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EU Programmes

Volume 832: debated on Thursday 7 September 2023


My Lords, with the leave of the House, I shall now repeat a Statement made in the other place earlier today by my right honourable friend the Secretary of State for Science, Innovation and Technology. The Statement is as follows:

“Mr Speaker, this is a momentous day for British science and technology as we have negotiated a great landmark deal, designed in the UK’s best interest—a hard-fought-for deal that will allow the UK’s world-leading scientists, researchers and businesses to participate with total confidence in both Horizon Europe and Copernicus. It gives the best and brightest of the UK’s scientific community access to the world’s largest research collaboration programme. It means that British scientists and businesses can co-operate with researchers not just in the EU but in Norway, New Zealand and Israel—expanding the reach and impact of British science and technology to every corner of the globe. With Korea and Canada looking to join these programmes in the future, we are opening the doors to further pioneering, international collaboration with a growing group of countries tomorrow.

We were always clear that we wanted to associate with Horizon, and that is why we had it in the trade and co-operation agreement. However, as honourable Members will know, we were not able to commence negotiations for over two years because the EU had linked it to the Northern Ireland protocol. It was the Prime Minister’s Windsor Framework that broke the deadlock and allowed us to commence intense negotiations. We said all along that we would only accept a good deal, which is why we did not take the first deal that was offered to us. Instead, we pursued a bespoke agreement that delivers for British taxpayers, British researchers and British businesses.

We will not pay for a second of the time in which we were not members of the programme. Our deal also protects and benefits hard-working taxpayers through a new clawback mechanism. What is more, our scientists and researchers can benefit from Horizon today, meaning that they can immediately bid into the programme, with certainty over funding. All calls in the 2024 work programme, including those that open for bids this year, will be funded through our association to Horizon Europe, while the few remaining 2023 work programme calls will be funded by the UK guarantee, as they have been to date.

But this is not just about Horizon. We needed a bespoke deal that gave us access only to EU programmes that would benefit the UK. Having listened to voices from our world-leading fusion sector, we will not be joining the Euratom programme. Instead, we are investing an additional £650 million straight into cutting-edge fusion programmes over the same period—assisting our journey to become a science and technology superpower by 2030.

When I first started this job, I made it my number one priority to listen to the voices and views of the scientific and tech communities. They told me that almost two-thirds of research funded through Horizon’s European Research Council grants leads to major scientific advances. I heard loud and clear how essential associating to Horizon was for the sector. I am delighted to now deliver on that. The deal we have negotiated has been warmly welcomed by the whole scientific community. It gives them the certainty they need to continue delivering long-term research and innovation that changes people’s lives for the better and to be truly global in outlook. But Members do not need to take my word for it. Today’s news has been supported by Universities UK, the Russell group, all four of our prestigious national academies, leading tech businesses including Airbus and Rolls-Royce, and countless more.

But this is not just about funding and support for universities and businesses. It is a deal that has real-world impact for people and communities throughout the UK. This deal is set to create and support thousands of new jobs as part of the next generation of research talent. The deal we have negotiated will allow the UK to continue playing a leading role on the international stage in solving the grand challenges of our time—from climate change and the race to net zero to finding cures for cancer, dementia and other life-threatening diseases.

Alongside this deal, the Government are proudly backing our science and tech communities. We have committed to invest £20 billion in R&D by the next financial year. That means more record funding on wider priorities, from harnessing the power of AI to improve our public services to tapping the potential of quantum computing. We will continue to strengthen our collaboration with countries beyond Europe, building on the success of the international science partnership fund we launched earlier this year to deliver truly global science with truly global benefits. Today, we take another giant leap in our mission to make Britain a science and tech superpower, and I am confident that scientists and businesses are ready to seize the moment. The horizon could not be brighter for British science and technology”.

My Lords, what a climbdown; what a humiliation. When it comes to Horizon Europe, the response is straightforward: “At last, what a relief”. The UK’s absence from Horizon has been enormously damaging to our national interest. It has cost our research, business and academic communities dear, with the loss of billions in funding as well as jobs and expertise—the very things that the Minister was praising as coming along now.

The Government’s failure to negotiate a continuation of the UK’s Horizon membership ahead of Brexit saw British researchers frozen out of projects even before we had formally left the EU. A number of EU national researchers have since opted to leave the UK and its institutions for good, changing the nature and skillset of our research ecosystem—a brain drain. By rejoining, some of this damage may be undone, but that process is likely to take many years. Would the Minister like to estimate how long it may take?

