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Science, Innovation and Technology

Volume 743: debated on Wednesday 10 January 2024

The Secretary of State was asked—

Research and Development: Private Investment

1. What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on trends in the level of private investment in research and development in the last 12 months. (900779)

13. What recent discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on trends in the level of private investment in research and development in the last 12 months. (900793)

This Government have a fantastic track record of mobilising private investment in research and innovation, alongside delivering the largest ever public spending, which will reach £20 billion a year next financial year. In November, the global investment summit saw commitments to invest almost £30 billion in the UK, including the decision by Flagship Pioneering, one of the world’s leading life science investors, to have its first international base in the UK.

Hertford and Stortford lies at the heart of the innovation corridor, so private investment is very important to businesses in my constituency. Does the Minister have any assessment of the likely impact of the Mansion House reforms on that trend and the great track record of private investment?

Like its Member of Parliament, Hertford and Stortford is indeed innovative. The Mansion House reforms, which in my previous role I helped the Chancellor to deliver, will unlock an estimated £50 billion of investment to scale up high-growth companies across the whole United Kingdom, including in my hon. Friend’s constituency. That sits alongside our £250 million initiative for long-term investment for technology and science—LIFTS—which will focus particularly on British pensioners investing in long-term growth opportunities in tech and the life sciences. When it comes to British innovation, this Government are all in, and I hope that in 2024 financial institutions will be too.

In October, the Government announced the £60 million regional innovation fund to boost university support for regional economic growth. Wales was allocated £3.4 million through the Barnett formula. However, disappointingly, there is no evidence of that money having been spent on its intended purpose in Wales. What assistance can the Minister provide to encourage the Welsh Government to invest Wales’s proportion of the regional innovation fund in boosting the Welsh economy?

As my hon. Friend said, the recently announced regional innovation fund is providing £60 million of funding across the United Kingdom to harness the strength of our universities. It is intensely disappointing that the Labour Government in Wales have not seen fit to spend that in the same way. Ultimately, that is a decision for the Labour Government, and I am sure that the electorate will hold them to account for that.

Private investment will need to ratchet up significantly if it is to offset the loss to the research sector that we are seeing as international student applications plummet as a result of Government policy. What are the Minister and his colleagues doing to offset that decline in resources?

Once again, it is an enormous shame that the hon. Member for the wonderful cluster of Cambridgeshire is so keen to talk down the United Kingdom at every opportunity. This Government are mobilising more public funding for research and development than ever before, and mobilising private investment capital on the back of that—£2 for every £1 that the Government put in.

Yesterday I was talking to a Minister in the Lobby, and he referred to how impressed he was by the Northern Ireland workforce. I am equally impressed, as the Member for Strangford. When it comes to research and development across the United Kingdom, what is Northern Ireland getting to help our workforce grow, to train our people and to make us an integral part of this United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

Having visited Northern Ireland, I am aware of just how innovative and highly skilled it is, and how much opportunity and headroom there is. It is very important to me, as the Minister for Science and Research, that Northern Ireland punches above its weight. I would be delighted to visit Northern Ireland to meet businesses, entrepreneurs and innovators there.

Digital Phone Network: Vulnerable Customers

2. What steps her Department is taking to help ensure that vulnerable customers are supported when their phone lines are transitioned to the digital network. (900780)

On 14 December, I convened the UK’s leading telecom providers to discuss the next steps to protect vulnerable households when providers upgrade phone lines. As a result, telecom providers have now signed a charter, committing to concrete measures to protect vulnerable households. This is a positive step by industry to make sure that safety continues to be at the heart of the nationwide switchover.

A concern about the new digital network for vulnerable people in North West Norfolk who rely on personal alarms in emergencies is loss of service in a power cut. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that those welcome new protections deliver robust back-up plans in such circumstances, and that they are clearly communicated to customers?

I absolutely agree that the power resilience of our digital infrastructure is key to keeping people connected. As part of signing up to the voluntary charter, the main communication providers have promised to work towards providing more powerful back-up solutions that go beyond Ofcom’s minimum requirements. I have had multiple conversations with Ofcom on this matter. It is now consulting, with the aim of further strengthening the UK’s resilience on power cuts.

Rural connectivity remains a huge problem in my constituency. As the Secretary of State said, the charter has been introduced. However, it was introduced over a year into the process, when things had already gone wrong. What is she going to do to rectify that?

