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House of Commons

Friday 18 June 1993

The House met at half-past Nine o'clock


[Madam Speaker-- in the Chair ]



9.34 am

Mr. Dudley Fishburn (Kensington) : I beg leave to present a petition which

"sheweth that cruel and exaggerated rent increases are being awarded by rent officers and rent assessment committees to landlords of statutory tenants at a time of minimum inflation, falling property values, vacant property and decreasing construction costs, that these increases"--

often 20 times the rate of inflation--

"go counter to the free market, and that they are especially severe in central London.

Wherefore your petitioners pray that your honourable House urgently review those sections of the law dealing with rent assessments for statutory tenants so that the original intention of these sections of the law, to protect statutory tenants be upheld.

And your petitioners, as in duty bound, will ever pray, etc." To lie upon the Table.

VAT (Fuel) and Student Fees

9.35 am

Mr. David Young (Bolton, South-East) : On behalf of my constituents and the people of Bolton, I wish to present a petition opposing the extension of taxation, particularly

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in respect of the extension of VAT to heating bills--attacks on the health of the elderly--and to student fees-- attacks on learning and the quality of life.

"Wherefore your petitioners pray that this honourable House will do everything possible to prevent this increase in indirect taxation which particularly affects the old, the young and the poor of our country.

And your petitioners as in duty bound will ever pray, etc." To lie upon the Table.

Dovelands Schools, Leicester

9.36 am

Mr. Greville Janner (Leicester, West) : I beg leave to present a petition on behalf of the parents, governors and the teachers of Dovelands infants and junior school in my constituency because many of the buildings at that school are in a dangerous and intolerable condition. Many of them are insanitary and not weatherproof, and are in desperate need of improvement or replacement. Due to lack of funds, the local authority has not carried out that work, despite the fact that parts of the building, such as a piece that I have here, have fallen off and nearly killed children.

The petition asks

"that your honourable House will enable the children of Dovelands to be taught in safe, sanitary and worthy conditions and in accordance with the National Curriculum by ensuring that the necessary resources are made available for the works to be carried out now and before any tragedy befalls the school or any of its pupils as a result of these dangers"--

and in spite of the leaked intention to downgrade school buildings and school classes. The petition contains 5,000 signatures. To lie upon the Table.

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Science, Engineering and Technology

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.-- [Mr. Patnick.]

Relevant document : The First Report from the Science and Technology Committee on the Policy and Organisation of the Office of Science and Technology, [HC 228 of Session 1992-93.]

9.37 am

The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster (Mr. William Waldegrave) : It is appropriate that the House is debating the White Paper together with the first report from the new Select Committee on Science and Technology, because, about a year ago, a process of national consultation was launched in the House. That led to the production of the White Paper, which has been broadly welcomed.

There has been genuine participation by many thousands of people all over the country--in the science and engineering communities, in the House, in another place and in the various institutions and associations representing scientists, engineers and science policy makers in this country and abroad. I say "abroad", because the issues in the White Paper have been discussed at some length with Science Ministers of the Group of Seven countries in the Carnegie meetings, which have now become a valuable feature of modern science policy making.

I think that I will be unchallenged when I say that the White Paper has been well received. Even the attempt by the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie) to stir up some party-political fire was done slightly more for effect. He did not seem to have his heart in it, and his noble Friend in another place took a rather different view. The beneficial effect of this national debate has been seen--if I may make one gentle party point--on the Opposition Benches, in that today we are to hear the first speech on science from the hon. Member for Redcar (Ms Mowlam), to which we look forward with great interest. Perhaps if we are allowed to offer any advice to the Labour Party, it should be that its science spokesman, the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy, should win his place in the shadow Cabinet. It seems odd that there is not one there already.

I shall set out the arguments in relation not only to the White Paper but to the broader themes of science policy, and to the valuable contribution of the Select Committee under four general headings, and shall discuss some of the comments made about those four general themes, which underlie the White Paper. I shall reflect with the House on some of the comments made by heavyweight commentators and contributors throughout the science and engineering community.

Mr. Patrick Thompson (Norwich, North) : My right hon. Friend has referred to science policy. I am sure that he will agree that there has been a particular welcome for the White Paper from the world of engineering. This week, the Engineering Council and the four major engineering institutions--electrical, mechanical, chemical and civil--have said that the White Paper puts science and technology at the top of the political agenda. Can my right hon. Friend assure us that it will stay there from now on?

