Stephen Metcalfe debates involving the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy during the 2019 Parliament

Gas Prices and Energy Suppliers

Stephen Metcalfe Excerpts
Thursday 23rd September 2021

(3 weeks, 3 days ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
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

(3 weeks, 5 days ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
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? (903559)

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

(Report stage)
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
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

Oral Answers to Questions

Stephen Metcalfe Excerpts
Tuesday 25th May 2021

(4 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
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)
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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 (Fifth sitting)

Stephen Metcalfe Excerpts
Thursday 22nd April 2021

(5 months, 4 weeks ago)

Public Bill Committees

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Kirsty Blackman Portrait Kirsty Blackman
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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

(6 months ago)

Public Bill Committees

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah (Newcastle upon Tyne Central) (Lab)
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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
- Hansard - -

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
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

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.

Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill (Fourth sitting)

Stephen Metcalfe Excerpts
Tuesday 20th April 2021

(6 months ago)

Public Bill Committees

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah
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These amendments are all concerned with ensuring that the benefits of ARIA are spread across our country and contribute to a more equal and prosperous country. Amendment 14 would insert a new sub-paragraph requiring ARIA’s annual report, for which there is provision elsewhere, to contain details of the geographical distribution of activities funded by ARIA, while amendments 16, 17 and 18, which relate to clause 2, would require ARIA to have regard for the benefits of its activities across the nations and regions of the UK in exercising its functions.

We tabled these amendments in a constructive spirit, to improve the Bill in line with the Government’s own aims, as we understand them. During and since the general election, there has been significant discussion about the importance of ensuring that our whole country benefits from economic prosperity and from the transformational impact of ARIA.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con)
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I accept what the hon. Lady says about geographical spread and making sure that we are treating the country fairly and levelling up, but we have to accept that while £800 million over a four-year period is a lot, £200 million a year is not a huge amount. We know that we are focusing ARIA on a small number of projects. The danger is that we dilute the impact that ARIA could have using that money by trying to demonstrate that we are spreading it equally across the country. The danger with that is that we do not achieve what we set out to achieve in the first place.

Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

There are two challenges here. ARIA’s funding is between 1% and 2% of the UK’s science spend, depending on whether the aims of the current Government are actually met, so in some respects it is considered too small to be subject to reporting requirements. Yet we also hear of how it is expected—indeed, required—to have a transformational impact on all our lives. If that impact is going to be transformational, surely it is critical that it should be as equitable as possible.

We have tried very hard to reflect those slightly conflicting aims. Amendment 14 is a reporting requirement; amendments 16, 17 and 18 are to “have regard to”. We have not set targets. We have not said that it has to be a certain proportion, but particularly with regard to amendment 14 there can surely be no objection to reporting how the funding has been spent. That is a basic requirement of transparency.

The hon. Member is right to infer that people may draw conclusions from that reporting, but I tend to feel that information is empowering, regardless of what the conclusions are, so the amendment takes a reasonable line between requiring that the spend be in some respects regionally distributed, which it does not do, and ensuring that the information is there to assess the extent to which ARIA is living up to its overriding goal—again, we do not have a mission, so let us say goal—of transforming our society.

The Opposition believe that that goal is possible. We believe that science and research, as I have said, can be the engines of progress for our society, but it needs to be for and by everyone, not simply for the few. It is essential, as I have said, that each region of the UK benefits from the creation of ARIA. The Secretary of State told the Science and Technology Committee that the Government wanted ARIA

“to reflect the wide talent and geographical spread of the United Kingdom”,

but there is nothing in the Bill to measure the extent to which it does that. As we have seen, the Bill fails to mention the devolved nations and does not outline any reflection of the geographical realities of the United Kingdom.

Amendment 14 is simply about requiring reporting so that the Government—whichever Government we have—can measure the impact that ARIA is having on the very important desire to reduce the regional inequalities in our country. It does not tie the hands of ARIA’s leadership; it just imposes reporting requirements. That is really important when we reflect that the Campaign for Science and Engineering found that for every £1 invested by the Government on research and development we receive 20p to 30p back each and every year. Surely we have a right to know where that money is going geographically, as well as which areas it is going to.

As a northern MP, I know that the north receives less than half of the life sciences investment per head that the south of England does, despite having great teaching hospitals and significant health inequalities that truly need to be transformed. We heard an important contribution from Tabitha Goldstaub of CognitionX, who said that

“ARIA has to be independent, but it also needs to ensure that it works really closely with central Government and with regional and local government. Local government spends about £1 billion on procurement, and cities are key investors in infrastructure, so finding a good link with local government, as well as with central Government, is important…Regional strengths deliver benefits to actual localities.”––[Official Report, Advanced Research and Invention Public Bill Committee, 14 April 2021; c. 56, Q54.]

We also heard from John Kingman, the chair of UKRI, that its structures involve regular consultation with the devolved Administrations. It is important that we see how well ARIA is able to benefit also from that engagement, whether indirectly through the UKRI or through its competitions and other means of funding.

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Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn (Aberdeen South) (SNP)
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I rise, obviously, to speak in favour of SNP amendment 30, which almost ties in with what is proposed by the shadow Minister. It is about providing greater transparency on the destination of ARIA’s funding disbursements within the UK.

I just want to pick up on a couple of things that have been said already. The shadow Minister reflected on the fact that the Bill makes no mention of the devolved nations. She almost seemed surprised, but that took me a bit aback because I am not surprised at that in any way, shape or form. I do not think anyone even on the Government Benches is over-surprised that they forgot to mention Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland.

The hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock mentioned his concerns about drawing conclusions. Yeah, I will be drawing conclusions about where that money goes and I am sure that every single person in Scotland will.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
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If we were discussing how the Government aim to spend our £22 billion a year on science and research, there would be a much better argument for the amendment. But we are talking about high-risk, high-reward science, where a focus on a particular technology has the transformational effect that we are after. That might be the University of Strathclyde and its quantum technology research—I have no objection to that being the area of funding. But if the area happens to be Cornwall, Cambridge, London or somewhere else, I do not think we should hamper ourselves on this particular aspect of a new agency by trying to set targets. We know that if we set a target, someone tries to meet it.

