’s amendment 13 addresses another hole in the Bill. During and since the general election, there has been significant discussion about the importance of ensuring that our whole country benefits from economic prosperity and from the transformational impact of science and research. This amendment presents the Government with the opportunity to take their so-called levelling-up agenda beyond warm words and bungs to Conservative MPs, and set the foundations for long-term regional prosperity.
ARIA’s funding is between 1% and 2% of the UK’s science spend, yet it is expected—indeed, required—to have a transformational impact on all our lives. If that impact is going to be transformational, surely it should be equitable—or is ARIA to make us yet more unequal as a nation? The current economic inequalities between nations and regions are certainly exacerbated by regional imbalances in research and development spend. Last year, the innovation foundation Nesta calculated that it would require £4 billion each year to bring per capita spending on science in the north-east, Yorkshire, Wales, Northern Ireland and the north-west up to the level of that seen in the south-east, east and London, and that equalising spending across nations and regions in this way would leverage a further £8 billion from the private sector.
So we have a £12 billion deficit in science spend for our nations and regions, yet the Bill does not take any action to stop ARIA making the same mistakes. In fact, there is not even a desire to measure spend across our regions and nations. No wonder Nesta characterises the Government’s public R&D spend as
“currently acting as an anti-regional policy”.
We believe that science and research can be the engines of progress for our society, but that needs to be for and by everyone, not just for the few. Amendment 13 simply requires reporting so that the Government can measure the impact that ARIA is having on the very important desire to reduce the regional inequalities in our country. Currently, the Bill does not even mention devolved nations and does not outline any reflection of the geographical realities of the UK.
Amendment 14 would make ARIA subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Public Contracts Regulations 2015. We want to deliver greater oversight of ARIA and greater accountability for the Government in order to increase public confidence, particularly at a time when the Government are in the midst of multiple cronyism scandals.
ARIA’s current blanket exemption from the Freedom of Information Act and the public contracts regulations cannot be justified. Some £800 million of public money will be spent by ARIA. We have heard that ARIA needs to fail, but without transparency and accountability, the public will not have confidence in what it is doing or the reasons for those failures, and we believe that ARIA would provide the Government with a side-door to sleaze in science. I therefore hope that the Minister can explain what is the appropriate oversight for procurement of research if she is intending to exempt ARIA from existing procurement regulations. We have heard that DARPA is subject to FOI requests, and the Campaign for Freedom of Information has said that ARIA
“will spend hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money on high risk projects but the government apparently wants it to be less accountable to the public than parish councils—which are subject to FOI.”
The Government have a track record of cronyism, and accepting our amendment would help them to change course.
To bring my contribution to a close, I want to make it clear that Labour wants ARIA to be a success and that we support its creation. We believe that science is an engine of progress and that ARIA can accelerate that progress, but we also believe that the Bill in its current form does not provide the optimal conditions for ARIA to work. Without our key amendments, the agency risks losing its way, so I hope they will receive support on both sides of the House. These are not partisan issues; these are issues rooted in an unwavering belief in science and democracy.
Although a number of people have withdrawn from this debate, there are still a fair number of speakers. That means that if everybody takes about six minutes, we will be able to get everybody in. We need to think of each other in conducting the debate. Nos. 4, 5, 6, 7 and 8 on the call list have withdrawn, so we now go to Layla Moran.
As a physics graduate and the MP for Oxford West and Abingdon—a constituency proudly at the heart of this country’s scientific innovation—I welcome much of what ARIA hopes to achieve. Time and again, the lack of funding for genuinely high-risk, high-reward science is a common refrain in conversations I have with scientists I meet, so on the face of it ARIA is a good idea.
Nevertheless, the Liberal Democrats have concerns about the Bill, and I will quickly raise just two. First, we are very concerned about the Secretary of State’s unchecked powers to choose who leads this highly independent agency. On top of that, it was recently revealed that the Government’s intention is to exempt ARIA from freedom of information legislation. Transparency is at the core of good science, as it should be for good politics. If we want this organisation to succeed, the public should have faith in how taxpayers’ money is spent. That is why the Liberal Democrats have proposed a strong accountability mechanism in amendment 11, which would give the Science and Technology Committee the power to approve nominees for the position of chair and chief executive officer.
Secondly, it is beyond disappointing that the Government have failed to use ARIA’s potential to tackle the climate emergency. New clause 3 would therefore ensure that ARIA’s research did not lead to any increase in the UK’s carbon emissions. Moreover, a quarter of ARIA’s annual budget would be directed specifically to the development of green technologies.
In conclusion, transparency and the climate emergency are two of the very many important aspects that are missing from this Bill—ones that we seek to fix. This new agency has great potential. Let us not mess it up now.
No. 10 on the speakers’ list has withdrawn. No. 11 is not here and Nos. 12 and 13 have withdrawn, so I call Richard Fuller.
It is a surprise to be called so early, but it is nevertheless welcome. I was not on the Public Bill Committee, which I know will have been a sadness for all its members, but for me it was of particular sadness because for the future of our country and most other countries, the way in which we nurture and promote innovation is crucial. Although this is a small Bill that generally has wide support across the House, it is rather important that we get it right. It is therefore important that today we debate some of the issues on which the Committee was not able to reach a full conclusion.
Innovation is crucial for our success, and I hope that the Minister and the Department will move on from the fact that we have innovation to look at ways in which we can promote the implementation of innovation, particularly through the removal of barriers and the promotion of competition, so that we can see the fruits of this investment in tangible economic and social success for our country.
Looking through the amendments, I would group them into three areas that it seems were not fully resolved in Committee: first, the extent of oversight; secondly, the issue of purpose or mission; and, thirdly, appointments. On oversight, although each of the proposed steps might be worthy, each of them is also an impediment. If there is one driving value that I hope we have for the Bill at this stage, it is to have the courage to enable this new and additional form of innovation investing to have the freedom to grow and do what it wishes to do.
If, at some point in the future, we find that the programme has gone off the rails somewhat and gone beyond what we know, it would perhaps then be useful for us to put more bureaucratic layers on top of it, but we certainly should not do so from the outset. If we do that from the outset, essentially we are killing the idea in its entirety. It is so easy for us here to say, “We really believe in this, but we would like this or that.” It is quite natural, as protectors of taxpayers’ money—that used to be a role of this House, but sadly it is one that has been lacking for about 40 years—that we want to take that responsibility seriously and to be thorough, but with this Bill we have to accept that if we are going to take that step, we have to put trust in this group. I would be interested to hear what other Members, particularly the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) with his long experience, have to say about whether this is the right step. I will come back to that point later in respect of appointments.
On the issue of purpose, the Labour Front-Bench spokesperson, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah)—I know she has a strong and real passion for science, and I have listened to her speak up for science over a number of years, so I know her intention is right—has tabled an amendment saying that the core mission should be about the climate change goals. The SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn), who opened the debate, similarly said that we should focus on the environment.
It is important to ask what impact it would have if we made the environment the focus. We currently have $30 trillion-worth of environmental, social and governance assets in the world. The Bill is proposing to add a flow of approximately $1 billion a year, or 1 in 30,000 of the assets that are already there. In terms of where moneys are flowing, this year’s flow of ESG in the private sector is about $130 billion to $140 billion. If we were to make the environment the core mission, we would essentially be tossing £800 million on top of an enormous pile of assets that is already there and an enormous additional inflow this year that is already happening. By its very nature, we would be doing the thing that we are not supposed to be asking ARIA to do, which essentially is to do what everybody else is doing. The whole purpose of ARIA is to do those things that other people are not doing. I feel that it is a mistake to say, “This is a really important mission—aren’t you terrible for not saying that we should focus on it?”, rather than “There are other missions—there is a bigger mission out there that perhaps we as politicians do not have the insight to understand.” That is the whole purpose of setting up ARIA, because with our bureaucratic fingers and our tiny political minds we just are not able to think of those things. It is worth our while considering that, so I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) that it should not have a mission. The whole purpose of ARIA is to do those things that other people are not doing. I feel that it is a mistake to say, “This is a really important mission—aren’t you terrible for not saying that we should focus on it?”, rather than “There are other missions—there is a bigger mission out there that perhaps we as politicians do not have the insight to understand.” That is the whole purpose of setting up ARIA, because with our bureaucratic fingers and our tiny political minds we just are not able to think of those things. It is worth our while considering that, so I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend the Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe) that it should not have a mission.
The Opposition spokesperson, whom I count as a friend, noted that the Secretary of State had said that ARIA should have a “laser-like focus”; she said that he had failed to provide it. She saw that as a criticism, but I think it is exactly the point. It is not for the Secretary of State to tell ARIA, “This is what you shall do.” We have lots of other things that do that; we have the UKRI and we have the remnants of an industrial strategy that, whether we like it or not, is still shaping a lot of what the Government are doing. I therefore ask Opposition Members who say that ARIA should have a mission whether they really believe in an ARIA that is different, or whether they want ARIA to be something over which they can continue to put the same sort of controls that they have put over other aspects of UKRI and other funding.
I look forward to listening to other Members, particularly the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton, who has more experience than me in these matters.
I generally agree with the comments of the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller). Before I get on to the core of the Bill, I would like to pick up on two or three points from the debate.
The hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe), with whom and under whose chairmanship I am happy to have served on the Science and Technology Committee, will not be surprised to hear me not quibble but disagree with his interpretation of the Haldane principle, which we have talked about many times. The Haldane principle does not—and never did, from when Haldane proposed it at the end of the first world war—prohibit politicians from saying that we should prioritise health over defence, defence over transport, or anything over anything else. It is to stop politicians interfering in the detailed technical decision of who the best person is to do that research. When we get on to the core mission of ARIA, I would want politicians to do some of that, but not all.
Unfortunately, the SNP representative, the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn), is no longer in his place, but it was absolutely extraordinary that he prayed the Barnett formula in aid of regional levelling up. I used to travel on the train from Manchester to London almost every week with Joel Barnett, who regretted the Barnett formula almost more than anything else he had done in his political career. Without getting into a debate, let me say that he understood that it meant people in Glasgow got more public subsidy or support than people in Manchester or Birmingham in very similar situations.
Finally, I would make a point about priorities. Hon. Members have talked about climate change being the top priority; politicians are notorious for having lots and lots of top priorities, but as far as I have noticed, the top priority over the past 15 months has been dealing with covid and the coronavirus. Incidentally, after 25 conferences of the parties, the only thing that has had any impact on the steady increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been covid: the response to covid has reduced carbon dioxide for the first time since people started talking about it, essentially.
