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Science, Innovation and Technology

Volume 729: debated on Wednesday 15 March 2023

The Secretary of State was asked—

Domestic Space Industry

It is a great privilege to open the batting for the new Department for Science, Innovation and Technology. Not since the white heat of technology under Harold Wilson have a Government put more money into research. I know the Opposition will welcome this Department.

No sector embodies the opportunity more than space. That is why, in the past 10 years, we are proud to have doubled the size of the sector to £16 billion. We set out a £10 billion plan for the next decade. Through regulatory leadership, insurance and finance in the City, £400 million in earth observation and our cluster programme, we intend to grow this economy all around the country.

As a science geek, I love this new Department. The Chelmsford-based company Teledyne e2v is the world leader in space imaging. When the earthquake hit Turkey and Syria, its technology from way up there in space pinpointed the exact location of collapsed businesses, sent rescuers to the spot and saved lives. It also provides crucial monitoring of our planet’s air, oceans and volcanos via the Copernicus programme. The European Space Agency wants to continue to use e2v tech for the next generation of Copernicus satellites, so will the UK continue to participate in Copernicus post-2024 so that companies like e2v can continue to sell to—

Order. The right hon. Lady, as much as she might be a science geek, ought to know that questions need to be shorter to give somebody else a chance. Put in for an urgent question. Come on in, Minister.

I pay tribute to Teledyne, which is a great company. That is why we have put £1.8 billion through the European Space Agency, so that little companies like that here in the UK can benefit. On Friday, I visited Space East. We support the cluster it is a part of. Following the Northern Ireland protocol agreement, the Windsor framework, we are actively discussing with the EU the membership of Horizon, Copernicus and Euratom, and funding earth observation programmes in any case.

I welcome anything that focuses on science and technology. It has to be good for our country. On the domestic space industry, I very much welcome what the Minister has just said. However, if we are to grow the sector, we need the next generation of mathematicians, scientists, engineers and computer programmers. What is he doing to ensure that the education and training system brings forward the workforce for tomorrow?

That is an excellent question because skills are key. All around the country we are growing space clusters. Just yesterday we launched Leicester Space East, which is part of the national network. We prioritised skills in the science and technology framework, published last Monday. The UK Space Agency has an active skills programme and we are working with UKspace to set out a map of the jobs that are being created—380,000 in this economy over the next 10 years. We intend to ensure that our higher education and further education sector is supplying them.

The Westcott Space Cluster in my constituency is a tour de force of innovative excellence, with a particular focus on ensuring small and medium-sized enterprises can use open access testing facilities, such as through the satellite applications catapult DISC. Does my hon. Friend agree that that open access support is essential? Will he visit Westcott to see it for himself?

Next month, I will be joining the team from HyImpulse at the SaxaFord spaceport in Shetland to see the hot fire test of its new HyPLOX75 motor. Like many companies in the sector, it is very keen to know when we will get an announcement regarding the space flight phase 2 programme. When will we get that announcement? If we are not going to go ahead with that programme, what will the Government be doing to encourage companies like HyImpulse to do their business in Scotland?

I was in Scotland just a few weeks ago meeting the team behind the Shetland and Sutherland launch. We are committed to launch in both Cornwall and Scotland. We are providing funding to support those two spaceports. I will happily come and visit when I am next up. In Scotland, Buckinghamshire and all around the country, we are growing space clusters to give jobs and opportunities to a new generation.

Commercialisation of Science and Technology Research: North-east England

2. What steps she is taking to support the commercialisation of science and technology research in North East England. (904135)

We should all be incredibly proud that nowhere is driving the science and technology revolution more than the north-east economy. It was a powerhouse of the previous industrial revolution and is that again now. I was recently in Newcastle visiting the University of Newcastle and Northumbria University. Spinouts from Newcastle raised £47 million, which is a record. The NETPark North East Technology Park, home to 65 growing companies, has just announced its third phase. It is home to Kromek, one of our top sensor companies. We put £5 million into the Northern Accelerator, a collaboration between six universities, and we have nine catapult centres in the north-east. We are driving the north-east economic renaissance.

The north-east is a centre of science excellence in offshore wind, life sciences, batteries and much more. We are home to 3,500 tech firms, which bring £2 billion to our local economy. European structural funds provide support to small and medium-sized enterprises to start up, innovate and grow, but all that stops at the end of this month. What will the Minister do to ensure that that support for development continues?

That is an excellent question. We have set out the shared prosperity fund, which is now fully deployed around the country. We have made the commitment to increase domestic research and development outside the greater south-east by 40% between now and 2030, and 50% of Government R&D in the old Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy was outside the greater south-east. I do not want to pre-empt the Chancellor, but this afternoon there will be announcements about how we support regional science and technology growth.