Of course, we welcome the announcement, but the Government do not deserve congratulations or credit. The main reason that UK researchers and businesses have missed out on three years of funding and collaboration is successive Conservative Administrations’ simple intransigence around the Northern Ireland protocol, and we all know that. Until a deal was done, nothing could happen with Horizon or anything else where we wanted to make progress with our friends and neighbours in the EU. Our rejoining Horizon was pitched as a quick and obvious follow-up to the Windsor Framework, yet it has taken more than half a year for the deal to be done and an announcement to be made. Colleagues across your Lordships’ House have asked for updates time and time again, but Ministers, including the current one, have been unable to provide anything meaningful, holding the line that talks were “ongoing”. With such clear potential benefits for our economy, why has this not been more of a priority?

I have several questions for the Minister. I appreciate that he may not be able to answer them all today, but I think that noble Lords will want full answers before the House rises for the Conference Recess. Ministers say that they have secured improved financial terms, but this has not been backed up. No figures have been published and no evidence has been provided. Can the Minister confirm what the UK will pay over the remainder of the Horizon period? It is not much of a claim to say that we have made significant progress and savings simply by not being part of the programme. Does the amount that the UK pays truly represent an improved settlement vis-à-vis the terms offered earlier in the Brexit process, or will it merely be a case of the Government having saved during the period in which we were not members?

Has the department undertaken any analysis of the cost to the economy of not being in Horizon over the past few years? What was the lost-opportunity cost to our country? If so, will the Minister commit to publishing those figures? From a practical perspective, can the Minister tell us about the agreement’s likely impact on SMEs? Will UK SMEs be able to participate in industrial schemes under the Horizon banner? Will companies be able to hold intellectual property arising from programme projects or access other funds that may supplement those offered through participation in Horizon? These kinds of considerations are key to growing our economy—something that this Government has singularly failed to do for a prolonged period.

Once again, we welcome the good news, but today must be about more than headlines. It must act as a turning point. The sad story of the past few years has been a succession of Tory Administrations who have put political infighting ahead of the national interest. Time and money have been wasted on alternative schemes and our national reputation has taken another unnecessary hit. What will happen to the Government’s Pioneer programme now that we are part of Horizon? How much did it cost to work that programme up and what will we have learned from the experience?

On a cheerful note, we must all gather together to welcome the announcement, wish UK funding applicants luck and hope that they will be able to gain from their collaboration with others. As we move towards the next election, we look forward to working to enhance our world-leading research base and to delivering the industrial strategy that so many important parts of our economy need and deserve. Horizon is a very important first step in that direction.

My Lords, I declare a strong interest. My son came back to the United Kingdom after 10 years working at American universities as a systems biologist—which is one of the Government’s strategic priorities in science, as the Minister will know—on a Marie Curie European Union scheme. Had we not left the EU, he would have been applying for a European science council grant.

We on these Benches wholeheartedly welcome this agreement. We all need to be grateful to all those in the scientific community and the Government who did their best to maintain links and keep the negotiations going in spite of all the difficulties. I regret the overhyping of this agreement. Among the comments that have emerged from the scientific community, I note that from Professor Sir John Hardy from University College London, who says:

“Going back in is good. But irreversible damage has been done”

in the interval. Our colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Rees, said that there was an

“unconscionable delay in reaching agreement”.

Now that we have an agreement, the hard work has to begin. If we are to become anything like a scientific superpower within the next seven years, a great deal needs to be done. One of the things that the Government have to recognise now is that there is a contradiction between their approach to how foreign scientists working in this country are treated when they are here—and, even more so, their families—and the idea that we will continue to attract the most talented in the world.

Scientific research is dependent on an international network, and that has to be a two-way network. Far too much in this announcement suggests that it is wonderful for British scientists and will give us access to foreign universities. We also want foreign scientists to work in British universities, but we have just had this announcement that the visa and health charges for foreign academics in this country and their wives, husbands and families will be increased from £15,000 to £25,000 in total over a five-year term. That is a severe disincentive. I heard about this 10 years ago when my son was first coming back, and some of his colleagues over there said that they would not come back to Britain because the way their American wives and families would be treated when they got here was so unwelcoming. That is a huge disincentive to Britain becoming a science superpower. It also contradicts government policy and suggests that the Home Office, the Department of Health and DSIT need to get their act together and sort this out.

The second thing we have to work on is pay. Academic pay for scientists in Britain has sunk by 25% in the last 10 to 15 years. The pay of a university lecturer running a laboratory in a British university is now lower than that of a post-doctoral researcher starting off in the United States—I speak with expertise on this. In an international market in which scientists are highly mobile, that is not attractive and will not get us anywhere like being a scientific superpower.