Mr. Waldegrave : My hon. Friend gets directly to the heart of the matter. The first of my themes is indeed that the purpose of the White Paper has succeeded, and science and technology policy are at the heart of Government

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policy. More importantly, it has begun to correct--although only begun--the imbalance between the prestige of engineering and science and the importance that the engineers have felt they have had in policy-making matters. My hon. Friend rightly quotes the support that we have had from the engineering institutions. I would add to that the warm support that we have had from Sir William Barlow of the Royal Academy of Engineering, which echoes what my hon. Friend has said.

The determination and impetus of the White Paper is to make closer connections between our science and engineering base in the universities and research councils and in the private research laboratories--they have not been overlooked, as they are major contributors, particularly to technology transfer--and those in industry who have the prime responsibility for the creation of wealth.

I direct the attention of the House to an important article that appeared a couple of days ago in the Evening Standard, written by the chief economist of ICI, Mr. Richard Freeman. I quote this not because it is unusual, but because it stands for quite a wide range of comments made about the White Paper and the drive that lies behind it. He wrote :

"It is difficult to overstate the importance of the White Paper as the success or failure of the science and technology policy it contains will be a critical factor determining the competitiveness of the United Kingdom in the 1990s and beyond. It is, after all, the first realistic attempt by Government for more than 30 years to formulate a coherent and science and technology policy."

He went on to welcome the policies specifically, quoting them in detail-- the focus on wealth creation, the creation of the Technology Foresight process, the publication of an annual "Forward Look", the new mission set out for the research councils, bringing them closer to their user communities, and, as he put it :

"the long overdue change in science and technology policy in that it will be co-ordinated and monitored by one Department--the Office of Science and Technology."

He quite rightly made the further point, which is legitimate, that, in that sector, where the expenditure of industry is greater than that of the Government--as it should be--success depends on industry playing its part as well. All the responses that we have had show that industry is willing to play that part.

I shall quote one other endorsement that we have had, and that my hon. Friends will have seen before coming to the debate. That is the parliamentary brief published by the CBI to assist hon. Members wishing to take part in the debate. A press release says : "The CBI's technology and innovation committee welcomes many of the features of Realising our Potential' particularly the recognition that science and technology should be more strongly linked to the needs of industry in creating wealth. The committee considers that the White Paper offers a framework and building blocks to achieve that and welcomes the commitment of all Government Departments to the overall objective."

It goes on to welcome specific aspects of the White Paper. Let me remind the House of the building blocks that the CBI described. The first is the creation, for the first time since the late 1950s, of a proper senior council of science and technology, which I will chair and which will contain senior members from academia and industry.

The second is the creation of the foresight mechanism, which we have studied closely and which exists in many other countries. We are now in the process of carrying forward the work for the establishment of that. The third

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is the clarification of the mission of the research councils, and the fourth is the establishment of the new engineering and physical sciences research councils. Finally, there is a range of reforms on postgraduate training.

The White Paper has been broadly welcomed by one of the key constituencies at which it was aimed because one of its tasks is to bring the science base and the scientists and engineers in the research arms closer together with those who take industrial decisions. If we can achieve that, we shall have begun to spread more widely the success that we achieve in certain sectors in high technology industries.

The second theme is the reforms that we have proposed in relation to the organisation of the science base and its relationships with the Government, industry and the universities. I am happy to say that there has been a pretty united welcome for what we have done. It is extremely important--I know that my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) is likely to remind me of this, as he did during the preparation of the White Paper--not to devalue the importance of good basic science. I think that he will confirm my understanding that, again and again during consultations, we had from big and small science-based companies a recommendation that the Government should not resile from their proper task of underpinning technology, engineering and the application of science by the provision of that which only they can provide--long-term support to a strong quality science base.

We decided to remove the uncertainty that had remained in relation to the dual funding system since the last higher education White Paper. We have reshaped the research councils, re-endorsing their structure in general and their efficacy. They are a good British invention. They bring peer group pressure to bear effectively and they have been increasingly well managed, although there are further reforms to be made to their management.

We have divided the Science and Engineering Research Council into two and have won general support for that on the grounds that it had become too big and was asked to make judgments that were so wide--between the most cosmological research at one end and the science and engineering underpinning industry at the other that those decisions on allocations should be taken through a process in which Ministers were involved, and by the new director-general whom we shall be establishing.

We have accepted the advice of the Royal Society and others, and of the Labour party on Tuesdays and Thursdays, although not on Wednesdays and Fridays, to bring the Advisory Board for the Research Councils within the Office of Science and Technology. We have won widespread support for that collection of evolutionary but sensible reforms of the management of the science and engineering base.