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
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I understand the point that the hon. Gentleman is making, although I would caution that, when speaking to an MP from Aberdeen, people do not tend to mention a Glasgow university—it doesn’t go down too well, that’s for sure.

I understand the purpose of the hon. Gentleman’s point, but he must understand our concerns about making sure that Scotland receives its fair share of funding and investment from the UK Government while we remain a part of the United Kingdom. That ties into the wider narrative from this UK Government since the 2019 election. The views and will of the people of Scotland have been completely disregarded.

What we are seeing from the UK Government are attempts to impose their will on Scotland. We saw that with clause 46 of the Internal Market Bill and with the levelling-up fund that bypasses devolution but does not deliver for the communities in Scotland that it is needed for. This fits into our wider concern about the direction of funding from the UK Government.

As I said earlier, £800 million is involved. While Scotland is still a part of the UK we will take an interest and argue Scotland’s case for getting that funding into Scotland. It should, of course, be at the Barnett level. I would welcome assurances from the Minister that we will see investment in Scotland—not necessarily in Glasgow or at the University of Strathclyde, but perhaps in Aberdeen: that would be much more beneficial. I hope that we will see that level of investment in Scotland and I hope that she will provide that commitment, in which case I will be able to withdraw my amendment.

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Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah
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It has been a long day and we have had lively debates covering many important themes set out in this admittedly short Bill. We now come to one of the critical themes: the mission of ARIA. What is ARIA for?

Amendment 15 would require ARIA to consider its core mission in exercising its functions. Under the amendment, for the 10 years following the passing of the Act, that core mission would be to undertake activities to support the achievement of net zero. Thereafter, its mission would be established by statutory instrument, subject to the draft affirmative procedure.

I am surprised that I find myself in the position of needing to argue that ARIA—the Advanced Research and Invention Agency—requires a mission and that that mission should be net zero, which is the greatest existential challenge facing our country and the world right now.

We welcome ARIA, as we have said. We recognise that there is a gap in the UK’s research capability, which ARIA can and should fill, but we believe strongly that ARIA will succeed only if it is given a well-defined mission, which the Government must play a significant role in setting. As we heard in the evidence sessions—and as is, I believe, the opinion of the Minister—ARIA should not try to replace either blue skies research institutions or translational institutions, but should bring the two together to focus on the transformative effects that science and technology can have on society. I am sure that we are all united in the view that ARIA can have a transformative impact.

This is an opportunity for the Government to establish a mission-led funding agency that can benefit us all. With no mission and the whole of the realm of science—the whole of the unknown and the less understood—to choose from, the risk is that ARIA will be directionless, providing no societal return for taxpayer investment, or that it will be prey to vanity projects, providing return only for a few.

In evidence to the Science and Technology Committee, Dominic Cummings—I am mentioning him once again as the original inspiration and architect of ARIA—held up some sort of a diagram and said that general UK research was one bit and that ARIA should look at all the rest. That gave the impression that it would be like the SS Enterprise going off in search of new areas, but even the SS Enterprise—I know that “Star Trek” fans are present—had a mission, which was to seek out new civilisations. It was not a mission to—

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

Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah
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I am speaking about “Star Trek”, so let me finish my point and then I will give way. It was not a general mission to go around the universe and galaxies. It was not a mission to look at mining new minerals or whatever. It was a mission to seek out new civilisations, yet here we have ARIA being proposed as an agency without any mission whatever.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
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Just to clarify, I think it was the USS Enterprise. I believe that ARIA has a mission, which is to boldly go to areas of science that we have not gone into before. A focus on impact, high risk and high reward is not what we currently have, and we should not hamper it at this early stage. I would not for one moment deny that climate change is a huge threat that needs to be addressed, but that is not necessarily where the agency should focus. Why would we want to tie its hands before it has even started to look at the transformational science out there?

I also have great concerns, because the hon. Lady said she felt that the Government should have huge input into the mission of ARIA. That would potentially breach the Haldane principle, which Government after Government have applied and stuck to in order to make sure that politicians are not influencing scientists in what areas that they research.

Chi Onwurah Portrait Chi Onwurah
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I accept that it is indeed the USS Enterprise, and I thank the hon. Member for that correction. On the rest of his contribution, I will say once again that I have a great deal of respect for the hon. Member, but to boldly go where no one has gone before is not a mission. It is not even a direction—it is explicitly not a direction. As I said, the USS Enterprise’s mission was to seek out new civilisations, so it was anthropological rather than another domain of science. ARIA has no mission.

We do think we have to talk about the Haldane principle, given that we have seen the acceptance of mission-oriented research, including the grand challenges that were discussed during the evidence sessions. That makes it clear that we can ascribe a mission to ARIA without breaching the Haldane principle. The Government should not outsource their responsibility to direct the transformative change that ARIA can bring to our greatest challenge, which is one that—the hon. Member is familiar with this—inspires so many young people and that can get public buy-in: climate change and the need to address the impact it will have on our planet.

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Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Cambridge. I am not quite sure whether lagging roofs is necessarily within the remit of what I would expect ARIA to be doing. I like to think that the Government could do that notwithstanding any new technologies, but I appreciate the point he was making. I assure members of the Committee that there will be no “Star Trek” references coming from my mouth whatsoever—[Interruption.] Or “Star Wars”. We have had quite enough of that. I rise to speak in support of amendment 35, tabled by the SNP, which again is directly related to climate change and the drive towards net zero.

If ARIA is to have a mission—I think it should, and the majority of witnesses last week seemed to be in favour of that—there can be only one focus. I understand the premise of the Government’s not wanting ARIA to be constrained. I think the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock said that he did not want to hamper ARIA, but I disagree, and I think it is an honest disagreement to have. I do not see how instructing an agency to try to combat climate change and allow us to meet our net zero aims is hampering it. I think that provides not only the focus that the agency needs but the focus that we should all want it to have, because it is the biggest existential crisis facing us.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
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I do not deny that climate change is the biggest issue that we need to address, but a huge amount of research is already going on in that area across UKRI and its £8.8 billion-plus budget. To focus all £200 million a year for ARIA on climate change could miss the point of what we are trying to set up. To me—it may just be me—it is blindingly clear what the mission is: to find areas of research for which funding currently cannot be accessed because it is too risky, and fund that. We talk about high risk, high reward, and that is the mission: to find science that is worthy of research but cannot get funding or support now. If we do that, we might find the next global positioning system, the next computed axial tomography scanner or the next hadron collider—something really inspirational and transformational.

Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
- Hansard - - - Excerpts

I certainly understand the hon. Member’s point, and, to his credit, he is persuasive in his arguments. None the less, hon. Members will be unsurprised to hear that he has not quite persuaded me, and I do not think his argument would necessarily persuade the witnesses—the likes of Professor Mazzucato and Professor Wilsdon—from whom we heard last week. It is right that we have this discussion, and it is good that we are having it in a positive and constructive fashion, but ultimately I believe there still should be a mission for ARIA. Without it, we are not doing all that we possibly can. DARPA is the clearest example of why a mission is important in this regard. We spoke about it on Second Reading, and we heard from the horse’s mouth just last week about the importance of the mission to DARPA.

Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill (First sitting)

Stephen Metcalfe Excerpts
Wednesday 14th April 2021

(6 months ago)

Public Bill Committees

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
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Splendidly diplomatic answer. I will pass you over to colleagues.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con)
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Q It is a pleasure to serve under your leadership, Ms McVey. Good morning to both of you, and thank you for your presentations. I truly believe that ARIA will significantly add to the research and innovation landscape, in an area where we perhaps have not done that before. That does beg the question of where those visionary ideas would have gone up until this point.

The question that I would like to ask is, what role do you believe that ARIA and UKRI have in ensuring that ARIA-funded research becomes a tangible service or product and actually supports the UK economy? If we are investing £800 million, we need to make sure that there is a benefit. I fully accept the high-risk, high-reward model—I think that is an important part of it—but we need to make sure that we support that innovation and that research along the technology-readiness scale to make sure that it turns into something tangible that adds to our overall wealth. How do you see that role playing out?

Professor Leyser: To me, a key question in our R&D system altogether is connectivity. We have a spectacular international reputation for the quality of our R&D base right across the disciplines and in both the public and the private sectors, and we have some fantastic innovative companies creating extraordinary products and services for the UK. However, there is an acknowledged weakness in our system in the middle, so to speak, which is sometimes referred to as the valley of death. There is a lot of analysis as to what is going on there. It is partly to do with getting the right pathway of funding that supports activity across that gap.

I personally think that a bigger problem is our relatively balkanised R&D system. I think that we need to focus very hard on building much higher-quality connectivity and networking, right across the system and across that gap. We tend to think of this as a very linear, translational process, and it does not work that way. It is about joining up all the parts in a way that information, ideas, skills, know-how and, crucially, people—all those things are carried best by people—flow to and fro across that system.

One of the major priorities for UKRI is to consider the dynamic career pathways that people need to follow to connect that system up better and to support researchers in different parts of the system moving to other parts of the system—so from academia into industry and, crucially, from industry back into academia, which our current incentive structures in academia do not adequately support.

I think that that “bridging the valley of death” part is a key role for UKRI. That is exactly what we can do, because we bridge all the sectors and we have some levers on a lot of those incentives that are currently driving balkanisation. If we add ARIA into that properly connected system, then the ideas and innovation that emerge from ARIA will feed into that system in an entirely productive and creative way.

It is not ARIA’s job to think about the system and to build bridges across the valley of death; its job is to push those transformative ideas to try to drive step changes in particular areas and technologies where the experts in ARIA think the best opportunities lie. If those seeds are sown on fertile ground, they will transform into that knowledge economy that I keep talking about. My job is to make sure that the ground is fertile.

Dawn Butler Portrait Dawn Butler (Brent Central) (Lab)
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Q Dame Ottoline, you said earlier that you expect a close working relationship with ARIA. What does that actually look like? Legislatively, what should that look like?

Professor Leyser: It is an interesting question as to the extent to which that needs to be written into legislation. In my experience, the kinds of relationship that one wants to have with key players across the system are not things for which you necessarily legislate. They are about maintaining open lines of communication and building high-quality personal relationships with different actors in the system. There are a lot of players in the R&D system. I spend a lot of my time talking to people who run other agencies—for example, in the charity sector and those who run R&D activities in businesses— connecting them up, understanding what people’s needs are, what the opportunities are and building the joined-up system I have talked of about before.

So I think the personal relationships are going to be almost as important as anything that one can write into legislation. None the less, possible tools for connection, such as seats on each other’s boards, are certainly worth considering, as is observer-type status, rather than formal status, given that high-quality boards tend to be small. Our board worked really well where people were not representative but bringing their skills and expertise round the table. One does not want to bog down the governance structures for a light, agile and out-there organisation with representative requirements. As I have said before, active and engaged communication is going to be essential for ARIA, because it needs to understand the breadth of opportunity in the system to work well. It will be in everybody’s interest for those activities to work well. Because of that, they will happen naturally, in the same way that I spend a lot of time talking with other funders of research and innovation already in the public and private sectors.

Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill (Second sitting)

Stephen Metcalfe Excerpts
Wednesday 14th April 2021

(6 months ago)

Public Bill Committees

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
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That is very helpful, thank you.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con)
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Q It is a pleasure to serve under your leadership this afternoon, Ms Cummins. Thank you to our excellent witnesses. I am interested in the practical approach. When you have made some breakthroughs on these various high-risk projects, how do you ensure that the breakthrough reaches its full potential? Is it done through the ARPA model, passing it on to someone else to take it to the next stage? Is it the project manager who has a role in ensuring that it goes into safe hands, or is it the churn of people—the revolving door—that helps transfer that knowledge out an ARPA and into business, so that it can create service and product?

Dr Highnam: If I may, I will take the first shot at this one. It is the first two: we do not rely on the churn, as you say, of people for transition, but when you show up—when you come here—you come to make a difference. So you are always focused on transitioning the knowledge that is discovered in a more systems-oriented research programme—the thing or the entity—across into service of the nation. It is part of what you do. I think, as someone said earlier, it is that intersection of managerial and technical expertise, and a passion: those are the people you want at DARPA at any given time to frame and to drive—and not just to drive to discover, but to drive to transition as well. We watch that very carefully and the responsibility belongs to all of us in the agency.