I would like to correct the hon. Member. The decision on the public switched telephone network was made by business, because of the problems with the existing copper lines and the fact that that, too, poses significant challenges. What we have done is take proactive steps by convening industry to ensure that they are going further than their existing commitments, and we have involved the regulator at every step.

Rural Connectivity

Great digital connectivity is now absolutely vital to people’s life chances and we do not want rural areas to be left behind. That is why we are putting £2 billion into gigabit, so that it is in every corner of the country. We are putting cash into satellites for the hardest to reach bits. We have a plan for mobile operators to get much more phone coverage. The best bit, of course, is that we have a new rural connectivity champion, in my hon. Friend the Member for Barrow and Furness (Simon Fell), to get the countryside connected.

I am delighted to hear everything the Minister has to say, but what further advice can she give to a colleague keen to champion specific rural communities facing challenges with poor digital connectivity?

First, I want to reassure my hon. Friend that a lot of work is being done on gigabit and mobile reception for rural areas. There is a regional procurement under way that covers his constituency and a neighbouring one, but I also recommend that constituents elect great MPs who can hold me and Building Digital UK to account in the surgeries we hold in Parliament—they already have such an MP in him. He is clearly doing something right, because Walsall North has 92% gigabit-capable coverage, compared with a national average of 79%. All I would say to Tamworth is: take note.

My hon. Friend will be aware of the difficulty in securing a Project Gigabit contract for Lancashire. Once signed, a contract will help isolated premises and rural communities get a much-needed superfast connection. Last month, I spoke with BDUK about progress on the procurement process. What steps is she taking to ensure that timescales do not slip and that we can see installation under way for the second half of this year, as currently planned?

I thank my hon. Friend for holding me to account and I very much share his sense of urgency. His constituency has 86% gigabit-capable coverage, so it is above the average, but none the less I understand the frustration that people have when their premises are not covered. I reassure him that I raised this matter with BDUK yesterday. I want to get going as fast as possible. We expect that procurement to be sorted in the summer.

I welcome my hon. Friend back to her place. She will know what is coming, based on the multiple conversations that she and I, and various digital Ministers over the years, have had on the woeful delivery of rural broadband in Scotland, which is the responsibility of the Scottish Government. The Reaching 100% scheme was supposed to bring faster internet to 60,000 properties across the north and north-east by the end of 2021, but so far it has delivered only a little over 9,000, with over 50,000 still to go and zero R100 North contract delivery in the Banffshire and Buchan Coast constituency. Since my hon. Friend has returned to her post, what discussions has she had with the Scottish Government about dealing with the pause implemented on BDUK and Scottish Government—

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s work in this area. He is a tremendous champion for his constituency. He will be aware that I spoke to the Scottish Government before I went on maternity leave. I asked for an update on that work yesterday when I spoke to BDUK. I understand that progress is being made. I am anxious to get that sorted because Scotland is missing out and falling behind other parts of the UK. That is not good enough and I want to help him to do everything he can to get this moving.

I have raised with the Minister over and over again the subject of the village of Bryncethin in my constituency, where three streets still do not have connectivity. BT Broadband has now come in to do the work, which it says it will complete in 2026. That is just not acceptable. Will the Minister point out to BT Broadband again that the position needs to be rectified quickly, and that the work on those three streets should not take two years?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, things are changing in Wales because the Welsh Government are starting to take some of the contracts in-house. That work is under way, but I am happy to look into that specific issue with Openreach on his behalf, because I appreciate the frustration felt by his constituents. Those Welsh Government contracts are being taken in-house because we think we will be better placed to deliver them.

When it comes to rural connectivity, nothing can be more important than connectivity for the emergency services. Does the Minister agree that it is a disgrace that the emergency services network upgrade programme is seven years late and now has a budget of more than £11 billion, which is nearly 10 times its original budget?

The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the vital importance of ensuring that the emergency services network is up and running and that it is robust, particularly in rural areas. I am not aware of the specific issues in his constituency—I am happy to look into them—but as far as I am aware, the programme is on track.

The shared rural network is key to improving mobile coverage in rural areas, but the maps showing the partial notspots certainly do not reflect the lived experience of my constituents. What will the Minister do to improve the data that companies use for deciding where to put their improved services?

That is an important issue, and we have raised it with Ofcom because we share the hon. Lady’s concern that the data is not good enough and is not being reflected in constituents’ actual experiences. I am very alive to this problem and want it to be put right.

