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Horizon Europe

Volume 832: debated on Wednesday 13 September 2023


Asked by

To ask His Majesty’s Government what plans they have for the United Kingdom to join Horizon Europe.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question standing in my name on the Order Paper, and I hope that the House will understand how pleased I am that I will not have to ask it again.

My Lords, on 7 September, the Prime Minister announced that the UK would associate to Horizon Europe. The Government have negotiated a bespoke deal in the UK’s national interest, and UK researchers and businesses can participate confidently in the world’s largest programme of research co-operation, worth more than £80 billion. UK applicants are eligible to apply to Horizon Europe calls, now and in the future, and the Government strongly encourage them to do so.

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer and I welcome the decision. However, I hope the House will understand that great damage has been caused by the delay, and that this is not an automatic thing that you can restart, like pressing on a light switch. One of the things we must turn our attention to now to make Horizon Europe work properly is the visa system. The global talent visa system for STEM subjects needs reform. If we are to encourage the best and the brightest to come and do their research in Britain, would the Minister agree that tackling the visa system is an important priority for the Government now? Would he also agree that, if we are to be a science superpower, we really must tackle the visa problem and fix it to make it more easily possible for these researchers to come and do their work in Britain to the benefit of the UK?

I thank the noble Viscount for his question and pay tribute to his ongoing championship of our reassociation to the programme. I certainly agree on the importance of bringing in overseas talent via the visa system for this. We have roughly 1 million people today in this country working in R&D roles. We feel that, by 2027, due to retirement and bringing new researchers in, that number will have to increase by around 380,000, and overseas talent will be a very big piece of that. I am pleased to say that our very welcoming points-based visa immigration system is seeing quite strong increases in numbers. The skills-based visa system has seen increases of roughly 50% when compared to years before the pandemic.

My Lords, I am pleased that we now have a settlement with Horizon Europe, and all the science institutions are very pleased with this news. It will allow us now to form collaborations with scientists in Europe and other parts of the world, which is an important part of research. We will also now be part of Copernicus, which drives research into space and satellite programmes, and that is also good news. The downside is that we will not be part of Euratom, because that is what the Government have decided. That is for nuclear research, which means that we will not be joining any nuclear research in Europe, where they are establishing the first trial fusion reactor in France. I hope that the new money that the Government will put forward instead of Euratom will be for nuclear research and will not be used for things such as manufacturing radioisotopes, which we have been short of since we came out of Europe—and we do need more of them. Can the Minister confirm when the Government will publish the forward plans for a replacement of Euratom and that the money will be for research?

I thank the noble Lord for his remarks overall concerning the Horizon programme. The reason the Government chose not to join Euratom and did not include it in our overall deal here was that the fusion nuclear sector very strongly advised us not to do so. That frees up approximately £650 million, which will be distributed in ways to be announced. I am afraid I do not have a date for that—these events have been very recent—but it will be announced as soon as practicably possible.

My Lords, let me first draw attention to my entry in the register of interests and congratulate the Government on a very effective way of putting ourselves back in play here. I also congratulate the noble Viscount, Lord Stansgate, on his tenacity. How does this fit with the AUKUS initiative on innovation and technology?

I thank my noble friend for his comments but his specific question with respect to AUKUS has rather stumped me, so I will have to write to him.

My Lords, the figures on those attracted by the global talent visa and others came before the latest announcement about the increases in visa charges and health charges. I emphasise that these are upfront charges, so if you are coming here for five years, you are paying £20,000 to £25,000 before you have started—unless your university repays it, in which case the university has extra costs. Those charges were imposed to support a public sector pay increase, thus contradicting the aim to be a science superpower. Can the Government please get their act together? We know that we need a large number of foreign researchers, and we want to make Britain a welcoming place for foreign researchers. This is doing the opposite. Will the Government not reverse the recent increase?

The Home Office recently announced increases to both the visa fees and the health surcharge fees, with the purpose of ensuring that the costs of our borders and migration system are borne by those who benefit most from that system. The timing of the increase of the costs has yet to be announced, although the announcement itself was made, and we will of course be keeping a close eye on its overall effects.

My Lords, I thank my noble friend Lord Stansgate for his persistence on this. I was grateful for the Minister’s contributions in the Chamber last week on the subject of reinstating the Horizon programme—a very welcome announcement. Given his commitment to try to find out how much the substitute Pioneer programme had cost, including staff costs, what steps has he put in place to identify those costs and when does he expect to be able to share the information with the House?

I said at the time that I would ask for those costs to be analysed, and that is in train. When that will be shared, I do not know, but I invite the noble Baroness to consider that the costs of non-association to Horizon for us were those of uncertainty. How much greater would that uncertainty, and therefore the cost, have been had we not had a plan B in the form of Pioneer? Proceeding without Pioneer would have been reckless in the extreme. Whatever costs were incurred—and I will, as I promised, do my best to find out what they were—pale in comparison with what the costs of not doing it would have been.

At this time, the Government are not re-associating with Erasmus, instead relying on their innovative Turing programme.

My Lords, as someone who has previously benefited from research support from Horizon, I join others in warmly welcoming this. Does the Minister agree that Horizon has been extremely important not only in strengthening research capability between the UK and continental Europe, and between the East and West, but between the north and south—Europe and the global South—which is hugely important strategically in areas such as health security, biosecurity, pandemic preparedness and climate change?

I am very happy to agree. The work done collectively across all programmes in the last Horizon cut across 163 countries and created 237,000 collaborative links—although quite what that means I am not sure. To me, it paints a picture of a global, highly collaborative, shared investigative approach to probing the great scientific problems of our time.

My Lords, there is clearly overwhelming relief from the academic community that we have at last rejoined, although I echo my noble friend’s point that there is a lot of ground to make up and a lot of good will and partnerships to be rebuilt. I will ask some practical questions of the Minister. What happens to researchers who have already been funded through the guarantee? Can they be transferred back into Horizon? What will happen to the underspend created by UKRI’s guarantee? Will it be reinvested in UK R&D before association takes place?

I thank the noble Baroness for the question. Any open calls now are for programme 24 or are outstanding for programme 23. Those calls will be dedicated to each programme. Those for programme 23—there are not very many left—are covered by the Horizon guarantee scheme or programme 24, in which we now participate. All of the underspend will go to our commitment to spend £20 billion a year on R&D by 2024-25, and exactly how we take full advantage of that will be the subject of future announcements.