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Science, Innovation and Technology

Volume 734: debated on Wednesday 14 June 2023

The Secretary of State was asked—

Technology Sector: Skills Shortages

1. What steps she is taking with Cabinet colleagues to help tackle skills shortages in the technology sector. (905382)

We know that digital skills are a vital building block for developing the workforce of the future, so we are working across Government with educators and employers to grow the pipeline of individuals entering the digital sector. Steps that we have taken include the launch of the Government and industry Digital Skills Council, the introduction of artificial intelligence and data science conversion courses with the Department for Education and the creation of new visa routes with the Home Office to attract international tech talent. We worked with the Department for Education on the launch of skills bootcamps in England and the Government will be investing up to £150 million in the programme, with free, flexible courses lasting up to 16 weeks in subjects such as software engineering, with a guaranteed job interview at the end.

In contrast to what the Minister says, more than £600 million of apprenticeship levy funding has been returned to the Treasury in the last year alone, enough to have funded more than 60,000 new apprenticeships. Labour will reform the system to create a growth and skills levy that can be used on a much wider range of training that businesses say they need. Will the Government address the chronic shortage of skills, match Labour’s ambition and give tech businesses what they need to thrive?

I gave a long answer the first time, so I can give a shorter one this time. We are already acting in that space. On the apprenticeship levy, we always work with employers and supply chains throughout this country to ensure it works as effectively as possible for what businesses need.

The submarine programme in Barrow will deliver thousands of jobs and generations of work, but we are struggling to grow our own. We have Furness STEM and UlverSTEM, which do good work, but this is an international endeavour with AUKUS and a national endeavour with Dreadnought. What discussions has the Minister had across Government about how we lean in to that skills challenge?

My hon. Friend is right to champion Barrow’s industry. We talk regularly with the Department for Education, colleagues from the Department for Work and Pensions, tech sectors and academia to ensure we get it right. We must remember that domestic and international talent are so important in this space.

Regional Innovation

To support innovation across the whole of the UK, a central pillar of our innovation nation mission, the UK Government are investing £52 billion in public research and development over these next three years. We have made a groundbreaking commitment in the levelling up White Paper to increase the percentage of Government R&D outside of the greater south-east, which is, of course, home to some of our historic research institutes, by 40%. We have an active programme—through the Catapults, the innovation accelerators and cluster support—all around the UK to that end.

Innovation is in the DNA of the businesses in my constituency, including Surespan, a leading manufacturer of roof access hatches, and Phoenix Tooling and Development—after all, our region was the birthplace of the industrial revolution. I support the Government’s levelling-up mission, but will the Minister bring forward individual regional targets for rebalancing research and development funding, as recommended by a House of Lords Committee report?

Let me first pay tribute to Surespan and Phoenix. Two weeks ago, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and I were in Coventry in the west midlands with the Chancellor, and I have been working closely with Mayor Andy Street on his excellent programmes. We have an advanced manufacturing Catapult in the west midlands. Coventry and Warwick are rapidly becoming world-recognised centres in a whole raft of materials and in robotics. We are working on the Birmingham innovation district, and we have put one of our three innovation accelerators—£30 million—into the west midlands. My right hon. Friend the Member for Aldridge-Brownhills (Wendy Morton) makes an important point, though, about regional R&D clusters; that is public and private sector money. We will set out this autumn our digital cluster map showing all the private and public funding, and how we intend to increase it by region.

The Government recently launched a call for space infrastructure projects, and West Lindsey District Council has proposed plans to work with the Satellite Applications Catapult, which the Minister mentioned, at RAF Scampton, as part of a £300 million levelling-up deal. What is the logic of one part of Government talking about levelling up and innovation and another part talking about putting a migrant camp in the middle of it, preventing all that infrastructure?

My right hon. Friend will appreciate that, as the Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, I cannot comment on Home Office plans to deal with refugees, but I can pay tribute to the work of Scampton Holdings Ltd and the very innovative proposal for the regeneration of that site with a whole raft of facilities, including in innovation support. I very much look forward to coming up in due course, once the refugee issue is sorted, to support him in taking that forward.

Metro Mayors have an important role to play in driving innovation in the regions. Can the Minister give an assurance that he will work closely with them?