Innovation in Technology

The science and technology framework is our clear plan for supporting innovation through our five critical technologies that underpin the future of the UK economy. We have already committed significant investment to those technologies, including £2.5 billion for quantum, £2 billion for engineering biology and £1 billion for semiconductors. We are also driving innovation through initiatives such as regulatory sandboxes, focusing on future skills and establishing a new digital markets regime to promote more dynamic competition in digital markets.

We have seen in recent years how much innovative technology can do to track down criminals, and we have seen, for instance, the use of drones in the war in Ukraine. What some of us cannot understand is why we and the French cannot use more of this innovative technology to track down the criminal gangs who are herding people on beaches and putting their lives at risk. Why can we not devote more resources to catching these people with new technology?

I thank my hon. and gallant Friend for his question. I can confirm that my colleagues in the Home Office are absolutely committed to breaking the business system of these callous and illegal criminal gangs. A key part of that is technological innovation, and a range of technologies are being used.

Businesses I speak to are excited about the innovation that artificial intelligence offers, but deeply frustrated by the Government’s uncertainty over regulation. The original White Paper was delayed for a whole year. When it finally landed, Ministers told Parliament that a response to the consultation would happen in 2023, but we are now in 2024. Will businesses have to wait for an election to be given the certainty they need, or will the Secretary of State and her ministerial team commit to publishing the response this month?

Businesses have made it clear that they want us to ensure that we understand the risks or AI, but also the balance between those risks and the opportunities that AI presents. We have already committed to publishing the response to the consultation in due course.

The proposed sale of the Rosalind Franklin Institute, a critical piece of national infrastructure, will be hugely damaging to innovation in biomedical science. I appreciate that the Science Minister will be meeting me later today to discuss the issue, but can the Minister explain how this sale sits with the UK Government’s plan to be a science superpower?

I hope that my colleague the Science Minister will be able to address the hon. Lady’s concerns at that meeting.

Artificial Intelligence: Skills Training

The Government have funded a broad package of AI skills initiatives through the education pipeline, to address the skills gap and to support citizens and businesses to take advantage of the wealth of opportunities that AI technologies provide. We have funded a new AI master’s conversion course and published draft guidance to help training providers develop business-relevant AI skills training.

The defence AI strategy acknowledged an AI skills gap across the whole of defence and promised to work with industry to provide expertise in AI and develop a skills framework. That was two years ago. Where is it?

The hon. Member does not quite grasp the magnitude of what we have done on this agenda. We have invested £290 million in it since 2018. We also recently published guidance to support businesses to adopt AI. We will continue to prioritise that area.

Just before Christmas, the EU institutions declared that they had agreed to a new EU AI Act. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of that? How does her intended approach in the UK differ?

I welcome my right hon. Friend’s work in this space. The EU has taken a slightly different tack from us. We want to foster innovation in AI, seize the opportunities for our public services and ensure that the jobs are located here in the UK. That is why we have our domestic track—we will produce a White Paper shortly—and also why we introduced an international track and convened the entire world for the first ever global AI safety summit. We are certainly leading in this area.

It is vital that Britain grasps the opportunity of AI to grow our economy and to modernise vital public services. That relies on having a supply of highly trained staff. However, the Government are failing in that. Their AI scholarship scheme is floundering, with Ministers finding only 21% of the funding they promised. Why has the Department failed? When will the Secretary of State authorise an urgent review of this vital policy area?

Perhaps the hon. Member missed my answer to the previous question, so I will indulge him by repeating it. Since 2018, we have dedicated £290 million to AI skills. That does not sound like a Government who are failing on that agenda.

Researchers from Overseas

7. Whether she is taking steps with Cabinet colleagues to help retain researchers from overseas who are working in the UK. (900785)

12. What steps she is taking with Cabinet colleagues to encourage overseas researchers and innovators to come to the UK. (900792)

I hope that the hon. Members and their party will join me in celebrating just what a fantastic place the UK is for international researchers to work and live. We have one of the strongest science bases, the world’s leading universities and research institutions, and the largest ever public research and development budget. With our association with Horizon from the beginning of the year, we are central to global research collaboration.

This year, the Migration Advisory Committee will review the graduate immigration route. International research students who are currently doing PhDs in the UK are attracted to coming here because of the ability to stay on and work after completing their PhD. Will the Minister engage with the Home Office to confirm that research students who arrive in the UK this year will continue to be entitled to a period of post-study work?