Sir Trevor Skeet (Bedfordshire, North) : The director-general is probably one of the most important personalities. Does my right hon. Friend have any idea who is likely to be appointed to that post and when he will be in place?

Mr. Waldegrave : My hon. Friend is right to say that his post will be a key to the success of the structure.

Ms Marjorie Mowlam (Redcar) : His or her.

Mr. Waldegrave : The post should be openly advertised--and the female hon. Member for Redcar is right to

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correct me, because the holder of that post could be a member of either gender. I will set out at the end of my speech our time scales for some of those matters. I have no idea who will be appointed, but I know--as does my hon. Friend--that a number of high- quality people have expressed interest in the task.

We have won support from some who, in the consultation process, were suspicious that we would get it wrong. Sir John Kingman, vice-chancellor of Bristol university in my constituency--a former chairman of SERC and a distinguished mathematician--upholds the view that the Government should not damage the underlying science base. He comments :

"The White Paper is the first Government document that comes near to recognising the complexity of the science base, and its relationship to wealth creation, and it says many things about them that badly need to be Government policy. The practical steps outlined in the White Paper are all steps in the right direction. In particular, the changes to the Research Councils and their link with OST seem to me constructive and workable. The White Paper has been rightly welcomed by the scientific community, and you and Bill"-- the chief scientific adviser--

"deserve congratulation."

I greatly value winning support for the reforms from that quarter, as I do the explicit and warm support that we received from Lord Flowers, Chairman of the House of Lords Select Committee. In a letter, Lord Flowers congratulated us warmly on the White Paper's content and tone and welcomed

"the internalising of the ABRC within OST and the appointment of a Director General".

The judgment of those most closely concerned with the management of the science and engineering base is that our reforms in the structure and organisation of British science were well made and will have the general support of the wider community.

The third theme came across in the consultation most clearly, understandably, from younger scientists and engineers at the bench--that this country has not been very good at managing and giving pastoral care to scientists and engineers in research laboratories. We have increased the numbers markedly over the past 10 or 15 years, but there has been a large increase in the number on short-term contracts. They are not always managed well by the institutions which are their employers--although often they are on contracts to organisations outside the institutions themselves.

After discussions with a wide range of representative institutions and with engineers and scientists at face-to-face meetings in laboratories throughout the country, we reached the conclusions that are set out in the White Paper, which have also been broadly welcomed.

A Government announcement made this week will be welcomed by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, North (Sir T. Skeet). My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education announced further support for specialist bursaries for high-quality engineers who want to undertake undergraduate work. That shows that we are beginning to generate much more coherent policy across Government.

Mr. Michael Connarty (Falkirk, East) : The criticism is regularly made that the average stipend for a postgraduate is £4,300 per annum, whereas a graduate can earn an average of £16,000. Neither the White Paper nor the Department of Education commented on that aspect. Is not that situation a fundamental flaw?

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Mr. Waldegrave : The hon. Gentleman knows as well as I that there is no shortage of quality applicants. The counter-criticism is that, if anything, too many people apply for the available places. The Wellcome Trust and other independent trusts reflect the view that those that we want to keep in the research base must have a sense of longer-term support, particularly when they are older. However, we must not resile from acknowledging that, if we are to do that, in a world in which it is extremely unlikely that there will be large increases in funds, fewer may have to be supported at a better level. The hon. Gentleman may have noticed the letter from Sir Hermann Bondi on that very point published in The Times Higher Education Supplement, saying that, if push came to shove, that would be a better way forward.

It is no use opting out and arguing that there must be more money for everything. The Labour party document rather grandly ticked off the science community for asking for more money, saying that it was impertinent of the community to go about its affairs in that way.

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak) : It is good to hear of the right hon. Gentleman's concern for scientists, but is it right to accept that the only way forward is to have fewer scientists when we are falling behind our competitors? The White Paper's solutions for dealing with those on short-term contracts involve paying more money, drawing on additional resources to tide people over, and extra fellowships. Is that the right approach when research councils are already unable to support all the alpha projects that seek funding?

Mr. Waldegrave : The Labour party must make up its mind, as must the country, whether the solution to this, as to all other problems, is to spend a great deal more money. We have markedly expanded the total number of post-doctorates aged between 28 and 34 on short-term contracts since the days when Labour was in power. However, there is an unrealistic expectation that they can all remain in the academic base. They cannot and will not-- and most likely, they should not. The pyramid must be sharply defined at that stage, because those who are to spend a lifetime in research should be of the highest quality and exhibit the skills required.