Nissan in Sunderland is one of the most productive plants in the whole Nissan network. What meetings has the Minister had with Nissan about its work?

Since arriving in this new portfolio I have not had any meetings with Nissan, but as a Department we are actively picking up the clean tech piece and the future energy technologies piece, and we are working with a range of companies, as well as with the Department for Business and Trade and the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero.

Across the country, our regions are home to thousands of brilliant science start-ups and spin-outs, but they are being hit by a Tory quadruple whammy: slashing R&D tax credits, leaving with them an average of £100,000 less to spend on research a year; a £120-million cliff-edge loss of European regional development funding; lack of access to capital—the UK has the lowest business investment in the G7; and continuing uncertainty over association with the £95-billion Horizon Europe, the biggest science fund in the world. Which of those barriers to growth for our innovative businesses will the Minister sort out today?

It is a great shame that the shadow spokeswoman is so determined to talk the UK down. The truth is that in the last 10 years, the life sciences sector has grown 1,000%. The north-east, where she is from, is driving that. I do not recognise that the UK sector is being held back in the way that she says, but the Chancellor will say more this afternoon about the tax and business environment. The reason that R&D tax credits are up so much is that our innovation economy has gone from 1.7% of GDP to 2.8%. That is a huge success over the last 10 years, and we are responsible for it.

Internet Access: Low-income Families

3. What steps she is taking with Cabinet colleagues to help low-income households access the internet. (904136)

We want fantastic connectivity in every part of the UK. We have worked to ensure that a range of low-cost social tariffs are available in 99% of the UK for as little as £10 a month, which is highlighted in our Help for Households campaign and in our work with the Department for Work and Pensions, to make them easier for low-income households to access. We are also working on digital skills with the Department for Education.

While we continue to make progress on this front, could the Minister remind utility companies, particularly British Gas, that not everybody has access to a computer and the internet? It would be helpful if its services reflected that.

I thank my hon. Friend for raising his concerns about British Gas. As the digital infrastructure Minister, I want to ensure that everyone has great access to the internet, but he might be interested to know that suppliers with more than 50,000 customers must allow people to pay energy bills in cash or on prepayment, and talk to them over the phone.

I confess that cryptocurrency is not in my portfolio, but I am happy to refer the hon. Lady to a Minister who may be able to answer that.

Research and Development Sector

Backed by our commitment to increasing public expenditure on research and development to £20 billion by 2024-25, we have launched our plan to cement the UK’s place as a science and technology superpower by 2030, fostering the right conditions for industry, innovation and world-leading research.

The threat posed by the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank posed a huge challenge to science and tech businesses in Oxfordshire. Can the Minister update the House on what she has been doing to help those companies, so that they no longer have to look into the abyss?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right that the futures of so many companies, and thousands of UK jobs, were at stake. My Department worked tirelessly with the Treasury to facilitate a solution. In doing so, we have protected our life sciences and tech sectors, which not only drive economic growth across the country but deliver life-saving products.

Research and development is particularly resource intensive and in need of raising capital, so what are the Government doing to help tech and life science companies raise money on the London markets, which has been few and far between recently?

We are committed to making the UK the most attractive place for innovation and businesses to start and grow. The Treasury has made significant reforms to improve London as a listing destination, and we continue to engage with sectors to secure the most innovative companies in the UK stock exchange.

Weston Park Cancer Centre is one of only four specialist cancer facilities in the country and is at the forefront of groundbreaking research. Investment is critical to its ongoing success in cancer research. I recently met a Health Minister to discuss opportunities to invest in Weston Park. Will the Secretary of State look at what can be done to invest in that incredibly important technological facility?

The Government are putting their money where their mouth is. We are determined to ensure that we are a science and tech superpower by 2030. I would be delighted to meet the hon. Gentleman to discuss his own constituency in detail.

The Secretary of State is aware of the global centre of rail excellence being developed in my Neath constituency, which will become the UK’s first net zero rail testing facility, a shared campus for rail innovation, research and development, testing and verification for mainline passenger and freight railways, developing next-generation solutions for the rail sector. The UK Government have pledged £30 million for the GCRE, of which £20 million has been received for the construction phase. Will the Secretary of State reconfirm her Government’s commitment to deliver the remaining £10 million for research and development?

I am unsure as to that exact question, but this Government are investing a great deal—£20 billion by 2024-25. We are determined to ensure that we become a science and tech superpower. This Department has already hit the ground running, produced a science and tech framework, and announced £370 million of additional funding. I am happy to meet the hon. Member to discuss in detail exactly the point that she was trying to raise.

Last week, Stephen Phipson, head of Make UK, said that Horizon had

“always been one of those areas of the EU budget where the UK gets more out than it puts in”.