Yes, I am absolutely delighted to do so. The Metro Mayors are key parts of our innovation ecosystem, and the three innovation accelerators that have we put in place are fundamentally co-created and led from the bottom up in Glasgow, Manchester and the west midlands. I am actively reaching out to work with the Metro Mayors, as well as with devolved Science Ministers, on extending our science investment to unify all regions of this country and strengthen those urban economies.

But the problem is that in my constituency in the Yorkshire coalfield, there are 20 times fewer people employed in science and technology innovation than in Cambridge. We can be proud of what Cambridge has achieved, but why should areas such as mine be so left behind? There is no economic reason why the golden triangle between Greater London, Cambridge and Oxford should be preferred over the rest of the country, so is it pure politics?

I am afraid that the hon. Gentleman could not be more wrong; it is quite the opposite. The truth is that the Oxford-Cambridge-London triangle is golden for a reason: it is home to two of the world’s top three universities and five of top 15. Our central mission is to ensure that we grow an R&D economy all around the country that nurtures and invests in research, including a fantastic cluster in Yorkshire: the Yorkshire bioeconomy, advanced manufacturing in Sheffield, and Doncaster. We are investing in all that, but one does not create the Oxford-Cambridge triangle overnight; it requires us to invest with local leaders, as they are doing across the north-east in County Durham and Northumbria, in the innovative companies of tomorrow. This is a historic moment for the former coalfields.

I declare an interest as the chair of the all-party group on photonics and quantum. The Fraunhofer Centre for Applied Photonics at the University of Strathclyde has played a leading role in the industrial strategy challenge fund, collaborating with more companies and projects than any other organisation, and it has been praised as a key strength in the national quantum strategy. The centre is supported by the Scottish Government and Scottish Enterprise, but despite its being established at the UK Government’s invitation, the UK Government have provided no core funding. What discussion has the Minister had with Treasury colleagues on providing that core funding to a vital part of the quantum technology landscape?

I have to say, that is a bit rich given that the incredible strength of Scottish science and research is built largely on long-term UK block funding across life sciences and other areas. As I said, I have just been in Glasgow, where we put one of our three innovation accelerators. That has been transformational, particularly in quantum, where we have set out our plans for the £2.5 billion quantum strategy. It is just not fair or true to say that the UK Government are not investing in the Glasgow cluster; we are, and it is transformational.

Broadband: Social Tariffs

The Government recognise that this is a difficult time for families across the country who may be struggling with their bills. Social tariffs are already offered by 21 broadband providers, covering 99% of the UK. We continue to urge the providers that do not yet do so to bring forward offers to support low-income households.

My North Shropshire constituents eagerly anticipate the roll-out of Project Gigabit, for which a contract has been awarded, but obviously not everybody in a rural area is well off, and broadband is an essential part of daily life. Will the Minister explain what steps he will take to ensure that that provider will offer social tariffs to my constituents?

As I say, the vast majority of providers offer social tariffs already. I am not sure what the broadband provider the hon. Lady refers to will be, but we will certainly look at that. We will also do our best to encourage take-up, because while that has increased fourfold since January 2022, we recognise that a lot of people who are eligible have not yet taken advantage of these schemes.

Oh, thank you, Mr Speaker.

But this is not just about social tariffs, is it? It is also about when the whole broadband system goes down. Recently there was a break in the broadband circuits in Lichfield and no offer was made to any subscribers for any form of compensation. What is my right hon. Friend’s view on that?

There are schemes that will ensure that if there is a lengthy take-out of provision, compensation will be available. I am very happy to look at the specific example of what happened in my hon. Friend’s constituency and to advise customers there what is available to them.

Artificial Intelligence Regulation

Our White Paper was clear that we will regulate AI through a flexible framework underpinned by five important principles. That proportionate and adaptable approach has been welcomed by British business and will include new risk monitoring functions to ensure that the UK leads the world in AI safety, as well as anticipating the introduction of a statutory duty on regulators in time. We would welcome hon. Members’ views on that consultation.

In terms of risk, I am sure that the Minister will be concerned that Snapchat’s My AI chatbot recently encouraged a journalist who was posing as a 13-year-old girl to meet up with a 35-year-old man, suggesting ways to hide the meeting from parents, gave tips on hiding bruises from social workers and gave sex tips to a supposedly 13-year-old boy who was proposing to meet an older woman. What specifically are the Government doing to beef up online safety regulation to protect children from the emerging risk of AI?