The number of people in this free country who choose--no one will stop them --to enter the research base at that point will need greater help and advice to develop their careers. If it is possible--and it is possible--we should continue to direct universities and research councils to imitate the work done by Wellcome and the Royal Society, with Government money, in providing longer-term support for those whom we want to develop and keep in research careers.

It is no use, either, imagining that they can all be kept in the research base. The Association of British Science told me that it was extremely important to have such people in general management, Parliament and the media. They should be given more assistance and pastoral care in finding jobs.

Our proposal relating to the MSC, which was strongly welcomed by Cambridge university--to take one familiar to the hon. Member for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell)--and by Peter Swinnerton-Dyer at Cambridge, identifies the MSC as the natural first part of a postgraduate career, which will enable us to ensure that the council has a

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slightly wider educational base in relation to management and the research process, so that those who find that they are not to stay for ever in the research base will be equipped with experience that will prove really useful to them in industry.

Mrs. Anne Campbell (Cambridge) : Much of the discussion about women in science has been sidelined to a working party, and no mention of that aspect is made in the report. What is the right hon. Gentleman's thinking on stopping women dropping out of science when they have children? Many studies have shown that women drop out then and do not return to the main stream of science, but later end up taking low-skilled, low-grade jobs, which is a great loss to the country.

Mr. Waldegrave : That is a problem. Over the years, evidence has shown that scientists--especially the purists, such as pure mathematicians- -are at their most creative at child-bearing age, and it is not easy to reconcile two full-time careers. That is why I set up a committee of women scientists, some of whom--for instance, Dr. Nancy Lane--will be well known to the hon. Lady. I do not want to pre-empt the practical suggestions that the committee will make when it reports in the autumn, but I remain optimistic.

I am thinking back to 20 or 30 years ago, when exactly the same arguments were produced about the impossibility of women working in medicine. That has proved not to be impossible after all : although we have a long way to go before we achieve equality in senior appointments, about 50 per cent. of medical school entrants and doctors in training are women. I believe that the same can be achieved in science and engineering.

I am sure that the House will wish to congratulate Dai Rees, secretary of the Medical Research Council, on his well-deserved knighthood. He described our proposals on the reform of postgraduate education and the management of research staff in universities as sensible.

We are not without power to enforce those proposals : one of the criteria governing the direction of university funding via the higher education funding councils and the research councils will relate to the employment practices of the institutions concerned. The new committee over which the chief scientific adviser will preside is already beginning to meet ; the funding councils will meet the research councils to discuss the broad issues of the management of the science base on a systematic basis.

The fourth great theme of the White Paper was the importance of public understanding of science, and of increased work to bridge the cultural divide that, after many years, still exists. Our proposals have been given an enthusiastic welcome by, for example, Sir Arnold Wolfendale, the Astronomer Royal, and COPUS--the Committee on the Public Understanding of Science of the Royal Society--the body which brings together many of the associations involved in the campaign for public understanding of science. COPUS said that it warmly welcomed the emphasis on, and recognition of, the importance of heightening public understanding and awareness of science and technology in the Government's White Paper on science. Sir Walter Bodmer, chairman of COPUS, strongly endorsed that view.

Another endorsement has come from someone very skilled--Neil Cossons, director of the science museum, whose name will be familiar to many hon. Members. He

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congratulated the Government on the White Paper, which he considers a significant step forward in the drive to increase the public understanding of science. He wanted to place on record his full support both for the general thrust of the White Paper and for our proposal for a series of mobile exhibitions, culminating in a national exhibition of science at the museum in the year 2001. We shall be asking for the museum's help with our campaign : its staff are internationally recognised as experts.

I have taken some trouble to identify the wide spectrum of support for the proposals in the White Paper. I believe that the Select Committee will find that many of the recommendations in its first report are reflected in our undertakings. I look forward with interest to the speech of my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw), who chairs the Committee. We have paid close attention to its recommendations, especially those relating to the role of the OST and the chief scientific adviser. I believe that my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey and the Committee welcomed the raising of the adviser's status ; although we should not worry too much about hierarchical points, I considered it a rather odd signal that other scientific advisers in Whitehall should be senior to him. I should add that Bill Stewart himself would be the last person to lobby for such a change.

Although there has been a broad welcome for the theme of the White Paper, there has been criticism of two aspects. Understandably, some have said, "Lots more money would help." Of course it would ; that applies to nearly every spending programme. However, the pressure on public expenditure-- which all hon. Members know to be real--redoubles the importance of ensuring that the money that we have is spent properly, where it really matters. Britain is not a particularly low spender ; we are in the middle of the pack. It is crucial that Government expenditure--which constitutes less than half the spending of the country as a whole--is undertaken in the closest and most productive conjunction with spending by industry.

