|Previous Section||Home Page|
Mr. O'Brien: There could be no more disappointing response from the Minister than that. Is he aware that many of my constituents and old people throughout the country are in despair because the licence fee increases
Column 686each year and television is the only means of entertainment that many of them have. It is disappointing that the Government will not even contemplate reviewing the rules. The old people of this country have been let down tremendously by the Government. We have an opportunity for a Minister to do something to help the old people and he is refusing. That is shameful.
Mr. Dorrell: The reason why I am refusing is that I do not think it a sensible use of public funds to regard television licences as a form of social security. I am in favour of resources to support old people being concentrated on those in real need. If the hon. Gentleman wishes to abolish television licences for pensioners, he must explain why he thinks that that would be a sensible use of £500 million of public money and whether he could not do more good by better concentrating that money on those in real need.
Mr. Sproat: The hon. Gentleman must wait for the announcement that my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy will make in due course. However, I can tell him that the consultants that we used recommended against privatisation of the public library system. I should therefore be very surprised if that were to be recommended. Indeed, it would be contrary to the Public Libraries and Museums Act 1964.
On the question of contracting out, which the Labour party sometimes regards as privatisation, KPMG Peat Marwick delivered its report on this important subject last Friday at 10 o'clock, and we shall look at it closely. Whatever is or is not contracted out, however, the 1964 Act--which requires all local authorities to maintain a comprehensive, effective and efficient service--will remain in force.
29. Mr. Mackinlay: To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster if he will make it his policy to allow people and organisations outside Government the opportunity to have access and input into the deliberative processes of those Cabinet Committees of which he is chairman. 
Column 687Cabinet Committee? Will people attending that Committee be subject to the constraints of the Privy Council oath? Will it be possible for the chairman of the Conservative party to deliver documents from Conservative central office to that Committee or report from that Committee to Conservative central office? Is there not some incompatibility in his membership of that Cabinet Committee, which is served by civil servants?
Mr. Hunt: The hon. Gentleman asks a number of questions which display his ignorance of these matters. It is a Committee of Ministers charged with co-ordinating and presenting the policy of the elected Government of the day and it is serviced by civil servants. Under any previous Administration, the hon. Gentleman and the House would not even have known of the existence of the Committee. Thanks to my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister, its terms of reference are already in the public domain, as is its membership.
The Cabinet Minister without Portfolio attends the Committee in his role as a Minister. Indeed, he is also a member of eight other Cabinet Committees. As the hon. Gentleman knows, the membership of the Committee is published and it operates under the normal rules affecting all Cabinet Committees.
Mr. David Shaw: Despite the Government opening up a great deal of information about how Cabinet Committees meet and operate, is there not still a large amount of information available that the press does not always report? Will my right hon. Friend confirm that he announced recently that Britain is spending a record amount on research and development-- £13.8 billion last year--but that that information was not widely reported?
Mr. Hunt: I agree with my hon. Friend. My right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been responsible for a number of open Government initiatives under which more than 24,000 records have now been released. I confirm that, on 17 March, the Central Statistical Office released figures showing that the United Kingdom's gross domestic expenditure on research and development was £13.8 billion, which represented an increase in cash terms of 6 per cent. from the level in 1992. I hope that that will be as widely reported as the other matters to which my hon. Friend referred.
Mrs. Ann Taylor: Labour Members welcome the presence of the Conservative party chairman on that and, indeed, any other Cabinet Committee because it is in our interests that he should stay there. Will the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster give us a clue about the responsibilities of the new Government presentation Committee? Is it responsible, for instance, for the threat that nurses could lose their pay review body unless they toe the Government line, or for the fact that ambulance staff have been awarded a pay increase of 28p per day at the same time as "Panorama" is disclosing that water bosses are sitting on £4 million of personal profit in addition to massive salary increases? The Committee may be responsible for the presentation of such acts, but there is no way in which it can make them palatable to the public.
Mr. Hunt: At least the Government understand the importance of policy. First, we have the policy and then we concern ourselves with the presentation. The Labour party in opposition seem to believe that it can handle
Column 688things the other way round: it is over- concerned with presentation and leaves a policy vacuum at the heart of the party.
The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service and Science (Mr. John Horam): My right hon. Friend visited nine events at whichschool children were present during National Science Week. I managed to outscore him by visiting 12. In all, more than 20 events involving school children were visited by my right hon. Friend and myself during science week.
Dr. Spink: Does my hon. Friend agree that, by their activities last week, he and my right hon. Friend have shown their wholehearted commitment to supporting science and education in schools, which are contributing so much to our economic success? Will my hon. Friend join me in promoting the top flight bursary scheme, which gives £500 extra per year to every top student who chooses to do engineering at university?