Let me move on to the core issue of ARIA and the points that have been made about it. Now that new clause 4 has been taken off the agenda, the debate is much less controversial than it otherwise would have been, but that does not mean that it is not difficult. As the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire said, we may not need a mission statement. I go some way along that path with him, having looked at the practical evidence from what happened with ARPA and DARPA in the United States. They were given—certainly at the start of the process when the Americans got frightened when the Sputnik satellite went up—almost complete freedom and a lot of money, and that led to the development of part of the internet. Some of the messenger RNA work that has led to the vaccines we have now came out of the ARPA process, as did drones and many other things. That was not because people were given a mission statement that said, “Develop messenger RNA”; it was because they were looking for problems to solve and to make the United States a more secure society, so they had the most general statements.
What UKRI has done is excellent in many ways, but it has lots of accountability systems. The person who put forward the original idea for doing work on quantum computers stated in evidence to the Committee that he would not get through the process now. Lots of questions are asked, some of them ridiculous. Several Science and Technology Committees ago, Professor Brian Cox came along and we talked about impact assessments whereby every research project has to state how much impact it will have on society. He said, “I have no idea how to answer that question and nor do my colleagues.” The normal metrics are about citations and numbers of papers. Even when I was a scientist, a long time ago, I used to see chemists churning out papers, sometimes on ridiculous things or with only slight variations just so that they could say, “We got our 10 papers this year.” That is not really a good way to do science. Compared with the complete freedom process, there is a rather bureaucratic system that is delivering good science—we win Nobel prizes in this country—but is not pushing back the frontiers of science as quickly as we might like. Having an organisation with a great deal of freedom is very important.
I differ slightly from the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire on one point, as did the Science and Technology Committee in two recommendations in the report that we produced in February, both of which effectively said that there should be a client side to the organisation. The reason for having a client side is not to stifle innovation. Having a client is useful, not in telling scientists what to look for or stopping them looking for completely new things, but in situations where they develop something. One of the problems with all the different ARPAs in the United States is that they find it difficult to get product to market because they do not have a client, whereas DARPA, which has the Department of Defence as a client, can take many of the innovations and inventions and develop them straight away. So there is another side to the total freedom approach.
I suppose that most politicians want the best of all possible worlds, so the ARIA I would like would, as in my new clause 2, have the Department of Health as a client Department. It could be something else, but I think that what we have been through over the past 15 months means that health almost speaks for itself. It should also have freedom to find problems that nobody else has thought of—that nobody in this House has thought of and many scientists will not have thought of. When Dominic Cummings came to the Science and Technology Committee, in less controversial terms than his last visit to the Joint Committee session, we talked in detail about how the science develops and we heard something really interesting that I suspect is true. Finding somebody who can chair a body such as this is more difficult than finding Nobel prize winners or people who are likely to win Fields medals. That is what will make this organisation successful or not—somebody who is bright or clever enough to understand questions that have not been asked before. Will that lead to cronyism? When we asked the current chair of UKRI, she was clear that very few people in this world could do this job, and we could probably sit down and write their names. Am I worried about cronyism? No. I am worried about not getting the right person.
Does anybody ever think about what networking means? At the top of science, the best scientists, and the people who get the grants and funding, are basically the great and the good and the really well networked. If Einstein cannot get a job in science and works in a patent office, or whatever the 21st-century equivalent would be, they cannot get into cronyism because those elites in our top universities, which are excellent, swallow up all the funding, and in many cases exclude the young and the brightest scientists. I am not worried about cronyism; I am worried about this body not getting the freedom it should get.
Under schedule 2, the Secretary of State basically keeps control. What makes the Bill difficult is that all politicians who vote to raise taxes want to control public money. That is in our nature. It is right, part of the democratic process—no taxation without representation —and a fundamental issue in a democratic society. To say, “Go off with £800 million and do your own thing” is difficult, but evidence from the States suggests that that is the best way to push forward the frontiers of science. My worry about the Bill is that there is too much control, not too little, and it might stifle initiative.
Finally, on initiatives, when the vaccine taskforce was set up we invited it to the Science and Technology Committee. I was not impressed that somebody was appointed without proper process, but the woman did an extraordinarily good job and she is now getting honoured. Sometimes in an emergency risks were taken—it worked a lot less well with the test and trace system. Sometimes we have to take risks. If we understand the way that scientific advances have been pushed forward, freedom as opposed to bureaucracy tends to work.
I served on the Bill Committee, and I tabled various amendments at that stage, a number of which we have carried forward to Report. I was interested in a number of things that were said. On the supposed mission and purpose of ARIA, the Bill says only:
“In exercising its functions, ARIA must have regard to the desirability of doing so for the benefit of the United Kingdom, through…economic growth…scientific innovation...or improving the quality of life”,
and that it must
“have regard to the desirability of doing so for the benefit of the United Kingdom.”
It does not even have to do things for the benefit of the United Kingdom; that is not written in the Bill.
The former Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe), spoke about high risk and high reward. I understand where he is coming from, but I do not know what that reward means or looks like. The reward is not identified in any way. I am happy for there to be a high reward, but I would like some idea of what that is supposed to be, so that we can measure whether it is successful.
If I am honest, I do not know the answer to that question. The reward might be the next internet, GPS or, as we heard from the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), mRNA technology; we do not know. But what we do know is that if we give scientists the ability to explore an area, to fail and to report back, some of those things will stick, and some of them could become massive new industries of the future. The challenge—I accept this—is to keep those industries and that technology here in the UK, spread all over the country, to the benefit of us all.
And what we are doing is just what the hon. Gentleman suggests: pointing scientists in a direction, saying, “Please could you do something about climate change? Please could you do something about our commitment and our journey to net zero?” and then letting them go. It is not about restricting them.
One of the things that has bothered me throughout is that most people seem to think that all this agency will do is invent widgets. Science is not all about making things. One of the biggest things that we need to do to tackle climate change is to convince every single person to change the way they live so that we can reach our targets. We will not be able to do that without scientific research into how people work and what changes they will make. That is not about creating widgets; it is about ensuring that we are on the right track and making the right changes for people to be able to do things in their lives in order that we can move towards net zero. I think that restricting ARIA to dealing with the most important challenge in our lifetimes is not too much of a restriction. It is a huge, wide thing.
One thing that really concerns me about progress to net zero is that an awful lot of folk are going to be left behind. An awful lot of these things that are made will be sold. Yes, great; that is going to make a lot of difference to the lives of people who already have money, but people who currently have nothing will find it even more difficult if we approach climate change with the stick method and require them to make changes or pay more for their energy when they already have very little money. Those are the challenges that I would like to see ARIA tackle, so that none of our constituents are left behind when we are moving to net zero.
I wrote to the Chancellor last week after a meeting with Aberdeen Climate Action about net zero organisations. Lib Dem new clause 3 suggests that ARIA should be net zero in every year. ARIA absolutely should be net zero in every year—that was one of the amendments we moved in Committee—because we should be saying that anything new should not add to our carbon emissions but reduce them or, at the very least, leave them neutral. The Government were not willing to accept that amendment in Committee. I am glad that the Lib Dems have put it forward again, because it is so important. If we are saying that we are going to be leaders and we are going to make a difference, new organisations such as ARIA should be net zero from the very beginning, and we should commit to that. If we are going to be net zero by 2050, everyone will have to make a contribution to that, and that includes ARIA.
On scrutiny, I am afraid that I disagreed with quite a lot of what the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) said. The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn) was making about the Barnett formula was not that it is the best thing since sliced bread, but that we have the rules that we have. The rules mean that the Barnett formula does exist. We have been screwed over with regard to the Barnett formula a number of times in recent years, and we do not want that to happen in this case.
We would rather not have the Barnett formula—we would rather be an independent country—but if we are going to have those rules and the Government do not stick to them, there is a major element of unfairness. We are asking the Government to stick to their own rules in this regard. We have seen with legislative consent motions in recent times that they have completely ignored what the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Parliament have said. They are not sticking to the rules, so we are just trying to get them to live up to the trust that they expect us to have in them.
On scrutiny, public procurement and FOI, I was really pleased that in Committee, the Minister confirmed that in the estimates process, ARIA will have a discrete line in the supply estimates, so we will at least be able to see how much money ARIA has in any given year. I do not disagree that ARIA should have the ability to fail —it is incredibly important that it does—but we need to be able to have scrutiny of the money that is being spent and that we as a House are agreeing to spend on it. I am very glad that the Minister confirmed that.
Finally, I am hugely concerned about the Einsteins—about the people who work in patent offices who have not been able to gain grants. I do not think that ARIA will fix that. There is still going to be the issue where if someone is networked—if they are a white man in research —they are much more likely to be able to get research grants than if they are a woman or a person of colour. Unfortunately, with the lack of ability that we have to FOI and to scrutinise some of ARIA, we cannot see what is going on with that. We cannot see whether ARIA is further entrenching the current inequality in science and technology and academia or doing a positive job towards breaking down those barriers and ensuring that people who live in the most deprived communities in Scotland are given the opportunity because they have the best possible ideas, rather than because they have the best possible friends. It is hugely important that we have more scrutiny. That is why we tabled the cronyism amendment and the amendments relating to us as Houses approving both the chair and the CEO, because those roles will be so important and because we are so excluded from the scrutiny process in relation to ARIA.
I wish to speak in support of amendments 14 and 8 in relation to bringing ARIA within the scope of the Freedom of Information Act. It seems extraordinary to me that there is an exclusion for a body of this kind, although, to be honest, I have a long-standing interest in freedom of information, and for Government Ministers—this is not exclusive to this Government—to look to exempt bodies from that piece of legislation for one spurious reason or another is not that unusual.
I have worked closely with the Campaign for Freedom of Information. Three years ago I introduced, unsuccessfully, a Bill to bring the third of public sector expenditure that is carried out by private contractors within the scope of the Act. That has gained some currency recently with, as we have heard in this debate, the upsurge of cronyism, the scandals over test and trace and the employment of huge numbers of consultants on inflated salaries. The Bill is equally subject to some of the same concerns and rings the same alarm bells.
We hear about high-risk, high-reward research and ARIA being allowed to fail, and there is nothing wrong with those as functions, but there has to be transparency, and, frankly, having that in the public eye, rather than hidden away, is more likely to lead to better decision making. The parallel body that we have heard about—DARPA in the USA—has had scandals and ethics violations that have been brought to light because it is subject to the equivalent Freedom of Information Act in that country. I believe that this is the right thing to do and in the interests of good research and the good use of public money.
The excuses that are given are the usual sorts of excuses that are pulled out at this stage—that this is a small, cutting-edge body on which it will be too burdensome to impose freedom of information. Leaving aside whether a body given £800 million of public money is indeed a small body, we have heard from my Front-Bench colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), that parish councils are subject to freedom of information. So are dentists and internal drainage boards. I am not quite sure what an internal drainage board is—it sounds quite painful, actually—but I doubt that such bodies get £800 million of public money. I would take an intervention from anyone who wants to explain what an internal drainage board is, but I think it would take us off the subject.
