Amanda Solloway Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Amanda Solloway)
- View Speech - Hansard - -

It is a pleasure to be here on this special occasion, and not just because, as my hon. Friend the Member for Guildford (Angela Richardson) pointed out, it was a very special birthday yesterday—40. [Laughter.]

I thank all right hon. and hon. Members who have tabled amendments and new clauses, and who have contributed today.

The UK has a world-class science system, and a proud history of research and invention. Today, in our continuing fight against coronavirus, the importance of those skills has never been more apparent. What is it that makes ARIA so special? It is the fact that we are strengthening our science system, enhancing our capabilities and finding a new level of ambition. That means that it will be a small, agile organisation with autonomy from Government and unique powers that equip it to support groundbreaking ideas, with the potential to profoundly change all our lives for the better.

The Bill brings forward a bold and ambitious policy that seeks to deliver the transformational benefits of high-risk R&D for our economy and society. I have spoken to many colleagues who share my genuine excitement about the possibilities that ARIA could bring. We have heard on the Floor of the House and in every previous debate that all parties support the principle of ARIA and what it will try to achieve. I am glad that today we are able to give ARIA the focus that it deserves.

A focus of today’s debate that has been raised by the hon. Members for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner) and for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), among others, has been giving ARIA a primary research topic, through new clauses 2 and 3, and amendments 1 and 12. Given the challenges that we face today, those amendments understandably focus on climate change and health. Nobody in the House should have any concerns about the Government’s credentials on tackling climate change. We are proud to be the greenest Government ever. The Prime Minister’s 10-point plan and our COP26 presidency, to which the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn) referred, are demonstrating that at home and abroad, the UK is leading efforts to accelerate action on climate change.

Without doubt, the covid pandemic has clearly illustrated the critical role that R&D plays in the health and wellbeing of our population. Our vaccine roll-out is the envy of the world. The Government already invest around £2 billion annually in health and care research in the UK. It is therefore right that such priorities are taken forward by Government Departments and agencies, with clear direction and involvement from Ministers. That includes the important role that UKRI plays in delivering Government priorities for R&D. We do not want to duplicate those responsibilities.

Instead, as many colleagues have put it much better than I could, ARIA must make its own distinct contribution to be effective. That means being an organisation led by brilliant people with strategic autonomy—not directed by Ministers. The continued chopping and changing of ARIA’s mission set out in amendment 12 would hamper ARIA’s ability to commit to long-term programmes.

New clause 3 also seeks to impose obligations on ARIA regarding the transition to net zero. ARIA is covered by the Government’s existing net zero commitments and will be required to make information available through the Environmental Information Regulations 2004, which were mentioned by the hon. Member for Hammersmith (Andy Slaughter).

I turn to the contribution of the hon. Member for Oxford West and Abingdon (Layla Moran) on the role of Parliament. Amendments 3 to 6 would require the proposed chair and CEO of ARIA to be approved by both Houses of Parliament. Amendment 11 would require the Commons Science and Technology Committee to approve appointments by the Secretary of State and the remuneration of the appointees. I am extremely pleased that the recruitment campaign for the CEO was launched on 1 June and that we will launch the campaign for the chair on 5 July. All applications will be reviewed by an outstanding expert panel, which will include the Government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Patrick Vallance. The Government’s guidance sets out that the ultimate responsibility for appointments rests with Ministers who are accountable to Parliament, as is the case with UKRI. There is no precedent for requiring the approval of both Houses for appointments.

I am grateful for the contribution that the Science and Technology Committee, chaired by my right hon. Friend the Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark), has made on this issue. However, I guarantee that this is an open, fair and robust recruitment process, and it is completely appropriate to find the right people to make ARIA a success. Amendment 9 would require ARIA to provide the Science and Technology Committee with the information it requests. The Osmotherly rules provide guidance on how Government bodies should interact with Select Committees, and they are clear that such bodies should be as helpful as possible in providing accurate, truthful and full information when giving evidence. I believe that that is sufficient to ensure a co-operative and constructive relationship between ARIA and the relevant Committees.

Amendment 10 would require the Secretary of State to consult the Committee before dissolving ARIA. Clause 8 already sets out the broad requirement on the Secretary of State to consult any persons they consider appropriate, and I am sure they will always consider it appropriate to consult the Science and Technology Committee about changes to the R&D landscape. The Secretary of State’s power to dissolve ARIA is subject to the draft affirmative procedure, which will ensure that Parliament has the opportunity to debate that decision.

Amendments 7 and 8 tabled by the hon. Member for Aberdeen South and amendment 14 tabled by the hon. Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central seek to remove the exemption from the public contracts regulations and to subject ARIA to the Freedom of Information Act 2000. We have covered procurement extensively before, and I will reiterate why the exemption is so important. There are three key points.

First, ARIA is expected to commission and contract others to conduct research in pursuit of its ambitious goals. Often, ARIA will procure research services. That commissioning and contracting is a fundamentally different way of funding R&D to traditional grant making, and procurement rules do not apply. Secondly, this way of funding research is core to DARPA’s approach—the successful US model from which we learned when designing ARIA. As we heard in Committee, DARPA benefits from what is described as “other transaction authority”, which offers flexibility outside standard US Government contracting standards. By taking that innovative new funding approach that is so fundamental to its objectives, ARIA will benefit from similar flexibilities.

