Oral Answers to Questions

Stephen Metcalfe Excerpts
Tuesday 29th November 2022

(1 year, 4 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Grant Shapps Portrait Grant Shapps
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I was up in Teesside the week before last, and I have been keeping in close contact with what is happening there. The good news is that there are new jobs coming about in new industries, including new industries supplying electric battery manufacturing, which are available because this country is outside the European Union and able to produce new rules that will allow things such as green lithium to thrive here and provide up to 8% of Europe’s entire needs. New jobs are coming to Teesside.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con)
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As my right hon. Friend will know, maths and higher maths is often the foundation skill upon which other innovative technologies are built. Can he therefore tell the House what steps his Department is taking both to fund higher maths and to give people the skills they need in maths to help us to reinforce our status as a global science power?

George Freeman Portrait The Minister of State, Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (George Freeman)
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My hon. Friend makes an important point: maths is one of the underpinning disciplines of all our science and technology leadership. That is why we have increased funding through UK Research and Innovation for core maths, and I am delighted to confirm that we are looking at various ways in which we might be able to turbocharge our international fellowships in maths as well.

Oral Answers to Questions

Stephen Metcalfe Excerpts
Tuesday 11th January 2022

(2 years, 3 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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George Freeman Portrait George Freeman
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I agree with the hon. Lady that that the dementia research and treatment sector is incredibly important, which is why, when then Prime Minister Cameron set up the G20 summit, I was incredibly proud, as Minister for Life Sciences, to launch the UK Dementia Research Institute. In the CSR, we announced another £340 million for motor neurone disease research. As I say, I am in the process of allocating the biggest ever R&D increase and we will look to make sure—[Interruption.] The hon. Lady is heckling me from a sedentary position; perhaps she will listen. We are in the process of allocating that money to make sure that dementia gets the recognition that it needs.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con)
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To ensure that our fantastic life science sector continues to prosper and lead the world, we need to inspire the next generation of life scientists. What more can the Minister’s Department do to show that there is a place for everyone in the sector, regardless of race, background or gender, and that their future efforts could change lives both at home and abroad and tackle some of the great challenges that we know exist.

Oral Answers to Questions

Stephen Metcalfe Excerpts
Tuesday 16th November 2021

(2 years, 5 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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The Secretary of State was asked—
Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con)
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1. What progress his Department has made on delivering the “Life Sciences Vision”.

Kwasi Kwarteng Portrait The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (Kwasi Kwarteng)
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The “Life Sciences Vision” outlined our bold ambition to bring scientific excellence and the dynamism of industry together to solve the most pressing health challenges. I am delighted to say that since the strategy was published we have already launched a £200 million life sciences investment programme and established the life sciences scale-up taskforce.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
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I welcome the record research and development settlement for my right hon. Friend’s Department that was delivered during the spending review, a good chunk of which will, I hope, support investment in health and life sciences. Does he agree that our world-class life sciences base has been and will be our defence against future pandemics? Will he comment on his Department’s plans to locate more life sciences manufacturing facilities in the UK, so that we are less reliant on a global supply chain?

Kwasi Kwarteng Portrait Kwasi Kwarteng
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I fully agree with my hon. Friend that world-class life sciences are vital, and I am pleased to confirm that we have already allocated £354 million in the spending review to strengthen the UK’s life sciences manufacturing base, with particular emphasis on preparing for future pandemics.

Gas Prices and Energy Suppliers

Stephen Metcalfe Excerpts
Thursday 23rd September 2021

(2 years, 7 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Urgent Questions are proposed each morning by backbench MPs, and up to two may be selected each day by the Speaker. Chosen Urgent Questions are announced 30 minutes before Parliament sits each day.

Each Urgent Question requires a Government Minister to give a response on the debate topic.

This information is provided by Parallel Parliament and does not comprise part of the offical record

Kwasi Kwarteng Portrait Kwasi Kwarteng
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They had a chance to change their Government and, as I recall, that did not end so well for the Labour party, although maybe my memory fails me. We have a dynamic, vibrant and competitive market, and consumers should have a choice in order to keep their costs low.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con)
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Obviously these are disturbing times for our constituents and I welcome the actions that the Government are taking. Can my right hon. Friend confirm that, whatever happens in the markets, no one in Basildon and Thurrock need fear supply failure or sudden hikes in prices this winter?

