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Written Statements

Volume 689: debated on Monday 22 February 2021

Written Statements

Monday 22 February 2021

Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy

Advance Research and Invention Agency

The UK has a proud history of scientific excellence and invention. Charles Babbage, Ada Lovelace and, later, Alan Turing pioneered early predecessors of the computer. Thomas Newcomen and James Watt gave us the steam engine, and Michael Faraday gave us the modern battery.

This Government are committed to continuing this tradition and cementing our role as a science superpower. That is why our manifesto committed to creating a new funding agency, focused on high-risk, high-reward research. I am pleased to update the House that we will be fulfilling this commitment through a new Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA), and we will also be introducing a Bill as soon as parliamentary time allows to create this body.

ARIA will have the sole focus to fund ground-breaking research—research that sparks transformational societal change through the creation of new technologies and new industries.

With £800 million committed to ARIA up to 2024-25, ARIA will form a central part of delivering on our R&D road map, published in July 2020, to ensure the UK is the best place for scientists, researchers, and entrepreneurs to live and work, while helping to power up the UK’s economic and social recovery.

As we have developed ARIA, we have sought best practice from international partners. Success stories include DARPA in the US, whose predecessor, ARPA, was instrumental in creating transformational technologies like the internet and GPS. More recently, DARPA has been behind precursors to technologies such as Apple’s SIRI.

We have also listened to the scientific community about how these models can best be adapted for the UK to enhance our R&D offer. This includes ensuring ARIA complements existing funders and makes a distinct contribution to the wider R&D landscape. To this end, ARIA will have a bespoke purpose and structure, and will work in partnership with UKRI and across the ecosystem.

ARIA’s key features will be:

A singular focus on high-risk, high reward research funding. ARIA will provide support for transformational, long-term science and technology. ARIA will not be restricted in whether it funds pure science, applied science, or technological development—in fact, often it will do aspects of each within a single programme.

A high tolerance for risk and failure. Failure is part of the scientific process, and particularly central to finding the technological breakthroughs that have the potential to create the industries and jobs of the future. ARIA will not shy away from high risk, in the pursuit of high rewards.

Minimal bureaucracy. The recent approach to covid-19 rapid response funds and the vaccine taskforce has led to a cultural shift around funding and decision making, towards a more lean and agile system, and ARIA will continue this trend. It will have an innovative approach to funding, with the ability to use mechanisms such as seed grants and prizes to ensure the best support for the best ideas. ARIA’s programme managers will be able to pull in scientists on projects within in a matter of weeks.

To empower exceptional talent. ARIA will be run by exceptional scientists who have the expertise to identify the most exciting and ground-breaking research to invest in. Government will invest in these exceptional individuals, empowering them to use their expertise to identify what research to back rather than providing a research focus for the organisation, and giving them the freedom to start and stop projects quickly and redirect funding efficiently.

Alongside the Bill, we will recruit a visionary CEO and experienced chair. They will develop ARIA by setting the agenda, shaping the culture, and building an exceptional team for the agency.

ARIA will further diversify our rich and dynamic R&D system, taking us to the next level of scientific and technological advances. Its successes stand to have an impact on how we fund R&D in the future, and ensure we maintain our outstanding global reputation for innovation and discovery.

[HCWS787]

Departmental Contingent Liability Notification (UKAEA Fusion Liabilities)

I am tabling this statement for the benefit of hon. and right hon. Members to bring to their attention the details of an amendment to the contingent liability for the fusion activities of the UK Atomic Energy Authority, hereon referred to as UKAEA.

UKAEA operate experimental fusion reactors at Culham, Oxfordshire. Under the Nuclear Installations Act 1965, UKAEA is required to meet any third-party liabilities arising from an onsite incident resulting in exposure to ionising radiation.

A remote and unquantified contingent liability is in place which provides cover for such liabilities above £2.25 million. UKAEA’s captive insurer previously provided cover for such liabilities up to £2.25 million. This was wound up in 2019 as it did not provide good value for money to the taxpayer. Commercial arrangements to replace the captive insurer and cover nuclear liabilities—either in part or in full—would not provide good value for money. The best value for money for taxpayers would be to amend the existing remote unquantified contingent liability held by BEIS to include all costs arising from exposure to ionising radiation due to the fusion activities of UKAEA.

