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Office Of Science And Technology

Volume 589: debated on Saturday 11 April 1998

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2.58 p.m.

asked Her Majesty's Government:

Whether they will consult with leading scientists as to whether it would be more beneficial in the national interest for the Office of Science and Technology to be located in the Cabinet Office rather than as at present in the Department of Trade and Industry.

My Lords, as my noble friend Lord Haskel made clear to your Lordships on 6th April, the Government have no plans to relocate the Office of Science and Technology from the Department of Trade and Industry, where it successfully fulfils a distinct and most valuable function. The Government, therefore, have no intention to undertake a consultation exercise in this respect.

My Lords, what a sad Answer. Is the Minister just dimly aware that this slavish following of a not particularly brilliant decision by the previous administration seems a little eccentric? I would be grateful if he could explain to the House how it is possible for the Office of Science and Technology to occupy a central and independent position among all departments, as it should and as the noble Lord, Lord Haskel, said it did on 6th April, when it is absorbed into and is part of the DTI, where it has no influence whatever on the remainder of the Government.

My Lords, I note that the previous time this Question was asked by the noble Lord the answer was less than dismal. I have tried to give the same one. The decision was taken by the previous administration on the grounds that it was its belief—it is one we share—that the development of our science and technology rides well with our industrial development policy and our ability to apply that policy for the benefit of Britain's competitiveness. We do not feel so strongly about where one locates offices; we feel very strongly about the quality of the people and the advice that they can give to government.

My Lords, given the reports in the media about the establishment of a Prime Minister's office or department in the event that such a reorganisation should take place, would that not be an appropriate moment to move the Office of Science and Technology into that new department?

My Lords, I do not think we have any details yet of the reorganisation of the central offices. As I said, we have no intention at present to undertake consultation on this matter. The system is well understood and functions successfully.

My Lords, does the noble Lord accept that science and technology is not all about commerce and industry; it is about science, which is much more widely based than merely DTI matters?

My Lords, I perfectly understand the noble Lord's point. At present we have a budget of £14.4 billion for science. That may be allocated to pure science—in industrial terms one can call that "blue skies" research—and to the application of science and the development of technology which is desperately needed to make our industry more competitive. That annual sum of £14.4 billion should be able to accommodate both aspects.

My Lords, I was glad to hear the Minister mention "blue skies" research, but does he understand that the skies in the Department of Trade and Industry are not blue?

My Lords, today I can remember only seeing the sun shine through my windows.

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Peyton, has asked whether Her Majesty's Government will consult with the leading scientists on this matter. If they do so, whom will they consult? The Chief Scientific Adviser and the director general of the research councils are part of the Department of Trade and Industry and are therefore hardly in a position to give independent advice. In this country we have a truly independent body of scientists; namely, the Royal Society. This is closely associated with other relevant bodies; for example, the Royal Academy of Engineers, the medical colleges and others. They understand that science extends far beyond trade and industry. Will the Government seek the advice of the scientists themselves on this matter?

My Lords, the noble Lord has asked a hypothetical question. As I said, we are not in the process of a formal consultation for the reasons I explained in a previous answer. All the time there is, of course, informal consultation with the scientific community. If that became formal consultation for reasons which I do not have at my fingertips—I do not believe they are in the plans—no doubt the learned bodies to which the noble Lord refers could play a part in that consultation.

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that I do not doubt that the reply has been inserted in his brief by his officials or some of his colleagues? It implies that the Government are not interested in the opinions of an eminent body such as the Royal Society. Is he aware that it is at least tinged with arrogance?

My Lords, I do not accept that. As I said, there is continuous consultation with the scientific community about the quality of our research and the strenuous efforts that are made by our scientific bodies. I refer to the Foresight Operations and the Business Link Operations. There is continuous consultation. As I said, at present formal consultation is not taking place. This Government have been a listening government and no doubt if there were formal consultation we would listen formally to the opinions of the bodies that the noble Lord has mentioned.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware that there has been much concern over a long period of time that scientific discoveries and inventions made in this country have been developed abroad and not in this country? Is it not therefore sensible for the Department of Trade and Industry to be the lead department for science to enable us to develop discoveries which have been made in this country rather than allow foreign countries to reap the benefit of that?

My Lords, I am grateful to my noble friend for returning to the serious point of why the previous administration took the decision to locate the Office of Science and Technology in the DTI. That was done to add value to our science and to make our businesses more competitive. I believe that decision was correct. I quote from the report of the House of Commons Select Committee which was published just before the election. It states:

"There may be a temptation for Government to reconsider the system for managing, reviewing and allocating funds for public research; the evidence we have received leads us to conclude that the present system is now working well and there is, accordingly, no requirement for major change, with all the disruptions that it would bring".

My Lords, I hope I may pester the noble Lord again. He referred to a listening government. That tempts me into observing that they have become very deaf.

My Lords, I am listening carefully to the noble Lord. I heard every word he said and I repeat that we are listening.