This is just nonsense. The idea that ARIA will not have back-office functions and that its status at the cutting edge of a science superpower—I am not making those phrases up; the Minister has used them—will be hampered by making it subject to the Freedom of Information Act is fanciful. The Science and Technology Committee did indeed say that there was a danger of ARIA being stifled by bureaucracy, but it was referring not to freedom of information requests from the public and other interested parties, but to micromanagement by Government. That sounds far more likely and realistic.
The US body, DARPA, is subject to FOI. As one would expect, its budget is considerably larger, yet it gets about 50 FOIA requests a year. Comparisons have been made with UK Research and Innovation—a much larger organisation that brings together many different bodies in the sector. It gets about 20 FOIA requests per calendar month. There is no expectation that ARIA will be swamped by FOIA requests. Where they are appropriate, such requests are telling and essential, and they can bring important facts to light.
The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I cannot see how ARIA will not be subject to environmental information regulations, which are the parallel regime of discovery. It seems to me entirely anomalous that one should be in and one should be out, and it may be that we would be breaching our Aarhus convention obligations. Breaching international treaties from time to time does not seem to bother this Government—I am not sure what other explanation there could be.
It is in the public interest for freedom of information to be exercised where possible. In this instance it is certainly possible, and I hope I have given some reasons why it is entirely appropriate. It was a good action by the Labour Government at the time to bring the FOI Act into force. Since then, successive Governments and Ministers—not only Conservative Ministers—have railed against it, but there have been independent investigations. The Burns commission, which was widely perceived to be a case of the Conservative Government trying to do a hatchet job on the Act, found that the Act was working well. In its inquiry, the Justice Committee—a fine body of men and women—also found that the Act was working well. The Supreme Court has spoken very strongly in favour, saying that there is a strong public interest in the press and the general public having the right, subject to appropriate safeguards, to require public authorities to provide information about their activities. That is right, and it is particularly right that it applies to ARIA. I hope that, even at this late stage, the Government will think again about the rather misguided steps they are taking.
The UK has a long and proud tradition of science and innovation, and nowhere has this been seen more clearly than in the success of the NHS vaccine roll-out. It is because of our existing science and technology infrastructure that vaccines have been both successfully produced and rolled out in the UK and, indeed, further afield. It is British vaccines developed across the regions, including my own region, the north-east, that are allowing us to return to some form of normality. They show us all the incredible benefits that cutting-edge science and technology can provide. Any further investment in long-term, high-ambition research and development is of course welcome, but the proposals for ARIA in the Bill do not provide it with a clear purpose or mission.
I believe that ARIA must have a clear mission to offer a societal return on taxpayer investment. The Bill is an opportunity for the Government to establish a mission-led funding agency that can benefit everyone in every part of the country. ARIA must not be used to pursue vanity projects that offer no return for the public.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) and others across the House have highlighted, the Bill as it stands has a lack of direction, strategy and accountability. The Government could set a clear direction and use ARIA to address the greatest challenge we face in the shape of the climate and environmental emergency. Fighting the climate emergency should be ARIA’s mission within the broad objective of achieving a net zero economy. I do not think that I or Opposition Members should apologise for proposing that we focus on the biggest single issue facing us and our future generations.
Last month, the Secretary of State told the Science and Technology Committee that the Government want ARIA to
“reflect the wide talent and geographical spread of the United Kingdom”,
but there is nothing in the Bill to ensure that happens. In the Queen’s Speech earlier this year, the plans for an industrial strategy were conspicuously absent. We know that research and development can be a key driver in building the economy of tomorrow and creating new jobs as others are overtaken by automation. If the Government are serious about levelling up and unlocking potential, they must start to get serious about their industrial strategy and use ARIA as an effective tool to deliver high-skilled, high-paying unionised jobs in every region.
I am also concerned that ARIA will escape scrutiny as it will not be subject to the same transparency rules as other public sector-funded bodies. We know that ARIA is broadly modelled on the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, but, as my hon. Friend the Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter) said, unlike its US counterpart it will have a blanket FOI exemption. How can the Government justify that when they are in the midst of a cronyism scandal? I am worried about that, and I share the concerns of my hon. Friend and other Members. Transparency must be at the heart of ARIA, because taxpayers have the right to know how £800 million of their money is being invested.
Overall, ARIA will not be put to good use if its purpose remains unfocused. If ARIA is to succeed, it must have a well defined mission, which the Government must play a key role in setting. I had prepared further comments on the foreign aid budget, but I will leave my contribution there.
The general concept behind the Bill is a welcome one. Support for ambitious research where the real-world application is not always clear could bring massive economic benefits if successfully applied, not least to my own constituency and the world-leading institutions in Midlothian. The Midlothian Science Zone is at the cutting edge of global research across many disciplines, particularly in the fields of animal health, human health and agritech and their related technologies. The ideas behind ARIA will be especially welcome to the world-renowned Roslin Institute, for which blue-sky research funding could allow it to investigate, for instance, how integration and transformation of the food system could contribute to solving global hunger and climate change and develop our preparedness for potential future pandemics.
Those are just a few of the positive real-world impacts that the principle behind the Bill could bring about, but principle can often fall victim to a lack of clarity and purpose. On Second Reading, I raised concerns about the Bill’s lack of clarity and focus and the effects that could have on ARIA meeting its aims in the future. Given that we are talking about public money, it would be wise to signal to the public exactly what ARIA is setting out to do—a guiding aim that acts as the body’s ruler and sets a general course of travel. That is not controversial; it reflects best practice elsewhere around the globe.
We know that DARPA, the US defence research body that inspired the model, has a mission focus. Likewise, Horizon Europe and the Scottish National Investment Bank have mission focus: namely, to reduce inequalities and tackle climate change. Why are the Government therefore so content for the UK model to be an outlier to those other schemes? Although it is disappointing that the Government have taken no steps to address that lack of purpose, the legwork has thankfully been done by Members on this side of the Chamber. I welcome the proposals tabled by the dream team from Aberdeen, my hon. Friends the Members for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman) and for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn), whose amendment 1 states that
“ARIA’s primary mission will be to support the development of technologies and research that support the UK’s transition to net zero… or reduce the harmful effects of climate change.”
Why do the Government remain so insistent on giving ARIA as unspecified a remit as possible in the face of best practice everywhere else? Perhaps the answer lies in the clauses related to the planning, oversight and governance of the new agency. It is hard not to feel as though I am watching history repeating itself when I read that ARIA will be exempt from freedom of information provisions and public contract regulations, especially given the Government’s woeful record on accountability and transparency.
In setting up the new funding body, especially for high-risk funding such as this, surely it is imperative that safeguards are built in to protect against the risk of corruption. There is an urgent need for more oversight, not less, of public spending decisions. We have been here before; we are all well versed in the Government’s rebuttal on less scrutiny—that speed and efficiency are the necessities. It looks as though similar lines are being trotted out on this Bill.
Ministers are saying that the exemptions will reduce bureaucracy for ARIA. Bureaucracy looks increasingly to be the convenient byword for the bypassing of scrutiny by the Government—a Government who, I might add, have dramatically increased damaging bureaucracy for international businesses and academia since leaving the EU.
It is important to remind ourselves that speed and scrutiny are not mutually exclusive if the Government are willing to think creatively, and in the previous Session of Parliament, I set out a model for balancing the two in my Ministerial Interests (Emergency Powers) Bill and was devastated when it failed to secure a date for Second Reading. However, we have on the amendment paper today amendment 2, which stands in the names of my hon. Friends the Members for Aberdeen North and for Aberdeen South. It would allow parliamentary scrutiny of any contract awarded by ARIA to a person connected to a member of the Government. That would not increase bureaucracy for ARIA, nor hinder efficiency, as the parliamentary scrutiny would be retrospective.
To me, this is a no-brainer—an amendment that would increase the scrutiny powers of Members in this place to keep ministerial decision making in check and ensure that grants truly go to the best projects. I urge Members to back the amendment. I have said many times that if there is nothing to hide, there can surely be nothing to fear. A refusal to back the amendment would surely set alarm bells ringing among the research community and anti-corruption organisations alike. It would send the signal that this is the same old crony Tory Government reducing ideas for world-changing good to slush funds for pals or donors.
A body dedicated to high-risk research funding has clear benefits, but to ensure that the outcomes benefit all society and the world, and not just Ministers’ mates, we need to give it a guiding focus. By giving this place more power to understand decisions taken on funding allocated, we would strengthen, not weaken, mechanisms for scrutiny as well as ARIA’s effectiveness. Strength comes with openness, and I hope that Members will make ARIA as strong as it ought to be by backing these amendments.
When I saw the list of speakers this morning, I thought I would keep my comments brief. Perhaps unusually, I will stick to that.
I was happy to be a member of the Bill Committee and we had constructive, good humoured discussions, many of which have been echoed in this evening’s debate. One thing that particularly struck me was the quality of the evidence that the witnesses gave. I have a question for the Minister: if she, like me, was so impressed by what we heard, particularly from the representatives of DARPA, what did she learn from it and what changes could be made to the Bill to reflect the wisdom imparted by the witnesses?
I shall speak in support of all the Opposition amendments, but I want to address in particular amendment 12 and the need for a mission. I was struck by the outline of the Haldane principle by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), who is my good friend. He is absolutely right that there is no need for the Government to get involved in the detail, but equally there is no obligation to withdraw from a having a general sense of what we are trying to do. The key issue is whether we say, “We’re just not going to have a view on what it is going to do” or we have some sense of where this might go.
I spent much of last week reading Professor Dieter Helm’s book on net zero, which I commend to hon. Members. He is quite influential on the Government, I think, but it is pretty depressing reading regarding where we are on achieving net zero. We are nowhere near doing what is needed. One of the key areas is science, innovation and research, so it would not be unreasonable to suggest putting our great scientific minds to work on the great challenge of our times: what to do about the climate crisis.
I am fortunate to chair the all-party parliamentary group for life sciences. When I chaired a meeting this afternoon, one question that I asked the people before us was, “Why was it that you were so successful in tackling the vaccines crisis?” It was because they worked in a different way, with a mission and a purpose, and I think exactly the same thing would happen if we set our great scientific minds to work on this great challenge of our times.
It is important to support amendment 12, as well as the other amendments. What a difference it could make, and what a political opportunity for the Government as we head towards the G7 this week and COP26. Unless something like this is adopted, frankly, we will not get where we need to.
Nos. 28, 29 and 30 have withdrawn, so I call Ruth Jones.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker; yes, it is a surprisingly fast debate tonight, which is good.
I am grateful to be able to speak in this important debate and to say a few words on behalf of the people of Newport West. I commend the high level of debate, which has been impressive; I have learnt a lot.
