Previous Section Home Page

Column 715

firms. Therefore, I very much hope that the Rolls-Royce lead will be followed by other major industrial players in the UK.

The policy of the university of Cambridge, of assigning intellectual property rights to the inventor, has had many other desirable effects. As Sir David Williams has said, it is one of the factors that has led to what is commonly known as the "Cambridge phenomenon"--the growth of many high- tech firms in and around Cambridge. It has encouraged many scientists to become entrepreneurs, and to set up their own high-tech firms and consultancies. The success of industrial collaboration and the local high- tech economy in Cambridge is a shining example to the rest of the United Kingdom. Cambridgeshire now has 27,000 high-tech jobs, and it is a rapidly expanding sector. The Government should take time to think about that, and to consider what they can learn from that experience. There are some special factors in Cambridge; we should think about whether those can be replicated in other parts of the UK. The approach to intellectual property rights that has been taken in Cambridge is an important factor, which should continue.

Unfortunately, the university of Cambridge is becoming increasingly hampered by the research councils' insistence that intellectual property rights be exploited. Departments with projects that rely on research council funds are being told that they should not collaborate freely with industry without demanding a commission for their time and understanding.

The Select Committee on Science and Technology recommended that there should be a diversity of arrangements for exploitation. That means that universities should be free to build links and co-operate with industry in whatever way is beneficial for that collaboration to succeed. They should not be under pressure from the research councils, or anyone else, to sell every bit of knowledge and understanding. That would be highly counter- productive.

I associate myself with the remarks of the hon. Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) about the importance of basic research. That subject is not discussed in the report, because we were speaking about the rather applied and market-oriented research that universities and industry do when they work together. However, basic research is fundamental, and it is crucial that it is not geared into applied areas and mission-oriented sectors that have a practical and applied basis, because there are some excellent centres of basic research in this country.

It is important that those continue, because they are providing the foundation and basis for industries 20 or 30 years' hence, instead of today's industries. I know that there is much concern in my constituency about the way in which the Government now talk about mission-oriented research. There is much alarm that some of the basic research may not continue to be funded.

We said a great deal in the report about the significance of funding. I am anxious about the funding for small technology-based businesses. Many small firms complain about the lack of availability of finance, especially for development.

A survey of such firms in the Cambridge area is quoted in the report; it reveals that only one third of the firms had outstanding bank loans, just two had used the small firms loan guarantee scheme, and venture capital was regarded as far too expensive to be a viable option. Most

Column 716

entrepreneurs had to rely on families and friends--which one firm called the black economy--to start or develop their businesses. Many Cambridge entrepreneurs attribute the successful start of their firms to an innovative manager at Barclays bank in the early 1980s called Matthew Bullock. It is worth mentioning his name, as it comes to many people's lips when they describe how their own firms were started at that time.

Unlike modern bank managers, Matthew Bullock appeared to have a delegated responsibility for deciding which ideas were worth funding, and he was prepared to take the sort of risks from which banks in the 1990s shy away. If it is impossible for banks to emulate Bullock's success in post- recession Britain, we need to evolve much better systems for financing people who have ideas that they wish to exploit.

Many of our more successful competitors have different arrangements to ensure longer-term financial support is more readily available. We need to shift towards a more co-operative relationship so that banks can offer more advice, and give both technological and business support. Small businesses need access to funds that are both competitive and secure.

Yesterday's edition of The Observer contained an excellent article by William Keegan, in which he discussed a book by David Storey of the university of Warwick, "Understanding the Small Business Sector". He said that 40 per cent. of small businesses starting today do not survive for more than three years. But if firms are technology-based, they are more likely to offer high growth rates, more jobs--and many more interesting jobs--and less risk of failure. The trouble is that banks and venture capitalists are wary of high tech. During our inquiry, we found that often there was no one in a position of responsibility able to take the relevant decisions, with the depth of knowledge and understanding of high-tech business necessary to take decisions about funding.

That is in contrast to the United States, where 80 per cent. of venture capital portfolios involve technology-based business compared with only 20 per cent. here. But in my constituency in Cambridge, the St John's innovation centre has had an extraordinarily low failure rate among high- tech firms--only 4 per cent. per annum in the past five years, which must have been among the worst years for most small businesses.