Dr Dugan: We used to say at DARPA—and this is, I think, generally true of most organisations—transition is a full-contact sport, always has been and always will be. It is very difficult. Transitions of breakthroughs that are showing what is now newly possible, or a solution that did not previously exist, require a tremendous amount of effort. I think that it is important to recognise that there are many transition paths that grow out of an organisation that is ARPA-like. Some of the programmes, in the case of DARPA, transition to our military counterparts. Some of them transition to the commercial sector and then are bought back by national security or military. There are many different pathways. In some cases, programme managers go to other Government organisations to help in those transitions. In some cases, they rotate out and go to new things entirely.

It is important to recognise that the breakthrough itself is not sticky through the organisation that it was created in. The breakthrough then gets transitioned to impact and scale in the most suitable organisation in order to create that ultimate impact. I would add, in addition to the passion that many programme managers and directors feel, they are also impact junkies. They really come to make a difference. So the ultimate transition—the ultimate scaling and impact—is the goal. Make the breakthrough, and then transition it to scale.

Professor Azoulay: I want to note that there is a distinction between DARPA and other ARPA-like agencies in different contexts. I am sure Dr Highnam and Dr Dugan will think that it is an oversimplification, but to some extent there is one customer for the projects that come out of DARPA, whereas for something like ARPA-E it is a much more diverse and scattered ecosystem. The breakthrough needs to latch on to the energy system, and there are lots of different actors with lots of different interests. At ARPA-E that has meant that they have created explicitly a tech-to-market group, to try to get ahead of the translation problem of the project that has come out of the agency. I want to say that this is not independent of the mission. To create a good tech-to-market group, you need a certain scale within a certain scope, and to the extent that your projects are too scattered, it is going to be a lot harder to create that scale, and so harder to create the transitions.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
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Just to follow up briefly, thank you for that; it is comprehensive and helpful. It highlights the fact that you are looking for more than just individuals with some inspiring ideas. They have got to have the ability to own the research and inspire the next stage in its progress. I just think we should put that on record—that programme managers have to be multi-skilled in a number of different areas. So thank you for that.

Dawn Butler Portrait Dawn Butler (Brent Central) (Lab)
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Q It is great to serve under your chairmanship today, Ms Cummins. Thank you very much to the witnesses today. It is very enlightening. On the back of the last question with regard to managerial content I really like the idea that the transition is an impact or contact sport. You go in, do your best work and get out with your reputation intact. I have two questions about that. First, how do you reach those people who are not known—who may be working on something very creative but are not well known in the industry? Secondly, you have talked a lot about evaluations. Are they peer-to-peer evaluations, and is that evaluation transparent? Perhaps we will go to Dr Highnam first.

Dr Highnam: We do—I am very proud of this—full and open competition to the greatest extent possible. The process is approximately like this. A programme manager has framed a programme, using the Heilmeier questions, and received approval to launch. They put out various announcements in different places. They organise industry days—these are more virtual than in person, but we do both. We put it into the various mailing lists in all manner of technical communities. We push it out through small business and make sure the universities and the vice-presidents for research and development are all aware. We make the maximum push that we can, certainly for unclassified activities.

Then, when proposals come in—we are very clear on what we expect to see in a proposal, which is how we then evaluate proposals; we are very transparent on the requirements for that—we take a look and, surprisingly often, to respond to your point, you will find a technology or a small business had an idea that meets the goal. We do not over-engineer the request for proposals. We say, “Here’s what we want to do. Here are the boundaries, if you like, in terms of technical elements we are interested in. It’s up to you guys. Come back with the best team that you can and the best approach that you can for solving this.” And there is always a surprise. From a PM perspective—Regina and I have both been PMs at DARPA—you always find yourself saying, “Oh, I didn’t think of that. That may be the one that actually wins; we don’t know.”

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Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
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That is really helpful. Thank you, both.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
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Q Good afternoon and thank you for joining us and for your excellent contribution. Anne, you made a very interesting point about the independence of ARIA, to avoid it being used potentially as pointing at political failure. If you are investing in high-risk, high-reward research, there will be failure—that is undoubtedly true. May we ask for your advice on how we should measure the metrics of an ARIA over the early years, before potentially there is any output that has demonstrated a transformational benefit to society? On top of that, could you give us some advice on advising project managers on how they should go about selecting projects to explore? Should it be just on the basis of interesting science, or should there be a vision of the commercialisation of that science at the end, to motivate them? We are only going to be able to fund a certain number of projects, and presumably applications will outstrip the funding fairly quickly.

Professor Glover: How we measure success in the early years is a very important question. I am not going to give you an exact answer, but what I might say is that maybe we should not try. That would be unusual, wouldn’t it? That is what I meant earlier about not just following the formula of, “You need to tick these boxes to demonstrate success.” Of course, you would hope that whoever is leading ARIA would have an idea of how you are developing the innovation ecosystem that will be supported by ARIA. They might have some ideas about numbers of applications, where they are coming from, and having a good look at and analysing that, and looking at the amount of interdisciplinary or multidisciplinary research that comes forward. That is always quite hard to fund. Historically, when I have been involved in such things, interdisciplinary research tends to get kicked around different agencies: “This is more for you.” “No, this is more for you.” Everybody is worried about their budget and thinks, “If you fund it, we won’t have to fund this from our budget.” Thinking about the number of applications that could come from a broad range of different disciplines—that would be good. I am not answering your question directly. I am just saying that it is very easy to say, “Let’s have a way of measuring success,” but sometimes that can be stifling.

It is a bit like—perhaps not in the years timescale of ARIA—how it is around the time of year when we plant seeds in our garden or wherever. If you want to measure how well a seed is germinating, if you keep pulling it up and having a look at it you are really going to set it back, so sometimes you just need to think, “I’m hoping that in four or five months’ time this is going to be a broad bean plant with broad beans on it. I just need to wait and see.” I know that that is difficult to do.