In keeping the UK an open and welcoming place to do international research, in order to deliver the Prime Minister’s vision of being a science superpower, my colleagues and I regularly meet Home Office colleagues. The facts belie the hon. Gentleman’s question: 41% of postgraduate research in the UK today is being conducted by researchers who have come from overseas.

The Government’s recent spousal visa policy to increase the salary threshold is forcing academics and innovators to leave. I give the Minister the example of a British constituent of mine who is graduating from Oxford with a PhD, which is funded by UK Research and Innovation. His American wife, who is graduating from Bangor with a PhD, cannot live with him because the job he has been offered is paid well below the salary threshold. Why are the Government using taxpayers’ money to educate people to become highly qualified researchers if their immigration policy then forces them to leave?

A fair immigration policy is absolutely part of an open Britain. It is right that those who come here from overseas and live cheek by jowl with those who clean their labs, drive their local buses and empty their bins do their fair share in contributing to the UK economy.

Does my hon. Friend agree that one of the great strengths of our rejoining Horizon and the other European programmes is that our expert researchers and top professors will lead research teams that attract researchers from across the world, including the EU? That is one way to retain researchers here.

My right hon. and learned Friend makes an apposite point. I would ask all Members of this House to go back to their constituencies and talk to local firms, innovators, clusters and universities to make sure the UK punches above its weight in the Horizon programme.

In my constituency, Phytome is a fantastic independent researcher of agro-pharmaceuticals. I invite the Minister to visit the firm one day. What more is he doing to ensure that we can attract the very best talent from around the world into life sciences, even in Cornwall.

I would be delighted to visit the innovative firm in my hon. Friend’s constituency. She will know about the global talent visa, which has seen a 76% rise in visas issued over the last year alone, welcoming the world’s best scientists to Britain’s science and technology superpower.

Topical Questions

This year, my ministerial team and I will be laser-focused on delivery. We will back the science and tech businesses that are growing the economy, creating new jobs and improving lives across our country. We want to make sure that British people have the skills they need to take advantage of those jobs, and we also want to support innovative start-ups across our country to scale up here and stay in the UK. We want to use regulation as a tool for innovation, by designing a transparent set of rules that encourage our entrepreneurs to be bold, and we want to ensure that the British people truly feel the benefits.

In advance of the Budget, what discussions has the Minister had with the Treasury regarding crucial funding for the development and uptake of human-specific technologies, as opposed to using 3 million animals for experimentation and research in the UK?

The day cannot come quickly enough when we are able to end the practice of animal testing. That day is not now, but this Government are committed to doing everything we can to bring forward and support the development of replacement technologies. The hon. Gentleman has my commitment that we will do that at the right pace.

T4. Will the Minister join me in congratulating SaxaVord on gaining its spaceport licence from the Civil Aviation Authority? Does he agree that the site in Shetland will serve as a critical vertical launch site not just for the UK but for the rest of Europe and beyond, and as such is deserving of full UK Government support? (900848)

Yes, I congratulate SaxaVord on achieving the necessary licences to pursue vertical launches from Scotland. I hope to see the success of that launch, as well as rocket boosters under the UK space programme in 2024.

A recent study has shown that, through digitisation, the UK’s small businesses can generate £77.3 billion in additional revenue and create 885,000 new jobs in this country. However, around four in 10 small businesses do not see new technology as relevant to their company and do not see tech investment as offering good value for money, citing a lack of skills and knowledge. What is being done to ensure that small businesses are not left behind in the technological revolution?

We work very closely with the Department for Business and Trade on this agenda, and we work with the Department for Education on skills in general. We have fantastic programmes such as Innovate UK, which is helping to support businesses with the uptake of artificial intelligence. We recently produced additional guidance, too.

I welcome my hon. Friend the Minister for Science, Research and Innovation to one of the great offices of state, and I thank the Secretary of State for supporting the science and technology superpower mission. Does she agree that, as the Prime Minister plans a rightly robust response to the Post Office saga, we need to learn important lessons about technology procurement to make sure that Whitehall never again repeats this appalling misjustice? [Interruption.]

You will see from the loud cheer the popularity of the former Minister, Mr Speaker, and let me take the opportunity to thank him for his hard work and dedication to the science, innovation and technology agenda. He worked very hard on the science and technology framework, an important pillar of which, as he knows, is procurement, and I absolutely agree with the sentiments he echoed.