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Science, Innovation and Technology

Volume 736: debated on Wednesday 19 July 2023

The Secretary of State was asked—

Artificial Intelligence

1. Whether she plans to bring forward legislative proposals to regulate the use of artificial intelligence. (906120)

5. Whether she plans to bring forward legislative proposals to regulate the use of artificial intelligence. (906124)

Our White Paper set out how we will regulate AI through a flexible framework underpinned by five principles. This proportionate and adaptable approach has been welcomed by British business. It includes new monitoring functions allowing us to update our approach in response to a rapidly evolving technology. The Government will come back with proposals in the autumn following the White Paper consultation.

AI has been used by public authorities in a wide range of contexts that affect individual rights, from facial recognition technology used by police to the system used by the Department for Work and Pensions to investigate benefits claimants. Does the Secretary of State agree that public trust in the state of AI is essential and that any changes to the law will require public support and, therefore, greater consultation to ensure that that trust is not undermined?

The hon. Gentleman makes a thoughtful point. He is right that we need a comprehensive public debate on many of these points. He named some risks that concern him. I would marry those with consideration about opportunities. For example, my colleagues in the Department for Work and Pensions are also looking at how the technology can help with job matching and ensuring that people have information about the job market. I look forward to further conversations, as he said, as we go forward with this critical technology.

Following calls from the SNP, the Minister for the Indo-Pacific, the right hon. Member for Berwick-upon-Tweed (Anne-Marie Trevelyan), agreed that human rights must be at the forefront of AI diplomacy. Will the new UK laws on AI protect people by outlawing any collaboration or research with nations that seek to abuse human rights through, for example, facial recognition or social credit systems?

The hon. Gentleman also makes a thoughtful point, which is an important consideration in all our diplomacy and the work that my colleagues in the Foreign Office take forward. Specifically on AI technology, domestically we have set out our proposals in our White Paper, which as we have said will evolve over time, and internationally we are clear that we see a leadership opportunity for the United Kingdom, because we are already a global leader in this technology and care passionately about ensuring its safe and responsible deployment.

Researchers at Robust Intelligence recently discovered that AI could be trained to bypass its in-built restrictions and privacy protections within hours of use. Despite growing concerns about the impact of AI, the Government are expanding the scope of automated decision making as part of their Data Protection and Digital Information (No. 2) Bill. Can the public have confidence that sensitive personal data will be protected as the Government’s use of AI grows?

The short answer is yes. That is because, first, the legislation that the hon. Lady mentioned focuses on doing that. In addition, in our White Paper we set out the principles on which we intend to take advantage of AI, which ensure that we have safety, transparency, explainability, fairness, accountability and governance, and contestability and redress. Those are all vital, as I know she will agree, and there is much work ahead of us.

I congratulate the Secretary of State on her sure-footed discharge of her responsibilities over the past few weeks, which I think end today.

In the White Paper, there is a commitment that

“when parliamentary time allows…we will…strengthen and clarify regulators’ mandates by introducing a new duty requiring them to have due regard to the principles”

of the White Paper. Given the blistering pace of AI deployment and the fact that the forthcoming King’s Speech will be the last opportunity until 2025, will the Government confirm that they will bring forward that legislation in the next Session?

I thank the Chair of the Select Committee for his kind words about me. My right hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Michelle Donelan) will return later this week. It has been a privilege to help her by conducting her maternity cover at the highest levels.

My right hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee is correct that we set out that plan in our White Paper. We said that we anticipate introducing a statutory duty on regulators

“requiring them to have due regard to the principles”,

which I mentioned in my previous answer. He will also know that I cannot commit to the contents of the King’s Speech, but what I have already said this morning is that the Government will be returning to the House with a full update on the conclusion of the consultation on the White Paper.

I pay tribute to my right hon. Friend’s leadership in this policy area. The conference in the autumn will give the Government an opportunity to lay out their plans for working with international partners. Does she agree that AI cannot be blocked or stopped, and therefore an open, pragmatic approach needs to be shown to harness the benefits of AI for the economy and society in general?

My right hon. Friend is correct. That is what we have laid out in our approach so far. As the Prime Minister said, we intend to lead overseas and domestically, lead the charge of that opportunity in our public services and ensure that our pro-innovation approach enables the benefits of this technology to be captured sooner across the economy.

