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European Research Council

Volume 821: debated on Wednesday 27 April 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what assessment they have made of reports that the European Research Council has written to 150 researchers based in the United Kingdom to say that they must move to institutions in the European Union within the next two months, or else give up their grants.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and update the House on my interests in the register, as I was recently elected president of the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, which, as the House may know, is Parliament’s oldest all-party group.

My Lords, the UK government guarantee means that eligible successful ERC applicants will receive the full value of their funding at a UK host institution and need not leave the UK. Therefore, this communication from the ERC does not accurately reflect the options available to UK applicants. The UK remains committed to association, but the EU is not honouring commitments made when the TCA was agreed. If the EU continues to delay, we will introduce a bold alternative package.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for his reply, but it is still disappointing. I shall put it in context for the House: €625 million-worth of grants were announced this week, with 61 grants to people based in Germany and the second highest number, 45, to people based in the UK. It is these people who have been told that they will lose their money if the Horizon Europe agreement is not reached by the deadline, which the European Research Council today told me is 19 September this year. Does the Minister accept that time is running out for an agreement to be reached between the EU and the UK on Horizon Europe? Does he accept that the problem is the Northern Ireland protocol and that, to some extent, science is being held hostage by the failure to agree the protocol arrangements between the UK and the EU? Is this a situation that we should be proud of when all of us in this Chamber want the UK to be a science superpower? Finally, the last time I raised this question, the Minister said that the money was safeguarded. Can he assure the House that the amount allocated by the Treasury will be spent on science and, if so, on what, where and by what mechanism?

I partly agree with the noble Lord. I agree that time is running out but not that the Northern Ireland protocol is the problem. The EU entered into an agreement which it is now refusing to implement; that is the long and short of the problem. As soon as some Members stop making excuses for the EU’s bad behaviour, we might succeed. We stand ready to associate with the Horizon programme as soon as the EU is prepared to sit down and implement the agreement that it signed.

My Lords, everyone agrees that UK participation in Horizon is of benefit to researchers in the UK, the EU and beyond, but also of mutual benefit is the UK’s commitment to stick to legal engagements that it has made. I am afraid that there is some pot and kettle going on from the Minister. Why are this Government again threatening to breach the Northern Ireland protocol and to take powers—we expect this in the Queen’s Speech—and undermine the trust that is essential to making other co-operation work? This is linked to the Northern Ireland protocol, but it is the Government’s failure to honour their commitments which is the problem.

I am sorry that the noble Baroness refuses to accept where the blame lies in this circumstance. The UK has not breached any agreements that we signed with the European Union. We have abided by all of them. The EU signed an agreement to say that we would associate with the Horizon programme but is refusing to implement that agreement. The Liberal Democrats and others should stop thinking that everything which the EU does is perfect and believe that there are some cases where it gets things wrong.

My Lords, despite what the Minister has just said, the problem is the Northern Ireland protocol, as the last two questioners have said. The EU Research Commissioner confirmed last September that this is why we are being shut out of Horizon Europe while other non-EU countries are being welcomed on board with open arms.

The Northern Ireland protocol is a completely separate agreement. It is different from the agreement that the EU signed. I am sorry, but we should not accept the EU’s excuses on this. The EU signed an agreement, and it should abide by it. I wish that noble Lords would sometimes be on the UK’s side rather than wanting to see fault in everything that we do. We should allocate the blame where it belongs.

We should all live by the agreements that we sign. Should the European research grants be withdrawn from the UK-based researchers, have the Government sought or received any assurances that these grants will be restored once associate membership of the Horizon Europe programme is re-achieved?

The UK has provided a guarantee to all those researchers. If the ERC continues to say that they will not be eligible for grants, as long as the EU itself refuses to agree participation in the Horizon programme, then the Government have said that we will guarantee all those researchers’ grants.

My Lords, of the world’s top 40 universities, seven or eight—depending on which ranking we use—are in the United Kingdom. None is in the European Union. Does the Minister really think that the success of our higher education sector is dependent on participation in the Horizon programme?

My noble friend makes a very good point. We think on balance that it is worth associating with the Horizon programme, which is why we agreed to participate, paying our full amount into it of course for that participation. However, if the EU refuses to stand by the agreements that it signed, we will put alternative arrangements in place, and all the sums that would have been allocated to researchers under the Horizon programme will instead be funded directly by the UK.

My Lords, we should soon be admitted to the Horizon Europe programme for funding research and innovation if the Government were to undertake not to invoke Article 16. However, what progress can the Government report in their endeavour to seek collaborative research arrangements with other countries, in particular with the Swiss, who have also not been readmitted to Horizon?

The noble Viscount makes a very good point and, of course, alludes to the previous answer that I gave to my noble friend Lord Hannan. There are many good universities around the world, not just necessarily in the EU. We have a number of different, collaborative research programmes with other parts of the world. Ironically, under the Horizon programme, it is of course possible for third countries to associate in collaborative research programmes, provided they pay their fair share of the bills. The EU is not just treating us unfairly in terms of the agreement it signed, but is actually treating us differently from other countries in the world.

My Lords, does the Minister understand that top-quality academic research is inherently an internationally co-operative effort? Oh, my phone is ringing. Pending the completion of the Horizon project, the UK’s universities—despite what his noble friend Lord Hannan might suggest—are inherently at a disadvantage, because of the complexity and the fact that they will no longer, in practice, be able to be the co-ordinator of the project, with the loss of the academic prestige and indeed funding that it involves.

Perhaps we should all have musical accompaniments to our answers and questions; I am sure they would be much improved. The noble Lord makes an important point: the leadership of these programmes is important and international collaboration is important in science, but we should not make the mistake of thinking that the EU is the repository of all knowledge and wisdom on scientific matters. There are many other parts of the world. Yes, of course we want to co-operate with EU institutions, but we also want to co-operate with others across the world.

My Lords, I am sure the whole House welcomes what the noble Lord has said about the importance to the UK Government of observing international treaties and agreements that we have signed. Does he intend to imply clearly, and would he like to clarify, that this means there is absolutely no question that the Government will go back on the Northern Ireland protocol?

The Northern Ireland protocol is built into the treaty. The exercising of the Northern Ireland protocol, if we chose to do so, would be in compliance with the treaty obligations. It is a section of that treaty. I merely make the point that the UK has not broken any of its obligations that it signed with the EU. It is the EU that is in default, and it is about time the Liberal Democrats recognised that.

My Lords, the Horizon programme is actually very complex. It would not be completely easy for us to begin the programme, say, 18 months late, without some element of further negotiation. Are the Government already dealing with that on a “what if” basis or will be a further delay, assuming that the protocol is finally sorted out?

As I said, we stand ready to commence negotiations for our association as soon as the EU is prepared to do so. In the meantime, of course, as the House would expect, we are putting in place alternative arrangements if that proves not to be possible.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend for making good the shortfall if we are not remaining part of the Horizon programme. But does he accept that universities have benefited from match funding from other universities in other member states and that that is going to be lost? Do the Government intend to replace that with other establishments from outside the European Union?

I am afraid I do not understand the point my noble friend is making; there is no shortfall as such. The UK pays its fair share for our participation in Horizon and has always done so, and a similar amount of money will be made available in the future if association proves impossible.