The second thing you asked is about commercialisation. I cannot for the life of me remember who said this, but someone once said that there are two types of research: applied research and research not yet applied. That is quite true. There might be some areas where you think that there is a very easy market for this, but if we look back and learn from experience we find that an awful lot of research has been developed. The whole area of medical diagnostics, for example, was pure research. There was no commercialisation; it was just a fundamental biological problem that was being investigated. Some of the outcomes of that research led to molecules called monoclonal antibodies. It is quite a beautiful specific diagnostic—supremely sensitive—that can pick out particular molecules of interest that might tell you if you have a particular disease or have been exposed to a particular compound or whatever.

In renewable energy or an area around that, you might understand that there will be a lot of potential commercial partners and opportunities. In some other areas, perhaps not. This might be an opportunity to think about what the relationships would be like between ARIA and existing research funding, because it might be part of an ecosystem. I would hope that there were distinct roles for UKRI and ARIA but very good communication between the two, as well as very many other stakeholders, in order to identify areas that might not be suitable for UKRI funding but that might have a strong commercial or development potential that ARIA would be much more adept at supporting.

Sarah Owen Portrait Sarah Owen (Luton North) (Lab)
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Q It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Mrs Cummins. Anne, you talked about citizen buy-in. That would take an element of trust, so my two questions are around that. What could or would good transparency look like without stifling innovation, in both of your opinions? Secondly, if we do not have FOIs and we do not know precisely how this will be reported to us, do we need an ethical baseline to ensure that we are spending public money on the greater good?

Professor Glover: On the citizen buy-in, I think that would be reasonable to consider achieving. I do not think that it would be insurmountably difficult in many ways. If I give you the example of some of the grand challenges that were funded at European Commission level, it was getting down to three brilliant projects. Which one will we fund? If the European Commission made the decision about which one was going to be funded, inevitably different member states would complain: “Why is that getting funded in that member state? This other project was just as good.”

All sorts of problems can arise. Whereas, if you asked European Union citizens which one they would like to be funded, they would say what matters most to them. That is quite an interesting insight into the mind of the European citizen, or it would have been, in that particular instance.

I do not think you are in any way betraying confidences; you are talking about whether it is a project looking at delivering limitless amounts of sustainable energy, or a project in mapping the functioning of the human brain, so that you might be able to exploit that in other ways. You are not saying how you are going to do those things; you are not revealing confidences or information that would be inappropriate or undermining of those doing the research. I think we might be worrying needlessly about that.

As to the ethical baseline, of course this has to be ethical. Tabitha and I are probably agreeing too much with each other, or perhaps we are going back to the same thing. If you are not open and transparent, you will have problems. That is just not rocket science. For example, there are many agencies that are not part of Government but that might receive governmental funding. Scotland’s National Academy, the Royal Society of Edinburgh, is one of those. We are completely independent from Government. We get funding from the Scottish Funding Council, which gets its money from Government. We are not subject to FOI requests but we voluntarily behave as if we are. If we did not do that, people would say, “They’re being directed by Government, so the reports that come out of the RSE will be influenced by Government.”

If we say, “This is how we approach it,” and if somebody comes to us and asks for information, we behave as if it were an FOI. It has never been too onerous. The only onerous time for me with FOI requests was when I was chief scientific adviser to the President of the European Commission, when it became unrealistic, because I had such a small team and there was such a lot of FOI requests. Generally, that is the direction we should be moving in. You do not want to hobble a new agency by making it seem that any aspect of it is secretive. To be able to demonstrate ethical compliance, you need that transparency.

Tabitha Goldstaub: Ethical transparency is key, but we also have an opportunity with ARIA to set a robust, rigorous ethical review process that is fit for the AI era. We do not currently have that.

There has been a tremendous amount of attention on the public-facing ethical principles and frameworks for assessing AI products, but relatively little on the frameworks and practices for assessing research, or how to launch and manage a data science and AI ethics review board, in any way that would cut across disciplines, organisational, institutional or national boundaries, as ARIA would need to.

If ARIA can work with others, such as the Health Foundation, which is in collaboration with the Ada Lovelace Institute, or the Alan Turing Institute, on this problem, ARIA could achieve its mission responsibly, become a beacon for other ARPA-like programmes, and tolerate failure much more safely; because ultimately we need to break new ground and to do so with an ethics review, specifically with research that has anything to do with artificial intelligence. It would enable us to set real international standards, if we can get that right. It is both a risk and a huge opportunity for ARIA.

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Aaron Bell Portrait Aaron Bell
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Perhaps we need someone with particular expertise in portfolio management as well, because it seems the risk/reward of these missions is so key. I will leave it there.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
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Q Good afternoon, all. I have a quick question for Felicity. We heard earlier from Dr Highnam from DARPA about the high level of churn among the project managers and that they move between academia, business and, in their case, DARPA and that creates the right culture. Presumably it requires flexibility from the businesses themselves. Do you see your members embracing that kind of secondment into a research body such as ARIA, even though it may not lead to anything?

Felicity Burch: I have not talked to them directly about this in the context of ARIA, but I can reflect on conversations about business and university collaboration more generally. I think our members do see value in seconding people to research teams to learn new skillsets. Likewise, we would love to see more people from university sectors being seconded into businesses. Were there a world-leading agency like ARIA, being able to say, “My people have worked on one of these teams” would be quite a prestigious thing for businesses. I guess the flipside of that is this: how do we make sure that we build ARIA to be that prestigious body that businesses feel comfortable seconding their people to?

I think that time and again we hear businesses saying that that fluidity of people between the business sector, the university sector and the research sector more generally is really important for successful innovation and building an ecosystem. I am sure that if any business pointed to any one individual, they might not want to lose them, but I think this is much more about how we build a really flexible and really brilliant innovation ecosystem, and to that extent I think that businesses would be really happy to see those moves.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
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Q Have you any advice on how we should approach building such an organisation?

Felicity Burch: In the sense that it would encourage businesses to second people on to ARIA?

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe
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Yes. You said that we have to build an ARIA that encourages that kind of collaboration. What is your advice about doing that? Where are the risks and rewards from an employer’s point of view?