I am concerned to hear the examples that the hon. Member gives. That is exactly why this House and the other place have spent considerable time going over the provisions in the Online Safety Bill, which goes to the heart of the issues that he raises and includes AI in its scope.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that when it comes to AI regulation, two things are important? The first is that there is a significant international dimension, and I congratulate her and the Prime Minister on what they have already achieved in setting out this country’s stall to be a global leader in AI regulation. Secondly, does she agree that the lesson to be learned from the Online Safety Bill, which she mentioned, is that we must regulate swiftly, rather than waiting for the technology to develop and attempting to retrofit the regulation on to the technology?

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s contribution—he knows a great deal about these matters. First, I acknowledge his welcome for the approach we will be taking internationally. It is exactly right that the UK can and should lead in this space, as the Prime Minister has set out, and that is what we will do with our global summit on AI safety. Secondly, on his point about the Online Safety Bill, I can understand his argument, but in this context I would draw the House’s attention to the distinction between regulation and legislation. We intend to use our existing and established regulators to make sure that we have a flexible and adaptable approach to AI.

The rapid growth of AI has the potential to revolutionise the economy and our public services, but with no industrial strategy to speak of and their White Paper already out of date, this Government are behind the curve and risk leaving our workforces behind as AI becomes more prevalent. Exactly what is the Secretary of State doing to ensure that nobody is left behind, and that workers are trained in the digital skills needed to gain high-quality jobs that harness AI’s potential and opportunities?

I think the hon. Lady is on the wrong track here. I must say that I have not seen any substance to Labour’s approach in this field either, which perhaps will not come as a surprise—no doubt it will be covered more in 10 minutes’ time. What I would say is that we are taking the approach of ensuring that we do have the skills of the future: for example, we are investing £30 million in conversion courses to enable people from disadvantaged backgrounds to come into AI, so that they can be part of the technologies of the future, and there is a great deal more besides.

Brexit: Science and Technology Sector

5. What assessment she has made of the potential impact of the UK's departure from the EU on the science and technology sector. (905386)

Over the past six or seven years since 2016, this country has seen extraordinary growth in investment in our science and technology sector. Members do not need to take it from me: they can take it from those who track the investment. The UK has nearly 20 times more venture capital than its level of funding in 2011, and I am delighted to say that a majority of that—the fastest growth—is around the country. The east midlands and Northern Ireland have seen the sharpest increases in investment in the past four years, with growth in the east midlands topping at 300%. Something extraordinary is going on in this economy, and far from using Brexit as an opportunity to talk the country down, we intend to use it as an opportunity to lead in the smart regulation of the economies and sectors of tomorrow.

I thank the Minister for that answer, but the UK Government are pushing for a discount on membership in the Horizon programme, arguing that UK researchers have been disadvantaged by two years outside that programme. Does that not amount to the Conservative party openly admitting that cutting the UK off from Europe was damaging, and that we must return as a matter of urgency to European projects such as Horizon?

To be very clear, we negotiated membership of Horizon, Copernicus and Euratom specifically in our Brexit deal—it was the EU that held us out. Secondly, while we have been waiting, we have deployed over £1 billion of extra funding here in the UK to support our sector, and now that the Prime Minister has secured the Windsor framework, the negotiations are actively going on. I know that the Secretary of State will want to say something about that later. We intend to collaborate deeply with Europe and use our regulatory freedoms in the new sectors of tomorrow.

Does my hon. Friend agree that it is as important to the EU as it is to the UK to have good science co-operation, and that the benefits of our wonderful companies such as Johnson Matthey in Royston and the big companies we have in Stevenage demonstrate the importance of international co-operation in business? That should happen in universities as well. It is for the EU as well as us.

My right hon. and learned Friend makes an important point. One of the attractions of Horizon is that we get back most of what we put in, and it funds research collaborations across our system, but the negotiations are important. We have been out of the system for two years; we need to get a fair deal, as the Prime Minister has made clear, and to make sure that the UK is not paying for stuff that it has not been able to access over the past two and a half years. I am sure that His Majesty’s Treasury is well equipped to have that negotiation on our behalf.