We on these Benches welcome this delayed decision. We regret that it is seen so much as a matter of what we get out of the hard bargain bilaterally and not as our joining a multilateral network in which there are multiple exchanges. There need to go on being multiple exchanges. We very much hope that DSIT will begin to learn the lessons of where we have made mistakes in recent years and on which we now need to improve.

I thank the noble Lords, Lord Bassam and Lord Wallace of Saltaire. Dealing first with the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Bassam, I think it is a stretch by anybody’s imagination to describe this as a climbdown and a humiliation, albeit while welcoming it. In principle, three major advances in our standing have been made with the deal: first, the creation of the clawback mechanism to mitigate the risk that we spend more than we receive; secondly, the fact that we do not spend any money on any time or activities to which we do not have access or where we are not a member; and, thirdly, the ability to withdraw from Euratom or other areas of the programme from which we did not benefit.

Can the Minister clarify in which year, during any of the time that we were part of Horizon, we ever needed to have a clawback arrangement? My understanding was that we were net beneficiaries from Horizon for the entirety of the programme.

As a number of noble Lords have observed in this debate and previously, the fact that we were not members of the Horizon programme was of great concern and probably did lasting damage to the UK’s scientific community. One way to protect ourselves from further lasting damage was to create the clawback mechanism, to make sure that the money we put in would not exceed the money we took out.

It is worth reminding noble Lords that the United Kingdom did not decide to withdraw from Horizon association; the EU withdrew our association from us—making an association with the Northern Ireland protocol—which we appealed. It has always been our preference to be a member of the Horizon programme. The negotiations were hard fought and necessarily took a long time. We feel that they have given us a more than reasonable result. I do not enjoy the overhyping that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, perhaps rightly points out, but on the other hand I think it a worthy cause for celebration that we are able to reassociate with the programme, which has been welcomed by the sector.

With respect to the Pioneer programme and the analysis of the opportunity cost, I argue that it would have been extremely reckless to have been negotiating with the EU and not had a programme. It would be like driving uninsured. I do not know the cost in terms of measuring the time of civil servants and other officials in creating the policy—I do not particularly know how to find out, but I am more than willing to try—but it was not a significant cost in that no actual investments were made beyond people’s time and effort to perform the preparations. The opportunity cost of the time we have missed in Horizon is a calculation that has to be performed at the end of the Horizon period in 2027, so that we can understand overall, end to end, what was paid and what was the effect of missing out.

Finally, I remind the House that the United Kingdom is putting £20 billion a year into R&D by 2024-25. This is the greatest increase ever in any public spending review period and shows how seriously we take our goals of becoming a science and technology superpower.

I will take back the comments that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace of Saltaire, made on how visa charges and health charges will be very off-putting. I take that on board, as well as the comparison of academic pay for scientists. I will absolutely have a look at that.

My Lords, I should mention to my noble friend the Minister and your Lordships that I am not entirely sure that this is the best deal for UK science. Why do I say that? International co-operation in academic subjects is desirable, but Horizon is limited mainly to one continent, Europe, together with its member states and some of its fringe countries: Turkey, Tunisia, and the northern Mediterranean. Globally, the only power involved is New Zealand. Britain is a global leader in its research in science and the humanities. The opportunities of Brexit should have been taken to build a super league, globally, that is not restricted to one continent. I hope my noble friend will take this on board, and aim to develop much wider links globally and to take a lead in both humanities and science research.

I also suggest that Horizon is bureaucratic, and scientists who are in favour of it none the less regard it as cumbersome. Finally, there will be political strings attached. For example, Switzerland was a member of Horizon but was barred in 2014 over its immigration rules—

I say to the Minister that there are strings attached. Will he reassure the House and ask the Government not to allow the pressure from the Windsor Framework to inhibit our freedom to pursue scientific research, and get a cast-iron guarantee that it will not be used politically against us?

I thank my noble friend for the question. A statistic that I like to use, which maybe will give some reassurance that Horizon is not purely an EU-based body—I am sorry if it sounds rather arbitrary—is that our association with Horizon 2020 produced 237,000 collaborative links in 163 different countries, 28,000 of which were outside the EU, so although the EU is the largest body involved it does give global reach. I note also the proposed association of Korea and Canada in that light.

I cannot make a commitment as to whether forces adversarial to us could use our membership against us; it is not up to the British Government but to the Governments who choose to act in that way. However, we feel a renewed sense of partnership with our friends at the EU, particularly following the Windsor Framework. I hope that sets my noble friend’s mind somewhat at rest with respect to the internationally reaching nature of Horizon.