Throughout a very damaging recession, we have had a failure rate among high -tech firms of only 4 per cent. That is something of which banks, venture capitalists and everyone else involved in the funding of business need to take note because it is not generally recognised. There is a myth that high -tech firms are high-risk, which is simply not true when one considers the facts. Mr. Storey is quoted as saying:

"We need a huge cultural change to encourage and promote the development of science-based businesses."

I could not agree more.

I welcome the fact that the Labour party is discussing the idea of helping to establish a private sector-managed investment fund whose assets would be available to small businesses. We are considering ways of using the tax system to support that scheme. A fund would be managed

Column 717

regionally and would act as an intermediary between the investor and the small business. Such an arrangement is long overdue. Very few hon. Members tonight have mentioned the importance of skills and training. I do not intend to dwell very long on that matter, but I want to draw attention to the letter that has been sent, I think, to most hon. Members today by the Institution of Electrical Engineers. It draws attention to the need for professional engineers constantly to update their skills.

The institution today announced an ambitious plan to establish up to eight engineering centres by the end of the century. They will be strategically placed around the country; the first will be located in Birmingham, I believe. The centres will provide easy local access to training courses, lectures and similar activities. They will be available not only to members of the institution but to all similar institutions and private organisations. They will combine modern lecture theatres with meeting rooms and offices. They will become one-stop shops for the professional engineer to gain access to up-to-date technical information and skills training.

That is a welcome recognition of the importance of engineering training and of the continued need to keep skills up to date, particularly in the engineering sector. I hope that other professional organisations will follow suit and try to do the same for their people working in British industry.

One of the Select Committee report's most important recommendations has been mentioned by almost every hon. Member--the major re-examination of fiscal incentives for investment in research and development, both at the personal and at company level. Having carefully considered evidence on the matter, Committee members felt sufficiently strongly to write to the Chancellor of the Exchequer. The reply did not instil confidence. It said:

"As you will know, the Government's general view is that we see no need for any further change in the already generous arrangements for research and development".

The reply to the Select Committee report was even more depressing. It said:

"The Government does not, however, agree with the Committee that there is a case for general tax incentives for spending on research and development."

I started to think about why the Government are saying those things. Is it because they are convinced that the evidence is not worth considering? Have they rejected it in advance? That is one possible explanation. Or are they worried that, if considered properly, the evidence would show overwhelmingly good reasons for spending more money?

I cannot decide which reasons the Minister could possibly have for rejecting an eminently sensible idea. I therefore hope that he will tell us tonight whether I am correct in my assumptions, or whether there is a different reason why the Government do not even want to examine the compelling evidence, which convinced Committee

Column 718

members that the proposal was worth considering and which would convince him if he were seriously to pay attention to it.

Dr. Bray: Is not one of the most worrying aspects of the Chancellor's letter that he says that he is generous? Is the Chancellor in a position to be generous to anyone?

Mrs. Campbell: I was amused and entertained by my hon. Friend when he spoke about true tax incentives, and when he compared the United Kingdom with other countries. It is clear from what he said that the UK is not generous in its tax incentives for R and D. Perhaps that explains why business expenditure on R and D is so low in this country compared with our international competitors.

Sir Giles Shaw: I do not wish to enter into a debate about the generosity of the Chancellor--that is probably a contradiction in terms-- but I suggest that the generosity lay in the fact that the experiment on the American basis suggested a percentage of economic growth which more than compensated for the actuality of the fiscal incentive. The generosity had been demonstrated in the experiment.

Mrs. Campbell: I am grateful for that intervention. Our investigations revealed that, if the level of business expenditure in the United Kingdom was increased over five years from 1.36 per cent. to 1.8 per cent. of GDP, it would increase the rate of growth by 0.8 per cent., or £5 billion a year.

That is an enormous sum of money, which no Government could afford to ignore or say is not worth considering. I am sure that the Minister has got the message that we want him to take this point seriously. It is true that the tax yield from the increased incomes would quickly exceed the tax loss from the tax credit. I regret that the Treasury seems unable to take that point on board.