Mr. Horam: I hope that we have shown our support for National Science Week. It was a fairly exhausting week, so I would be disappointed if we had not achieved something. My hon. Friend's point about the top flight scheme is well made. It is an excellent scheme, which means that school children can go to university and obtain a bursary funded partly by the Government and the Engineering Council. To promote the scheme, we sent out a leaflet last summer to all secondary schools, further education colleges and higher education courses. Perhaps we should consider what my hon. Friend has said and send out a further leaflet this summer to ensure that the message is really banged home.
Mr. Rooker: Does the Minister agree that the one thing that will encourage school children to welcome and embrace science is a degree of openness? Has not one of the problems been that they scientists have not been as open about their work as they could have been? Will the Minister comment on the report in The Observer yesterday that British scientists who have examined the nuclear power plant at Chernobyl have been prevented by the European Commission from making their findings known at a proposed London press conference? If there is a major problem there, British scientists who are part of the international team looking at the plant need to be as open as possible about the difficulties, so that this country, with its expertise, can offer all possible help to prevent a second catastrophic explosion.
Mr. Horam: The hon. Gentleman raises an important point. As he knows, the European Union is financing work on the feasibility study for a shelter over Chernobyl. It would be a serious matter if there were problems in relation to that. I take what the hon. Gentleman says seriously. Obviously, all information on the matter should be made available.
Mr. Batiste: Will my hon. Friend build on the success of National Science Week by campaigning to correct public misconceptions about science, and in particular about the importance and excellence of our national
Column 689science base and its significance for this country's future? That is evidenced by the large increase in funding for science and technology in 1992-93, showing the commitment of both Government and industry to achieving the fruits of science for the benefit of our people.
Mr. Horam: My hon. Friend makes an important point, because the United Kingdom's great strength has been in the biological and life sciences. The general opinion, which I am sure is right, is that those are the important sciences for the 21st century. The fact that we are putting so much effort into those sciences, and that my right hon. Friend has slightly shifted the balance towards life sciences during the current review of research council spending, shows our intention to support them strongly.
Mr. O'Brien: Does the Chancellor agree that contract researchers have been undervalued for all too long? Will he give his full support to proposals by the research councils to give research contractors terms and conditions of employment equivalent to those of permanent staff?
Mr. Hunt: A number of the points raised by the hon. Gentleman are matters for the research councils and the universities. I welcome the fact that the number of researchers has grown. The number of PhDs has also grown. We need to ensure that that continues if we are to invest wisely in our future.
Mr. Coombs: Is my hon. Friend aware that the recent increase in the science budget was warmly welcomed by the research councils? Does he agree with me that the success of National Science Week is likely to lead in due course to a large increase in demands for the science budget to be enlarged --supported, as it was, not only by my hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend the Chancellor of the Duchy, but by the BBC and by staff at the research councils in Swindon?
Mr. Horam: I was glad that the research councils played a significant part in the whole of National Science Week. They established a video link whereby young people could question the director-general of science, research and development in the Brussels Commission on his priorities. I found that very interesting. They also ran
Column 690a science quiz, which I gather operated successfully around all the pubs in Swindon, although I think that that was a rather more light-hearted approach.
Mr. Dalyell: What is the Government's response to the proposal by the Royal Microscopical Society, backed by research councils, that it is highly desirable that there should be a microscope in every school, if only to increase the sense of wonder that is so important in education?
33. Mr. Miller: To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what estimates he has made of the total number of children involved in National Science Week; what proportion were girls; and if he will make a statement. 
Mr. Miller: I am grateful for that response. Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that it is important that we pin down those figures accurately and that we analyse why, even though a large proportion of girls participated in National Science Week, as they did last year, we still have not broken through and persuaded more girls to participate in science at A- level and beyond? Will the Chancellor ensure, with his colleagues at the Department for Education, that urgent research is undertaken to correct that huge anomaly?
Mr. Hunt: First, I pay tribute to the many organisations which put on events during National Science Week to increase public understanding of science, engineering and technology. Many of those were directed at boys and girls. I understand that at least 1.5 million people watched children's television such as "Blue Peter" and "Newsround", which carried many items. As for the hon. Gentleman's point about girls, we want to see equality of opportunity. Indeed, the Royal Society's new Dorothy Hodgkin fellowships, for which I recently announced support, should help retain young women in post-doctoral research. The hon. Gentleman is right that we have to start at the earliest possible age by attracting more boys and girls into science as a career.
Mr. Hawkins: Does my right hon. Friend agree that, following the success of "Realising our Potential" in 1993--the first White Paper on science for more than 20 years--we have seen a continuing concentration on science education and that the success of National Science Week last week was proof positive of that? Does my right hon. Friend further agree that the success of Conservative policies in the past 15 years derived from one of the best lady scientists ever?
