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Horizon Europe

Volume 819: debated on Wednesday 9 March 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government whether they intend to join the Horizon Europe programme; and if not, why not.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper—and, if I may, I would like to wish the noble Lord, Lord Tebbit, well in his retirement. He is a man I have disagreed with all my adult life, and I am sorry he did not quite last long enough in the Chamber to listen to the exchanges on what is my first Oral Question.

My Lords, in line with the agreement made in December 2020, this Government are committed to finalising our association to Horizon Europe at the earliest opportunity. We continue to push the EU swiftly to formalise our association to Horizon Europe, as international co-operation is more important than ever now. We will support the UK R&D sector in all scenarios, either by associating to Horizon Europe or by implementing an alternative UK programme.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for the reply, but it is very dispiriting. On Monday this week in the other place, the annual STEM for Britain competition was held, which features early-career scientists from the UK and Europe, with brilliant work on display. It is the very week when our chances of co-operation with Europe are slipping away, which will be terribly damaging. Indeed, does the Minister agree with me that not joining Horizon Europe is

“harming scientific research and collaboration”?

He certainly should, because that is a direct quote from the meeting held before Christmas of the Specialised Committee on Participation in Union Programmes.

Finally, may I also ask him about the money? Money has been allocated in the Budget for our participation in Horizon Europe. The financial year is drawing to an end, and we have not yet joined. Can the Minister assure the House that the money allocated for Horizon Europe will not be lost to science but will be carried over, either for the UK’s participation in Horizon Europe or for such other plan B as may eventually be necessary?

I agree with the noble Viscount; it is indeed very disappointing that the EU is refusing to abide by the agreement we made with it. I am sure that some of the EU’s supporters in this House will want to urge it to press ahead with this agreement. The UK stands willing and able to associate. We have an agreement to that effect, and we hope the EU will also abide by its commitments. The noble Viscount will be aware that the spending review allocated funding for full association to EU programmes. In the event that the UK is unable to associate, the full funding allocated will go to UK programmes; £5.6 billion was set aside over the spending review period.

My Lords, the head of policy at the Wellcome Trust is quoted as saying:

“There is a real prospect that bright young scientists will decide it will be best … if they leave the UK.”

Meanwhile, recruitment of postgraduates in some of our elite universities is reported to be seeing a huge drop in candidates. This is because young researchers fear for the future progression of their careers. The Minister said we were seeking to resolve this at the earliest possible opportunity, and I take him at his word. However, these people are making decisions now—the brain drain is already happening. In the meantime, what is the plan to attract and retain the talent we need in this country?

I reiterate the point: we want to associate with Horizon Europe. It is not the UK that is holding up association but the EU. We want to do that at the earliest possible opportunity. If the funding we have set aside is not used for Horizon Europe, we intend to spend equivalent sums on a UK programme, co-operating with other third countries if necessary. Hopefully that will attract the talent the noble Lord refers to.

My Lords, does the Minister take pleasure from the fact that your Lordships’ European Affairs Committee has written to the Commissioner and the Foreign Secretary about seeking to unblock Horizon? Does he not recognise that we and the EU are now basically in a lose-lose situation in which both sides are being damaged by failure to reach agreement? In the months ahead, could we see an effort by both sides to get that unblocked?

I am delighted that the European Affairs Committee has supported our position on this. As I say, the blockage is not on our side. I hope that in its letter it acknowledged where the fault lies in this situation. The EU has an agreement to associate, which we signed up to in good faith. We stand willing to associate; it is the EU that is currently blocking progress.

My Lords, we need to be pragmatic about this. The truth is that this is being held up and delayed because the Government have made such a hash of negotiations on the Northern Ireland protocol. I do not see any prospect of getting it resolved until that problem is sorted out. As this may take some time, are the Government reaching out to counterparts in the EU to make sure that, even if some further months elapse, we can still join the Horizon programme, albeit at a late stage?