While the Secretary of State dithers about whether association is value for money, researchers are leaving the UK for better opportunities abroad, where they can develop rich collaborations and enjoy freedom of movement. The issue needs urgent action, so when will we have a decision on whether the UK will associate to Horizon?

We have not changed our position regarding Horizon and association was in the UK-EU trade and co-operation agreement. We welcome the EU’s recent openness to the discussion, after two years of delay, and I discussed the matter directly with the EU ambassador yesterday.

Leaving the EU: Employment Levels in the Science and Technology Sector

5. What assessment she has made of the impact of the UK’s departure from the EU on levels of employment in the science, innovation and technology sector. (904138)

My Department’s work will ensure that we are breaking down barriers and levelling the playing field, so that more women can enter STEM jobs in research and innovation. This includes UK Research and Innovation funded STEM ambassadors in schools and, just last week, the Government announced £150,000 funding to support women who are taking career breaks and need skills to get back into STEM careers.

Thanks to Brexit, universities in the UK have lost almost £1 billion in EU funds, with 115 cancelled grants last year alone. Unfortunately, many EU-based workers, such as researchers, now feel unwelcome because of the United Kingdom’s hostility and have followed the funding out of the UK. My constituent Ms McCallum’s long-term partner is French. He is unable to secure a visa to work in our STEM sector. The complexities of the system, and the attached costs, are making it impossible for him to choose to reside in Scotland. What steps is the Secretary of State taking to reduce visa costs for skilled workers, incentivising them to come to the UK and set up home here?

We do not for one moment underestimate just how important it is to attract the best and the brightest to the UK, to work in science and technology and to study here. Just last week, we announced the global talent network for AI. Since 2020, this Government have created the global talent visa. We have created new routes such as the high-potential individual route, and we have the scale-up route. It is this Government who are delivering.

Since our departure from the UK—[Laughter.] Not yet! Since our departure from the EU, the UK needs to forge our own regulatory path to provide certainty to businesses investing in the UK, as well as providing confidence to consumers. However, UK law has failed to tackle the harms, including fake reviews and subscription traps, that we all now encounter online. The Government claim that they are taking action, yet we still have no legislation. Another delay, another broken promise—can the Secretary of State tell us when we can expect to see the digital markets, competition and consumer Bill finally laid before Parliament?

We have committed to delivering it in this Session. Further details will be announced by the Leader of the House in due course.

Will the Secretary of State pay tribute to the quality of the workforce we have in the UK for science and technology? In north Hertfordshire, companies such as Johnson Matthey are doing fantastic work in the environmental field, and neighbouring Stevenage has Airbus and other wonderful businesses. Will the Secretary of State do all she can to get us back into the EU programmes?

It is absolutely because we have the best and the brightest in this country that we can lead the way. I pay tribute to the people who work in my right hon. and learned Friend’s constituency; I look forward to visiting them as soon as I can. As I have said, our position on Horizon has not changed.

STEM Jobs: Women

6. What steps she is taking to increase the number of women in science, technology, engineering and mathematics jobs. (904139)

Since 2016, Innovate UK’s women in innovation in programme has been empowering women in innovation. Since the launch of the campaign, the number of women leading applications for grants to Innovate UK has risen by 70%.

Today, women make up less than 30% of the STEM workforce, and the Government’s own findings reveal vast inequalities for women in the R&D sector. The creation of this Department presents a key opportunity to tackle the issue head on, so will the Secretary of State commit to bold action to finally reach a 50:50 STEM workforce?

We made this a key part of our science and technology framework because it is absolutely essential that we are empowering and enabling individuals and creating those skills from the off. UKRI has already funded STEM inspiration programmes such as the STEM ambassadors. There are a lot of initiatives that I could take the hon. Lady through, but obviously we are short on time. We are trying our very best to encourage women and to level the playing field.

The Secretary of State for Business and Trade welcomed a trade delegation of more than 40 women who run technology and science businesses in Canada at a business event at Lancaster House yesterday. Does my right hon. Friend agree that support for women in tech across the globe should be an important part of all our international trade work?

I absolutely agree, and I believe that the event yesterday went very well. It is also important that we look at our global role models who are British, such as Professor Dame Angela McLean, who will become the first female Government chief scientific adviser, Dr Nicola Fox and Rosemary Coogan. All those people are flying the flag for women in STEM.

Topical Questions

DSIT was created with a single mission: to drive innovation that will deliver improved public services and new, better-paid jobs and grow the economy. Our Department will do things differently and will be a model for how modern Government Departments should run.