Mr. Hunt: I completely agree with my hon. Friend's comments about Baroness Thatcher. As for the future, much of the strength in our science and engineering base is due to our free enterprise system, and we have a reputation throughout the world as a centre of free enterprise. We published today the reports of the Technology Foresight exercise, which contain examples
Column 691of what must happen in the future, including a more positive partnership between industry, Government and our best brains.
Mr. David Hunt: I find difficulty in knowing to what gap the hon. Lady is referring. If she has in mind the translation of good research ideas into marketable products, the Government help through programmes such as Link and Technology Foresight. Only this morning, I published five Technology Foresight panel reports.
Mrs. Campbell: The Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster himself referred to the development gap in his interview with the House of Lords Select Committee on Science and Technology, so I am surprised that he does not know what I am talking about.
Does the right hon. Gentleman agree that the present situation has a great deal in common with near-market research, which was slashed by Baroness Thatcher during the latter years of her reign as Prime Minister? Does he further agree that science and technology should not pick up the tab for research and development projects which are being cut by Departments?
Mr. Hunt: First, if the hon. Lady looks at her question, she will realise the point that I was making. Secondly, it is important in Technology Foresight for there to be a positive partnership. I take pride in the fact that we have had a world-leading Technology Foresight exercise involving 15 different panels in which our best brains from science, the universities and industry have come together with the Government to look 10 to 20 years ahead. I hope that all the reports that we have published will be carefully considered by all the industries involved.
Mr. John Marshall: Does my right hon. Friend agree that universities and industry must collaborate on research if universities are not to become ivory towers and so that industry can benefit from the brains within the universities?
Mr. Hunt: While stressing the importance of basic research, which is an important ingredient in the competitiveness of the United Kingdom, I agree with my hon. Friend. I hope that he will have found that a new partnership is developing following on from the initiative started by my predecessor, the present Minister of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, in bringing together industry and academia in a positive way. That will have benefits for everyone concerned with improving our standard of living and quality of life.
35. Mr. Harry Greenway: To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what steps he is taking to improve relations between members of the public and executive agency offices not located geographically close to their
Column 692clients; and if he will make a statement. 
Mr. Greenway: Does my hon. Friend agree that it is difficult for my constituents to feel a personal relationship with the people in Glasgow, Blackpool and beyond who are dealing with their problems, particularly when they often seem to speak a different language? Can something be done to make the relationships more personal, to the advantage of my constituents as they deserve that?
Mr. Horam: I hope that my hon. Friend was not talking about differences in accent, but about terminology and jargon. There is a problem in the link between distant centres and the local Benefits Agency offices, but we are trying to improve that through local customer surveys, visits by Benefits Agency staff to local libraries, health centres and community centres, a one-stop shop and improved opening hours. All those improvements are being put into the melting pot to try to improve the relationship. The National Audit Office said recently--I am not sure whether this relates to my hon. Friend's local office--that there had been an improvement in the relationship between the London district offices and the Glasgow and Blackpool centres as a result of those efforts.
Mr. Enright: Is the Minister aware that a constituent of mine rang up one of those agencies--situated in Belfast--to explain her problem, only to be told, "If you were living here, you would know what problems really were"?
Mr. Flynn: Are not the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority's laboratories at Harlow among our finest institutions for scientific invention, especially in non-nuclear, renewable energy resources? Should not such work be applied to arrest the development of nuclear installations at Ignalina in Lithuania, Privdannekransk in Odessa and especially at Chernobyl, which, as we heard earlier, are in imminent danger of causing a problem? Should they not be applied to prevent the European investment bank from using money to create a potential new Chernobyl reactor at Mochove in Slovakia?
Mr. Hunt: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman, although I would have preferred a little more notice of the detailed nature of his question. I will consider carefully all the matters that he raised, but I have two comments. First, I was already aware of the tremendous work performed by the energy technology support unit, which I first experienced when I was Energy Minister about 10 years ago.
Column 693Secondly, as my hon. Friend the Parliamentary Secretary said a moment ago, the European Commission is funding a feasibility study into the stabilisation of the shelter over the damaged remains of reactor 4 at Chernobyl. The Alliance consortium of western engineering companies carried out phase 1 of the study, which was completed recently, and its findings were presented to a panel of Ukrainian and western experts in
Column 694Kiev from 14 to 16 March. The report is understood to confirm doubts about the long-term stability of the shelter and the need for early action to construct a replacement. Nuclear safety at Chernobyl is a matter for the Ukrainian authorities, but further EU-funded work is planned on design requirements for a new shelter in the second phase of the project, and I am keeping in close touch with the situation.
|Next Section (Debates)