I am sorry that the Opposition seem to be supporting the EU position on this. The Northern Ireland protocol is a completely separate part of the agreement, and of course we stand willing to negotiate in good faith on that as well. The two are not linked. The EU has signed up to an agreement and should honour it; we will continue to press it to do so. The Northern Ireland protocol is also part of the same agreement.

My Lords, does the Minister agree that the European Horizon programmes have been hugely important in catalysing research collaborations and networks, not only between British scientists and European ones but with scientists in low and middle-income countries? Moreover, does he agree that they have also been an invaluable funding bridge between the basic science funding that our research councils provide and the much more downstream R&D funding that industry provides? Her Majesty’s Government are committed to funding successful applications to Horizon while negotiations to join continue, but how long is that commitment for? Will it continue if our application to join ultimately fails?

I agree with the noble Lord that the Horizon project is very valuable. That is why we want to continue association with it and why the funding has been allocated. With regard to the funding guarantee, of course we will want to provide certainty as quickly as possible. We will have announcements to make in that regard in due course.

My Lords, the Minister will be aware that one of the key areas of research in the Horizon programme is space, which we see as very important; the Government have done a considerable amount in that area. One area where there was great advance is OneWeb. Have the events in Ukraine effectively stopped the disposition of that satellite system? If not, where do we stand on it?

The noble Lord makes a very good point. Of course, there is currently a dispute ongoing with Russia about the launch of the OneWeb satellite. My right honourable friend the Secretary of State is closely involved in this and is trying to unblock it as quickly as possible. But we will not be held to ransom.

My Lords, accepting that the ideal scenario would be for the UK to be part of the Horizon Europe programme, we are, I understand, in a similar situation to Switzerland. In that respect, what plan or negotiation are the Government having with the Swiss research council to collaborate with it?

The noble Lord asks a very good question. I know that the Minister for Science has had productive discussions with the Swiss on that. They have an extremely good, advanced and able scientific programme, and we will be looking to step up our co-operation with Switzerland.

My Lords, in headier days the Government assured us that Brexit would not mean leaving either Erasmus or Horizon. One is tempted to ask what went wrong, because it certainly is not all the EU’s fault. If the Government have an alternative, why can they not start spending now?

I am afraid it is indeed the EU’s fault, and no amount of spinning from the Liberal Democrats will get away from that. We want to associate with the programme, we stand ready to do so and the money is available. If it proves to be not possible, we will spend equivalent sums on supporting UK science.

My Lords, when the Government negotiated, did they make an “in principle” decision agreement or a cast-iron agreement? It is hard to believe that something that the European Commission agreed to as cast iron is now being rejected by it.

I am sorry that the noble Lord cannot believe that the European Commission could do anything wrong, but this is actually part of the trade and co-operation agreement that the EU and the UK signed up to. We want to see all parts of that agreement implemented.

My Lords, Horizon Europe is the EU’s key funding programme for research and innovation, with a budget of £95.5 billion. It tackles climate change, helps to achieve the UN’s sustainable development goals, and boosts the EU’s competitiveness and growth. Legal entities from the EU and associate countries can participate. Can our participation and our expenditure be on the basis of having the ability to benefit from items that we are financing?

My Lords, the noble Lord, Lord Hannay, referred to our letter. Our letter came after an evidence session, when it was clear that it was mutually harmful to science communities of the UK and Europe not to have the UK participating in the programme. That is not surprising, because the joint declaration, which is the foundation of this agreement, says:

“The Parties recognise the mutual benefit”.

Can the Minister assure us that both parties understand that there is a mutual harm in the programme not starting with UK participation?

I agree totally with the noble Earl that it is to the benefit of both parties. It provides value for money for the UK, which is why we agreed to associate with it. We thought that we had a legally binding agreement with the EU, as part of the trade and co-operation agreement. We will continue to try to unblock that and work towards agreement. We want to associate with it precisely because we think that it is to the benefit of both parties, and we hope that will be obvious to the EU as well.