My Lords, I welcome the Statement—how could I not? I have devoted most of my precious Parliamentary Questions to seeking that the UK rejoins Horizon. However, I do not want the House to be under any doubt about the damage that has been done by the delay, including the six months or more since the Windsor Framework. I very much echo the words of our colleague, the noble Lord, Lord Rees, in that respect. From the Statement, you would never guess the frustration of the science community in having to take part in endless meetings and discussions about a Pioneer plan B, when the objective all along for the science community was to rejoin Horizon Europe.

I have only a few moments to ask a question, so to be practical, how quickly are we going to be able to wrap this up? I spoke today to the Royal Society. Is has no details at all as yet about the mechanisms that the Government are going to alert people to in order to enable them to apply—and we want people to apply as soon as possible. Visas have been mentioned, and this is a very important point: will they be special visas? As has been said already, we want the best and the brightest to come to Britain. These are important practical questions. In a way, it has never just been about the money; it is about the co-operation. I hope that this agreement will pave the way for improved relations between the UK and our European partners in other areas. I would very much welcome the Minister’s comments upon it.

I thank the noble Lord for his question, and of course pay tribute to his relentless focus on holding us to account on making sure the Horizon deal went through. I am delighted that he at least welcomes that part of the news. On taking advantage of Horizon, I am told that, as of right now, British researchers and institutions can bid for Horizon 2024 calls. The vast majority of open calls now are for 2024, and those are open and available for British institutions. There are some remaining 2023 calls, which are supported by the Horizon guarantee scheme, as before. We are able now to move quite fast. On the question on visas, I will have to write to him, as I do not have any information on that at present.

My Lords, this is, on the face of it, excellent news for the sciences. Now we need excellent news for education and those whose interests are in the arts and humanities as well as the sciences, through the Government renegotiating to rejoin Erasmus. If Turing was that great, Northern Ireland would not be as interested as it is in the access to Erasmus that Ireland is providing funding for. Turing might be better than nothing, but does the Minister not agree that better than nothing is a dispiriting ambition? We should rejoin Erasmus as soon as possible.

Better than nothing is indeed a dispiriting thing. Better than Erasmus is the assessment that the Government made when declining the opportunity, on negotiation of the TCA, to remain part of Erasmus and choosing instead to put in place the Turing scheme, on the grounds that it offers not only better outcomes but better value for money for British taxpayers.

My Lords, I thank the noble Viscount for accepting that this Statement is overblown. I think some of us are getting a bit fed up with these Statements that are claiming the earth when, really, it is a damage limitation exercise.

I chaired the EU Services Sub-Committee for two or three years, and we spent a lot of time discussing the importance of Horizon and Erasmus, and the importance of academic links and the mutuality of those links. I very much support what the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, said about that mutuality, and the noble Earl, Lord Clancarty, in his plea for Erasmus and getting the discussion back on a real basis.

The Statement says that this is

“why we did not take the first deal that was offered to us”.

At the time, we asked what that deal was. What were the details of the deal? Why did we not get the information to allow us to make the judgment about whether the Government had taken the correct decision? It is all very well putting these things in a Statement but all that does is trigger really poor memories about the fact that an unreasonable decision was taken. An unreasonable decision was also taken about Erasmus. Turing is very much a scaled-down and second-rate scheme. For it to be named after a genius is just disgraceful.

I should like to ask also about the so-called new clawback scheme. The old Horizon deal was the best clawback scheme in the business. We got a heck of a lot more money than we put in. You do not get better than that, so will the Minister say what clawback scheme could possibly be better?

First, as I was obliged to explain to the House at the time, I was unable to comment on ongoing negotiations for fear of prejudicing their outcome. The initial position of the EU was that we had to pay for the entirety of 2023, despite the fact that it was already March by the time this agreement was made, there were no mechanisms in the place for clawback, which I will come to in a moment, and it was all or nothing. I am pleased to say that thanks to the negotiations we have reached a deal that works for both sides.

On the clawback scheme, the preferred outcome is not to require a clawback. In common with every previous Horizon programme, we have gained more from the programme than we have put in, and we have every reason to believe that that will be the case, but there is always a risk that, because we are entering this particular Horizon programme late and many of the bids and activities will already have been allocated to different parties, we will not on this occasion be able to make as much money back for our institutions as we put in. In that instance, the clawback mechanism negotiated by our team mitigates that risk somewhat for any really significant disparity.

