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10.13 am

Dr. Lynne Jones (Birmingham, Selly Oak): Unlike the previous three speakers, who are retiring, I hope to return to the House after the general election. I wish to place on record my grateful thanks for their work. I have found the

12 Feb 1997 : Column 261

work on the Select Committee tremendously enjoyable. This debate has shown that there is complete agreement on the report.

I regard my work on the Science and Technology Select Committee as the must useful work that I do in this building, largely because the Committee approaches its work consensually. We take evidence, examine issues objectively and reach conclusions. Almost always, we find that, irrespective of our political affiliations, we agree. I contrast that with the work in this Chamber, where we are at one another's throats. The adversarial nature of debates diminishes our Parliament and does not lead to good government. If we had more of the Select Committee approach in the legislative process, this might be a much better governed country.

As recently as last night, the Government had the opportunity to refer the National Health Service (Primary Care) Bill to a Special Standing Committee, which would have enabled it to go through such a process. However, they refused. I hope that the new Government after the general election will consider the use of more Special Standing Committees so that we can get more agreement in the House and better government.

The hon. Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw) and my hon. Friend the Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray) adequately outlined the Committee's concerns about the prior options review and the efficiency scrutiny, so I do not propose to go over that. I sound a slight note of disagreement with the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson), who said we should do more science in our Committee. While this report is largely about the organisation and administration of science, we have recently conducted a major inquiry into human genetics, which was full of science and very interesting. We produced recommendations that the Government first rejected, and then accepted after we went back to them. That shows the Committee's effectiveness.

I was also treated to the delights of particle physics and astronomy during our inquiry into P Parc. Those areas of science are exciting. If more publicity was given to them, there would be more public interest in science and in our scientific endeavours, which are so important for our economic well-being.

The scrutiny was supposed to lead to greater efficiencies. Our report makes it clear that we do not feel that that was the result. The scrutiny has led to much disruption in a community which, as the hon. Member for Norwich, North said, the Minister accepted in his New Scientist article was one of the most cost-effective producers of research among G7 countries. If we are so cost-effective, we must wonder why it was necessary to go through the reviews, which have led not to efficiencies but to inefficiencies.

For example, the Medical Research Council has not been able to replace the director of its reproductive biology unit in Edinburgh, who left last year. The Central Science Laboratory stated:

with the new facility at York--

    "releasing savings of over £1 million a year."

The efficiency scrutiny has wasted £1 million a year.

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Mr. Dalyell: To reinforce my hon. Friend's comment, the decision led in Edinburgh to outrage in informed circles in the university.

Dr. Jones: I thank my hon. Friend for reinforcing my point.

The Institute of Arable Crops Research says that more than 60 per cent. of its staff have contracts of less than three years, compared with 10 per cent. in 1981. That means that staff spend much time applying for money and submitting proposals.

The submission to our inquiry from the Institution of Professionals, Managers and Specialists states:

That is not efficiency. Senior scientists can spend up to 40 per cent. of their time applying for grants, writing progress reports and reviewing other colleagues' proposals.

I hope that we will learn from the review and that we will not repeat the mistakes made in it. I want to spend a few minutes discussing the outcome and why we are happy with it. It means that most of the research institutes will remain in the public sector. Perhaps the main reason why privatisation did not occur was because of the problems surrounding the so-called crystallisation of pension rights. At present, in public bodies, there is no funded pension scheme--there is a pay-as-you-go pension scheme funded out of the research councils' budgets. Were the institutes to be privatised, they would have to move to a funded scheme and the Government would have to pay over a lump sum to fund the pension liabilities.

It is ironic that, in the long run, it makes no difference at all to the taxpayer whether there is a one-off lump sum of £100 million, which was the figure quoted, or there are annual contributions from the taxpayer that are, in effect, the financing cost of that £100 million. However, that was the major stumbling block, which highlights the nonsensical arrangements for public finance in this country. The Treasury rules basically say that, if the Government borrow money for investment, it is bad; whereas, if the private sector borrows for the same purpose, that is acceptable or even good. The issue of pensions shows the ridiculous nature of the public sector rules. The sooner we move to having a general government financing deficit, separate from borrowing for investment, the sooner we will have more effective public services.