We are trying to encourage our industrial firms to invest in R and D, new equipment and training, but we are not prepared to do so ourselves. Perhaps the Government could ignore Treasury advice for once and set a good example in this instance.

It is essential that the Government do everything possible to expand the R and D they carry out, and that carried out by business. The President of the United States has just announced that he intends to increase the total amount spent on R and D by Government and business from 2.6 per cent. to 3 per cent. of GDP. At the same time, there will be a massive switch from defence R and D to civil R and D. The United States Government call that the transition from a vigilant society to a humane society. They are powerful words, which we too need to note.

Although the Government are intent on cutting defence spending, there is no plan for that money to be switched into civil research in which we clearly need to invest. There is a very sharp contrast between our plans and those of the United States. In this country, R and D has already slipped to 2.1 per cent. of GDP, and the Government appear to be proposing that it should fall even further--there are sharp cuts in the pipeline over the next two years.

Many scientists are alarmed by Sir Peter Levene's inquiry into, or efficiency scrutiny of, Government research establishments. Scientists are worried, but not because they do not welcome change--I think that many

Column 719

feel that the time is right to re-examine Government research establishments and ascertain what are their objectives and whether they are still being met. What is demoralising and dispiriting most of the people who work in those establishments is the fact that the exercise is Treasury-led. At the end of the day, the Government are hoping to achieve the reduction in R and D spending outlined in their "Forward Look" plans.

There has been a dramatic decrease in Government spend--around 35 per cent. between 1986 and the projected spend for 1996. Some of that reduction in spend still has to be achieved and, as I have said, the great worry is that Sir Peter Levene's inquiry into Government research establishments will find the means of effecting that decrease in Government spend.

I do not know whether the Government hope that private business will make up for the reduction in Government research and development. I am afraid that there is little hope that that will happen. I believe that we are seeing the country spiralling down because essential investment is missing. What worries me is that, in the next century, Britain will become one of the technologically illiterate countries that will make up the new third world. 9.24 pm

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service and Science (Mr. Robert G. Hughes): I thank hon. Members who have made some kinremarks about me and about my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. It is, indeed, a great pleasure and change for me to address the House. As I took a vow of silence in the Whips' Office, it has been two years since I addressed the House. I hope that, after hearing my first address, my constituents will think, "I wonder why he did not speak before," rather than wondering why I spoke at all.

The hon. Member for Kirkcaldy (Dr. Moonie)--I am part Scots and my grandmother, if she were still alive, would kill me for my dreadful pronunciation--mentioned the Higgs boson. After two years in which I sometimes wondered whether there was a majority for the Government in the House, it is an interesting change to wonder whether the top quark exists or not. That is quite a difference.

I welcome, as the Government have, the report from the Select Committee on Science and Technology and I commend it for its work. In particular, I commend my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw), not only for his work over such a long period on putting the report together, but for the statesmanlike way in which he put his case tonight. It is fair to say that there is a great deal of agreement between the Government and the Committee, although one would not necessarily have thought so from listening to the debate tonight.

Nevertheless, the debate showed that there is a great deal of expertise and a great deal of knowledgeable concern about these important issues in the House. Some think that it is fashionable to write in the press that if one wants expertise and knowledgeable concern, one has to go to another place. I have never thought that to be true. Tonight's debate has shown that. There is no doubt that the Government are committed to promoting science, engineering and technology. That commitment is shown, although we can bandy statistics--there have been a lot

Column 720

of statistics in the debate--by the fact that the science budget has increased by 30 per cent. in real terms since 1979-80.

Science and technology touch every aspect of our daily lives. Our future prosperity and quality of life depend on them, as has been pointed out by many speakers in the debate. The Prime Minister, of course, is determined that science should play a part in the centre of our lives, at the heart of Government. That is why, as most hon. Members have said, he appointed the first Cabinet Minister with responsibility for science and technology for 30 years. That has been referred to by my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey and by many other speakers. They have referred to the proud record of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, West (Mr. Waldegrave) in terms of his work and in terms of the trust that built up in the scientific, engineering and technology communities in him as the first Cabinet Minister with responsibility for science, aided as he was first by my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage (Mr. Jackson) and then by my hon. Friend the Member for Boothferry (Mr. Davis).