Felicity Burch: One of the challenges is making sure that ARIA has its own clear purpose, so that businesses know why they would second people to it. The truth is that we have a lot of other institutions in the research/innovation landscape, as we have already referred to throughout this conversation, and as you have heard from the previous panels today. However, once ARIA is up and running, has a clear mission, and has some really great people on it who you can point to as being leaders in their field and really pushing the boundaries—when you can tell a clear story about what the organisation is set up to do—it will become a lot easier for a business to make the case that, “Yes, it makes sense for me to put a person on there; they are really aligned to what I am doing,” or not.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner
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Q A few years ago, we were told that there was no magic money tree. That seems to have been parked temporarily, but I fear that it will return at some point. I detect enthusiasm from all of you for this project, but how much is your enthusiasm dependent upon the money being genuinely new and additional in terms of the wider research environment?

I have a second question. Through the day, we have heard from different witnesses mainly a view that there needs to be a mission but also some difference of opinion as to who should set that mission. Who do you think should be setting it? Maybe I can go to Sir Adrian first.

Adrian Smith: In terms of new money or old money, I think the key thing is really to look at the big picture. The aspiration—the 2.4% aspiration—is aiming at the average of the OECD, which has probably crept up now in any case to 2.5%. In the meantime, the United States is around 3% and Israel is around 4.7%. The big picture stuff is the total amount of investment in the R&D landscape. So I think there would be less warm support for this body if it were at the expense of that wider investment.

As for who sets the mission, I think it is an extremely interesting question. There is an interesting tension between what most of us would see, which is that if this agency is to have real street cred, it needs tremendous operational independence, but on the other hand the thinking behind it is that the mission will be of great benefit to the UK. Clearly, therefore, Government and a multitude of stakeholders have an interest in what the mission will be, and how the leadership of the new organisation will satisfy the desire on the part of all those stakeholders to have a finger in the pie of influencing the mission. I think that will be very interesting to see.

Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

(2nd reading)
Stephen Metcalfe Excerpts
Stephen Flynn Portrait Stephen Flynn
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That is an interesting point, but it appears that the hon. Gentleman was not listening to what was said earlier in relation to DARPA. I think it was 40 FOI requests for DARPA, which is, obviously, a much larger organisation than ARIA will ever be. It is one that will perhaps attract a lot more focus, and yet there were just 40 FOI requests. If that is the strength of the argument that Government Back Benchers will put up in relation to this, then, frankly, it will fall short in the eyes of the public. The reality is that we are talking about £800 million of public money. There will of course be a tolerance of failure. Everyone accepts that there must be a tolerance of failure, but there needs to be openness and transparency around the process, and, quite frankly, at this moment in time, there is not. I do not have confidence that the Government will be able to deliver on that front.

Finally, I just want to touch on what is perhaps the most important aspect of this Bill, which is, unsurprisingly, in the Scottish context. A total of £800 million will be flowing towards this project. How much of that is coming to Scotland? Will it be Barnettised? Will there be consequentials from it? Is this going to be a UK-wide project? If so, why? Why are we not investing in Scotland? Are we trying to undermine the Scottish Parliament once again? We have seen it with the United Kingdom Internal Market Act, the levelling-up fund and the shared prosperity fund; are we now seeing it with ARIA, too?

Why do the Government not seek to invest in the Scottish Parliament? Why do they not seek to allow the Scottish Government to put the money into the Scottish National Investment Bank, which I have already mentioned, so that Scotland can create the scientific achievements that it wants to use to shape our own agenda, particularly—I repeat—in relation to climate change? Why have none of those things come forward? It appears as though Scotland does not exist in the context of this Bill. The Government seek to talk up the Union; the way to solidify the Union is not to trample continuously over the Scottish Parliament, because the people of Scotland are well aware of what is going on in that regard.

Let me conclude by making one more important point. We all have concerns about the Bill. It has broad support, but we have concerns that ultimately it will become another London-centric project, and not only that but one that gets hijacked by the right wing of the Tory party for its own ends. That is not something we are willing to support.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con) [V]
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I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this important debate on the creation of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency.

As they say, necessity is the mother of all invention, and that necessity has never been greater as we try to build back better following the huge consequences of the pandemic. It is fitting that we should hold this debate today, as we mark the one-year anniversary of the lockdown. As well as looking back over the past year, the Bill gives us an opportunity to look forward.

Before I look forward, I want to look back at the incredible contribution that UK scientists have made to scientific endeavour and their list of achievements. Over centuries, the UK has been responsible for many great discoveries and inventions—from the first refracting telescope in 1668 to the discovery and understanding of DNA, and from the humble tin can to the jet engine. Probably the most poignant today is, as we have already heard, the development of the first vaccine more than 225 years ago in 1796. That discovery is helping the UK and the world to tackle the ravages of covid today.

UK research and the work of UK scientists have truly led to inventions that are potentially saving the world. But we cannot rest on our laurels, which is why I welcome the Government’s ongoing commitment to science and research and development. I welcome this debate and the meeting of our manifesto commitment to establish a high-risk, high-reward research agency, ARIA.

With your permission, Madam Deputy Speaker, I wish to talk a little about the wider R&D landscape. I warmly welcome the Government’s ongoing commitment to making the UK a science superpower. Their commitment to spend 2.4% of GDP on R&D by 2027 and the £22 billion commitment to science in 2024-25 are fantastic but, as we have heard, there is no point in our making progress in one area if we are taking funds from another to do that. I will not labour the argument about funding for our participation in Horizon Europe, but needless to say I would like to see that money coming from a different pot rather than the existing ones.

Let us talk about the positives and the investment of £800 million in a new advanced research and invention agency, based on the principle of high risk and high reward and free from Government interference. To make the most of that, we have to change our view of risk. Risk here is good. That requires us to acknowledge—indeed, to embrace—failure as part of the process.

For the agency, that is fundamentally about people. It is about having top-quality, confident and knowledgeable people in the right places—the right chair and the right chief executive. It is also about having a command structure that is fleet of foot, which is why I think some of the measures in the Bill to exempt ARIA from FOI are the right thing to do.

ARIA needs to encourage and embrace new and novel ideas in the areas of artificial intelligence, quantum and, potentially, superconductivity. I accept that some of its endeavours, if not many of them, will fail, but even where there are failures, I still want its culture to be one of encouraging future submissions—a culture where project managers are not judged on individual outcomes that encourage them to play safe.