It is now 127 weeks of uncertainty, delay and broken promises since the Conservatives took us out of the world’s biggest and most prestigious science fund, Horizon Europe. Our scientists, universities and businesses have paid the price in lost jobs and investment, so will the Minister confirm or deny the reports that negotiations to rejoin Horizon have stalled because his Government are pushing for a reduced fee to reflect what they believe is a lasting reduction in grants won by UK scientists? If they have permanently damaged our success rate, should the Minister not be trying to fix that, rather than claim a discount?

I refer the hon. Member to the answer I gave a few moments ago. We have negotiated access to Horizon—it was the EU that kept us out. The Prime Minister has unblocked that through the Windsor framework. We have invested substantially through the funding guarantee for all Horizon programmes and through £850 million-odd of additional UK expenditure. We have also increased UK research and development to record levels. We will be at £52 billion by the end of this three years. There is no cutting of UK R&D as a result of this issue. We are actively negotiating to make sure that we get a good deal.

Topical Questions

I have been playing an active part in London Tech Week talking to Britain’s boldest businesses. We have launched our £1 billion strategy to support our semiconductor sector. We have launched our cutting-edge life sciences sector package. I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Simon Fell) who we recently appointed as our rural connectivity champion. May I also update the House in relation to our international leadership that I have been chairing the global forum on technology at the OECD?

Copyright protections are fundamental to the success of the UK’s world-leading creative industries. However, creatives are routinely seeing their content being used to train artificial intelligence platforms without giving their permission and without receiving payment. Does the Secretary of State believe that AI developers’ ingestion of creative content that is protected by copyright without obtaining a licence is infringement under UK law?

The hon. Lady raises an important matter, on which my Department and the Department for Culture, Media and Sport are working closely together. Can I draw her attention to information that I know my right hon. and learned Friend the Culture Secretary will be bringing forward shortly? I reassure the hon. Lady that intellectual property is at the heart of our approach to support the creative industries in this country.

T7. The data Bill’s smart data clauses give us a chance to duplicate Britain’s global lead in open banking in other sectors of the economy, too, but developers cannot start work until they know which sectors will be enabled and in what order. Will my right hon. Friend release an implementation timetable immediately, showing which industries will introduce what and when, to unlock the tidal wave of investment that is waiting to get started and so that we do not get leapfrogged by international rivals? (905403)

First, I pay tribute to my hon. Friend for the work he has done to promote the use of smart data across the economy. The Minister for Enterprise, Markets and Small Business, my hon. Friend the Member for Thirsk and Malton (Kevin Hollinrake) is working with Departments, regulators and industry to agree common principles for future smart data schemes in different sectors. Individual Departments will set out when and how they will use the powers, following appropriate consultation and impact assessments.

Does the Secretary of State agree with the Prime Minister that her AI White Paper is now defunct? Also, the data Bill does not even mention AI. The Online Safety Bill is hardly an advert for speedy action and the semiconductor strategy was slammed by an expert as “quite frankly flaccid”. Does she accept that to show international leadership, the Government need to get their act together at home?

As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister set out this week at London Tech Week, we will be leading at home and overseas and leading change in our public services. That is the right approach. It is pro-innovation. We will capture those benefits for British businesses and British citizens, and I think that the Opposition could do an awful lot better than what they have just presented.

On 30 December 2020, during the pandemic, the then Prime Minister met the vice-chancellor of the University of Oxford and promised £150 million in funding for the university’s pandemic sciences institute. In evidence to the Science, Innovation and Technology Committee this morning, the institute’s director Sir Peter Horby said that not a penny of that money has been received. Will the Secretary of State meet me to see how we can unblock that so that this vital work continues?

T3. This London Tech Week, I pay tribute to King’s Maths School in my constituency, which provides tutoring for 16 to 19-year-olds. The Government promised £300 million for mathematical research in 2020, but now, despite that, they are abandoning the commitment. When does the Minister expect Britain to stay competitive and when can the Government guarantee that funding? (905399)

As the Prime Minister has made clear, we are putting maths at the heart of our curriculum. I am ensuring that maths is properly funded to our research ecosystem. I will happily meet the hon. Member and talk to her about it.

Britain is rightly regarded as a technological and science superpower, but the foundations of our science and technology are technicians and their work and contribution. What more can my hon. Friend do to give them more recognition, more status and, even, more funding to carry on the work they do?

My hon. Friend has a formidable reputation himself in championing, and from having worked in, that area. We are increasing investment in further education and skills by £3.8 billion over the course of this Parliament, because we need technicians to access high-quality training.