My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and I will seek to follow very much in the mould of our predecessors. We shall seek to be a friend to the science community, to be a voice at the heart of Government and to ensure that the arguments, some of which have been reflected tonight, are made right at the heart of Government.

One of the points raised by my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey, the Chairman of the Select Committee, was whether the Office of Science and Technology is here to stay. I can assure the House that it is. It is a voice that must be heard, not just at the heart of Government but across the European Union and throughout the world. I shall refer more to that in a minute, because science is an international endeavour in which we believe Britain must play its full part.

The Government set out their policy for science, engineering and technology in last year's White Paper, "Realising our Potential". At the heart of our policies is a conviction that we need a closer partnership between industry, academia and Government. The report of the Select Committee, on which the debate is rightly focused, showed that, in general, members of the Committee share our view. We welcomed the Select Committee's inquiry and were pleased that the Committee was looking at an area of such central importance. The Committee's conclusions, in my view--it is perhaps why our response was rather shorter than the report itself--were broadly supportive of what the Government are doing and, of course, we are now seeing the first results of the policies that we set out in "Realising our Potential".

Let me deal now with some of the specific points that were made by right hon. and hon. Members. Several hon. Members, including my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey and the hon. Members for Kirkcaldy and for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell), referred to the efficiency unit's scrutiny of public sector research establishments. The report, which was published in July, raises important issues about the future of scientific establishments in the UK. It is important that we get the arrangements right, which is why we are having a period of public consultation. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster will meet the Science and Technology

Column 721

Select Committee on Wednesday and we are very much looking forward to hearing what it and the Committee in another place has to say about it.

Obviously, because we are towards the end of a consultation period, I should like to reassure the House that decisions have not been taken on the recommendations in the report. I am sure that hon. Members would not want me to pre-empt the decisions while we are still listening to those with an interest in what the Committee has to say, but it is important, as we pointed out in the science, engineering and technology White Paper, that the ownership and financing of the public sector research establishments is examined to ensure that the resources that the Government provide are spent as effectively as possible. I do not think that any hon. Member would seriously argue with that. It is an efficiency scrutiny, and we are seeking to spend the money in the best way possible.

I now deal with a matter that every hon. Member speaking in the debate has raised--tax incentives for research and development. There was, as hon. Members pointed out, only a three-and-a-half line reply in the Government's response to that matter. It is simply that we do not consider that there is a case for general tax incentives for spending on research and development. We believe that the current system of relief for R and D is comprehensive and substantial, and almost all expenditure is written off when it occurs, or very shortly thereafter.

A number of foreign comparisons were made, but foreign tax comparisons are notoriously difficult to make, as the complete fiscal picture must be considered. UK corporation tax rates, for instance, are among the lowest in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development and the Government believe that low tax rates, a broad tax base and few special allowances are the best way to promote investment and stimulate industry.

I would add just two points to that. Of course, some of the companies quoted in the debate tonight would prefer tax credits to grants. I understand that. They are bound to say that, because tax credits remove some of the strings that are attached when a grant is paid. It is understandable that they would take that view, but nevertheless, that is not a good reason for changing.

Sir Giles Shaw: I apologise for interrupting my hon. Friend so early in his speech.

I fully understand the reasons why, for example, it is considered that there are other ways of dealing with the matter than tax credits or grants- -for example, through taxation, economic management and so on. The crucial point, which my hon. Friend might care to address--probably not tonight, but subsequently--is that the condition in which we find ourselves requires a significant lift in the commitment to innovation and investment technology by industry. It is that aspect of it that makes other systems of releasing new energy in that sector worth re-examination.

Mr. Hughes: My hon. Friend has made an extremely important point. No one would disagree about the importance of lifting the amount of investment in that area. As the point has been made strongly in the debate by every speaker, I will ask the officials in the OST to consider the matter again in terms of the case that has been made.

Column 722

I listened carefully to the arguments. Of course the argument can be made in terms of what we want to happen. However, the question is whether what we want to happen will be realised by the use of tax credits. I heard no substantial arguments to convince me that the advice that I have been given is wrong, but that does not mean that such advice does not exist. As I have said, I will ask my officials to look at the matter once more.