Kwasi Kwarteng Portrait Kwasi Kwarteng
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No one in Basildon and Thurrock, or anywhere else in this country, need fear the eventuality that my hon. Friend describes. As I have said, the supplier of last resort process is absolutely focused on ensuring that customers have continuity of supply. That is a top priority.

Oral Answers to Questions

Stephen Metcalfe Excerpts
Tuesday 21st September 2021

(2 years, 7 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Kwasi Kwarteng Portrait Kwasi Kwarteng
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I have a sense of déjà vu, as we addressed this issue directly yesterday. The right hon. Gentleman knows with his experience—I was going to say in government but I mean and in opposition—that universal credit is a matter for the Chancellor, in discussion with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Work and Pensions.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con)
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T6. The space sector presents us with huge opportunities for the future prosperity of this country. What plans is my right hon. Friend developing with regard to the implementation, ownership, governance and funding of key elements of the national space strategy?

George Freeman Portrait The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (George Freeman)
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I pay tribute to my hon. Friend, who has been a phenomenal champion of science and technology in space. I am delighted to say that the Government are very shortly to publish our national space strategy, into which we put a huge amount of work. In addition to the £1.4 billion that we spend on defence space activities in our innovation strategy, we are looking to make sure that we boost the wider science and technology applications of our £16.4 billion space sector.

Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

Stephen Metcalfe Excerpts
Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
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That is an interesting point that. I believe it is regrettable that there is no set mission. The mission should be to combat climate change and to meet our net zero targets.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con)
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As the hon. Gentleman knows, we had these exchanges in the Bill Committee. It is not so much that ARIA had not got a mission; its mission is to discover areas of research that could potentially be high risk but deliver high rewards, but we do not know what those will be. That is its mission, and tying it to specifics such as health research or climate change, although they are very important, would potentially hamper its ability to find that cutting-edge science and make the most of it.

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
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I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, and I am loth to repeat what I said in Committee. I certainly will not mention any of the “Star Trek” references that he made in relation to that specific point. The reality is that we have seen, with the likes of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, how successful things can be when there is a specific mission. I accept that we disagree, and disagree on good terms, in relation to that point, but I re-emphasise that this is a missed opportunity for the Government.

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Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
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If I heard that correctly, the Labour party is not agreeing with the amendments that it tabled in Committee and that the SNP has agreed to at this point in time, so it had to add more words. But I suppose that is the nature of this place.

That takes me to transparency and scrutiny, and a key token and standpoint of those on the Government Benches: to take back control. I do not suspect that they will agree to the SNP’s view on a mission for ARIA. That being the case, the mission—to all intents and purposes, what ARIA seeks to do—will be determined by the chair and chief executive officer. They will decide what happens. In that regard, the House will, of course, have no say and we suggest that the House should have a say. It is important that this place has a role to play in the process. I would be incredibly surprised if Members who fought so hard to take back control did not seek to have their say on such matters.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
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Will the hon. Gentleman give way?

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
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Och, why not?

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
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Why not? I am grateful to him. If we had too much influence over the agency, we could breach the Haldane principle, which I am sure he holds close to his heart, as do I.

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Member for his intervention, but we will have to heartedly disagree on this point. The House, and we as democratically elected representatives, should seek to play as key and active a role as possible. Of course, all this could be avoided by the Government simply agreeing on what ARIA’s mission should be in the first place.

Our new clause 1, on human rights, would ensure that ARIA’s record in that regard is of the highest standing. I certainly hope Members across the Chamber would agree to that. If they did not, I would be somewhat concerned. We saw that in Committee, which took me a bit by surprise, but perhaps some of the Government’s Back Benchers were not galvanised enough to encourage the Government to take a different stand. The SNP tabled the new clause because ultimately we do not know where ARIA will seek to put its investments. We do not know what it will seek to invest in, where it may even take a share in an organisation. It will have the freedom to do that, but that freedom means it may delve into areas we find unsuitable in relation to human rights. That is particularly pertinent when we look at the situation in China with the Uyghurs. I encourage Members on the Government Benches to take cognisance of that fact this evening.