Like other Opposition colleagues, I welcome the creation of ARIA. The UK has a proud tradition in science and innovation, but Labour has long called for further investment in long-term, high-ambition research and development. I join Opposition Members who have raised concerns about the Bill in its current form. Most concerningly, the Government’s proposals for the agency do not provide it with a clear purpose or mission. For the new agency to succeed, it must be given a well-defined mission and Ministers must play a role in setting that mission. In setting that mission, the creation of ARIA, which will only account for a fraction of the overall science spending, must not serve as a distraction from the country’s wider research and development priorities.
It is a matter of regret—but, alas, no surprise—that this 11-year-old Tory Government are reportedly on course to miss their target of spending 2.4% of GDP on R and D by 2027. They have also failed to provide the support needed to medical research charities during the pandemic, forcing them to make sweeping cuts. I say to the Minister that we need real clarity on how the devolved Administrations will be engaged with and supported to ensure that people across the whole United Kingdom benefit in the months and years ahead.
Labour’s amendment 12 on mission has a welcome focus on net zero, which, as a shadow environment Minister, I welcome very strongly. The greatest challenge that we face as a country and as a planet is the climate and environment emergency, so I applaud and thank the shadow Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), for proposing that the fight to preserve our planet and protect our environment be the new agency’s mission for the first 10 years. Achieving net zero offers a broad mission and ARIA’s new CEO would have plenty of discretion in choosing which aspects of the climate and environmental emergency to address.
I turn to oversight and accountability. As has already been mentioned, it is important that people know what is happening, how and when. By making ARIA subject to the Freedom of Information Act 2000 and the Public Contracts Regulations 2015, we would be drawing open the curtains and shining a light where it is absolutely necessary.
Let me turn to regional and national empowerment. As I indicated, I want my constituents in Newport West to benefit as much as those living in Scotland, England and Northern Ireland. As such, it is vital that the Minister supports amendment 13, which would require the agency to have regard for the benefit of its activities across the nations and regions of our United Kingdom.
I am in the privileged position of having the Intellectual Property Office located in my constituency, and I am proud to stand up and shout on behalf of the next up-and-coming Einstein, to ensure that they can work on a level playing field. This Bill may be small, but it is important and we must get it right now.
I turn to the new clause in the name of the right hon. Member for Sutton Coldfield (Mr Mitchell), who has a long track record on fighting for the rights of the poorest in our world. I commend him and his many right hon. and hon. Friends—notably the former Prime Minister, the right hon. Member for Maidenhead (Mrs May)—for standing up and doing the right thing. So many colleagues on both sides of the House have spoken eloquently in this debate about who we are as a nation and about the values that drive what we do and when we do it. Although I would of course never question a ruling by Mr Speaker, I do want to place on record the fact that I regret that the new clause was not selected. However, I am really pleased that the right hon. Gentleman has secured his debate tomorrow, and I look forward to its outcome.
This last year has been like no other in living memory, and we have seen pain and suffering not just here at home but around the world. We have sought to respond to the ravages of coronavirus and to rebuild and move forward. That is why so many of us in Newport West were outraged when the Secretary of State announced that the Government would be scrapping the 0.7% target. However, although I could go on at length about this, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am content to know that we have the three-hour debate tomorrow. Therefore, I will keep my powder dry until then.
Nos. 32, 33 and 34 have withdrawn, so we go to Jim Shannon.
I cannot recall a time when we have rushed so fast through the speakers, Madam Deputy Speaker. At the beginning, as No. 35, I thought I would have three minutes. You have asked us to keep to six minutes, and we will do our best—indeed, I will keep to that.
I value the opportunity to speak on this matter of utmost importance. I also welcome the Chancellor’s announcement—I have my instructions for tonight as the one who will do the proxy votes on behalf of my party—that the UK Government will invest at least £800 million in this new agency as part of the Government’s wider commitment to increase public research and development funding by £22 billion by 2024-25 and to increase overall UK spending on R&D to 2.4% of GDP by 2027. It would be churlish not to welcome that and not to say how good it is to have those figures on the record here tonight. It is clear that the Government have given a commitment to ensure that this agency will be a success story.
When I see that many of our shops have been tied up not simply by Brexit but by the over-dependence on overseas manufacturing and production, I lament that because we were at one time the greatest industrial nation, with the greatest innovators. I believe we can be that again; all we need to do is follow the Government’s policy and strategy, as set out here tonight, and then we can all benefit across this great nation. I still believe that that title is ours, but for us to become all we can become in terms of leading groundbreaking blue-sky projects, we must put the money in, and the Government are clearly putting their money in.
I want to ask the Minister—last time, we did not have much time, and she was unable to respond—to ensure that the R&D and the spend benefit all the regions. The hon. Member for Newport West (Ruth Jones) and others referred to that. I want Northern Ireland very clearly to be a recipient of the R&D so that we have some of the benefit from this whole project. Technology does not come cheap, but the rewards are extensive. What we have achieved with the covid vaccine through investing money is an indication that greatness still awaits. The Government have been extremely successful in the coronavirus vaccine roll-out and in how they have benefitted and helped all the companies, whether with furlough or the grant scheme. Many businesses in my constituency are here today because of the Government’s commitment, and I want to put on record my thanks to them for that as well.
We all have a great affection for our mothers, and I have a particular affection for mine. She always said that her greatest investment was the time she invested to believe in her children. It is important that we take note of those wise words, and I hope that my mother will be very pleased with the investment she made in her four children. If God spares her, she will be 90 on 14 July, so she has had a long and very good life. When I phone her, as I did at about 6 o’clock tonight, she always asks me what is happening over here, and I always tell her, because she is really deeply interested. We are very fortunate to have a 90-year-old mum who is sound in body and mind and still able to tell this big boy what to do when the time comes. That is what a mother does—she tells you off no matter what age you are, and I am always very conscious of that.
We must invest in our own people and in their ability. That is why I support this Bill and why we will be voting with the Government tonight. I want to take this opportunity to press the Minister for an assurance that the investment to which I referred earlier will take place across the UK, and will allow the wonderful research and development that takes place in Northern Ireland to continue. We have a great scheme in Northern Ireland, which works really well, to avail us with increased support and funding. I believe that the Minister will be happy to give that assurance and I will be happy to hold her to that assurance. I look forward to her response.
Northern Ireland has the best education system in the United Kingdom. I thank my colleague Peter Weir, the Education Minister, for the great job that he has done in trying to secure our children’s ongoing education through covid. As a result of this education, we have highly skilled young people who have so much to offer in terms of vision and goals. I meet those young people every day in my constituency of Strangford and across Northern Ireland. We have some wonderful people. We need to encourage them and to ensure that they can be part of that future as well. We do this as well for my grandchildren and, indeed, for everyone’s grandchildren.
We should also allow those with grand projects to take on young apprentices, who will learn how to take innovative approaches. It is very important that we do these things. The R&D projects to give young graduates a place at the R&D table would benefit from their wisdom, experience, enthusiasm and learning. Again, I commend the Northern Ireland Assembly, and particularly Minister Dodds and the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment, for all that they have done, working alongside the Education Minister to ensure that we in Northern Ireland can be part of this great nation of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—always better together and always better if we can share what we have. I see my colleague and friend, the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn), having a smile to himself. But I mean it. I want him to stay in the United Kingdom. I do not want him to leave; I want him to be a part of it.
Nos. 36 to 40 on the speakers’ list have withdrawn, so we go to Virginia Crosbie.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is a pleasure to speak in this important debate on ARIA and to follow the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who always speaks so eloquently and passionately. I particularly liked the fact that he mentioned his grandchildren.
I was proud to serve on the ARIA Bill Committee and I would like to thank the Minister and all those who have contributed to this landmark legislation. Setting up this agency will deliver on yet another manifesto commitment from 2019 and I wholeheartedly support the Bill. The last year has shown us the power of science to deliver solutions, and now is the time to further invest in the ideas of the future that will allow us to continue to make scientific progress.
ARIA needs to have as broad a remit as possible, not to be restricted in its scope, which would be the outcome if new clause 2 were accepted. Scientists need to have space and time to research new technologies without restrictions about the agency’s mission imposed upon them. In the words of Professor Bond in the evidence sessions of which I was part, this is about “radical innovation”.
In my constituency of Ynys Môn, there is already the infrastructure in place for research and innovation, hosted by the Menai Science Park, which is the innovation hub for Bangor University. Businesses such as Tech Tyfu, a vertical farming pilot project in Gwynedd and Ynys Môn delivered by Menter Môn, provide the opportunity for the UK to increase UK food production. We need to encourage more people with an innovative and entrepreneurial mindset, such as those at Tech Tyfu and the others located at M-Sparc, to engage with research in order to solve the problems that the world faces today and in the future. We need to recruit the right people and trust them, not micromanage them.
Amendments 1 and 12 look to focus ARIA’s core mission on achieving net zero and the impact of climate change. I am fully supportive of the goal of achieving net zero, as was laid out in the manifesto on which I proudly stood in 2019. Indeed, Ynys Môn— also known as energy island—will play a key part in delivering this target. However, restricting ARIA’s mission to this goal is not necessary, as we have already legislated for the net zero target by 2050, with ambitious interim targets and a cross-governmental framework in the Prime Minister’s 10-point plan.
ARIA also gives the opportunity to level up around the country, be truly inclusive and involve the brilliant minds from all over the United Kingdom, including those in Wales. It needs to be able to do that without being weighed down by bureaucracy. I spoke in Committee about why ARIA should be free from the freedom of information regime proposed in amendments 8 and 14. In Committee, we heard evidence about the potential burden of administration. UKRI told us that it had a team of staff purely to deal with the 300-plus FOI requests it receives annually. As Professor Dame Ottoline Leyser said, UKRI is “happy” to be able to respond to FOI requests, but
“there is a judgment call about the burden of administration”.––[Official Report, Advanced Research and Invention Agency Public Bill Committee, 14 April 2021; c. 9, Q4.]
With its unique freedoms and independence to enable transformational research, ARIA will inevitably receive a disproportionate number of FOI requests relative to its size. Our vision for ARIA is that it should be lean and agile. Do we really want it encumbered by that level of administrative burden? Do we want ARIA’s brilliant programme managers to be stifled by bureaucratic paperwork?
We also heard about whether ARIA will be able to deliver the game-changing R&D that we want if it is subject to FOI. It was Tony Blair who gave us the Freedom of Information Act and who subsequently described it as
“utterly undermining of sensible government”
To use his words:
“If you are trying to take a difficult decision and you're weighing up the pros and cons, you have frank conversations...And if those conversations then are put out in a published form that afterwards are liable to be highlighted in particular ways, you are going to be very cautious.”
Professor Philip Bond put this view into an R&D context in his discussions with the Committee:
“if you are asking people to go out on a limb to really push the envelope, I would assert that there is an argument, which has some validity, that you make it psychologically much easier for them if they do not feel that they are under a microscope.” ––[Official Report, Advanced Research and Invention Agency Public Bill Committee, 14 April 2021; c. 29, Q21.]