According to the score board of the Department of Trade and Industry, British companies' spending increased by about £350 million in 1992. The DTI also points out that analysis of the figures reveals a higher percentage increase among the biggest companies--a rise of about 8 per cent., which is comparable with the rest of the world--and a much lower increase among small and medium-sized enterprises. That led the President of the Board of Trade, in his recent reformulation of the direction of his own innovation budget--which, incidentally, has increased by 15 per cent. this year--to concentrate on small and medium-sized enterprises. I am sure that that is a wise priority.

Dr. Lewis Moonie (Kirkcaldy) : Given that our leading companies have done so well, will the right hon. Gentleman tell us how many of them have improved their standing in the world rankings in the past year?

Mr. Waldegrave : The hon. Gentleman is right to ask that question. Our long-term task is to enable all our industry to achieve the best. I am sure the hon. Gentleman will agree that some of the industries with which he has been successfully associated in the past are doing very well. Perhaps we quote the views of the pharmaceutical industry too much, but I believe that the relationship between that industry and the scientific and engineering base are good, and should be duplicated elsewhere.

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Mr. James Wallace (Orkney and Shetland) : Will the Secretary of State give way? [Interruption.]

Mr. Waldegrave : I will give way, despite the objections of the hon. Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon), the Opposition deputy Chief Whip.

Mr. Wallace : The right hon. Gentleman mentioned the increase in the DTI's innovation funding. No doubt he, like other right hon. and hon. Members, has seen the notes from the Save British Science campaign, which claims that the funds have been cut from £135 million last year to £125 million this year, and that that has been presented as an increase. I am somewhat confused by that figure ; can the right hon. Gentleman shed any light on it?

Mr. Waldegrave : The innovation budget has increased by 15 per cent. this year. I do not know where the Save British Science campaign got that figure. The argument that calls for huge new expenditure is a cop-out ; we must consider the proper management of the enormous sums that are now being spent.

The other criticism is, in a sense, not a criticism at all. Many people have rightly said that the White Paper is not the end of the story, but the beginning : what matters is how we use the new structures. It is essential that we press on quickly with the implementation. I have set out a clear programme for the establishment of the new arrangements, and the first report of the Technology Foresight programme will be produced by the end of 1994. "Forward Look" will be published each April, starting in 1994. The Director-General for the Research Councils--this meets the point that was made by my hon. Friend the Member for Bedfordshire, North--will be in place no later than 1 January 1994. The establishment of the six research councils will take effect from 1 April and the publication and dissemination of data on the stocks and flows of scientists and engineers will begin next year.

In one respect, I want to speed things up. I have decided, following discussions with Sir Robin Nicholson, that the next meeting of the Advisory Committee on Science and Technology should be its last and that we should establish the new Council for Science and Technology by the end of October. We should get on with that, as quickly as possible.

In the words of The Times Higher Education Supplement, "The White Paper is the latest and probably the best attempt to address a key problem about British cultural and economic life, the intellectual distance, and the difference in approach, between our ingenious scientists and engineers and the people who run British companies and British governments."

helpful work of the Select Committee.

10.10 am

Ms Marjorie Mowlam (Redcar) : We welcome the chance to debate science and technology policy. Amazingly, the Chancellor finished with the comment that it is the latest and best attempt to discuss science and technology : in fact, it is the only attempt to discuss science and technology policy for many years. By default, it can certainly be the latest, and possibly the best, attempt.

I was surprised that the Chancellor did not cover an important piece of scientific information that has been in

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the public domain in the last month. It has been discussed in the national press and the Chancellor has written an article on it. A new scientific law has been invented, which the right hon. Gentleman defined as Waldegrave's law. I shall succinctly describe it for hon. Members who have not had the chance to read about it. There is an inverse relationship : the more important the political matter, the less parliamentary time it is given.

Waldegrave's law clearly holds in relation to science and technology policy, which we have not had an opportunity to debate in Government time in the past 14 years. The only debates in 1988, 1989 and 1991 were all as a result

Mr. Waldegrave : What about 1992?

Ms Mowlam : If we go back a year and a day, the consultation was announced. The substantive debates were all in Labour time. The last debate, which, again, was on a Friday, was introduced by my hon. Friend the Member for Jarrow (Mr. Dixon).

The Minister said that this is the first realistic attempt at a coherent science policy for 30 years. I would expect him to criticise policy pre- 1979. The right hon. Member for Mole Valley (Mr. Baker), who spoke in the previous debate, would not be happy with that comment.

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