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Government-commissioned Research

Volume 783: debated on Wednesday 28 June 2017


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what steps they are planning to take to register externally commissioned research in a standardised public register, as recommended by Sir Stephen Sedley in his report Missing Evidence: An Inquiry into the Delayed Publication of Government-commissioned Research, published on 2 June 2016.

My Lords, Ministers understand the importance of ensuring that government research can be easily accessed. Departments can already publish research in a single place, the GOV.UK website, and the Government Digital Service is making it easier for users to find the information they need on this website. More widely, we remain in close dialogue with Sense about Science, which commissioned the report, and with the research community to understand how the Government’s digital channels can better serve their needs.

I thank the Minister for that reply. Sir Stephen Sedley’s report estimates that about £2.5 billion a year is spent on government-commissioned research, which is a very large sum. It is intended to provide an evidence base for public policy. However, much of this evidence is then lost, missing or unfindable by people for whom it is relevant. Commissioning departments, other departments and the public at large cannot find out what has already been done. Past research is simply lost and may have to be duplicated. Does the noble Lord agree that not having a co-ordinated register of this research is a very big waste of taxpayers’ money?

The noble Baroness has rightly summarised the recommendations made by Sir Stephen Sedley. Basically there are two problems, one of which is the availability of research and the other its accessibility. On availability and putting it in the public domain, Sir Tom Scholar, the Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, has recently written to all Permanent Secretaries reminding them of the protocol which obliges them to put research into the public domain as soon as possible. On ease of access—finding the data—the Government Digital Service is sharpening its navigational and taxonomy tools in order to make it easier for users to find the information they need.

My Lords, I am sure that the House is reassured by the noble Lord’s response. He mentioned two problems, but surely the third is that much of this research shows that government policies have little basis in evidence and, therefore, departments are not keen to allow it to be published. Is he aware of the debate in relation to pharmaceutical companies and the publication of research that has not worked? There has been a big change in attitude by a number of the companies and they are now committed to full transparency. Given the sensitivity of those companies, I would have thought that the Government could take the same approach.

Sir Stephen Sedley made it clear that:

“There is no recent evidence of the indefinite suppression of research”.

The problem he identified was not suppression but delay. On medical research, the Chief Medical Officer, Professor Dame Sally Davies, told the inquiry that the systems in place now support publication and said:

“Although a decade or more ago there may have been more of a problem with research being delayed, clearer guidance and publication frameworks in place today mean there isn’t a major problem anymore”.

My Lords, is not the beauty of Sir Stephen’s suggestion that it brings two benefits? It prevents Ministers commissioning backside-covering reports; and, if published, it gives other departments and the taxpayer the value of the research that they have paid for. I am a little worried that the matter is in the hands of the Treasury. Will the Minister draw the attention of the First Secretary, Mr Damian Green, to this matter and suggest that he should circulate an “action this day” memo?

The responsibility for publication does not rest with the Treasury, it rests with the individual department that has commissioned the research. The protocol makes it quite clear that research should be published as soon as possible. A number of the recommendations are being taken forward by the Government Digital Service and by relevant departments. But I will certainly bear in mind the noble Lord’s suggestion that there might be a fresh initiative by my immediate boss, the First Secretary of State at the Cabinet Office.

My Lords, the June 2012 Civil Service Reform Plan, in a section on the components of open policy-making, set out the ambition to have a:

“Shared, transparent evidence base from all sources in accessible format for all to interpret”.

Is the Minister satisfied that, five years on, this reform has been effectively implemented? If not, he may wish to refer to another section of the reform plan, which says of the Civil Service that,

“its culture can be cautious and slow-moving”.

I am sure there is room for progress, but I note that the UK is a world leader on open data and, in 2016, for the third year running, ranked first in the world on the World Wide Web Foundation’s Open Data Barometer.

My Lords, we all know of circumstances in which government research has been published after the relevant debate in this House. We all know that government research has been published in the long vacations or vacations where there is no access to it or ability to scrutinise it or interrogate Ministers about it. In other words, delay is effectively suppression in too many fields. Will the Minister please take seriously the very real and pertinent points made by the noble Baroness, Lady O’Neill, in order to help the House of Lords in its primary function, which is scrutiny?

I certainly agree that research should be released as soon as possible and it would be wrong to suppress it for political reasons. As I said a moment ago, Sir Stephen said he found no indication that research had been indefinitely suppressed. However, he went on to say that delay could be damaging or unfortunate. The protocol that I referred to gives advice to departments on the timing of the publication of research. I will do what I can to make sure that is adhered to.

Is the Minister aware that there is public concern about the failure to publish the report on the funding of terrorism, which is particularly in our minds now in light of recent events? The concern is that the delay may be to cover our commercial interests, perhaps in parts of the Middle East where we have been selling arms. Is delay operating as suppression in this area?

I say with respect to the noble Baroness that I am not briefed on that report, but in the light of her question I will of course make inquiries and let her know the answer to those representations.