It is quite wrong when the Government borrow for consumption. We currently have a public sector borrowing requirement of about £26 billion, which has been used to finance consumption--mainly to pay for the high costs of unemployment. That sort of borrowing is to be deplored, but, had the same sum been borrowed to invest in, for example, public transport, our universities, our science base or research and development, that would have been borrowing well spent and we would reap the rewards in terms of greater income. That issue must be addressed by a future Government, but there is a reluctance on both sides of the political divide to examine it.

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I am being pressurised to wind up, so I shall draw my speech to a conclusion. All hon. Members recognise the importance of science to the well-being of this country's economy, but money has been wasted on the efficiency scrutiny. In their reply, the Government said that that was less than 1 per cent. of the budget, but that is £6.9 million which could have been used to reinstate the 1 per cent. cut in the science budget that has occurred this year. It could have reinstated the Faraday Partnership or contributed towards the foresight action programme for which aerospace companies are calling--they want funding from the Department of Trade and Industry to match the money that they are prepared to put in. We could have used the money to much better effect and used it for wealth-creating activities, rather than on the long period of disruption resulting from the scrutiny.

10.23 am

Mr. Ian Bruce (South Dorset): I shall speak briefly so that other colleagues will be able to contribute.

I add my tribute to the valedictory comments about our Chairman, the hon. Member for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw), who is to retire at the general election, and about my other colleagues who have given excellent service on the Committee. I also wish to mention by name Ms Eve Samson, our Clerk, who is always modest about what she does, but who has been able to co-ordinate all her staff and all our advisers. Our Committee takes notice of what advisers say, and Select Committee reports are much better for having taken good advice, instead of trying to grandstand politically.

It is interesting to note that colleagues on both sides of the House have been talking about privatisation or non-privatisation issues. I am an unreconstructed Thatcherite, and the Labour party--or at least its Front Benchers--seems to be trying to catch up with us. The history of almost all the institutions, universities and other learned bodies in this country shows that they are not purely public sector bodies. Most of them started in the private sector and all of them have a great deal of private sector involvement in their work, so to take the argument about privatisation to its extreme would be a waste of time.

In their response, the Government did not accept the Committee's criticism that the prior options review was conducted unsatisfactorily, but that is not specifically what we said. I want to make it clear that we were saying that prior options was yet another review, on top of half a dozen resulting from almost every organisation review. The point that I would like to make to Ministers and to anyone else who may be examining our science base is that we cannot continue to carry out review after review if we want staff to get on and do their job. That is the strongest criticism that the Committee tried to make.

It is not as though we have not already had reviews--the Committee would never say that it does not believe that we should always check whether we are getting value for money from our science base. It is the fundamental reviews of who will own the research institutes, how they will be organised and whether the structure will differ that are disruptive and destroy morale.

In my constituency, I have one of the bases of the Centre for Ecology and Hydrology and one of the fish laboratories. I also have two organisations that have been reviewed and changed: AEA Technology, which is now

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fully in the private sector, and the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, which has undergone great changes, not least in location. Once both organisations had their establishment nailed down and understood where they were going, they went from strength to strength.

We should therefore be careful about continual reviews. We must instead set up a structure that tells people that, every year, they should review how they have done and make minor alterations to their organisation if necessary. We cannot say that we are going to check whether organisations are in the public or private sector, or tell them that they are going to be completely changed around, because that would destroy their work.

On the issue of blue sky research and who should pay for it, I sometimes annoy colleagues on the Committee who say, "This is something that should be done by the public sector." I tend to respond, "You cannot say that in absolute terms." The private sector has often worked wonders in making progress in blue sky research, and we should always be considering how to involve commerce and industry in our science base. Any scientist who says, "I shall never talk to the other side, because I am publicly funded and only do things that will add to the sum of human knowledge," is not gaining the benefits of the approach taken in the foresight programme, whereby people consider where blue sky research might lead, and what might emerge from it.

My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson) said--and it bears repeating--that the United Kingdom has 1 per cent. of the world's population, 6 per cent. of the science spend and 8 per cent. of science discoveries. I believe that the more scientists involve themselves with industry and commerce and with the rest of academia, the better it is for the science base.

This is an important issue. I know that the Minister and the shadow Minister, the hon. Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram), are both supportive of science, and, as a result, we can work together to the greater benefit of the British science base.

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