Graham Stringer Portrait Graham Stringer
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I generally agree with the comments of the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire (Richard Fuller). Before I get on to the core of the Bill, I would like to pick up on two or three points from the debate.

The hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe), with whom and under whose chairmanship I am happy to have served on the Science and Technology Committee, will not be surprised to hear me not quibble but disagree with his interpretation of the Haldane principle, which we have talked about many times. The Haldane principle does not—and never did, from when Haldane proposed it at the end of the first world war—prohibit politicians from saying that we should prioritise health over defence, defence over transport, or anything over anything else. It is to stop politicians interfering in the detailed technical decision of who the best person is to do that research. When we get on to the core mission of ARIA, I would want politicians to do some of that, but not all.

Unfortunately, the SNP representative, the hon. Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn), is no longer in his place, but it was absolutely extraordinary that he prayed the Barnett formula in aid of regional levelling up. I used to travel on the train from Manchester to London almost every week with Joel Barnett, who regretted the Barnett formula almost more than anything else he had done in his political career. Without getting into a debate, let me say that he understood that it meant people in Glasgow got more public subsidy or support than people in Manchester or Birmingham in very similar situations.

Finally, I would make a point about priorities. Hon. Members have talked about climate change being the top priority; politicians are notorious for having lots and lots of top priorities, but as far as I have noticed, the top priority over the past 15 months has been dealing with covid and the coronavirus. Incidentally, after 25 conferences of the parties, the only thing that has had any impact on the steady increase of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been covid: the response to covid has reduced carbon dioxide for the first time since people started talking about it, essentially.

Let me move on to the core issue of ARIA and the points that have been made about it. Now that new clause 4 has been taken off the agenda, the debate is much less controversial than it otherwise would have been, but that does not mean that it is not difficult. As the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire said, we may not need a mission statement. I go some way along that path with him, having looked at the practical evidence from what happened with ARPA and DARPA in the United States. They were given—certainly at the start of the process when the Americans got frightened when the Sputnik satellite went up—almost complete freedom and a lot of money, and that led to the development of part of the internet. Some of the messenger RNA work that has led to the vaccines we have now came out of the ARPA process, as did drones and many other things. That was not because people were given a mission statement that said, “Develop messenger RNA”; it was because they were looking for problems to solve and to make the United States a more secure society, so they had the most general statements.

What UKRI has done is excellent in many ways, but it has lots of accountability systems. The person who put forward the original idea for doing work on quantum computers stated in evidence to the Committee that he would not get through the process now. Lots of questions are asked, some of them ridiculous. Several Science and Technology Committees ago, Professor Brian Cox came along and we talked about impact assessments whereby every research project has to state how much impact it will have on society. He said, “I have no idea how to answer that question and nor do my colleagues.” The normal metrics are about citations and numbers of papers. Even when I was a scientist, a long time ago, I used to see chemists churning out papers, sometimes on ridiculous things or with only slight variations just so that they could say, “We got our 10 papers this year.” That is not really a good way to do science. Compared with the complete freedom process, there is a rather bureaucratic system that is delivering good science—we win Nobel prizes in this country—but is not pushing back the frontiers of science as quickly as we might like. Having an organisation with a great deal of freedom is very important.

I differ slightly from the hon. Member for North East Bedfordshire on one point, as did the Science and Technology Committee in two recommendations in the report that we produced in February, both of which effectively said that there should be a client side to the organisation. The reason for having a client side is not to stifle innovation. Having a client is useful, not in telling scientists what to look for or stopping them looking for completely new things, but in situations where they develop something. One of the problems with all the different ARPAs in the United States is that they find it difficult to get product to market because they do not have a client, whereas DARPA, which has the Department of Defence as a client, can take many of the innovations and inventions and develop them straight away. So there is another side to the total freedom approach.

I suppose that most politicians want the best of all possible worlds, so the ARIA I would like would, as in my new clause 2, have the Department of Health as a client Department. It could be something else, but I think that what we have been through over the past 15 months means that health almost speaks for itself. It should also have freedom to find problems that nobody else has thought of—that nobody in this House has thought of and many scientists will not have thought of. When Dominic Cummings came to the Science and Technology Committee, in less controversial terms than his last visit to the Joint Committee session, we talked in detail about how the science develops and we heard something really interesting that I suspect is true. Finding somebody who can chair a body such as this is more difficult than finding Nobel prize winners or people who are likely to win Fields medals. That is what will make this organisation successful or not—somebody who is bright or clever enough to understand questions that have not been asked before. Will that lead to cronyism? When we asked the current chair of UKRI, she was clear that very few people in this world could do this job, and we could probably sit down and write their names. Am I worried about cronyism? No. I am worried about not getting the right person.

Does anybody ever think about what networking means? At the top of science, the best scientists, and the people who get the grants and funding, are basically the great and the good and the really well networked. If Einstein cannot get a job in science and works in a patent office, or whatever the 21st-century equivalent would be, they cannot get into cronyism because those elites in our top universities, which are excellent, swallow up all the funding, and in many cases exclude the young and the brightest scientists. I am not worried about cronyism; I am worried about this body not getting the freedom it should get.