Mr Blair and Professor Bond perfectly highlight the fundamental reason why ARIA should be free from FOI: the last thing our scientists need when they are looking for the next internet is to be held back by caution.
The Bill already contains very strong statutory commitments to transparency: an annual report will be laid before Parliament; ARIA’s accounts and spending will be published; non-legislative mechanisms will be set out in a framework document; and there will be a thorough and transparent selection process to ensure it is led by respected individuals who will uphold public honour. Freedom of information requests can still be submitted to the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and any organisation that ARIA works with. Any contracts awarded by ARIA will be publicly available.
ARIA will give the United Kingdom and the island of Ynys Môn the opportunity to grasp and shape our future on a global stage. It will help drive innovation and investment, and secure our status as a science superpower. I am proud—I am proud to support this Bill.
Nos. 42 to 49 on the speakers’ list have withdrawn, so we go to Angela Richardson.
Thank you, Madam Deputy Speaker. It is such a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie), who is so passionate about this area. That came through in the Bill Committee, as it does whenever she speaks on behalf of her constituency.
It is a pleasure for me to speak on Report, as it was to be a member of the Committee and to speak on Second Reading. It is a relief to speak to amendments that pertain to the Bill today, even if I do not support them. I particularly want to speak to the procurement amendments tabled by both the Opposition and the Scottish National party, but first I wish to address the amendments that want to make ARIA’s primary mission health and research, or our net zero aims. We already have knowledge of and have committed significant resources to those two areas, and we understand the importance of tackling them. The benefit of freeing ARIA from those specific missions is the ability to go into the unknown—to the areas we do not have knowledge of. I have no issue with ARIA seeing successes or failures in those areas, but prescribing for those areas through ARIA may not necessarily be the cure we are looking for.
Turning to procurement, the exemption from the Public Contracts Regulations 2015 places freedom into the hands of the leaders and programme managers who will be recruited to run ARIA as an independent body. ARIA’s procurement will be at arm’s length from Government and Ministers. Procurement rules do not apply to the traditional R&D granting used by UKRI, but ARIA, like DARPA, will work in a different way by commissioning and contracting others to conduct research. ARIA will often be procuring research and development services, which can be in the scope of the procurement regulations.
If activities were subject to procurement rules, ARIA would be required to put contracts out to open tender, often for many weeks, even if it knew its preferred supplier. That would slow down ARIA’s programme managers. We want to avoid their needing to consult lawyers routinely to determine which niche contractual arrangements must go to open tender. If ARIA wished quickly to gain expert consulting advice on a technical issue, the procurement process might bias it against seeking expert advice on spending decisions, which might harm its ability to operate and use money. The most important check and balance in the Bill is in schedule 1, paragraph 14, in which the Government have made a commitment to ensure that ARIA internally audits its procurement activities, so the up-front flexibility afforded by the exemption will be balanced by reporting at a later point.
The idea was mentioned quite a lot in Committee—it was mentioned again today by the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah)—that ARIA could become a side door to sleaze; others mentioned that they were worried about cronyism. I think that it is a real shame, in talking about our scientists, who are world-class, to suggest that they would receive contracts for political favour rather than on the merit of their scientific ideas and expertise. It is a shame to put them in that sort of shadow, especially after the year that we have had and the huge amount of work that we have seen on the pandemic. I hope that as we go forward, we will put some faith in our scientific community and not accuse them of being potentially open to sleaze.
As I said on Second Reading, Guildford would be an excellent home for ARIA. Just over a week ago, I met the people who run Surrey Research Park. I know that they would be keen to have ARIA.
Finally, my hon. Friend the Minister celebrated a significant birthday yesterday, and I wish her many happy returns. After the time, care and attention that she has given the Bill, I cannot think of a better gift than to see it go unamended to Third Reading and on to the other place.
It really is a pleasure to follow my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Angela Richardson), who is one of my best friends in this place; it was a pleasure to serve on the Bill Committee with her and with so many other hon. Members present. Along with the hon. Member for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), my hon. Friend and I served both on the Science and Technology Committee when it conducted a report on what at the time we were calling ARPA, and on the Bill Committee, so I have felt a real sense of personal involvement in the process as it has developed.
Since I will not speak on Third Reading, I would like to thank everyone who has been a part of the process, particularly the Clerks of the Bill Committee; the Minister for her dedication; and the Whip, whom I see in his place, for his help on our side of the Committee. It was a very good-natured Bill Committee, as others have said. Some amendments that we are debating today are rather similar to those that we rejected in Committee, but obviously that is how Report works. I will not labour all the same points again, but I will speak briefly on them later in my speech.
Science is cool again, because science has saved us in the past year. It is not just about the vaccines—extraordinary though they are, particularly the mRNA advances. It is also about what we were able to achieve with Sarah Gilbert’s Oxford project, which I am very proud is being manufactured in my constituency at Keele science park in Newcastle-under-Lyme; what we have done scientifically in finding therapeutics through our world-leading recovery trial; and the advances that we have seen in rapid tests to enable the incredible amount of testing that we now have in the UK.
However, I would like to add a note of caution, because covid has also exposed some of the problems we see in science and some of the problems in the networks that the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) spoke about earlier. I am talking particularly about the so-called lab leak hypothesis—the theory that covid emerged from the Wuhan Institute of Virology rather than from a zoonotic transmission. We saw some of the worst of science and the media over that, but it was essentially shut down by a letter to The Lancet organised by the EcoHealth Alliance and its president, Peter Daszak, which squashed the theory on 18 February last year. Let us face it, the theory was assisted by Donald Trump and Senator Tom Cotton in the States taking the opposite view, and there was this whole politicisation of something that should have been about scientific inquiry. Speaking as a Bayesian, and based on everything I have seen, including the fact that the virus was in Wuhan in the first place, and on everything we have seen since, I believe it probably was a lab leak. I would go as far as to stake an 80% probability on that, and I think we should bear that in mind when we think about what we are asking of ARIA.
We do not want ARIA to get politicised and legalised, and we do not want it to fall into the same group-think that we have seen in some science, with a tendency to defend your mates and the people you know in your network and stick up for the institution rather than the principles behind the science. Instead, the DRASTIC group—the decentralised radical autonomous search team investigating covid-19—a bunch of people on the internet, correspondents and scientifically inquisitive people around the world, have managed to bring the lab leak hypothesis back to public attention to the point where it is clearly being actively considered by our intelligence services and our scientific community. I think we need some of that spirit in ARIA. We need that spirit of inquiry and of people outside the system getting their fair say in the system—the Einsteins in the Patent Office, as others have said.
On the amendments about cronyism, what we saw with the appointment of Kate Bingham was a complete disgrace. That is the sort of thing I worry about with some of the amendments to the Bill. I think “everyday sexism” is the term to describe the abuse she got on her appointment. We had the Runnymede Trust trying to go to court to get her appointment declared unlawful, the so-called Good Law Project seeking to crowdfund against her appointment, the leader of the Liberal Democrat party saying that she must resign and Labour’s deputy leader saying “this cronyism stinks”. The truth is that she was the best qualified person for that job. She was appointed at speed because of the circumstances we were in, and she has delivered in spades. If the rumours about her damehood are correct, she richly deserves it and we all owe her an enormous debt.
On the Science and Technology Committee, we often share similar views and attitudes to science, and I agree with the hon. Gentleman about the violence of the language that is sometimes used; it is completely unacceptable. When emergency decisions are taken, as they were with the vaccine taskforce and with Test and Trace, there needs to be an assessment afterwards. I hope he agrees that it would be a very different assessment for Test and Trace than it would be for the vaccine taskforce.
I thank the hon. Gentlemen for raising that. As a member of the Science and Technology Committee, he knows that we were looking at producing further reports into both Test and Trace and the vaccine programme as a result of our inquiry. I think the Test and Trace programme has actually got to a very good place now: the number of tests we are achieving is the envy of many other countries around the world. We could quite happily say that the vaccine taskforce is an exemplar for everything that went well, and that the Test and Trace programme has been more mixed—[Laughter.] The hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) on the Opposition Front Bench laughs, but I think that the Test and Trace programme has helped our recovery from the worst of the covid pandemic. It is not the case that all that money has been wasted, as some Opposition Members say, and it is certainly not the case that it has all gone on cronyism; it has gone on the cost of the tests. That is what it has gone on. Contact tracing is hard. Some people do not want to be contact traced, but the role that Test and Trace has played is still significant, although perhaps not as significant as we hoped initially. I am sure we will move on with that in our inquiry.
Returning to what I was saying about the amendments seeking to give ARIA a mission statement, my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) gave the House some good reasons to reject them. First, there is no point spending just a little bit of money on things that already have billions thrown at them; we should be looking at the things we do not necessarily even know about yet. I also think we should avoid circumscribing ARIA’s freedom. Likewise, on all the amendments that are trying to impose more bureaucracy on ARIA, the whole point is to do things differently, with freedom from all the usual processes and pressures that act on these sorts of bodies.
We need to empower scientists. My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) quoted Professor Bond, who said of freedom of information in his evidence to the Bill Committee:
“In terms of the level of transparency, transparency is a good and wonderful thing in most areas, but if you are asking people to go out on a limb to really push the envelope, I would assert that there is an argument, which has some validity, that you make it psychologically much easier for them if they do not feel that they are under a microscope. Many people tend to step back when they are there.”
Some of the burdens that people are seeking to put on ARIA would potentially circumscribe it and reduce its effectiveness. The Bill does still have a statutory commitment to transparency. We will have regular reports, and I am sure that our Committee will be regularly engaged not only with the Secretary of State, who is in his place, but with the chief executive and the chairman of ARIA, who will come to speak to us as well.
ARIA needs to have the freedom to fail. In that sense, it needs to be a macrocosm of all its individual projects that also need to have the freedom to fail. Let us truly empower ARIA by rejecting these amendments. Let us let ARIA take flight and shoot for the stars, not weigh it down and prevent it from ever reaching the escape velocity it needs and the chance that it has to boldly go—returning to the “Star Trek” references we had in the Bill Committee—not into outer space but to the very cutting edge of scientific research and discovery. If we pass this Bill today, it will be a great day for science in the United Kingdom.
I shall try not to come up with any more “Star Trek” references as we will probably run out in a minute.