Dr. Bray: I understand what the Minister is saying and he is right to say that the subject is complex. That is why we asked that it should be thoroughly examined. Has the Minister seen the Inland Revenue evaluation of Bronwyn Hall's paper? If not, will he read it and lay it before the House?

Mr. Hughes: While I have not seen that paper, it is something that only my right hon. and learned Friend the Chancellor of the Exchequer would bring before the House. Funnily enough, that has always been the case with Governments in the past and it will be the case in future.

Mr. Miller: There is a key document which is crucial to the analysis of the problem that we are facing, a problem that has been identified by hon. Members on both sides of the House, but the Government are saying that some of that evidence will not come out for public consumption. I thought that the Minister's Department was responsible for open government.

Mr. Hughes: No Government have published more information about the workings of government than this Government. However, that point is rather removed from the debate.

If people recommend a change as substantial as the proposal, they must produce harder and more concrete arguments than they have produced today. Several hon. Members prayed in aid small companies when they advanced their argument tonight. Many small and perhaps struggling companies would be tax- exhausted and would not pay tax. How can we believe that tax credits would help them better than grants? The argument does not stand up in that sense.

Dr. Bray: Tax credits, as income tax allowances, would help small companies as they would give them credit against future tax liability. The Inland Revenue published an evaluation eight years ago. The Minister was quite right to say that it would be for the Chancellor of the Exchequer to publish it, but surely he could give an undertaking to make representations to the Chancellor to the effect that he should update that study.

Mr. Hughes: If a company is not paying tax and does not believe that it is going to pay tax, it may not be impressed by the idea of receiving a tax credit. I have already given an undertaking to the House that I will ask my officials to consider the matter in the light of the comments that have been made today.

I want now to consider the apparent conflict between paragraphs 12 and 25 in the Government's response. We believe that our approach to innovation in industry is increasingly directed to small and medium-sized companies by improving the climate for innovation, helping to identify and disseminate best practice, helping firms to get the services and support that they need and that industrial research and technology organisations can

Column 723

supply and by helping firms have access to, and use effectively, technology from home and abroad. I do not believe that there is a difference between those two paragraphs.

I want now to refer to the points raised by the hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) about the information super-highway and the Internet. A recent report for the Government by PA Consulting in February 1974-- [Interruption.] I beg hon. Members' pardon; we are ahead of our time, but not that far ahead. A report for the Government in February 1994 found that the United Kingdom had a more developed fibre network than the United States or Japan, largely thanks to the investment of billions of pounds by cable companies. Whereas the Americans started by choosing to pay for the installation of the network to lead to the information super- highway, they are now moving toward our approach. It is not wise for us to adopt their approach.

The Government, through the Office of Public Service and Science, are giving a lead by consulting on public service applications of information super-highways. We are proposing to make public service information available as a first step on the Internet, called "open gov".

Mrs. Anne Campbell: I am sure that the House is pleased to hear that. Is it desirable that we have in the United Kingdom several small companies which are financed mainly from across the water in the United States and which are installing a variety of systems, not all optical fibre, with their own standards and regulations? That will make it difficult for us to have a national network that is worthy of the name.

Mr. Hughes: Of course there are some concerns about that matter. Even with the problems that exist and, frankly, even if the money is inward investment from the United States, Canada or anywhere else, that matter does not concern me at all because we have the benefit of that investment. Not all investment is exactly what we would want, but if we state-directed it and told companies precisely what they could and could not do, we would not receive that investment at all. Therefore, I would be loth to go down that road.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage rightly spoke about AEA Technology and the importance of ensuring that it is not fragmented on privatisation. We shall do our best to ensure that it is not, for the reasons that my hon. Friend gave, but, if he considers that points are being missed he will be very forthright in telling us what we should do on behalf of his constituents. We would welcome his input.