Was my right hon. Friend reassured by the comments made by Nick Clegg this morning, while representing Meta, that AI at present is not capable of individual thought as such, but goes through a massive trawl very quickly of existing data?

We are drawing on the benefit of a range of experts in our work. In particular, I thank Ian Hogarth and those who have stepped up to form our Foundation Models Taskforce, which is helping us by looking extremely closely at the safety requirements for those models at the very frontier. There will be more updates on that work as time goes on.

The Secretary of State will surely have read the many reports of bad actors using AI technology to create voice clones and, ultimately, scam victims out of money over the phone. For as little as 76p a month, a subscription to one of those websites can be yours, Mr Speaker. Computer security company McAfee recently found that one in four people had experienced a voice scam or knew someone who had. What exactly is the Secretary of State doing right now to prevent and, ultimately, protect people from those voice scams and deepfakes?

The shadow Minister raises a good point, which we should all examine. We have the correct answers, through the approach we have set out in our White Paper using our world-class regulators, the approach we are working on in this House and the other place on the Online Safety Bill, and existing crimes and offences. Right now, my officials are working with Ofcom to ensure it is ready for the duties that will come to it through the Online Safety Bill, and that it has the tools to ensure that scams, fraud and other offences are properly addressed.

The Secretary of State said that my colleagues had made thoughtful points about human rights concerns, control of personal data and public trust, but we need actual action and commitment from the Government. In contrast, the EU is moving to become the first regulator in the world to legislate for a specific AI Act, to ensure that AI works for people as well as business and Government. Will she finally commit to the UK following suit and legislating for AI, to ensure that the UK does not become a haven for the worst possible applications of what should be beneficial technology?

The hon. Gentleman is telling the wrong story. The UK Government are acting comprehensively. The framework we set out in our White Paper applies across the UK. The work we are setting out with our global summit leads the way internationally. That approach is proportionate and flexible, and has been welcomed by business across the UK. In addition, the principles I have already named and the work of my colleagues across Government on human rights and other aspects ensure that our citizens can enjoy the safe and responsible use of this technology. I look forward to working with anyone in this House who has a thoughtful approach to take to that.

Decarbonisation Technologies

2. What recent assessment she has made of the effectiveness of UK Research and Innovation funding for decarbon-isation technologies. (906121)

We can all be proud that this country is leading the global charge on net zero. As part of our historic uplift in R&D expenditure to £20 billion a year—£52 billion over the consolidated spending review period—UK Research and Innovation is investing in £800 million annually on research and innovation in net zero, and £210 million through the industrial decarbon-isation fund. I am delighted that Scotland is in the vanguard, with more than 1,400 projects funded, in receipt of £1.3 billion. The Faraday battery challenge investment of £540 million appears to be working, with the good news today of Tata’s multibillion investment in a £4 billion gigafactory.

I am delighted to hear the Minister acknowledge that Scotland is in the vanguard of research in this area. The Industrial Decarbonisation Research and Innovation Centre at Heriot-Watt University in my constituency has become a focal point of collaboration and innovation for UK industrial clusters, but the excellent progress that it is making is at risk owing to a funding gap. Will the Minister meet me to discuss the vital work being done at Heriot-Watt University, and how the Government can support it better in its efforts to help them to reach their industrial decarbonisation targets?

Broadband: Rural Wales

3. If she will take steps to improve rural connectivity in (a) Delyn constituency, (b) north Wales and (c) Wales. (906122)

Under Project Gigabit, we are launching procurements across Wales and the rest of the UK to deliver gigabit-capable broadband to rural and remote premises not included in suppliers’ commercial plans. We are planning to launch a regional procurement for north Wales by the end of the year, which will include premises in my hon. Friend’s constituency.

The towns of Flint and Holywell in my constituency have 90% and 83% full-fibre connectivity respectively, but the exchange in Mold has only 10%, and Northop only 2.6%. The Mold exchange in particular serves many of the smaller villages and also the farming community, which is vital to my constituency. What more can the Minister do to improve connectivity in these rural areas so that the vital farming sector does not grind to a halt in places such as Delyn?

My hon. Friend is right to stress the importance of digital connectivity to rural communities and businesses. We are pressing ahead apace with Project gigabit, and have appointed our hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Simon Fell) as rural connectivity champion. At present, more than 98% of premises in Delyn have access to superfast broadband, while 62% have a gigabit-capable network, and our Project Gigabit procurements are intended to ensure that communities such as Northop and Mold do not miss out on gigabit-capable connection.