ARIA should be judged as a whole, and only after a reasonable time. It should work with both the usual suspects—the established research bodies—and potential sectoral disrupters. If we are searching for inventions, ARIA also needs the ability to work with individuals who may have promising ideas but not necessarily the resources or experience to make them work. ARIA has a role there to help people find the right development path.

While there will be failures, I am sure there will be many successes, so I would like to hear more about how a successful ARIA-funded project will make the transition from lab bench to product or service. The UK has a great track record of innovation and invention, but we do not have the best track record of commercialisation—of turning an idea into an industry that keeps the rewards here in the UK and provides our citizens with well-paid, rewarding jobs.

ARIA needs to help research to cross the so-called valley of death, and it needs to be alive to that challenge. It needs to work with ideas to ensure that they do not fail due to a lack of funding, support or interest. If an idea is novel enough that it has potential, ARIA needs to support it until it can hand it off in the confidence that it will be in safe hands and that it will thrive. There is no point having taxpayer-funded research or invention only for it to fail through lack of practical support.

I welcome this Bill. The creation of ARIA gives us a fantastic opportunity to fill a gap in the current landscape, and I very much look forward to working with Ministers as we take the Bill forward and reap the benefits that it can provide us with.

Daniel Zeichner Portrait Daniel Zeichner (Cambridge) (Lab)
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It is a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock (Stephen Metcalfe). Anyone who has attended the annual STEM for Britain event hosted by the Parliamentary and Scientific Committee, which he chairs, will know that we are a country not short of brilliant ideas and young people—and many of them, I have to say, come from Cambridge.

However, that immediately begs the question, is ARIA a solution in search of a problem? As the excellent Science and Technology Committee report put it—I congratulate the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells (Greg Clark) and his colleagues on that—is it

“a brand in search of a product”?

We have heard a lot about Dominic Cummings. I just caution Government Members that they may not want to associate themselves too closely with a man who, in the public’s mind, is very much associated with one set of rules for some and a very different set of rules for them. Many will wonder why a vanity project designed to assuage the ego of one key adviser is being pursued by the Government when they have finally had the sense to ditch that adviser—or was it that he ditched them? Who knows? We will be generous, and I will ask an open question: can we do better?

Of course, our answer as a country is always yes, but if this is really about setting people free—and who does not want to cut the bureaucracy and set people free?—is it not curious that just yesterday, the Government announced a review, to be led by Professor Adam Tickell, the not “bog-standard” vice-chancellor of the University of Sussex, of the whole issue of bureaucracy in our research sector? I suggest that there is muddle, not least around the problem we are trying to solve.

Could we do better? The landscape of research funding is complex. UKRI is a relatively new organisation, but there are some long-established principles in this country—the Haldane principle, dual funding and QR, or quality-related research funding. Add Horizon, and there is a balance in there. Add the catapults launched a few years ago under the coalition and the result, if we are not careful, is lots of people competing for the same funding. It is not simple, and it is frequently a subject of discussion in Cambridge, as I am sure the House can imagine. To be frank, in Cambridge the general view is that the issue is not finding the breakthrough ideas, but how they are developed and taken forward, as the hon. Member for South Basildon and East Thurrock just said.

Sadly, we have very few home-grown unicorns like Arm, although we have done better over the past 30 years because we have a strong investor community in Cambridge and real efforts are made through organisations such as Cambridge Enterprise to develop our spin-outs. Thoughtful contributions have been made by entrepreneurs such as David Cleevely, who rightly pointed out throughout the Cameron-Osborne years, when they were promoting Tech City in London, that we already have a tech city; it is called Cambridge and it is just up the railway line, along a powerful innovation corridor that has huge potential.

There are other powerful voices who identify a very different problem from the one that it is suggested ARIA might address. Take David Sainsbury and David Connell. Lord Sainsbury is a highly regarded former Science Minister; look at the work he did a few years ago on economic growth, in which he cautioned—sensibly, in my view—against trying to import systems from elsewhere and expecting them somehow to work in a different culture. He also rightly queried the lack of co-ordination of research across Government Departments —an issue that I suspect is yet to be seriously addressed. David Connell has been a passionate advocate over many years of small business research initiatives—something we have adopted and adapted from the Americans—and of using contracts rather than grants and driving innovation through procurement. That idea has too limited an uptake, I would say, and needs a stronger champion in Government. Is DARPA really a model for the UK? Well, the US has an infamous military-industrial complex and we have nothing similar here. Who will be the client? The Secretary of State seemed to be touchy about this, but whether it is learned from, not modelled on, is a key question.

The obvious question about whether the current system can be reformed to address some of these concerns is also not answered, and some of the potential problems have been made worse by decisions the Government have already taken, or sort of taken. Reference has been made to the disappearing industrial strategy, which must be rather galling for the right hon. Member for Tunbridge Wells, given the effort that he and others put in and the huge amount of work done across so many sectors. What is to replace it? Perhaps the Minister can tell us later. Perhaps it is nothing, but the mission-oriented approach that ARIA points to and is widely welcomed replaces, frankly, something remarkably similar. As we have heard, the great challenges are not that different, but for iconoclasts, of course, everything that went before has to be laid to waste. Not a very British approach, I would say. What is very British is the tradition of paying public servants badly. If ARIA can free up pay levels, good, but it really does not need an ARIA to do that, so stop making a song and dance about it; get on and do it.

All this is important because we have excellence. How ironic that the Government have turned a potential good-news story into a story about cuts. As we have heard, Universities UK estimates that if the cost of Horizon association is taken out of UKRI, it will cost 18,000 research jobs. That would certainly be a big hit to cities like mine. At the weekend, Stephen Toope, the University of Cambridge’s vice-chancellor, warned that Government claims about global Britain risked ringing hollow. As he says,

“World-leading research cannot just be turned off like a tap. Once our highly trained young researchers leave our universities they will not come back, and once they leave the country they will not return.”