My Lords, without overegging the pudding, the whole point of Horizon is that there is international co-operation. There are issues with visas because we are going from the free movement of people to a visa-based system, so that is fundamental to how this works. However, my question is about Copernicus. We have not heard much today about that, so will the Minister tell your Lordships’ House where we are on that and how the deal reflects on that?

I will come back to the question of visas, and I take the point. I am pleased to say that we are also reassociating with Copernicus. It is such an important programme for the earth observation sector. Geospatial is in my portfolio as a Minister. I am a great believer in the value that it can bring. What particularly pleases and excites me about the association with Copernicus is access to the EU’s very comprehensive dataset that could help to kick-start our work and the work done in the EU. I am extremely positive about that.

My Lords, I apologise to the Minister for missing the opening sentences of his speech. By way of amends, I very much welcome this move. I know the Minister would agree with me that this is all about the exchange of ideas, which is crucial to development. Exactly the same argument could be made about the arts and musicians. The Minister said, very honestly, that lasting damage has been done as a result of this. I ask him to be good enough to take back to his colleagues that lasting damage is being done to music and the arts. Furthermore—this is the most extraordinary thing of all—the noble Lord, Lord Frost, who does not give way very easily, has admitted that the Government got these negotiations wrong. So, if the Government can put Horizon right, please will they put music, arts and touring right as well?

I thank the noble Lord for the question. I recognise the issue, and although my ability to fix that is pretty limited, I will of course take that back to my colleagues.

My Lords, a number of noble Lords have referred to the stress, pressure and extra work that the scientific community has had to suffer through the years of see-sawing and uncertainty about what is happening with Horizon. On 10 and 11 July, I was with ABX, the Antibiotic Discovery Accelerator Network. On 10 July, the papers were reporting that we were about to sign Horizon, which I told them. Then, on 11 July, I had to say, “No, apparently Rishi Sunak has kiboshed it, so it’s off”. Can the Minister therefore say whether the Government will put in extra resources and support to ensure that the scientific community is in fact able to access this opportunity, which has finally arrived after so many years of waiting?

I have a second question. The Statement refers to what might be described as two of the “buzz” areas of science: fusion, on which we are not joining the EU—I will refrain from commenting on fusion—and artificial intelligence. Can the Minister tell me whether the Government will really focus on and support systems biology, an area of science that the noble Lord, Lord Wallace, referred to—the kind of work that produces agro-ecological methods of producing food and managing our landscapes—and the modern, non-reductive biological sciences, given that the EU is, in many areas, far ahead of us in this research and this practice?

To the noble Baroness’s first point, I am pleased to say that the EU has agreed jointly with us to help to publicise the new arrangements with the UK and our association and to make sure that all existing participants become rapidly aware of the opportunities for associating with UK institutions and working with us on programmes. I really welcome that as a positive step towards taking full advantage as quickly as possible. Engineering biology is one of the science and research priorities set out by DSIT and will indeed, therefore, remain very much part of our laser focus.

My Lords, as we have a few moments left, may I endorse all the comments made about the need to apply to the creative areas of music, dance and so on the same arguments that apply to Horizon Europe? I must also tell the Minister that during this exchange I have had a message from Cancer Research UK, which, as noble Lords may remember, has been very active in seeking to rejoin Horizon Europe, because it will make such a difference to the work done by these very important people in helping to solve one of the great diseases of our time.

I hope very much that Cancer Research UK, a body for which I have enormous respect, welcomes this news. I hope that the noble Viscount will pass on my very best wishes and that it is able to take full advantage of our new association.

I welcome this deal. despite the fact that it is very late and overblown. We are glad to have it. I was chair of Lancaster University for seven and a half years, and the Horizon programme was one driver of a great interchange of staff across the continent. Some 20% of our staff at Lancaster were EU citizens not from the UK. Does the Minister think that that degree of freedom of movement will still be allowed as a result of the reinstatement of Horizon?

Secondly, does the Minister accept that there is a real problem, as a result of Brexit, in the decline in students from EU countries? It makes our universities more dependent on recruiting students from potentially problematic parts of the world, such as China, with respect to the noble Baroness, Lady Lawlor, opposite.

I thank the noble Lord for that question. I slightly struggle on the subject of who is or is not allowed to work in our universities as a result of this. I am not aware that anything has changed there, but I have committed to come back to many noble Lords on visas and health charges. On the noble Lord’s other question, there is a whole world of researchers out there and it is incumbent on us to recognise our circumstances as a nation and engage globally with as broad a population as possible, recognising that good scientists are good scientists, wherever they happen to come from.