We have hit the ground running. Within just a few weeks of setting up, we have set out a comprehensive framework for science and technology, announced £370 million in new spending and introduced the Data Protection and Digital Information (No. 2) Bill. We have worked with the Chancellor to take decisive action to facilitate a deal to save the UK arm of Silicon Valley Bank, protecting hundreds of jobs. That is an extraordinary amount for any Department to achieve, let alone in just five weeks, and it is just the start of a constant drumbeat.

I was thrilled that my verification campaign to tackle anonymous abuse was successful with the Government, but I have always been clear that whether someone is verified needs to be made obvious on social media. Does my right hon. Friend agree that that is important to social media users? How is the Online Safety Bill progressing through the Lords?

The Bill will soon be in Committee in the House of Lords, and we are committed to ensuring that it is passed before the end of the current Session. I pay tribute to the excellent work that my hon. Friend has done in this regard. As she knows, we are committed to dealing with abuse, and the Bill places a duty on the largest online services to give adult users the option of verifying themselves.

Three weeks ago, the Secretary of State said that the use of TikTok on Government devices was “a personal choice”. At the weekend, it was reported that there was to be a review of TikTok, and this week the Prime Minister said that he was considering a ban. Can the Secretary of State tell us whether this is indeed a personal choice, or whether TikTok on officials’ devices poses a security risk?

The security of UK data is a priority, and our experts continue to monitor the threats that are posed to that data. The Government’s security group, led by the Cabinet Office, is reviewing the evidence base for action on Government devices. Let me add that what I actually said was that, in terms of the general public, it is absolutely a personal choice, but because we have the strongest data protection laws in the world, we are confident that the public can continue to use it. That is very different from what the hon. Member reported.

T3. In communities such as Cheriton and Bramdean in my constituency, there are people who have not been able to take part in the broadband voucher scheme because they are connected to a different cabinet from their neighbours, which in some cases is only a few metres from their door. Can my hon. Friend assure me that those communities will be able to benefit from the new procurement as soon as possible? (904151)

I am pleased to say that premises in Meon Valley are included in our live gigabit procurement for Hampshire, and we expect to award the contract in June this year. We have paused the applications for vouchers to avoid doubling up on public subsidy, but we are happy to look into any specific cases that my hon. Friend wishes to raise via Building Digital UK.

T2. During the last Horizon Europe funding round, researchers, scientists and universities in London received nearly £2 billion, but the Tories have overseen two years of uncertainty, delay and broken promises, harming researchers and businesses in my constituency and across the capital. When will the Secretary of State do what Labour would do, and secure association to the world’s biggest science funding programme? (904150)

Over the last two years, not only have we continued to negotiate in good faith to see through the agreement that we made to join Horizon, Copernicus and Euratom, but we have continued to fund the sector—with just over £1.2 billion, including £370 million this week and £480 million before Christmas—and we look forward to discussing the European associations shortly.

T5. The Government have announced that they are to create a wonderful new nuclear fusion centre at West Burton. This is the technology of the future, and West Burton is not five miles from the town of Gainsborough, so will the Government rename the research centre West Burton Gainsborough to celebrate our wonderful town? (904153)

My right hon. Friend has made an excellent point. It is a very exciting facility, which will see this country lead in the industrial deployment of fusion connectivity to the grid.

T7.   Will the Secretary of State meet Councillor Abi Brown and me to see the power of Silicon Stoke that is ready to be unleashed, alongside our fantastic gigabit broadband roll-out, our world-class university, Staffordshire University, and, of course, the digital T-levels that we already have on display, so that we can truly create those fantastic new jobs of the future? (904156)

I would be delighted to do so. My hon. Friend is a great ambassador for his constituency, always pushing and promoting the great work that is being done.

According to Tech Nation, Slough, which is the silicon valley of the UK, has experienced a 536% increase in the formation of digital start-ups in the last decade. Given that artificial intelligence is of strategic importance to the UK, why have the Government cut research and development tax credits for small and medium-sized enterprises?

The hon. Gentleman will know that a review of R&D tax credits is being conducted. The Chancellor will be speaking later, but because of Tech Nation and the work that has been done over the last decade, we have a great tech ecosystem to build on.

A year ago, the Department announced that Penistone had been chosen for the UK’s first trial to deliver high-speed broadband through water pipes. The fibre in the water project, which is happening in partnership with Yorkshire Water, is of huge interest to my constituents as it promises the opportunity for rural areas to access high-speed broadband without the cost and inconvenience of major infrastructure works. Will the Minister update me on the progress of the project and tell me how quickly my constituents might see the benefits?

Fibre in the water has been a fantastic and innovative project. We expect to complete the research in May, and I hope to be able to update my hon. Friend, who has been doing fantastic work on this.

Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I point out that live subtitles and the British Sign Language interpretation of proceedings are available to watch on