He is so right. I visit many labs in and around Cambridge—the magnificent Laboratory of Molecular Biology being just one of them—but what strikes anyone who goes into any of them is that it is an international microcosm, with people from all across the globe. We are good because good people want to be here, but they can always go somewhere else. I tell the House, there are plenty of people who want them and plenty of inducements. Then there are the ODA cuts—so foolish, for so many reasons, not least the threat to our diplomatic soft power at a time when China is ramping up its influence everywhere. I am told that institutions have been sending letters to researchers who already have grant letters telling them that those grant letters will not be honoured. The system has worked for decades based on trust, and that is now being undermined. That is a clear message that with this Government, Britain cannot be trusted to keep its word. There is nothing that ARIA can do that will repair the damage—the huge damage to trust—that has already been caused and is continuing to be caused.

We need a fightback within Government. Last week, I encouraged the Minister to seek operatic inspiration, but far from “Vincero”—I will win—from “Nessun Dorma”, her reaction was more, “When I am laid in earth” from “Dido’s Lament”. That is Puccini’s Dido, not Track and Trace’s, I hasten to add. We need so much more. UK research is a success story. Please stop doing unnecessary harm. In my view, ARIA is worth supporting, but it is a distraction. It is worth discussing how we can do things better, but please, Secretary of State, stop doing harm now.

Uber: Supreme Court Ruling

Stephen Metcalfe Excerpts
Wednesday 24th February 2021

(7 months, 3 weeks ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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We will respond to the fire and rehire Bill when it actually comes through the parliamentary process, but ACAS has completed its work and shared its insights with officials at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy. It conducted an independent, impartial fact-finding exercise with stakeholders, making sure there was confidentiality so that we could have frank and honest discussions. We will communicate our response to those findings in due course.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con) [V]
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Following on from the previous question, I know that my hon. Friend shares the concerns felt across the House about the fire and rehire tactics some companies have pursued. While our flexible labour market is something to be cherished, does he agree that employers have a responsibility to do right by their workers, especially now?

Paul Scully Portrait Paul Scully
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is sensible business to do right by employees, as well as the moral thing to do.

Covid-19: Vaccinations

Stephen Metcalfe Excerpts
Monday 11th January 2021

(9 months, 1 week ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Nadhim Zahawi Portrait Nadhim Zahawi
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The Lady is absolutely right to highlight that cohort, some of whom will be picked up in category 4 and some of whom will be picked up in category 6—this will include the people who look after them.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con) [V]
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Vaccinating those in care homes will ensure that some of society’s most vulnerable are protected against this awful virus. However, many people receive care at home, so does my hon. Friend agree that they should be treated in the same way as those in care homes, as they have no option but to interact with many different people?

Nadhim Zahawi Portrait Nadhim Zahawi
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right; the primary care networks are best suited to focusing on that and delivering that vaccination, which will protect those who are most vulnerable from dying from covid-19.

Covid-19: Business

Stephen Metcalfe Excerpts
Tuesday 12th May 2020

(1 year, 5 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma
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I congratulate the hon. Gentleman on his election as Chair of the Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy Committee, and I look forward to further interactions in the future. He raises a point about the support available for businesses. The Chancellor spoke earlier, and he set out an extension to the job retention scheme. He has also made available loans and grants, so there is a lot of support out there. On the point about ACAS, the hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. Where employees feel that they have an issue they are not able to resolve, they absolutely should go to ACAS.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con) [V]
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I am sure we all welcome the reduction in the prevalence of the virus in the general population, but we also know that we are not going to beat this thing in weeks; it will take us months. Therefore, will my right hon. Friend join me in calling on everyone—individuals and businesses alike—to stay alert and to follow the rules, so that we can keep the very important R rate down?

Alok Sharma Portrait Alok Sharma
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My hon. Friend is absolutely right. The message is very clear on staying alert. It is about keeping the R rate down. That is the only way in which we can proceed—with baby steps, rather than giant strides—and make sure that we are keeping safe and preserving lives, but at the same time doing all we can to open up the economy further.

Oral Answers to Questions

Stephen Metcalfe Excerpts
Tuesday 21st January 2020

(1 year, 9 months ago)

Commons Chamber

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Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy
Kelly Tolhurst Portrait Kelly Tolhurst
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21 Jan 2020, 11:55 a.m.

The hon. Gentleman knows that the tourism economy is particularly important for the UK. While I am happy to meet him, we hear representations from the sector regularly. Despite the earlier comment to the Secretary of State about a reduction in our engagement with businesses, we are actually stepping that up. He will know that we will bring forward plans on immigration and the floor that he mentioned, but I am more than happy to hear his particular point.

Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con)
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21 Jan 2020, 11:55 a.m.

One thing that all businesses—large and small—depend on is having a skilled workforce. What is the Department doing to improve skills overall, and particularly engineering skills, on which more and more companies are now dependent?

Kelly Tolhurst Portrait Kelly Tolhurst
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21 Jan 2020, 11:56 a.m.

I welcome my hon. Friend back to the Chamber and thank him for his interest in this area. He knows that, as we leave the European Union, we want to ensure that we have a good distribution of engineering skills—not just in the south-east, but across the country—and help people to increase their skills. I am a great lover of apprenticeships, of what some small businesses are doing with apprenticeships, and especially of our degree-led apprenticeships involving organisations such as BAE Systems—which, I should say, operates in my constituency.

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Stephen Metcalfe Portrait Stephen Metcalfe (South Basildon and East Thurrock) (Con)
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T5. Will my right hon. Friend update the House on what plans the Government have to secure the number of scientists, researchers and engineers we will require to reach the 2.4% GDP spend on research and development? [900302]

Chris Skidmore Portrait The Minister for Universities, Science, Research and Innovation (Chris Skidmore)
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21 Jan 2020, 12:19 p.m.

I start by thanking my hon. Friend for all the hard work he is putting in as the Government’s envoy for the “Engineering: Take a Closer Look” campaign, which is encouraging young people to consider science, technology, engineering and maths as a future career.

Our new fast-track immigration scheme, including a global talent visa and the removal of the cap on tier 1 visas, will enable a wider pool of scientific and research talent to come to the United Kingdom. We are also investing in the number of researchers we need for the future, including £170 million for bioscience doctoral students and £100 million for artificial intelligence doctoral training centres.