This contingent liability will remain remote and unquantified. There is no expiry date so it will be reviewed annually to ensure it continues to be good value for money for the taxpayer.

The Government will be subject to a new contingent liability for all liabilities from UKAEA fusion activities that lead to exposure to ionising radiation, and I will be laying a departmental minute today containing a description of the liability undertaken.

[HCWS783]

Postgraduate Student Funding

I am tabling this statement for the benefit of hon. and right hon. Members, to bring to their attention the support that the Government are providing to United Kingdom Research and Innovation (UKRI) funded doctoral students to address the challenges related to covid-19 restrictions.

When lockdown began last year, UKRI communicated immediately that PhD studentships should not be suspended, ensuring students could continue to receive their stipends. In April 2020, £44 million of urgent funding was announced for up to six-month extensions for PhD students in their final year who could not complete their studies as originally planned due to covid-19 restrictions. This was taken up by 77% of eligible students.

In November 2020, a further £19.1 million was allocated to research organisations hosting UKRI funded students. This enabled those organisations to target additional support to those UKRI funded students who needed it most including those whose study had been impacted by caring responsibilities or health reasons, and those in their final year.

These two phases of funding amount to £63 million of funding and will provide support to approximately 10,000 students.

Since the introduction of the current restrictions in January, the Government have continued to monitor the impact on the research sector. I asked UKRI to explore what else could be done to help and I can now confirm that we will be providing additional support to UKRI funded PhD students.

A further £7 million will now be made available to allocate extensions, based on need, to those students still to complete their studies. Additionally, UKRI are exploring options to increase flexibility for grant holding organisations to allocate existing funding for training and cohort development activity to fund extensions.

Research England will also be delivering around £11 million of block grant funding to English universities as a contribution to their support for their postgraduate research communities, including to students funded by universities themselves and to self-financed students.

By the end of this phase of support funding, UKRI will have provided additional support totalling £70 million, including extensions, to around half of all their funded students who were studying at the start of the first lockdown extension. This support has been targeted at those most in need and with equality, diversity and inclusion considered throughout.

Ensuring that the research sector in the UK has the people and skills it needs is crucial to realising Government’s ambition to cement our status as a science superpower. We will continue to monitor this situation closely, to ensure that we are able to consider additional support if necessary.

[HCWS786]

Education

Freedom of Speech and Academic Freedom

Last week the Department for Education laid the “Higher education: free speech and academic freedom” Command Paper in Parliament and then published it more widely. This sets out how Government propose to deliver on their 2019 manifesto commitment to strengthen academic freedom and freedom of speech in universities in England.

This Government have always been clear in their commitment to strengthen academic freedom and ensure that our universities are places where free speech can thrive. Without action to counter attempts to discourage or even silence unpopular views, intellectual life on campus for both staff and students may be unfairly narrowed and diminished.

Despite protections which are currently in place, a body of research has shown evidence of a “chilling effect” on students and staff, who report feeling unable freely to express their views within the law without fear of repercussion. This is emphasised by a small number of high-profile incidents in which staff or students have been threatened with negative consequences, sometimes successfully, confirming that the fear of repercussion is not always unfounded. The Government therefore consider it necessary to take action, including by amending legislation.

This Command Paper identifies key limitations of the current framework and proposes a clear way forward, to clarify and strengthen the legislation on freedom of speech and academic freedom, and thereby ensure that the aforementioned “chilling effect” is effectively dealt with. Freedom of speech and academic freedom are fundamental principles of university life, and it is our duty to afford the necessary protections where these are found to be lacking. The Government intend to take action after carefully considering and discussing the options laid out in this paper with stakeholders. We will announce further steps in due course.

I will place copies of the Command Paper in the Libraries of both Houses.

[HCWS784]

Housing, Communities and Local Government

Local Government Reorganisation

As I told the House on 12 October 2020, c. 6-7 WS, I have issued invitations under the Local Government and Public Involvement in Health Act 2007 (the 2007 Act) to principal councils in Cumbria, North Yorkshire, and Somerset, including associated existing unitary councils, to submit proposals for moving to unitary local government in those areas.