I have referred to a new partnership. That brings me to the launch of the technology foresight programme, which was one of the most important steps in building the partnership. An enormous number of science-driven opportunities lie before us. Indeed, the hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) referred to some of them. If we take advantage of them we shall reap large rewards. For instance, victims of heart disease may benefit from the use of miniature robots which can work inside the body to unclog arteries. International business and tourism may benefit from systems that provide real-time translation of telephone conversations into various languages. Much of the tedium of business travel might be replaced by "virtual meetings" which bring participants from many locations into contact through multi-media

Column 724

communications. When that was mentioned in a debate on the travelling of Select Committees, it did not enjoy a very good reception, and I am not sure whether it would do so more widely. The environment might be cared for with the help of custom-designed organisms which clean up pollutants.

Many of those advances are just around the corner, as hon. Members have said. We must face up to the stark reality, but not all hon. Members did. The United Kingdom cannot afford to do all the necessary science and technology to realise such advances--indeed, no one country can. Technology foresight is important to enable us to identify future market opportunities and emerging technologies to allow United Kingdom companies to exploit them.

My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage referred to the risks to the science base of our moving money from basic science. We recognise that risk as well, and it is our intention to ensure that that does not happen.

The technology foresight programme has built new networks between industry, academics and Government, and the process itself, as I saw at the technology foresight forum, is of great value and importance. We have established 15 panels to conduct foresight in specific areas, and those produced preliminary views during the spring and summer. The programme covers the sectors that one would expect, such as information technology, manufacturing and pharmaceuticals, but it is also breaking new ground by covering financial services, retailing and leisure.

In a most thoughtful speech, the hon. Member for Motherwell, South spoke about smart cards, the effect of new technology on banking and the effect that that could have on jobs, on the way that people use banking and on the way that people shop. All of those things are important. That is part of the work that the financial services panel is undertaking. As the City of London is the centre of financial transactions not only in Europe but in the world, it regards the programme as an opportunity to expand its business. We must never forget that what may be a problem can be an opportunity as well. The panels are holding 60 regional workshops to consult on the key issues arising out of their initial analysis. To reach the parts that would not be reached otherwise, a postal questionnaire was sent to 8, 000 people. It has already elicited more responses than equivalent exercises in Germany and Japan, and the responses are still coming in thick and fast.

The technology foresight programme has attracted enthusiasm and commitment from a wide range of firms, research and technology organisations, academics, professional institutions and learned societies. Looking at the amount of work that is put into the technology foresight programme by important people from all those organisations, I wonder how some of them find time for their day jobs. I simply take this opportunity to thank the companies and institutions that have been so generous in allowing their senior employees to spend so much time on the technology foresight programme.

The programme is on track to produce its first results next spring. They will inform our thinking about science, engineering and technology, and will provide useful guidance for private sector investment. We have already announced our intention to undertake another foresight exercise in a few years' time. We want to learn from our

Column 725

experiences of this programme in devising the next one, and will welcome the views of the Select Committee and other hon. Members in due course on what they have learnt from the technology foresight programme and what they would expect from the next one.

Several hon. Members spoke about education and training. For me, that comes within the important topic that was launched by the White Paper, public understanding of science. As hon. Members, in particular the hon. Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston and for Cambridge, pointed out, it is crucial to cultivate tomorrow's scientists now and to encourage the contributions that they can make to wealth creation and our quality of life.

In January, we launched a campaign to enhance public understanding of science, engineering and technology. The first event in the campaign was the national science week which was organised by the British Association for the Advancement of Science with funding from the Office of Science and Technology. New scientists described the week as a staggering success--and, indeed, it was. We believe that about 1 million people attended some 1,200 events in 230 towns and cities throughout the United Kingdom. I am able to tell the House that in our preliminary examination of national science week for next year, there have already been expressions of interest which substantially outweigh the amount of work done last year. I put a lot of store by the national week of science, engineering and technology, and my right hon. and hon. Friends and I and, I hope, hon. Members from both sides of the House, will play our part in ensuring that the large number of events that will be run are a success, and that young people will learn more about the importance of science, engineering and technology. SET95, as it will be called, can be a staggering success again and can produce a great deal of important work to increase public understanding.

The Office of Science and Technology will spend £1 million on the overall campaign in this financial year. That includes £270,000 to the British Association and the Gatsby Foundation, to promote and publicise substantial existing activity; £150,000 to the Committee for the Public Understanding of Science in support of two grants schemes; and £120,000 for work in schools, including the highly successful creativity in science and technology awards

scheme--CREST--which I had the pleasure of attending a few weeks ago. The awards are for important and interesting schemes and experiments put together mainly by fifth and sixth-formers.