Finally, it would be remiss of me not to mention the role of Scotland in relation to the Bill, because I very much like talking about that. The reality is that, where the Government are seeking to spend money, that Government money should be spent fairly and evenly across the United Kingdom—that is, while we still remain a part of the United Kingdom. To that end, there should be a Barnett share of money spent on Scotland. Where that money is spent, it should not seek to bypass devolution, as the Government seek to do in a number of areas, from the shared prosperity fund to the levelling-up fund and the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020. Scotland should have its fair share.

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Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah
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I thank the hon. Gentleman for seeking to aid Madam Deputy Speaker in determining what is in order. I am not sure whether that was necessary.

On the hon. Gentleman’s intervention, I fail to see why he thinks that pedantry can make up for a lack of argument. Climate change is a core mission. We are not seeking to hem in the agency with absolute linguistic barriers for what exactly should be done, but we want it to have a direction. We want to know where it is going and what it is seeking to do. The core mission, as I intend to set out in detail, will be climate change. I do not intend to limit its interpretation of climate change, but I will set out the reasons why climate change will be its core mission.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
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As the hon. Lady will recall, we had similar debates in Committee. Does she completely dismiss the idea that the mission is to find cutting-edge science, to explore it, and to go where no other agency is willing to go at the moment, because they will have to follow too many metrics to prove their effectiveness? That is its mission. This agency does not have to have a mission beyond trying to find something exciting, new and potentially really beneficial to mankind.

Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah
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I have a huge amount of respect for the hon. Gentleman, but I fundamentally disagree with him on this issue. To go where no one has gone before is not a mission or a direction; it is a deliberate absence of direction. I spoke earlier about the vast expanse of ignorance that can present us with huge, existential challenges. The history of science has been about trying to reduce that huge expanse of ignorance, and for us to leave ARIA without any mission or direction in addressing that vast expanse of ignorance that is before us will severely limit its likelihood of success. That, together with other aspects of the Bill with regard to accountability and transparency, leave it open to cronyism as well as other issues.

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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.

Oral Answers to Questions

Stephen Metcalfe Excerpts
Tuesday 25th May 2021

(2 years, 11 months ago)

Commons Chamber
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Kwasi Kwarteng Portrait Kwasi Kwarteng
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There are two issues there. On fracking, I was very pleased, as Minister of State, to impose a moratorium on it. The language that we used at the time was that it was going to be evidence-focused and scientifically based. There is no new evidence to suggest that we should end the moratorium, so it stays—no more fracking. On coal mines, I have said specifically that this is a judicial issue, in terms of the west Cumbrian coal mine, and that has to go through the planning process.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con)
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As the Minister knows, I am passionate about inspiring the next generation of scientists and engineers. Will she tell the House what plans her Department has to build on the previous good work in this field, such as the Year of Engineering?

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

We have committed to investing £14.9 billion in R&D in 2021-22, meaning that Government R&D spending is now at its highest level for decades. We have our ambitious road map. We have our innovation strategy that we will be launching. We have our R&D place strategy, and we are working to ensure that the benefits are felt nationwide.

Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill (Sixth sitting)

Stephen Metcalfe Excerpts
Thursday 22nd April 2021

(3 years ago)

Public Bill Committees
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Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah
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I give way to the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme.

Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah
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Will the intervention from the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock be on a similar point? I imagine it will.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
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It was going to be on exactly the same point. I could not have put it better myself.

Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

My respect for the hon. Member only increases because he does not wish to repeat what somebody else has said. That is not always the case in this House, as we know. I welcome the intervention from the hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme, and I would welcome a long discussion on probability, mathematics and statistics, but I can see that my Whip might not be entirely happy with that, so let me confine myself to this. I was not claiming that the estimate was rigorous. The hon. Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme suggested that because there will be more interest in ARIA, it will receive more Freedom of Information Act requests. That might be true for the first two or three years, but I do not think that level of interest would be maintained, even if it received more requests proportionately.

I mentioned funding because that is what enables activity, and freedom of information requests relate to that activity. Therefore, even if we doubled the greatest estimate to, say, 12, what price does the Committee think should not be paid for accountability and freedom of information? What would be too much? I was not here in Parliament for the expenses scandal, but we saw the impact that had on public confidence as we now see the cronyism scandals and their impact on public confidence and trusted institutions. Freedom of information and transparency is an essential part of that.