Horizon Europe

We are moving forward with discussions on the UK’s involvement in Horizon Europe, and we hope they will be successful. Association is our preference. The talks are continuing constructively, but we have not yet agreed a deal. We want to reach a resolution as quickly as possible to give the industry certainty. We have also set out our bold alternative, Pioneer, which we are ready to implement if necessary.

Owing to the Government’s delay in associating with Horizon Europe, the UK has lost out on “hosting” nearly 400 high-end European Research Council grants. Furthermore, nearly 50 grant winners have left the country altogether. Scientists including Brian Cox and Sir Paul Nurse are warning that the Government’s failure to act is damaging Britain’s science base. Is the Secretary of State concerned about these failings?

Unfortunately it is the European Union that has delayed for more than two years, and that has caused serious and lasting damage to the UK’s participation. What we need to do is ensure that we can get the right deal for UK researchers, UK businesses and UK taxpayers. That that is what we are working to do, and we are confident that the talks are proceeding constructively. It is much more important to get the right deal than to get a fast deal.

The Government made a manifesto promise to associate with Horizon Europe, but it is now 132 weeks since they took our country out of the world’s biggest science fund. It is shocking but not surprising that they have broken yet another promise. Government inaction has seriously damaged our international science pedigree. How much longer will our world-leading scientists, researchers and universities—who have suffered so much already—be forced to wait because this Government cannot keep their promises?

We have continued to support the sector with more than £1.5 billion of the Horizon guarantee. We have done that to ensure that there is no loss of funding for the UK science sector. I think it far more important to speak directly to researchers, businesses and taxpayers about our commitment to getting the right deal than to engage in party politics here.

We in Bath have two fantastic universities, the University of Bath and Bath Spa University. Their leaders continue to worry about losing talent from Europe, and the Government have worsened the position by proposing a 66% increase in visa fees. Will the Secretary of State explain what that increase will mean for UK science, and how it accords with the Government’s stated ambition to bring the best and brightest to this country?

We continue to run a range of successful talent programmes that bring the best and the brightest to universities and indeed to those in the hon. Lady’s constituency. I welcome her representing them here today. The point is that we have to get the right deal on Horizon, as I have laid out, and we also have to strike a balance with the needs of policy across Government. That is what she has heard from me and other Ministers at this Dispatch Box, and that is how we will ensure that we get the right deal for Britain, both in terms of talent and of science programmes.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is very much in Europe’s interests for us to be part of the Horizon programme, because we have some of the strongest academic institutions in Europe, and in a way it undermines the science base of Europe if we are not in there? Does she also recognise that, although there was great enthusiasm at the recent meeting of the UK-EU Parliamentary Partnership Assembly for us to join again, there was also a feeling that it could surely be done a little more quickly?

I welcome my right hon. and learned Friend’s insight into this issue. As I have already said, we are working consistently and steadily to get the right deal for UK science, by which we mean British researchers as well as taxpayers and businesses. That is what we are doing; the talks are proceeding and I look forward to the House being able to have an update very soon.

I would like to put on record my respect for the Secretary of State and her excellent stewardship of her portfolio.

I would like us to join Horizon Europe, but is it not right that we should get the right deal for our UK scientists, our UK businesses and our UK taxpayers, and that any commentary before a deal is done will only undermine our science industry and not be helpful in the slightest?

That is exactly right, and it is right for two reasons. The first is that billions of pounds of taxpayers’ money are at stake and we need to be responsible stewards of that money. That is why we are focused on getting the right deal. The second point is that my Department exists to forward and further the frontier of science in this country and to make sure that we stay a science and technology superpower. [Interruption.]

Teledyne e2v is the world leader in space imaging. It provides the eyes to NASA, the European space programme and Copernicus. Can my great and right hon. Friend make sure that our conversations about Horizon also include Copernicus? Otherwise, the EU is going to be building Earth observation satellites that cannot see the Earth.

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s interest in this area, and she is absolutely right to say that we have enormous opportunity in our space sector, across a range of aspects. I know that the Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, my hon. Friend the Member for Mid Norfolk (George Freeman), would like to discuss her constituency interest further with her. I can also assure the House that there will be further updates coming soon on the UK Government’s space strategy.