One of our main targets for next year is to encourage greater industrial participation in science week. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster has invited the top 200 companies by R and D spend to consider how they might be involved. We are also keen to encourage more women to participate in science, engineering and technology. The White Paper recognised that in Britain we underuse the talents of women in those sectors, and that that, indeed, was to our cost and to the country's cost. In response, we have established a development unit within the Office of Science and Technology to tackle the issue. I am pleased to tell the House that the head of the unit has just been appointed. Linda Sharp is a civil servant mathematician currently

Column 726

working at the Ministry of Defence. She will take up her duties in a few weeks and will spearhead this important work.

Let me say a few words about the priorities for future action. The Government are continuing to develop their policies for science, engineering and technology. Our priorities for action include, first, taking forward the technology foresight programme. We will have the first overall conclusions next spring, but that is only the start. We must make sure that the results are widely disseminated, so that everyone with an interest--in industry, Government and academia--can take them on board. We shall help to sustain the networks that have been developed, which are so crucial to the new partnerships mentioned in last year's White Paper.

We shall develop the "Forward Look". My hon. Friend the Member for Wantage was worried about what would happen to the "Forward Look". It is safe in the hands of the Government. Government-funded science, engineering and technology is important. Our aim is to produce a more far-sighted approach to science and technology policy and to provide fuller and better information on the Government's investment. Next year's "Forward Look" will reflect the first results of the technology foresight programme.

We shall continue to promote the public understanding of science, engineering and technology. My right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and I are concerned that science should be in the mainstream of public debate. Our public understanding campaign will include what we hope will be an even bigger and better science week, as I mentioned earlier.

We shall continue our quest for maximum effort in the administration of the research councils. We want to direct as high a proportion as possible of the science budget into supporting top-quality science and engineering. The director general of the research councils is working with the councils to ensure that this happens.

We must preserve the high quality of basic research, which has been mentioned in the debate, particularly by my hon. Friend the Member for Wantage, but in a framework informed by technology foresight and benefiting from closer partnership between those in industry, in Government and in academia.

The international aspects of the matter have been mentioned in the debate, particularly by the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy. We are developing the specific programmes under the fourth EC framework programme and we look forward to finding a satisfactory basis with our international partners for formal approval of the large hadron collider.

Our guiding principle in each case will be to secure settlements which are good for Britain and good for science. Certainly my experience at the last European Research Council meeting, which agreed 10 research programmes under the fourth framework, is that we are far from being alone in the European Union in putting national interest high on the agenda. Of course, this is an international matter and we want to collaborate. We want to co- operate with our partners in the European Union and beyond and my right hon. Friend and I are doing so. To suggest, however, that we should not put British interests high on our agenda is something with which I would not agree.

Column 727

Shortly, we shall establish the OST development unit to promote greater participation by women, as I mentioned. We are reviewing the LINK programme, with the objective of broadening it to deliver high-quality collaborative research with minimum bureaucracy. We shall develop an action plan based on the efficiency unit's scrutiny of public sector research establishments. Again, I assure the House that the priority will be to ensure that resources are devoted to science, with the minimum of overheads.

In Britain, we have always supported and carried out good science. It is not just me saying that--we have supported and carried out good science that is internationally recognised as being the most exciting and innovative in the world and the Government are determined to maintain the tradition of excellence.

When he opened the debate, my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey said that we must see to it that the initiatives that we have set in train lead to an increase in activity. That one phrase could be our watchword--increase in activity and increase in success for Britain. The Government's policies will ensure that we boost our economy and enhance our quality of life. That is our concern and it has been the concern of those hon. Members who contributed to the debate. It will continue to be our joint concern as we go forward in the important matters that we have debated tonight.

Mr. Michael Bates (Langbaurgh): I beg to ask leave to withdraw the motion.

Motion, by leave, withdrawn .

Column 728

Standard Spending Assessments, Isle of Wight

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

9.57 pm

Next Section

  Home Page