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European Union Membership: Science and Technology

Volume 762: debated on Monday 22 June 2015

Question

Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of the effect of withdrawal from the European Union on investment in science and technology in the United Kingdom.

My Lords, the Government are committed to investing in science and making Britain the technology centre of Europe. We have a clear mandate for reform and will hold an “in or out” referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union by the end of 2017.

Since Peers on all sides of the House as well as the Financial Times and scientific institutions now agree that there should be more technologically advanced companies with UK ownership, does the Minister agree that this objective is threatened by the loss of European-funded research if the UK leaves the European Union?

Not at all. Our position is very sensible. We are looking for an improved position in a reformed Europe to end uncertainty. The Government’s plans involve various areas, including increasing economic competitiveness. Science and innovation are clearly vital ingredients in that economic competitiveness.

My Lords, will the noble Baroness be so kind as to provide the House with clear figures on the benefits that British universities and researchers have obtained from the European Budget over, say, the last 10 years, and the prospective figures for the rest of the present budgetary framework period that runs up to 2020, which would be put at risk if a negative result arises in the referendum to which she has referred?

My Lords, I do not have the exact figures the noble Lord is asking for. However, in the latest EU Innovation Union Scoreboard, the Commission noted that the UK’s performance was 9% above the EU average in 2007 and 15% above the average for 2014. But the point is that we are looking for an improved deal in a reformed Europe. When the Government have a deal, that will be the time for a full discussion and debate on these issues.

My Lords, we really need to get better at this. All of us have a responsibility to make Question Time work. It is not just down to me to help the House; it is the responsibility of everybody. My noble friends behind me are calling for the noble Lord, Lord Pearson. As noble Lords know, it is not for me to decide who speaks in this House; it is for the House to indicate whose turn it is. I suggest that we hear from the noble Lord, Lord Pearson, then from the noble Baroness, Lady Ludford, as we have not yet heard from a Liberal Democrat this Question Time.

My Lords, I am most grateful to the noble Baroness. Are the Government aware of the latest figures from the Office for National Statistics, which show that in 2013 the UK gave the EU some £14 billion net? Is there any reason why we could not invest in this and other worthy causes out of the huge saving we would make on withdrawal? Indeed, does that figure not prove that there is no such thing as EU aid to this country at all?

Your Lordships may also be aware of the improvements in the budget that my right honourable friend the Prime Minister made at the end of 2013. But the whole point of the debate today is that we are focusing on renegotiation with the EU to get the best possible deal for the UK in a reformed Europe, which we hope to be able to recommend, although obviously if partners stonewall and refuse to compromise, we can rule nothing out.

My Lords, does this vital matter not illustrate how hazardous it is to embark on a renegotiation exercise driven more by party interest than by national interest? Will the Government commit to doing a full review of the risks and impact of a possible Brexit sooner rather than later, before we have a rather erratic negotiation exercise?

My Lords, our negotiation is all about getting the best deal for the British people and then offering them a clear choice. The right question is not about detailed assessments but about a choice on membership in the key areas, and that is what my right honourable friend the Prime Minister is busy securing for us.

My Lords, I hear what the Minister says about EU funding and assessment, but will she comment on the fact that although the science budget was protected from government cuts, five years of ring-fencing have effectively reduced UK science spending by around 15%? Is the Minister concerned about that?

My Lords, in our manifesto we made a long-term commitment to science capital investment; that is,

“£6.9 billion in the UK’s research infrastructure to 2021”.

Of course, the past five years have been a difficult time, but that is because we have been tackling the financial crisis that, sadly, we inherited. But we want Britain to be the best place in Europe to innovate, to patent new ideas and to grow companies.

I refer to the question raised by the noble Lord, Lord Hannay. I quite understand that the Minister would not have in her brief all the figures he requested, but I wonder if she will place her answer, giving the details, in the Library for us all to see.

I thank the noble Baroness for her question and I will of course look at the noble Lord’s detailed questions and provide what information I can on R&D, without speculating in a way that I think would be inappropriate at this vital stage of the negotiations on Europe. I think the Prime Minister is rightly not showing his full hand at the moment because he needs to pursue key areas of reform in this vital negotiation.