In Vilnius, the Prime Minister had the chance to conclude a deal allowing our scientists to participate in the world’s biggest international science programme, driving innovation and sustainable growth. He did not take it, again, so the Horizon saga drags on, month after month, year after year. Are we in or are we out? The Science Minister is not in the negotiations, and the chief scientist is not in the negotiations. It is all about the Prime Minister. Does the Secretary of State understand that while the Prime Minister is dithering, our science base is withering?

Today is quite possibly my last opportunity at the Dispatch Box. I first served from these Government Benches in May 2010, and the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah) first shadowed me 10 years ago. I know that she has a very fine mind and is a dedicated public servant. However, on this she is wrong. Labour Front Benchers may not know from one day to the next what their policy is, but we have been consistent on this point and we are working hard to get the correct deal for UK taxpayers and UK science.

Topical Questions

Since I last updated the House, my right hon. Friend the Minister for Data and Digital Infrastructure has announced £380 million of funding to bring the fastest internet speeds to some of our most rural communities. The Government’s Office for Life Sciences has agreed a landmark deal with BioNTech that will see up to 10,000 cancer patients benefit from potentially life-saving treatment. Today, my Department has launched a call for evidence on engineering biology.

What action are the Government taking to deliver regulatory reform and business investment in the biosciences sector, so that it can play its part in boosting economic growth and delivering great job opportunities for people across the country?

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s expertise in this area, and I thank the team that works with me on this subject, including my hon. Friend the Minister for Science, Research and Innovation, who has been central in leading how we will reform our regulatory landscape on life sciences. I point my right hon. Friend the Member for Chipping Barnet (Theresa Villiers) to the Chancellor’s announcements, both at the Budget and still to come, on how we will continue to support our life sciences and biosciences sectors, which are essential to the UK economy.

I thank the Secretary of State for her time covering this role, notwithstanding her answer to my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), who asked a very important question.

Today’s inflation figures confirm that prices continue to rise. Broadband customers are dealing with inflation-busting price hikes, as a direct result of the Government’s choices. They lifted the cap on wholesale costs, which has caused retail prices to rise. Will the Secretary of State apologise to hard-pressed families and tackle the cost of living crisis for broadband customers?

We recognise that households are having a very difficult time due to the cost of living, which is why my right hon. Friend the Chancellor has met the regulators to press them to do more to help. We have agreement that social tariffs are now available to all those in receipt of universal credit and other benefits. At the same time, Ofcom has agreed with providers that anybody who wishes to switch to a cheaper tariff can do so without charge.

T2. There can be few more exciting and innovative projects for any constituency than a spaceport to launch satellites into space. We had a done deal to build one on the runway at RAF Scampton, before the Home Office marched in and stymied the whole project. Will the Minister please lobby the Home Office to try to get the spaceport back? Why would the Home Office want a runway, or is there a darker purpose behind this? (906136)

My right hon. Friend has raised this before, and I will happily speak to him about it and support that space cluster. The UK is poised to lead Europe in the launch of low Earth orbit satellites over the coming decade, and we are building launchpads around the country for that very purpose.

T4. The Royal Society’s 2021 visa costs analysis shows that researchers entering the UK via the global talent scheme had to pay six times more than they would have paid under similar international science schemes. Does the Minister acknowledge the cost of Brexit in our failure to attract world-leading researchers and skilled workers? (906138)

The hon. Gentleman is on his own mission. He fails to see the strength of the UK science and technology sector, and he fails to see that it will be better for Scotland’s businesses, scientists and citizens to continue to be part of that thriving sector. That is what we are doing in making sure the United Kingdom is a science and technology superpower.

T3. Indeed, we have world-class universities in the west midlands. What plans does my right hon. Friend have to support regional innovation clusters? (906137)

My hon. Friend makes an important point. We are investing heavily in regional innovation clusters all around this country. We have three: one in Manchester, one in Glasgow and one in the west midlands, where the excellent Mayor, Andy Street, is driving a genuine innovation economy.

Almost one in two properties in my constituency, and less than one in five in rural areas, do not have access to gigabit broadband. They do not even have superfast connections. The Department must help properties get connected where profit incentives are low. Will the Minister provide an update on the gigabit voucher scheme and the total value of vouchers claimed this year?

Currently, more than 76% of premises have access to gigabit-capable broadband and we are on track to meet our target of 85% coverage by 2025. However, the hon. Lady raises a good point about the take-up of social tariffs under the scheme and we want to see that happen much more. We are determined to press ahead with Project Gigabit to achieve our target of universal coverage by 2030.