Under schedule 2, the Secretary of State basically keeps control. What makes the Bill difficult is that all politicians who vote to raise taxes want to control public money. That is in our nature. It is right, part of the democratic process—no taxation without representation —and a fundamental issue in a democratic society. To say, “Go off with £800 million and do your own thing” is difficult, but evidence from the States suggests that that is the best way to push forward the frontiers of science. My worry about the Bill is that there is too much control, not too little, and it might stifle initiative.

Finally, on initiatives, when the vaccine taskforce was set up we invited it to the Science and Technology Committee. I was not impressed that somebody was appointed without proper process, but the woman did an extraordinarily good job and she is now getting honoured. Sometimes in an emergency risks were taken—it worked a lot less well with the test and trace system. Sometimes we have to take risks. If we understand the way that scientific advances have been pushed forward, freedom as opposed to bureaucracy tends to work.

Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman (Aberdeen North) (SNP)
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I served on the Bill Committee, and I tabled various amendments at that stage, a number of which we have carried forward to Report. I was interested in a number of things that were said. On the supposed mission and purpose of ARIA, the Bill says only:

“In exercising its functions, ARIA must have regard to the desirability of doing so for the benefit of the United Kingdom, through…economic growth…scientific innovation...or improving the quality of life”,

and that it must

“have regard to the desirability of doing so for the benefit of the United Kingdom.”

It does not even have to do things for the benefit of the United Kingdom; that is not written in the Bill.

The former Chair of the Science and Technology Committee, the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe), spoke about high risk and high reward. I understand where he is coming from, but I do not know what that reward means or looks like. The reward is not identified in any way. I am happy for there to be a high reward, but I would like some idea of what that is supposed to be, so that we can measure whether it is successful.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
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If I am honest, I do not know the answer to that question. The reward might be the next internet, GPS or, as we heard from the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer), mRNA technology; we do not know. But what we do know is that if we give scientists the ability to explore an area, to fail and to report back, some of those things will stick, and some of them could become massive new industries of the future. The challenge—I accept this—is to keep those industries and that technology here in the UK, spread all over the country, to the benefit of us all.

Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman
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And what we are doing is just what the hon. Gentleman suggests: pointing scientists in a direction, saying, “Please could you do something about climate change? Please could you do something about our commitment and our journey to net zero?” and then letting them go. It is not about restricting them.

One of the things that has bothered me throughout is that most people seem to think that all this agency will do is invent widgets. Science is not all about making things. One of the biggest things that we need to do to tackle climate change is to convince every single person to change the way they live so that we can reach our targets. We will not be able to do that without scientific research into how people work and what changes they will make. That is not about creating widgets; it is about ensuring that we are on the right track and making the right changes for people to be able to do things in their lives in order that we can move towards net zero. I think that restricting ARIA to dealing with the most important challenge in our lifetimes is not too much of a restriction. It is a huge, wide thing.

One thing that really concerns me about progress to net zero is that an awful lot of folk are going to be left behind. An awful lot of these things that are made will be sold. Yes, great; that is going to make a lot of difference to the lives of people who already have money, but people who currently have nothing will find it even more difficult if we approach climate change with the stick method and require them to make changes or pay more for their energy when they already have very little money. Those are the challenges that I would like to see ARIA tackle, so that none of our constituents are left behind when we are moving to net zero.

I wrote to the Chancellor last week after a meeting with Aberdeen Climate Action about net zero organisations. Lib Dem new clause 3 suggests that ARIA should be net zero in every year. ARIA absolutely should be net zero in every year—that was one of the amendments we moved in Committee—because we should be saying that anything new should not add to our carbon emissions but reduce them or, at the very least, leave them neutral. The Government were not willing to accept that amendment in Committee. I am glad that the Lib Dems have put it forward again, because it is so important. If we are saying that we are going to be leaders and we are going to make a difference, new organisations such as ARIA should be net zero from the very beginning, and we should commit to that. If we are going to be net zero by 2050, everyone will have to make a contribution to that, and that includes ARIA.

On scrutiny, I am afraid that I disagreed with quite a lot of what the hon. Member for Blackley and Broughton (Graham Stringer) said. The point that my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen South (Stephen Flynn) was making about the Barnett formula was not that it is the best thing since sliced bread, but that we have the rules that we have. The rules mean that the Barnett formula does exist. We have been screwed over with regard to the Barnett formula a number of times in recent years, and we do not want that to happen in this case.

We would rather not have the Barnett formula—we would rather be an independent country—but if we are going to have those rules and the Government do not stick to them, there is a major element of unfairness. We are asking the Government to stick to their own rules in this regard. We have seen with legislative consent motions in recent times that they have completely ignored what the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Parliament have said. They are not sticking to the rules, so we are just trying to get them to live up to the trust that they expect us to have in them.