The Campaign for Freedom of Information reports that the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, with its significantly higher budget, was subject to just 48 requests in 2019. During the evidence sessions, we heard that UKRI was happy to deal with FOI requests, because it viewed them as an important aspect of spending public money. We also heard—this was telling—that the Royal Society of Edinburgh, although it is not subject to FOI, behaves as if it is and responds to requests because it views them as an important aspect of transparency. Regardless of whether the Minister accepts the amendment—I very much hope that she will—ARIA should echo the Royal Society of Edinburgh’s approach.

We heard in evidence from DARPA that it believed that rather than hindering the agency, the transparency offered by FOI requests was useful in building public trust in its work. In fact, DARPA’s deputy director stated that the level of oversight that it is subject to is “important to its success”. Other high-risk, high-reward agencies such as the Federal Agency for Disruptive Innovation in Germany, Vinnova in Sweden and the French National Centre for Scientific Research are all subject to the freedom of information requirements of their respective countries. What makes ARIA so different?

The protection of sensitive information cannot be used as justification for a blanket exemption, as the Freedom of Information Act 2000 already provides exemptions where disclosure would prejudice research or commercial interests, or cause a breach of confidentiality. In their initial response to the Secretary of State’s announcement of ARIA’s FOI exemption, NESTA said:

“Radical openness and honesty is needed or distrust will undermine it. The public will expect to know what’s happening with public money”—

I think we can very much see that now—

“and greater risk requires transparency and evaluation in order to determine what works.”

The Campaign for Freedom of Information said that ARIA

“will spend hundreds of millions of taxpayers’ money on high risk projects but the government apparently wants it to be less accountable to the public than parish councils, which are subject to FOI.”

In the evidence session, Tabitha Goldstaub said that

“at Google’s moonshot factory, X…they started in secret and everything felt so appealing, to protect people from any feeling of failure, but what they learned is that there are so many other much better ways than secrecy to incentivise people and to give them the freedom to fail. Actually, allowing for more transparency builds much more trust and encourages more collaboration and, therefore, better breakthroughs.”––[Official Report, Advanced Research and Invention Agency Public Bill Committee, 14 April 2021; c. 57, Q55.]

On what we are trying to achieve with this agency, the Minister has mentioned her concerns about bureaucracy a few times, but I think we as legislators have to decide whether we believe that rules and regulations are simply mere bureaucracy to be thrown out whenever possible, or whether we believe that they can contribute both to the effectiveness of an agency and to the contract that we in Parliament have with the public to take their hard-earned taxpayers’ money and spend it as best we can to encourage and enable growth, prosperity, and a national health service—all things from which the public benefit. We cannot do that in secret; we have to do it publicly.

I really urge the Minister to accept the amendment. She knows that the exemption has come in for much criticism and that the controversy around it will continue to mar the progress of the agency. I urge her to listen to the siren voices of concern and to accept the amendment to remove ARIA’s exemption from the Freedom of Information Act.

Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill (Fifth sitting)

Stephen Metcalfe Excerpts
Thursday 22nd April 2021

(3 years ago)

Public Bill Committees
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Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is important to consider the amendments together as one is consequential on the other. They would ensure that ARIA cannot use its significant resources to fund weapon development, and would provide the mechanism of the Secretary of State immediately dissolving ARIA were it to use any of its resources to support weapon development as an addition to the clause on dissolving ARIA. It is no secret that we in the SNP are not particularly keen to continue to be part of either the UK or the UK Parliament, but while we are contributing to ARIA and while some of our tax money is going to ARIA—while this money is being spent in our name—we do not want it to be spent on weapons or the development of weapons.

We have been very clear that we will not have nuclear weapons in an independent Scotland. We stand in opposition to them. For that reason, like many people in my party, I am a long-time member of the Scottish Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The decisions the UK Government have taken on the renewal of those weapons and on spending money on nuclear weapons have been some of the very worst things that they have done in the name of the people of the UK. I do not want to sit on a Bill Committee that creates an organisation which has no set purpose, but which could entirely fund weapon development with the money that it is allocated. It could entirely fund research into technologies with which I fundamentally disagree.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con)
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I completely understand the hon. Lady’s principled position on this issue. Does she not accept that, if the amendments were to pass, they would hamper the ability of the Secretary of State to activate clause 5 and direct ARIA towards working in our national security in a time of crisis? I fully accept that it would not be a good idea for ARIA to set its sights on developing new weapons, but we should not take its ability to do that away when we as nation may need it.

Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank the hon. Member for his characteristically sensible intervention. However, I feel so strongly about this that I think it is important that ARIA is excluded from doing that. There are other means that the UK can use to fund weapon development. I do not think ARIA should be one of them.

We are particularly concerned because of the lack of transparency and the issues that there have been around the use of weapons and the use of UK resources on weapons. We have said that we want the UK to immediately halt all military support and arms sales to regimes that are guilty of violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. The UK Government have not done so. Our concerns are well founded, which is why we have tabled what is quite an extreme amendment in comparison with others we have seen.

This is a subject of much moral debate. We will not ever accept the use of lethal autonomous weapons. Our concern is that, as they are on the cutting edge of technology, ARIA may consider looking at those weapons. I do not want that to be done in the name of the people I represent; they certainly do not want it done in their name.

The Minister has told us about the memorandum of understanding that will be in place between BEIS and ARIA. We have already touched on the issues of ethical investments that ARIA may or may not make. If the Minister was willing to make a statement about the ethical nature of investments ARIA will make and the direction that may be put into that MOU—we do not have as much information as we would like on the MOU—that might give us some comfort on the direction that ARIA may take. The lack of a mission for ARIA means that it is open to the possibility that this situation could arise, and that is a big concern of ours.

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Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I thank my hon. Friend for her intervention, and she is absolutely right. It would be a cause for concern at any time to exempt an agency of this importance and public funding from procurement rules, but it is particularly worrying when the Government are already embroiled in a cronyism and procurement scandal.

In support of the point that my hon. Friend made, Transparency International—a well-known and reputable organisation—found that, of 1,000 procurement contracts signed during the pandemic and totalling £18 billion of public money, one in five had one or more of the red flags commonly associated with corruption. Is that not a figure of which we should be absolutely ashamed? That has happened within the existing rules, and the Minister proposes to exempt ARIA from those rules.

In her letter to the Chair of the Science and Technology Committee on 2 March 2021, the Minister explained that the Bill will

“provide ARIA with an exemption from Public Contracts Regulations so that it can procure services, equipment and works relating to its research goals at speed, in a similar way to a private sector organisation.”

We have several concerns about that explanation. What assessment has the Minister made of the ways in which private sector organisations procure services? Has she compared this with the success or otherwise of Government procurement processes for PPE during the covid crisis? Is she saying that private sector procurement is more effective, more honest and fairer; or is it simply quicker?

What the exemption is for is also a concern. The Minister implies that it is for services, equipment and works relating to ARIA’s research goals. Is it for equipment, services and works, or is it actually for research? Will ARIA be considered to be procuring research? We had been led to understand that it would a funder of research and development, not a body conducting its own research in a lab, so what actual procurement needs will it have, beyond office space and office equipment? There are months and months before ARIA is operational, so what will it need to procure at speed, or is the intention to enable ARIA to procure research without oversight? What is the justification for not having appropriate oversight for its procurement of research?

We absolutely understand, and support, providing ARIA with additional flexibility in terms of its funding activity, but the benefit of exempting ARIA’s procurement of goods and services is not clear. We suggest that ARIA’s procurement needs are not different from those of other Government funding bodies. We hope that the Minister will explain why that is the case. In terms of safeguards, the Government are proposing that in a future framework agreement BEIS will require ARIA to appoint an independent internal auditor to report its procurement activities. It is therefore going to have an internal bureaucracy, as the Minister puts it, rather than be subject to the procurement rules that have been developed, debated and put in place over time.

Will that framework agreement set out procurement rules for ARIA? Otherwise, what is the auditing requiring compliance with? How can we audit if there are no rules to benchmark against? Without safeguards, we have significant concerns about the risk of sleaze. What is to prevent ARIA from buying its office equipment from a mate of the Secretary of State or of the chief executive? Can the Minister say which of the regulations she objects to? The Public Contracts Regulations 2015, for example, state that a person awarded a public contract must

“be linked to the subject-matter of the contract.”

Does she object to that? What will prevent ARIA from operating effectively?

In the evidence sessions, we heard a number of times, including from Professor Glover, that there is a need for openness and transparency. David Cleevely said:

“The more open you are about what you are doing, the less easy it is to hide the fact that you have let particular contracts and so on, so there ought to be a mechanism within the governance structure of the agency to do that.”—[Official Report, Advanced Research and Invention Public Bill Committee, 14 April 2021; c. 75, Q78.]