I am grateful to the Minister for all her hard work on such an interesting piece of legislation that is going to be truly transformative. It has been a pleasure to be involved in the Bill, having spoken on Second Reading and been a member of the Bill Committee. I want to deal with a number of amendments and also to make this general observation: the Opposition amendments in Committee were, in the main, tabled to hinder much of the Government’s primary intention in what ARIA was set up to do in the first place. If we recognise that ARIA is set up with the sole principle of operating at pace, with flexibility, and with freedom to aid our position in the world in continuing to be a leader in innovation and science, then we absolutely must not stifle it by filling it with bureaucracy around regulation and oversight, thereby harming its very intention. Yes, there will be failures, as we have heard today. We all recognise that; it is almost part and parcel of what is built into the fabric of the agency to help it to operate without restrictions. From board compositions to freedom of information stipulations, even to dictating the agency’s priorities over health and climate change, it is quite revealing to be met with the level of shackles that were to be imposed rather than the vision to encourage our next generation of pioneering inventors.
Amendments 8 and 14 would make ARIA subject to FOI requests. If they were to be passed, we could immediately lose the competitive edge of innovative or potentially cutting-edge scientific developments brought about by risk. Instead, we are thrusting them into the spotlight whereby that ingenuity could be uncovered by FOIs. If we restrict people’s creativity, they will play it safe. They will not take the risk that is the very essence of ARIA in the first place in being an incubator for creativity to flourish.
New clause 3 and amendment 1 take us back to the ring-fencing of ARIA’s remit by constricting its freedom across all facets of science and research. Across the entire country and across all sectors, from automotive to farming, society is striving to decarbonise. We are already a world-leading Government in our commitment to decarbonise to net zero by 2050. To make the agency specifically concentrate its efforts on particular areas is again to dictate as to its uniqueness, and that will not give it the true freedom that is at the very heart of this Bill.
Finally, any organisation is only as good as the people that make it up. ARIA will need a visionary CEO to lead the culture and set its direction. Amendments 3 to 6 would require, among other matters, that Parliament approves the CEO. However, we know that if a small organisation is to be nimble, those decisions need to be made quickly. I do not see that there is a need for approving the board with Government representatives if that process is fair and open, which we are told it will be.
As I said on Second Reading, my constituency of North Norfolk was home to one of our greatest living inventors, Sir James Dyson. I hope that ARIA will be our launchpad to uncover the very next greatest inventor.
It is a pleasure to be here on this special occasion, and not just because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Angela Richardson) pointed out, it was a very special birthday yesterday—40. [Laughter.]
I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have tabled amendments and new clauses, and who have contributed today.
The UK has a world-class science system, and a proud history of research and invention. Today, in our continuing fight against coronavirus, the importance of those skills has never been more apparent. What is it that makes ARIA so special? It is the fact that we are strengthening our science system, enhancing our capabilities and finding a new level of ambition. That means that it will be a small, agile organisation with autonomy from Government and unique powers that equip it to support groundbreaking ideas, with the potential to profoundly change all our lives for the better.
The Bill brings forward a bold and ambitious policy that seeks to deliver the transformational benefits of high-risk R&D for our economy and society. I have spoken to many colleagues who share my genuine excitement about the possibilities that ARIA could bring. We have heard on the Floor of the House and in every previous debate that all parties support the principle of ARIA and what it will try to achieve. I am glad that today we are able to give ARIA the focus that it deserves.
A focus of today’s debate that has been raised by the hon. Members for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) and for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), among others, has been giving ARIA a primary research topic, through new clauses 2 and 3, and amendments 1 and 12. Given the challenges that we face today, those amendments understandably focus on climate change and health. Nobody in the House should have any concerns about the Government’s credentials on tackling climate change. We are proud to be the greenest Government ever. The Prime Minister’s 10-point plan and our COP26 presidency, to which the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn) referred, are demonstrating that at home and abroad, the UK is leading efforts to accelerate action on climate change.
Without doubt, the covid pandemic has clearly illustrated the critical role that R&D plays in the health and wellbeing of our population. Our vaccine roll-out is the envy of the world. The Government already invest around £2 billion annually in health and care research in the UK. It is therefore right that such priorities are taken forward by Government Departments and agencies, with clear direction and involvement from Ministers. That includes the important role that UKRI plays in delivering Government priorities for R&D. We do not want to duplicate those responsibilities.
Instead, as many colleagues have put it much better than I could, ARIA must make its own distinct contribution to be effective. That means being an organisation led by brilliant people with strategic autonomy—not directed by Ministers. The continued chopping and changing of ARIA’s mission set out in amendment 12 would hamper ARIA’s ability to commit to long-term programmes.
New clause 3 also seeks to impose obligations on ARIA regarding the transition to net zero. ARIA is covered by the Government’s existing net zero commitments and will be required to make information available through the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter).
I turn to the contribution of the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) on the role of Parliament. Amendments 3 to 6 would require the proposed chair and CEO of ARIA to be approved by both Houses of Parliament. Amendment 11 would require the Commons Science and Technology Committee to approve appointments by the Secretary of State and the remuneration of the appointees. I am extremely pleased that the recruitment campaign for the CEO was launched on 1 June and that we will launch the campaign for the chair on 5 July. All applications will be reviewed by an outstanding expert panel, which will include the Government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance. The Government’s guidance sets out that the ultimate responsibility for appointments rests with Ministers who are accountable to Parliament, as is the case with UKRI. There is no precedent for requiring the approval of both Houses for appointments.
I am grateful for the contribution that the Science and Technology Committee, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), has made on this issue. However, I guarantee that this is an open, fair and robust recruitment process, and it is completely appropriate to find the right people to make ARIA a success. Amendment 9 would require ARIA to provide the Science and Technology Committee with the information it requests. The Osmotherly rules provide guidance on how Government bodies should interact with Select Committees, and they are clear that such bodies should be as helpful as possible in providing accurate, truthful and full information when giving evidence. I believe that that is sufficient to ensure a co-operative and constructive relationship between ARIA and the relevant Committees.
Amendment 10 would require the Secretary of State to consult the Committee before dissolving ARIA. Clause 8 already sets out the broad requirement on the Secretary of State to consult any persons they consider appropriate, and I am sure they will always consider it appropriate to consult the Science and Technology Committee about changes to the R&D landscape. The Secretary of State’s power to dissolve ARIA is subject to the draft affirmative procedure, which will ensure that Parliament has the opportunity to debate that decision.
Amendments 7 and 8 tabled by the hon. Member for Aberdeen South and amendment 14 tabled by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central seek to remove the exemption from the public contracts regulations and to subject ARIA to the Freedom of Information Act 2000. We have covered procurement extensively before, and I will reiterate why the exemption is so important. There are three key points.
First, ARIA is expected to commission and contract others to conduct research in pursuit of its ambitious goals. Often, ARIA will procure research services. That commissioning and contracting is a fundamentally different way of funding R&D to traditional grant making, and procurement rules do not apply. Secondly, this way of funding research is core to DARPA’s approach—the successful US model from which we learned when designing ARIA. As we heard in Committee, DARPA benefits from what is described as “other transaction authority”, which offers flexibility outside standard US Government contracting standards. By taking that innovative new funding approach that is so fundamental to its objectives, ARIA will benefit from similar flexibilities.
Let me turn to amendments 8 and 14. ARIA is about creating a certain culture of funding and groundbreaking research, as I heard time and again throughout my engagement with the R&D community. As my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) put it so eloquently, that kind of culture is difficult to achieve within all the rules that would usually apply to public bodies. We have thought carefully about alternative ways to ensure that high standards of conduct are upheld within this unique context.
The Bill requires ARIA to submit an annual report and statement of accounts, which will be laid before Parliament. ARIA will be audited by the National Audit Office and will be subject to value-for-money assessments. ARIA will interact with Select Committees in the usual way, and it will draw up a framework document detailing its relationship with BEIS. There will be further reporting requirements, such as the details of what is published in the annual report. Together, those provisions will ensure that the public are informed of ARIA’s activities and where it spends its money. Although the Freedom of Information Act 2000 allows for exemptions in certain circumstances, the request must still be processed, and that administration runs contrary to the lean and agile operation of ARIA.
I turn to amendment 2 on conflicts of interest. Schedule 1 allows the Secretary of State to make regulations
“about the procedures to be adopted for dealing with conflicts of interest”.
The framework document between BEIS and ARIA will commit ARIA to the code of conduct for board members of public bodies, which includes the obligation to publicly declare any private financial or non-financial interests that may or may not be perceived to conflict with one’s public duty. This principle-led, non-legislative approach is appropriate. It is the standard approach taken by many other arm’s length bodies, including UKRI, and I have no reason to believe that it is inadequate here. In addition, we have the existing reserve power in schedule 1, should it ever prove necessary.
On the issue of human rights, I recognise the intent behind new clause 1. Human rights are already protected in law in the UK through the Human Rights Act 1998, and ARIA will be subject to public authority obligations under that Act. I therefore reassure the hon. Member for Aberdeen South that ARIA will operate in a way that is compatible with the convention on human rights. It would be unlawful for it not to do so under existing legislation.
Amendment 13 would require details of ARIA’s geographical impact to be included in its annual report. I believe that it is incredibly important that ARIA’s funding benefits those who are not always reached by the current system. That is the Government’s policy and priority, as well as a priority for me personally. The R&D place strategy, due to be published this summer, will set out how R&D will contribute to our levelling-up ambitions. Details of ARIA’s operation will be set out more fully in a future framework document, and that is the appropriate place to stipulate the contents of ARIA’s annual report, including geographical information, rather than legislation.
The Minister is being generous with her time tonight. In my contribution, I was very keen, as were others, to ensure that all the levelling-up that the Minister refers to will happen in the regions as well—in other words, that Northern Ireland will get its share. It is important, as part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, that we all benefit. May I seek her assurance that that will be the case?
Of course, I give my assurance that we will issue the place strategy shortly, which will indicate all of this.
I am very grateful for the contributions that right hon. and hon. Members have made today. The interest in the passage of the Bill in the House and in the R&D community is testament to the important role that ARIA will play in our future R&D landscape, creating a space in the system that is free to fund groundbreaking science in innovative ways, independent from ongoing Government intervention.
This is an incredibly significant moment, because the opportunity that ARIA affords us is truly limitless. By unlocking a new level of ambition, and by enabling truly bold and adventurous ideas to flourish, ARIA will allow us to take a huge leap into the future. Yes, this will mean embracing the unknowns that come from ARIA being free from Government control, but we should make that leap confidently, knowing that the brilliant people that ARIA will fund will change the world in ways that none of us in this Chamber would dare to imagine today. This is therefore a truly exciting time for all of us here in the Chamber—for ourselves, for our children and for our grandchildren—and I feel particularly excited for my young granddaughter, who will feel the benefits of the major breakthroughs that we will unlock through this Bill. I am sure that this opportunity is recognised by all hon. Members.
I hope that I have demonstrated the reasons that I cannot accept the new clauses and amendments that have been tabled, and I hope that Members will agree not to press them.