On 9 December, I received eight locally led proposals—four from councils in Cumbria, two from councils in North Yorkshire and two from councils in Somerset. In the case of each area there is a proposal made by the county council for a unitary authority covering the whole area. In the cases of North Yorkshire and Somerset, there is a proposal from district councils for two unitary authorities in each area. In Cumbria district councils have made three proposals, each of which involves establishing two unitary authorities.

Today I have launched a consultation on all eight proposals. I would welcome views from any interested person, including residents, and I am consulting the councils which made the proposals, other councils affected by the proposals, and councils in neighbouring areas. I am also consulting public service providers, including health providers and the police, local enterprise partnerships, and certain other business, voluntary sector and educational bodies.

The consultation period will run for eight weeks until Monday 19 April. The consultation document is available and those responding may do so on the Department’s online platform “Citizen Space” or by email or post. The consultation will provide information to help my assessment of the merits of each proposal, and I will carefully consider all the representations I receive, along with all other relevant information available to me.

The context of this consultation is that the 2007 Act provides that before any proposal is implemented I must consult any council affected by the proposal that did not make it and any other persons I consider appropriate. Once the consultation is concluded, I will decide, subject to parliamentary approval, which, if any, proposals are to be implemented, with or without modification. In taking these decisions I will have regard to all the representations I have received, including those from the consultation, and all other relevant information available to me, and reach a balanced judgement assessing the proposals against the three criteria—whether they are likely to improve local government and service delivery across the area of the proposal, whether they command a good deal of local support as assessed in the round across the whole area of the proposal, and whether the area of any new unitary council is a credible geography.

I am also announcing today that I intend as soon as practicable to make and lay before Parliament orders under the Local Government Act 2000 to reschedule the ordinary elections to principal councils in the three areas due to be held on 6 May 2021 for one year to May 2022. The elections for local police and crime commissioners, as well as elections to any town or parish councils, will continue to take place in May 2021.

In deciding to reschedule the 6 May 2021 local elections to principal councils in the three areas, I have carefully considered all the representations I have received including the views expressed by councils. I have also had regard both to the importance of local elections as the foundation of our local democracy and ensuring the accountability of councils to local people, and to the risks of continuing with the May 2021 elections in the areas when consultations are taking place on proposals which could, if implemented, result in the abolition of those councils. Elections in such circumstances risk confusing voters and would be hard to justify where members could be elected to serve shortened terms.

Accordingly, I have concluded that, irrespective of what my future decisions might be on the restructuring proposals, the right course is to reschedule the May 2021 local elections. If no unitary proposal is implemented in an area, the rescheduled elections will take place in May 2022. If a unitary proposal is implemented the rescheduled elections will be replaced by elections in May 2022 to the new unitary authority or authorities which could be in shadow form or a continuing council taking on the functions of the other councils in the area.

Finally, I would reiterate that the Government will not impose top-down Government solutions. We will continue, as I am now currently doing, to follow a locally led approach where councils can develop proposals which have strong local support. This has been the Government’s consistent approach since 2010, when top-down restructuring was stopped through the Local Government Act 2010. When considering reform, those in an area will know what is best—the very essence of localism to which the Government remain committed.

[HCWS785]

Transport

Department for Transport:: Contingencies Fund Advance

I hereby give notice of the Department for Transport having drawn advances from the Contingencies Fund totalling £4,000,000,000 to enable expenditure on covid-19 support packages to be spent ahead of the passage of the Supply and Appropriation Act. The schemes include:

Emergency recovery measures agreements with the train operating companies; the covid-19 bus services support grant; safeguarding critical ferry freight routes; and supporting regional transport networks such as Transport for London and light rail networks.

Parliamentary approval for additional resource of £4,000,000,000 will be sought in a supplementary estimate for the Department for Transport. Pending that approval, urgent expenditure estimated at £4,000,000,000 will be met by repayable cash advances from the Contingencies Fund.

The cash advance will be repaid upon receiving Royal Assent of the Supply and Appropriation (Anticipation and Adjustments) Bill.

[HCWS782]