The Minister is removing such mechanisms as there already are. We heard that having rules and regulations in place was part of the culture of DARPA, on which this agency is supposedly based, with one of its directors, Dr Highnam, saying:

“Honour in public service is top of the list.”—[Official Report, Advanced Research and Invention Public Bill Committee, 14 April 2021; c. 39, Q32.]

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
- Hansard - -

Did we not also hear from Director Highnam how DARPA benefits from other transaction authority and the flexibility that comes outside of the standard Government procurement process?

Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

We heard from Dr Highnam repeatedly of the importance of rules and regulations. He spoke specifically of a culture in which the process was not considered bureaucracy and a barrier but part of enabling DARPA to meet its obligations. I say to the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock, for whom I have a great deal of respect, that the flexibility that DARPA benefits from in being able to procure research is not outside the United States procurement requirements. Dr Highnam made it clear that they benefit from providing extraordinary results while being open and following the highest standards in public service.

I hope that the Minister will agree to leave ARIA with public procurement rules that provide some measure of trust, particularly in the middle of the current cronyism scandal.

Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill (Third sitting)

Stephen Metcalfe Excerpts
Tuesday 20th April 2021

(3 years ago)

Public Bill Committees
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Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab)
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairship, Ms McVey. I apologise to the Bill Committee for not being here at the start. That was due to a medical appointment that I could not avoid. I am sorry to have missed the opening speeches.

Labour welcomes this debate and the interest and proposed investment in advanced research and innovation through this agency. We have concerns about the Bill as it stands, which will I will go through in some detail, amendment by amendment. We champion our world-leading scientists, and we recognise the importance of giving science and engineering in this country the opportunity to enable us to build back better and create a fairer and more progressive world.

Amendment 9, which stands in my name and those of my hon. Friends, follows on nicely from the amendment moved by the hon. Member for Aberdeen North. I am sorry to have missed part of her remarks, but I caught most of them. We echo her desire to see diversity on the board of ARIA. I was very drawn to her comments about the oil industry in Aberdeen North. I worked as an engineer for 20 years before coming to Parliament, and I spent some of that time in Nigeria working not in the industry but with oil engineers, so I know about the lack of diversity that she is referring to and how challenging it can be to be the only person of one’s gender, ethnicity or class in the room.

Our amendment seeks to ensure that, in appointing members of ARIA,

“The Secretary of State must…have regard to the diversity of the members including the representation of those with protected characteristics.”

“Protected characteristics” has the meaning given by part 2, chapter 1 of the Equality Act 2010. That would require the Secretary of State to have regard to the diversity of the board when using their powers of appointment.

Labour wants to ensure that agencies such as ARIA are of benefit to the entire nation—indeed, to all nations in the United Kingdom—and every region and citizen. It is clear that, at the moment, diversity is not the strong point of our science establishment. Only 7% of managers, directors and senior officials in academic and non-academic higher education positions are black, Asian or minority ethnic, and only 24% of the UK STEM workforce are women. That has to change if we are to create a welcoming and inclusive culture in United Kingdom research and development. The Government’s R&D roadmap states:

“Equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) is a critical aspect of research culture…UKRI will develop and launch bold initiatives to increase the participation, retention and promotion of a diversity of talent into R&D.”

I know that the Minister takes these issues seriously, so why is there no reference to diversity in this new agency? This Bill is a real opportunity for action. If the Government are serious about a forward-looking diversity programme, they must ensure that ARIA has diversity at its heart.

We want ARIA to be world leading and to make breakthroughs of which the whole United Kingdom can be proud. We cannot allow the research breakthroughs of tomorrow to be held back and hamstrung by old attitudes of the past. We are never going to unlock the full potential of our research sector if we do not use the talents of everyone. There are real issues with diversity in the UK science sector, with black and minority ethnic men 28% less likely to work in STEM than white men, and women representing 9% of people in non-medical STEM careers. Yet we face a shortfall of 173,000 STEM workers, which is estimated to cost the sector £1.5 billion a year.