Madam Deputy Speaker, you will be glad to know that my final remarks will be brief, particularly because although we were expecting a rebellion tonight, I did not expect it in any way, shape or form to relate to any of the amendments that I proposed, which is disappointing. Maybe next time—we can only live in hope.
There are two clear and fundamental issues to do with the Bill on which we disagree with Government Members: where they are passionately and vehemently against public scrutiny, and where they are passionately and vehemently against ARIA having a mission. I believe the lack of a mission is a missed opportunity, and I am deeply concerned to hear that public scrutiny in the shape of an FOI request is regarded as an impediment to a public organisation. That should strike fear into all of us about what public money is to be spent on, not just now but in the future.
With your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion on new clause 1, but I wish to press amendment 1, which stands in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), to a vote.
Motion, by leave, withdrawn.
Amendment proposed: 1, in clause 2, page 1, line 7, at end insert—
“(A1) ARIA’s primary mission will be to support the development of technologies and research that support the UK’s transition to net zero carbon emissions or reduce the harmful effects of climate change.”—(Stephen Flynn.)
This amendment sets the primary mission for ARIA to support the development of technologies and research that support the UK’s transition to net zero carbon emissions or reduce the harmful effects of climate change.
Question put, that the amendment be made.
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.
Amendment proposed: 12, page 1, line 17, at end insert—
“(2A) In exercising its functions, ARIA must have regard to its core mission.
(2B) In this section “core mission” means—
(a) for the period of ten years after the date on which this Act is passed, undertaking activities which support the achievement of the target established in section 1 of the Climate Change Act 2008,
(b) thereafter, mission or missions which the Secretary of State establishes by regulations every five years, and
(c) regulations under this section—
(i) shall be made by statutory instrument, and
(ii) may not be made unless a draft has been laid before and approved by resolution of each House of Parliament.”—(Chi Onwurah.)
This amendment would require ARIA to consider its core mission in exercising its functions. For the ten years following the Act passing, that core mission would be supporting the achievement of Net Zero. Thereafter, its mission will be established by statutory instrument subject to the draft affirmative procedure.
Question put, That the amendment be made:
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.
Amendment proposed: 14, page 3, line 15, at end insert—
“(7) ARIA shall be—
(a) a public authority within the meaning of section 3 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and Schedule 1 of that Act shall be amended accordingly, and
(b) a central government authority within the meaning of regulation 2(1) of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015, and Schedule 1 of those Regulations shall be amended accordingly.”—(Chi Onwurah.)
Question put, That the amendment be made.
The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.
I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.
When it comes to the future of the United Kingdom, this Government are unapologetically ambitious, and one of our greatest ambitions is to secure the UK’s position as a science superpower. Through this Bill to create ARIA, a new agency to support the most ambitious research, we are really focusing on delivering on that agenda.
The Bill provides ARIA with broad functions and powers to take an innovative approach to funding high-risk R&D so that each programme manager can provide effective funding to their talented research team. Critically, the Bill allows a balance between oversight of ARIA’s activities and the independence and autonomy that the evidence tells us is so important for its success.
The Bill creates an agency with a unique role to play and the capabilities it needs to do so. ARIA will sit alongside UKRI and other funders in our R&D landscape. It will provide something additional and complementary, and I believe that its offer will indeed significantly improve the UK’s research and development offer in the long term.
I am grateful that today’s debate has focused on making the most of this ambitious new agency. I would like to recognise the efforts of those across the House and in my Department who have got us to this point. I thank the Science, Research and Innovation Minister, my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway). I know that she celebrated her 30th birthday yesterday, and I congratulate her on having achieved this signal success and that significant milestone. I am delighted that she should be such a focused colleague and have delivered what is a really important piece of legislation. I also thank the Bill team for their work at each stage of the proceedings, and parliamentary counsel for drafting such an admirably concise and, dare I say, elegant Bill.
As we continue our progress towards a more normal way of working in this place, I would like to thank everybody who, in the meantime, has ensured that our proceedings have been able to continue with minimal disruption despite these exceptional circumstances. I would like to place on record that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and all the House staff and your colleagues have done a remarkable job in keeping the lights on—so to speak—and making sure that we progressed in a very expeditious and calm way through these proceedings and through previous stages of the Bill. Everything has been to order, Madam Deputy Speaker.
I also thank the members of the Public Bill Committee from across the House for their extremely constructive and welcome approach to scrutinising the Bill. I particularly thank the Chairs of those Committees: the hon. Member for Bradford South (Judith Cummins) and my right hon. Friend the Member for Tatton (Esther McVey), as well as my hon. Friend the Member for Kettering (Mr Hollobone) and the Member for Halton (Derek Twigg).
I also thank a number of speakers on the Government Benches. I am referring only to the speeches that I saw myself . My hon. Friend the Member for Ynys Môn (Virginia Crosbie) gave a very positive account of why this Bill is so important to her constituents. My hon. Friends the Members for Guildford (Angela Richardson), for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker), who is not in his place, for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) and others did a remarkable job in presenting the case for ARIA and in ensuring that the Bill proceeded smoothly.
I would also like to thank a number of Opposition Front-Bench speakers. When I saw her speak, the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) gave a customary expert and well-considered view. We have our differences and disagreements, but no one, I think, can doubt her sincerity. I thank the SNP spokesman, the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn). I am sorry that the rebellion that he anticipated was not as dynamic as he would have liked, but there you go.
Everybody really has supported the principle of this legislation and the creation of ARIA. While we do not agree on all the details, I think that everybody has brought to the debate a spirit of constructive inquiry and scrutiny, and we have greatly appreciated that.
I am confident, Madam Deputy Speaker, that, as the Bill continues its passage, our parallel progress to realise ARIA and to make it happen will elicit further debate and further questions. As the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North, said on Second Reading, and as we have heard again today, the UK is home to brilliant invention and innovation, and we should be able to shape ARIA in a way that can deliver on that promise. The creation of ARIA will, I firmly believe, make our outstanding UK R&D system even stronger and more dynamic, more diverse, and it will help us to innovate and level up across the country. On that very firm basis, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am delighted to commend the Bill to the House.
In this Third Reading debate, I want to start by putting on record our support for this Bill and the establishment of ARIA. The UK is a global scientific superpower, with a proud past, present and future, of innovative scientists, businesses and entrepreneurs. The success of the vaccine roll-out—I pay tribute to everybody associated with that—demonstrates our world-leading science and research power. What we have seen in the debate today and through the passage of this Bill is that we all want to build on this platform. ARIA has the potential to help fill the gap of high-risk, high-reward scientific investment, which is why we welcomed the Bill and sought to play a constructive role in its passage through the House.
I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah)—I thank the Secretary of State for doing so—for the superb job that she has done in constructively seeking to improve the Bill on behalf of the Opposition. I also put on record my thanks to my hon. Friends the Members for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), for Luton North (Sarah Owen), and for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) for their diligent work in Committee, and all hon. and right hon. Members on both sides of the House who have contributed to this Bill. I join the Secretary of State in also paying tribute to all the House staff who have kept this Bill going and on track and all those associated with it. I want to single out the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway). I was going to wish her a happy 50th birthday, but I am happy, on this occasion, to be outdone by the Secretary of State. I say a very happy birthday for yesterday to the Minister.
As the Bill goes to the other place, we continue to believe that improvement is necessary and possible. As we heard in the debate, the biggest improvement to it would be a clearer sense of mission for the agency. We do not believe that the Bill as drafted provides ARIA with a clear enough mission. Ministers have suggested that it is for the chief executive, once appointed, to establish its priorities. We heard this a lot in Committee and again today, but this is not in our view the best way to meet our national priorities, which we believe should be set by Government. There is also a danger, we believe, that ARIA’s resources will be spread too thin. The greatest challenge we face, and this is shared across the House, is the climate and environmental emergency, and that is why we have proposed that fighting it be ARIA’s mission for the first 10 years, but however that mission is set out, I hope this is something that will be returned to in the other place.
Secondly, we believe that the freedom provided to those running ARIA should be accompanied by greater transparency and accountability. We do not believe the agency has anything to fear from this, nor is there justification for the blanket exemptions from the Freedom of Information Act and public contract regulations. The Government’s reason for exempting it is that it will be overwhelmed by requests, but that is not the US experience with DARPA. If the Government want ARIA to carry the confidence of the public, we hope they will think again on accountability in the other place.
Thirdly, as we have heard in the debate, it is essential that each nation and region of the UK benefits from the creation of ARIA—we believe that ARIA should have regard to that when exercising its functions. We have suggested that that could be done through the annual report that is already provided for under the Bill.
These are our issues with the Bill, but we cannot ignore in this Third Reading debate the Bill’s wider context, about which I want to speak briefly. ARIA is an important innovation, but it cannot be detached from the wider landscape of Government policy. Today’s amendment on overseas development aid—new clause 4—may not have been selected, but the argument is not going away. We should not be slashing overseas aid to the world’s poorest people. It is not right morally, and it is not right on grounds of self-interest either. With coronavirus and the climate crisis, our fates are bound together.
What is more, these cuts are impacting directly on British scientific researchers doing the right thing for the world on everything from research on infectious diseases to the development of clean water technology. Some £120 million has been cut from the BEIS budget because of the cuts to ODA. As the Sainsbury Laboratory, one of the country’s leading scientific research institutes, puts it, these cuts have
“pulled the rug out from under many scientific projects that were paving the way to solve urgent challenges in some of the poorest countries in the world.”
All this is in the year of COP26, when we are the hosts trying to persuade other countries to accept our moral authority on the climate crisis and development.
As someone who was at the ill-fated Copenhagen climate summit of 2009, I want to tell the House that mistrust between developing and developed countries was the biggest reason it failed and is one of the biggest risks at COP26. The cut in aid spending undermines our efforts and undermines trust; the Government are wrong to be doing it, and it is self-defeating for our country. There is a very strong feeling about this across the House—quite possibly a majority—and the Government should reverse this cut in funding forthwith. My general experience is that when there is a majority in this House for something, it will find a way to express itself one way or the other. I suggest that the Secretary of State and the Government take heed.
ARIA should not come at the expense of cuts to the core science budget administered by UKRI. This year, UKRI’s budget will be £7.9 billion, a cut from the budget last year of £8.7 billion. That is why Jeremy Farrar said recently:
“There’s a growing gulf between rhetoric and reality in the government support for science.”
It massively ill serves British science and our country to be cutting science spending, and ARIA, welcome though it is—£800 million over five years—simply does not make up for that.
To conclude, we support this Bill, but hope, in the spirit with which we have approached it, that the Government will reflect on the constructive concerns raised throughout its passage on the urgent issue of aid spending by Members on all sides, on science spending and on the detail of the Bill. We hope that the other place can build on and improve the Bill as it progresses.