On scrutiny, public procurement and FOI, I was really pleased that in Committee, the Minister confirmed that in the estimates process, ARIA will have a discrete line in the supply estimates, so we will at least be able to see how much money ARIA has in any given year. I do not disagree that ARIA should have the ability to fail —it is incredibly important that it does—but we need to be able to have scrutiny of the money that is being spent and that we as a House are agreeing to spend on it. I am very glad that the Minister confirmed that.

Finally, I am hugely concerned about the Einsteins—about the people who work in patent offices who have not been able to gain grants. I do not think that ARIA will fix that. There is still going to be the issue where if someone is networked—if they are a white man in research —they are much more likely to be able to get research grants than if they are a woman or a person of colour. Unfortunately, with the lack of ability that we have to FOI and to scrutinise some of ARIA, we cannot see what is going on with that. We cannot see whether ARIA is further entrenching the current inequality in science and technology and academia or doing a positive job towards breaking down those barriers and ensuring that people who live in the most deprived communities in Scotland are given the opportunity because they have the best possible ideas, rather than because they have the best possible friends. It is hugely important that we have more scrutiny. That is why we tabled the cronyism amendment and the amendments relating to us as Houses approving both the chair and the CEO, because those roles will be so important and because we are so excluded from the scrutiny process in relation to ARIA.

Andy Slaughter Portrait Andy Slaughter (Hammersmith) (Lab)
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I wish to speak in support of amendments 14 and 8 in relation to bringing ARIA within the scope of the Freedom of Information Act. It seems extraordinary to me that there is an exclusion for a body of this kind, although, to be honest, I have a long-standing interest in freedom of information, and for Government Ministers—this is not exclusive to this Government—to look to exempt bodies from that piece of legislation for one spurious reason or another is not that unusual.

I have worked closely with the Campaign for Freedom of Information. Three years ago I introduced, unsuccessfully, a Bill to bring the third of public sector expenditure that is carried out by private contractors within the scope of the Act. That has gained some currency recently with, as we have heard in this debate, the upsurge of cronyism, the scandals over test and trace and the employment of huge numbers of consultants on inflated salaries. The Bill is equally subject to some of the same concerns and rings the same alarm bells.

We hear about high-risk, high-reward research and ARIA being allowed to fail, and there is nothing wrong with those as functions, but there has to be transparency, and, frankly, having that in the public eye, rather than hidden away, is more likely to lead to better decision making. The parallel body that we have heard about—DARPA in the USA—has had scandals and ethics violations that have been brought to light because it is subject to the equivalent Freedom of Information Act in that country. I believe that this is the right thing to do and in the interests of good research and the good use of public money.

The excuses that are given are the usual sorts of excuses that are pulled out at this stage—that this is a small, cutting-edge body on which it will be too burdensome to impose freedom of information. Leaving aside whether a body given £800 million of public money is indeed a small body, we have heard from my Front-Bench colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle upon Tyne Central (Chi Onwurah), that parish councils are subject to freedom of information. So are dentists and internal drainage boards. I am not quite sure what an internal drainage board is—it sounds quite painful, actually—but I doubt that such bodies get £800 million of public money. I would take an intervention from anyone who wants to explain what an internal drainage board is, but I think it would take us off the subject.

This is just nonsense. The idea that ARIA will not have back-office functions and that its status at the cutting edge of a science superpower—I am not making those phrases up; the Minister has used them—will be hampered by making it subject to the Freedom of Information Act is fanciful. The Science and Technology Committee did indeed say that there was a danger of ARIA being stifled by bureaucracy, but it was referring not to freedom of information requests from the public and other interested parties, but to micromanagement by Government. That sounds far more likely and realistic.

The US body, DARPA, is subject to FOI. As one would expect, its budget is considerably larger, yet it gets about 50 FOIA requests a year. Comparisons have been made with UK Research and Innovation—a much larger organisation that brings together many different bodies in the sector. It gets about 20 FOIA requests per calendar month. There is no expectation that ARIA will be swamped by FOIA requests. Where they are appropriate, such requests are telling and essential, and they can bring important facts to light.

The Minister will correct me if I am wrong, but I cannot see how ARIA will not be subject to environmental information regulations, which are the parallel regime of discovery. It seems to me entirely anomalous that one should be in and one should be out, and it may be that we would be breaching our Aarhus convention obligations. Breaching international treaties from time to time does not seem to bother this Government—I am not sure what other explanation there could be.

It is in the public interest for freedom of information to be exercised where possible. In this instance it is certainly possible, and I hope I have given some reasons why it is entirely appropriate. It was a good action by the Labour Government at the time to bring the FOI Act into force. Since then, successive Governments and Ministers—not only Conservative Ministers—have railed against it, but there have been independent investigations. The Burns commission, which was widely perceived to be a case of the Conservative Government trying to do a hatchet job on the Act, found that the Act was working well. In its inquiry, the Justice Committee—a fine body of men and women—also found that the Act was working well. The Supreme Court has spoken very strongly in favour, saying that there is a strong public interest in the press and the general public having the right, subject to appropriate safeguards, to require public authorities to provide information about their activities. That is right, and it is particularly right that it applies to ARIA. I hope that, even at this late stage, the Government will think again about the rather misguided steps they are taking.