The reason I am so determined that ARIA should reflect the importance of diversity is because when I graduated from Imperial in 1987—a long, long time ago—around 13% of engineering students were women. In my year at Imperial it was 12%. If we fast forward some 30 years—more than a quarter of a century—the figures have increased by 2 percentage points. In a quarter of a century, that is the amount of progress we have made in this critical area. We must not show any complacency or think that this will happen over time. As we have seen, it does not happen over time; it requires action.

Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah
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I am happy to give way to an hon. Member who is a great champion of diversity in science.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
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I am grateful to the hon. Lady for giving way. Does she recognise that the Government have taken steps in this direction, particularly during the year of engineering in 2018 and in the subsequent creation of an engineering envoy to try to continue to promote engineering to everyone, regardless of background, gender or ethnicity? The Government are alive to the issues and take them seriously, so mandating it in this amendment is not the right way forward. We need to do exactly what the hon. Lady said, which is to set up projects that let people decide that engineering is the career for them.

Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah
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I am grateful to the hon. Member for his intervention. I recognise the sterling work that he did as Chair of the Science and Technology Committee and as the Government’s envoy during the year of engineering, and that he now does as chairperson of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology. He is not talking about this issue now simply because it has become more fashionable; he has a long history in this area.

I did not mean to imply that the Government have not taken any action. It is important for the Government to promote engineering, but in this, as in everything, itis the outcomes that matter, not the words. At the heart of this Bill is the creation of an institution. There are many challenges facing our research environment, including the lack of private investment in research and the lack of venture capital investment in early start-ups.

The Government have chosen to respond with an institution, and therefore it should reflect the Government’s priorities when it comes to diversity. If part of the answer to the challenges facing the scientific community is a new institution, at the heart of it must be the diversity that we want to see in the science establishment.

Obviously, I am not the only person to raise this issue; we heard earlier from the hon. Member for Aberdeen North, and it was clear from witness evidence that there was significant support for ARIA acting as an agent of change in this important matter. Professor Leyser, the chief executive officer of UKRI, said:

“I have to think about all parts of the system. I have to think about the people—do we have the right kinds of people in the system, the right mix, the right diversity, the right set of skills, and the right career trajectories and pathways through the system?”

If the person who is in charge of the greatest portion of the UK R&D budget has to think about that, why not ARIA? We also heard from Tris Dyson of Nesta Challenges, who said specifically of the proposed agency that

“we think that there is an opportunity to explore new avenues and do things slightly differently. Some of the opportunities that that presents, both through ARIA and more generally, is around boosting the diversity of people involved in frontier technology and innovation and improving geographical reach.”––[Official Report, Advanced Research and Invention Agency Public Bill Committee, 14 April 2021; c. 5-7, Q3.]

I hope that the Minister will explain how that will be realised if not through an amendment such as amendment 9.

We also heard really important evidence from Dr Dugan of Wellcome, who is a past director of DARPA. She said:

“What I can tell you about diversity from my own experience, both in Silicon Valley and at DARPA, is that for decades we have known that specificity of goal and outcome is a good way to get more equality and diversity in assessment of ideas and in people conducting or pursuing those ideas.”––[Official Report, Advanced Research and Invention Agency Public Bill Committee, 14 April 2021; c. 39, Q33.]

We will come on to consider this in further debate, but currently ARIA has no mission, no specificity of outcomes, and no diversity requirements.

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Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman
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This has been quite an interesting debate and I particularly enjoyed the speech by the shadow Minister; I thought it was very good. However, I did not expect to be discussing women’s underwear during the course of this Bill Committee.

It is the case in relation to things being designed for men that such things happen. We see that if we consider the fact that endometriosis treatments, for example, are few and far between, because researchers and organisations do not put money into researching things that are “women-only problems”, because for some reason we matter less. It is therefore incredibly important that the Government take positive steps in this regard.

Engineering and innovation will be the future for us. I have already said that I represent Aberdeen. We are looking at having a just transition; we are looking at moving Aberdeen away from its focus on oil and gas to a focus on renewable energy and the energies of the future. We will not have those energies of the future or the design and innovation that we will need unless we have diversity in the research environment and unless we have a significant number of people from different backgrounds, all with different life experiences, considering how best to solve problems. For young people considering coming into these organisations, having women and people with other protected characteristics on boards such as that of ARIA would mean that they are more likely to be able to aspire to those roles.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
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I agree that we need to hold people up as examples to encourage people from far more diverse backgrounds to come into engineering and all STEM subjects. However, the amendment would mandate the percentage of women sitting on the board of ARIA. The UKRI board, with 13 members, has six women, without that being mandated and using the Equality Act 2010. The Equality Act is delivering our aims. Let us talk about how we get more people from diverse backgrounds into engineering. In my view, this is not the way to do it.

Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman
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I thank the hon. Member for his input. I was not trying to criticise the actions of the UK Government in this area—in lots of other areas, but not in this one. Positive steps have been made. In Scotland, we have a duty of gender diversity on boards and it has worked. We have proved that it has worked across public sector boards. It has made a positive difference. People can say that we might not need to legislate for it, but it is a safeguard. It ensures that we have that percentage of women on the board and that we have diversity in all appointments in relation to ARIA.

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Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah
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Amendment 10, which stands in my name and that of my hon. Friends, reflects many of the concerns articulated by the SNP spokesperson—the hon. Member for Aberdeen South—and would require the Secretary of State to seek and obtain the consent of the Science and Technology Committee of the House of Commons to the appointment of ARIA’s first chief executive officer. Some members of the Bill Committee serve on the Select Committee and know how well able the Science and Technology Committee is to hold to account the potential—future—CEO of ARIA.

I feel that this amendment is particularly important because, in a response to a parliamentary question that I received just yesterday, the Minister made it clear that the recruitment of the first CEO was under way and that no interim CEO would be appointed. We therefore need to ensure that we get the first CEO right.

The driving factor behind the amendment is the need for greater oversight and responsibility. We are in the midst of a crisis of confidence; a scandal of sleaze is overwhelming this House and many of its institutions. I will start with a quote:

“The lunches, the hospitality, the quiet word in your ear, the ex-ministers and ex-advisers for hire, helping big business find the right way to get its way.”

That is how former Prime Minister David Cameron described back in 2010 the next big scandal to hit British politics. I want all members of this Bill Committee to think long and hard about the way the Bill is currently drafted. It leaves £800 million of taxpayers’ money, and our scientific future, open to just that level of sleaze.

We see in the current cronyism scandal the consequences of placing power and responsibility in the hands of those who are not accountable and do not have the moral judgment to hold that power wisely in the public interest. This Bill places huge power and responsibility in the hands of the CEO of ARIA, with little ongoing accountability, a significant budget and none of the checks provided by the usual public procurement and freedom of information rules. It is critical that there be parliamentary oversight of the choice of CEO if we are to avoid both sleaze and, equally important, the appearance of sleaze. This CEO needs the confidence of the UK’s scientific community: they will have a huge challenge. But they will receive that confidence only if they are appointed on merit. The Bill was drafted before the current sleaze scandal and reflects far too much the “Ask no questions—that’s too much bureaucracy” approach. We see where that has got us.

Labour’s Opposition day debate on 14 April, just last week, highlighted the fact that the Greensill scandal is just the tip of the iceberg of the cronyism rife in the Conservative party during the pandemic and long before. It is laced through the billions of pounds-worth of contracts paid for by taxpayers and of a slew of troubling senior appointments.

Bill Committee testimony from Government witnesses such as Professor Philip Bond, and Dominic Cummings’ evidence earlier to the Science and Technology Committee contained multiple references to trusting the leaders of ARIA with £800 million of taxpayers’ money with no purpose or mission, none of the usual safeguards and complete freedom for the Secretary of State as to whom they appoint. We are concerned that this is a recipe for sleaze in science. There is no detail in the Bill—

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
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I am listening very closely to what the hon. Lady is saying, but I cannot imagine for one moment—I am sure that she cannot, either—that a chair or chief executive of ARIA would refuse an invitation from the Select Committee on Science and Technology to attend and answer questions. In the 11 years that I have been here, I have not been aware of a single incident of someone from the science community refusing to attend the Committee. To suggest that this could be science sleaze in the waiting is stretching the point way beyond reality.

Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah
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I am always grateful for the hon. Gentleman’s interventions, as he makes interesting—if inaccurate, in this case—points. Let me emphasise how it looks from the outside right now: we have all these friends getting contracts because they have the WhatsApp contact of the Secretary of State, and people appointed to be in charge of procurement also work for big producers. I am afraid that the Bill does not contain the necessary safeguards, and it is incumbent on the Committee to ensure that that kind of sleaze does not taint science.