It is a pleasure to follow the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband). It is a particular pleasure as Chair of the Science and Technology Committee to warmly congratulate the ministerial team for bringing this important Bill to such a happy conclusion in this place. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State, the team of officials in the Department and the Clerks in the House, and to the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Derby North (Amanda Solloway), whose enthusiasm and charm contributed in no small part to the sense of consensus, good feeling and good will that there is about the Bill. The fact that its House of Commons stages culminate after the weekend of her birthday is absolutely fitting, and I congratulate her on that.
As Members know, the Select Committee took extensive evidence on the Bill and published a report. We had some fascinating sessions, including a rather less high-octane performance from Dominic Cummings when he came to talk about science policy, as opposed to covid. I think it is a fair reflection to say that the suggestion of this agency, and indeed the important role that science played in the manifesto on which Conservative colleagues were elected, was an important contribution, whatever disagreements and disputes there may be on other aspects.
We can agree on several things. First, it is desirable and appropriate, when we are a science superpower, that we have agencies that do things differently from others. Diversity is a strength, and it is a good thing that we are having a very new agency doing things in a very different way. I think that that has been evident in the contributions we have had.
We took the view on the Committee that it is important that ARIA does not spread itself too thinly. Although £800 million is a lot of money, when it comes to substantial, world-changing projects of inquiry, it can soon go. It seemed for a time today that the budget would be rising not to £800 million but to perhaps £4 billion a year, in which case the advice of the Committee to—in the words of the book by the right hon. Member for Doncaster North—go big on a smaller number of projects may have been redundant, and we may have been able to do everything. However, it seems that that is not going to be the budget for ARIA, and the advice that the Committee has given the incoming chair and chief executive does stand: we should make sure that we do a few things well, rather than many things superficially.
On the subject of the chair and chief executive, leadership is crucial. The hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) emphasised the difficulty and the importance of choosing them, comparing it to electing a Nobel prize winner. That is quite a high bar, but I hope we will find people equal to the task, and they should be encouraged. I hope that those people, when they are appointed, will come before our Select Committee, not because we want to tie them down in any way and to constrain them with bureaucracy, but quite the reverse: our Committee champions science—we are enthusiasts for science—and we want to understand the ambitions and the motivation of the new team.
Achieving stability for a long-term agency such as ARIA is of great importance. In a Parliament that is limited to five years, and when Governments change from time to time, finding mechanisms to entrench institutions and policies that are there for the long term can prove challenging. David Cameron thought that passing a law to require 0.7% of GDP for aid spending was a solution to precisely that, but we found that there are circumstances in which it is not possible to achieve that. In office, I set up the Industrial Strategy Council to inject a bit of stability, but that is not continuing. So these things are challenging. I know that the intention of Ministers and the whole House is to achieve longevity. I think how this very desirable objective can be implanted will require a bit of thought.
The reforms that are embodied in this legislation—low bureaucracy, risk taking and the ability even to fail—are important to encapsulate in ARIA, but that is not to say that the rest of the research landscape could not benefit from those reforms. I hope that the Minister’s appetite, demonstrated through the passage of the Bill, to reform science funding and find ways to do things better and vigorously will not be completely satisfied with the passage of this Bill, but that, with the Secretary of State’s enthusiastic support, she will apply herself to the funding landscape more generally in order to have that same principle of vigour there.
The proposal for this new research agency was included in our party’s 2019 election manifesto and then the Queen’s Speech at that time. Two years on, we are at the point of recruiting the chief executive and the chair, and sending the Bill to the other place to make further progress. I hope that the Lords will give it their customary scrutiny with rigour and enthusiasm, but that they will not detain for too long because this is an important institution, which we want to see up and running and strengthening further our great attributes in British science as soon as practically possible.
It is a pleasure to follow the Chair of the Select Committee, the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), and the shadow Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband). The points that have been made by both, although varied, have certainly covered off many of the points that I would seek to address. I have no desire—and I am sure that Government Members have no desire—to hear many of the arguments that I have expressed previously tonight on Report, in Committee and on Second Reading.
I would like to place on record my thanks to all those involved in proceedings over the course of recent months. They have done an outstanding job, particularly those in the House Service. I also thank our research team—in particular Scott Taylor and Jonny Kiehlmann, who have been a tower of strength, and provided us with a great deal of assistance and information.
I do not intend to keep the House much longer, as I am keen to get home myself, so I will leave it at that.
That is one of the best conclusions to a speech I have ever heard.
It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn). On Report, I said that I would be brief because I was going to make a contribution on Third Reading, so I hope the House will accept my apologies for making a few points.
I have been on this Bill throughout its passage, as others have been. It has been a really positive experience as far as I am concerned. The only puzzlement to me is that the Bill was so perfectly drafted that it is in exactly the same state today as when we started; clearly it was impossible to improve. Now, I do not think that is the case. We heard some really important contributions, particularly during the evidence sessions. I echo the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Doncaster North (Edward Miliband) in hoping that improvements will be made in the other place and that the Government will listen to some of the suggestions.
I looked at the job adverts for the chair and chief exec. I am grateful to research professionals, as ever, for pointing this out this morning: a remarkably vague canvass is being painted. Tonight it is being presented as a great opportunity. We have had the discussions in Committee, but, frankly, all we really know about it is that this is a unique and unprecedented opportunity. The right person may be out there. I thought this point was well made by my hon. Friend the Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) and referenced by the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark). There may be such an exceptional person, but I rather suspect that, in the process of choosing whoever is to do the job, some of the issues that they will pursue will inevitably follow. I think that, as we trace it back, we will find that the decision to give direction and mission, which has been ducked by this House, will inevitably have crept in during that process.
To some extent, as the shadow Secretary of State picked up, there has been an elephant in the room in our discussion. During the entire process of discussing the Bill, there has been a background rumble of unhappiness in the research community as we have seen some of the issues around BEIS allocations unfolding. There was uncertainty in my constituency running through March as people were very worried about the ODA cuts; perhaps many of us had not quite appreciated just how much that money was being spent in our constituencies on research programmes. For large numbers of people, it was left to the very last with projects having to be cancelled.
One of the moments that will stick in my mind from the evidence sessions was when I asked the chief exec of UKRI
“if you had £800 million to spend…would you spend it on this?”––[Official Report, Advanced Research and Invention Agency Public Bill Committee, 14 April 2021; c. 13, Q8.]
Of course, it is all about the timing, because she is an impeccable and superb public servant. She hesitated just long enough before coming up with the right answer for the entire room to know that of course she would not—and nor would anyone else in the room.
If the money were genuinely new and extra, it would be a different debate from the one in which it is being taken from elsewhere. My worry—we are seeing this week in, week out with the rumours and debates about what is happening to Horizon Europe—is that it is deeply unsettling the research community. These are long-term issues, and I am afraid that they are doing huge harm.
My conclusion is that, if the funding is new and extra, of course we support it, but my fear is that over the months and years ahead it will get pulled into the general discussion and debate about where budgets are allocated from. It is all too familiar. Governments over many, many years have tried to lift spending on research and development, but sadly there is almost an inexorable law that we fail to do it. We need to do better in future.
There was also advice from the Americans about how to make this work, which was not really listened to. They have a model that seems to work in their system; whether it can be transported into ours is a moot point, but it is sad that we are not even listening to their advice.
Finally, it seems slightly curious that the Government continue to pursue a scheme that, basically, was pursued by a now discredited former adviser. I just hope that they will reflect, take the opportunity to change course, give this new idea a real mission, make that mission the climate emergency, and make something of it.
How many times do we see politicians tweeting, Facebooking or, for that matter, speaking in the Chamber and saying, “I welcome—” or “It is with great delight that—”? The irony is that I have tried to ban such things from my previous external communications, but today I am both proud and delighted to welcome the Government’s Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill. Along with the Secretary of State, I thank everyone who has been associated with getting us to this unique moment this evening.
A framework in the future, as the Minister said, will ensure that all parts of the United Kingdom will benefit from ARIA, which is why I continue to extend my hand of friendship to ARIA for it to be headquartered in Bolton. Bolton is a town of invention. We have a steady supply of inventors, long-standing institutions of invention, the appropriate infrastructure for future inventions and the mother of all invention: I have already secured a premier office location in Bolton that is ready for ARIA to move in. Essentially, invention is in Bolton’s DNA, and ARIA is made for Bolton.
ARIA is not just for Bolton or for Britain, but for the world and for the brainchildren of tomorrow. Invention blossoms from competition and diversity, so ARIA needs a range of cultural backgrounds to catalyse that creativity. We have the human capital, and people will come from far and wide to this new centre of invention, from all walks of life. I very much welcome the job advertisement, which I think went live last week, for the position of CEO of ARIA.
In conclusion, we have the tools ready to welcome a world-class invention hub. I would welcome the opportunity to discuss the points I have raised with the Department, the ministerial team and, of course, the new CEO once they come on board. With that, I very much congratulate everyone who has been involved in getting us to this point this evening.
I promise not to detain the House much longer. On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I welcome the Bill. We support all science and technology spending. We support what the Bill is trying to do, and we wish it safe passage through the other place.
I beg your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I want to take just a couple of minutes to talk about my new clause on climate change and some of the other amendments on similar themes. I have listened to what those on the Government Benches had to say about why they did not want to support those amendments. Broadly speaking, that seems to be around not wanting the agency to be constrained in any way and wanting it to have full rein to take the science where it leads. Obviously, that is a laudable enterprise, but the point I wished to make in tabling that new clause was that nothing innovative can stand the test of time if it does not meet net zero targets or respond to the challenge of climate change.
If any of the new inventions or new research that come out of this new agency do not respond to that challenge, they cannot be a sustainable part of our future economy and society. That is why climate change has to be a baseline, and that is what I was trying to achieve. The need to tackle climate change is going to be a constraint anyway on the agency, so why not have that in the Bill?
During this debate, there has been a lot of reference to the vaccine roll-out, which has obviously been a great success. The research and how it has been carried out is obviously a fantastic example of science and technology really succeeding, but the key point is that the research and the vaccine were responding to a very clear and present challenge. The scientific community has responded amazingly, but the lesson to learn is that the science was responding to a challenge. We have no greater challenge ahead of us right now than tackling climate change. We will find, I believe, that even without the climate change amendments in the Bill, that is what the agency will be doing anyway. It will be responding to the challenge of climate change and it will need to take account of carbon emissions.
I briefly want to talk about scrutiny. I understand the reluctance to allow too much scrutiny and not allowing freedom of information requests. I know that scrutiny can sometimes be vexatious or opportunistic, but science answers questions. That is what science is for; that is the function of science, and it should never shy away from questions. At its best, scrutiny can be constructive and improving, and that can only be of benefit to the agency being set up by this legislation.
To sum up, we support the Bill. We absolutely want ARIA to succeed. We very much look forward to seeing what it can produce, and we support the Bill’s passage to the other place.
Question put and agreed to.
Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.