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Horizon Europe

Volume 823: debated on Thursday 7 July 2022


Asked by

To ask Her Majesty’s Government what alternative plans they have prepared in the event that the United Kingdom is no longer a part of the Horizon Europe research programme.

My Lords, the Government remain committed to associating to Horizon Europe. We remain disappointed that the EU is politicising science co-operation by delaying association. If the UK is unable to associate soon, we are ready to introduce a comprehensive alternative programme that delivers many of the benefits of Horizon through international collaboration, end-to-end innovation and a strong and attractive offer to encourage talented researchers to build their careers here in the UK.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. This is the third time that I have asked that Question and it is always the same disappointing Answer. I forget—forgive me—whether or not the Secretary of State in the Minister’s department is still in post, but I am a great admirer of the current Minister for Science, who is doing a good job.

He has gone? Then he was going a good job. I can think of no better follow-up question to ask the Minister than whether he agrees with the fact that the Government’s policy on Horizon Europe shows a:

“Lack of HMT commitment to shape & funding of a bold Plan B”


“risks a deepening brain drain & crisis of confidence & credibility in UK”?

Those were the words of the Minister for Science yesterday.

The Minister the noble Lord refers to, one of my ex-colleagues, was doing an excellent job in putting together precisely the programme that the noble Lord asks for. We remain hopeful that the EU will change its position, live up to its obligations and agree to co-operate in science. That is the best way forward for both parties. If it does not, we have allocated £6.8 billion over the spending review period to put in place an alternative programme.

My Lords,

“chaos in No10, breakdown of Cabinet collective responsibility and collapse of public confidence in government represents a constitutional crisis. It is also now seriously undermining our authority in key negotiations on the world stage at a time of urgent international crises”

and “destroying our credibility”. Every single word of that was from the ex-Minister George Freeman this morning. How on earth can we secure a good deal for our nation abroad when at home the Conservative Party is inflicting, in his words, “a constitutional crisis” on us?

It is clearly a difficult political time at the moment but I have great faith in the institutions of this country. I am sure we will get through it and continue the excellent work that this Government have been doing on all those matters.

My Lords, let us hope that we succeed with the remaining part of the Horizon Europe programme. I appreciate that the Government are committed to putting that same money back into research but can the noble Lord confirm that the money will go to research, which is where most of our Horizon Europe programme money goes, and not be earmarked for other purposes not regarded as research? While he is at it, can he update us on developments with ARIA?

I can indeed give the noble Lord that assurance. The money is a direct replacement and will go to research, but our preference remains to associate to Horizon Europe, if possible. With regard to ARIA, the noble Lord can expect some announcements on the chairman and chief executive fairly soon.

Does the Minister accept that this is not just a question of money? Scientific advance depends on international collaboration, networking, exchange of information and so on. Does he accept the gravity of the present situation? Universities are the seed funding of any solution to the productivity issue that is central to economic recovery. At the moment, however, we are cutting ourselves off from Europe, we are suspicious of China and we are introducing a range of legislation, not least the National Security and Investment Act, that will bring great concern and instability to our universities. What measures are the Government taking to address the gravity of that crisis and to assuage that instability, particularly in our institutions of higher education?

There were many different questions there. First, I agree with the noble Lord about the importance of international science collaboration. Secondly, we are not cutting ourselves off from the rest of the world. We remain keen to associate to Horizon Europe and co-operate with other scientific nations across the world. Thirdly, I do not agree with his point about the National Security and Investment Act causing problems for universities. The system is working extremely well and applications are being approved smoothly, as he will see if he looks at the recently produced annual report.

The sorry state of affairs is, of course, the result of the impasse over the Northern Ireland protocol. Can the noble Lord the Minister assure us on two fronts—first, that the plan B concepts will not be brought forward until absolutely the last moment when it is not possible practically to join this iteration of the seven-year Horizon programme, which would come not before the end of this year; and, secondly, that if a plan B comes forward, it would be structured in such a way that the future co-operative and collaborative matters that the noble Lord, Lord Reid, talked about can be taken advantage of because it would be possible to collaborate with a future Horizon programme?

Indeed, the Northern Ireland protocol is the excuse that the EU gives for refusing to live up to its commitment. These are separate agreements and issues. We would prefer them to be completely separate. We want to associate with Horizon Europe because it is in both our interests. There should be international science collaboration, as I said in response to previous questions, and we remain willing to sit down and implement the agreement that was entered into, just as soon as the EU is prepared to talk about it.

As we have heard, the Minister who floated the plan B to replace Horizon Europe is no longer in place. But even before the Government fell apart, neither the Cabinet nor the Treasury had signed it off, anyway. Can the Government now confirm whether these plans are dead in the water and explain how they will take responsibility to protect the British academic sector from further damage before the UK’s associate membership ends?

I do not know if the noble Baroness was listening to the replies that I gave but the Treasury is fully committed to the £6.8 billion announced in the spending review. The Government remain keen to get on with this and associate to Horizon Europe if we can, but we are putting in place alternatives that will be just as effective in terms of international co-operation. We will spend similar amounts of money.

UK participation in Horizon Europe has been of immeasurable benefit to our researchers but, because of their calibre, it has also been of immeasurable benefit to our one-time EU partners. Producing our own scheme will not be the same. What efforts are the Government putting into negotiations to ensure that we can continue to participate in Horizon to our benefit and that of our Horizon partners, too?

I agree with the noble Baroness that this co-operation has benefits for both sides and it is a shame that the EU continues to drag science into wider politics. Now, more than ever, we believe that we should be working closely together with like-minded partners, but it is difficult for us to negotiate if we have no one on the other side willing to talk about it.

My Lords, there is no justifiable reason for the UK not to be part of the Horizon programme. Does my noble friend agree that this is due not to any reticence from the UK Government but to the EU dragging its feet and placing unnecessary obstacles in the way?

My Lords, the Minister referred to plan B, and the financial commitment is obviously to be welcomed. Does he agree that the most important issue here is not finance but the international networks established for research? I should like to quote Professor Dame Anne Johnson, president of the Academy of Medical Sciences, who said:

“Horizon Europe provides an important and established framework for the networks and relationships that underpin international health research and benefit patients’ health everywhere.”

Does the Minister accept that it is the international networks that are crucial?

Money is of course important but I agree that the international networks, both with the EU and wider partners, are also crucial. That I why we should like to associate with Horizon Europe if the EU is prepared to sit down and discuss these things with us and to live up to the commitments it made in the TCA. I am sorry that many Members of this House are prepared to make excuses for the EU on this. We agreed it and are prepared to live by the commitment. It is the EU that is refusing to honour what it signed up to.