Let me turn to amendments 8 and 14. ARIA is about creating a certain culture of funding and groundbreaking research, as I heard time and again throughout my engagement with the R&D community. As my hon. Friend the Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller) put it so eloquently, that kind of culture is difficult to achieve within all the rules that would usually apply to public bodies. We have thought carefully about alternative ways to ensure that high standards of conduct are upheld within this unique context.

The Bill requires ARIA to submit an annual report and statement of accounts, which will be laid before Parliament. ARIA will be audited by the National Audit Office and will be subject to value-for-money assessments. ARIA will interact with Select Committees in the usual way, and it will draw up a framework document detailing its relationship with BEIS. There will be further reporting requirements, such as the details of what is published in the annual report. Together, those provisions will ensure that the public are informed of ARIA’s activities and where it spends its money. Although the Freedom of Information Act 2000 allows for exemptions in certain circumstances, the request must still be processed, and that administration runs contrary to the lean and agile operation of ARIA.

I turn to amendment 2 on conflicts of interest. Schedule 1 allows the Secretary of State to make regulations

“about the procedures to be adopted for dealing with conflicts of interest”.

The framework document between BEIS and ARIA will commit ARIA to the code of conduct for board members of public bodies, which includes the obligation to publicly declare any private financial or non-financial interests that may or may not be perceived to conflict with one’s public duty. This principle-led, non-legislative approach is appropriate. It is the standard approach taken by many other arm’s length bodies, including UKRI, and I have no reason to believe that it is inadequate here. In addition, we have the existing reserve power in schedule 1, should it ever prove necessary.

On the issue of human rights, I recognise the intent behind new clause 1. Human rights are already protected in law in the UK through the Human Rights Act 1998, and ARIA will be subject to public authority obligations under that Act. I therefore reassure the hon. Member for Aberdeen South that ARIA will operate in a way that is compatible with the convention on human rights. It would be unlawful for it not to do so under existing legislation.

Amendment 13 would require details of ARIA’s geographical impact to be included in its annual report. I believe that it is incredibly important that ARIA’s funding benefits those who are not always reached by the current system. That is the Government’s policy and priority, as well as a priority for me personally. The R&D place strategy, due to be published this summer, will set out how R&D will contribute to our levelling-up ambitions. Details of ARIA’s operation will be set out more fully in a future framework document, and that is the appropriate place to stipulate the contents of ARIA’s annual report, including geographical information, rather than legislation.

Jim Shannon Portrait Jim Shannon
- View Speech - Hansard - - - Excerpts

The Minister is being generous with her time tonight. In my contribution, I was very keen, as were others, to ensure that all the levelling-up that the Minister refers to will happen in the regions as well—in other words, that Northern Ireland will get its share. It is important, as part of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, that we all benefit. May I seek her assurance that that will be the case?

Amanda Solloway Portrait Amanda Solloway
- View Speech - Hansard - -

Of course, I give my assurance that we will issue the place strategy shortly, which will indicate all of this.

I am very grateful for the contributions that right hon. and hon. Members have made today. The interest in the passage of the Bill in the House and in the R&D community is testament to the important role that ARIA will play in our future R&D landscape, creating a space in the system that is free to fund groundbreaking science in innovative ways, independent from ongoing Government intervention.

This is an incredibly significant moment, because the opportunity that ARIA affords us is truly limitless. By unlocking a new level of ambition, and by enabling truly bold and adventurous ideas to flourish, ARIA will allow us to take a huge leap into the future. Yes, this will mean embracing the unknowns that come from ARIA being free from Government control, but we should make that leap confidently, knowing that the brilliant people that ARIA will fund will change the world in ways that none of us in this Chamber would dare to imagine today. This is therefore a truly exciting time for all of us here in the Chamber—for ourselves, for our children and for our grandchildren—and I feel particularly excited for my young granddaughter, who will feel the benefits of the major breakthroughs that we will unlock through this Bill. I am sure that this opportunity is recognised by all hon. Members.

I hope that I have demonstrated the reasons that I cannot accept the new clauses and amendments that have been tabled, and I hope that Members will agree not to press them.

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

Madam Deputy Speaker, you will be glad to know that my final remarks will be brief, particularly because although we were expecting a rebellion tonight, I did not expect it in any way, shape or form to relate to any of the amendments that I proposed, which is disappointing. Maybe next time—we can only live in hope.

There are two clear and fundamental issues to do with the Bill on which we disagree with Government Members: where they are passionately and vehemently against public scrutiny, and where they are passionately and vehemently against ARIA having a mission. I believe the lack of a mission is a missed opportunity, and I am deeply concerned to hear that public scrutiny in the shape of an FOI request is regarded as an impediment to a public organisation. That should strike fear into all of us about what public money is to be spent on, not just now but in the future.

With your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker, I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion on new clause 1, but I wish to press amendment 1, which stands in my name and that of my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen North (Kirsty Blackman), to a vote.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn.

Amendment proposed: 1, in clause 2, page 1, line 7, at end insert—

“(A1) ARIA’s primary mission will be to support the development of technologies and research that support the UK’s transition to net zero carbon emissions or reduce the harmful effects of climate change.”—(Stephen Flynn.)

This amendment sets the primary mission for ARIA to support the development of technologies and research that support the UK’s transition to net zero carbon emissions or reduce the harmful effects of climate change.

Question put, that the amendment be made.