Previous SectionIndexHome Page

10.51 am

The Minister for Science and Technology (Mr. Ian Taylor): To an extent, this has been a bit of a wake, and I am sorry about that. This may be the last science debate in this Parliament, but it is certainly the last appearance in this Parliament in a science debate by my hon. Friends the Members for Pudsey (Sir G. Shaw) and for Norwich, North (Mr. Thompson), and the hon. Member for Motherwell, South (Dr. Bray), all of whom have contributed enormously over the years to the understanding of and enthusiasm for science, engineering and technology in this place.

I add my voice to the tributes that have already been paid to the very existence of the Select Committee. I hope that the valuable work that it has done in this Parliament--I note carefully the report on human genetics, for example--will continue in the next Parliament, if Parliament decides, as I hope it will, that a Science and Technology Select Committee should continue.

I have only a few minutes to respond to some of the serious points raised in the debate. I do not share the worry of my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey that the reviews were hasty and perhaps ill targeted. They were part of a continuing process. Naturally, they had to apply to the research council institutes, which account for about £220 million out of the £690 million expenditure. Some of the research councils have clearly indicated the benefit that has come from their work. The National Environment Research Council has made a clear statement to that effect, and I hope that my hon. Friend will appreciate that, quite often, such reviews make it easier to understand the relationship between a research council or institute, and the definition of the mission statement.

Several hon. Members, not only my hon. Friend the Member for Pudsey but my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North and the hon. Members for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller), for Cambridge (Mrs. Campbell) and for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram), talked about openness. As a Minister, I have always been available for questioning across the Floor of the House. I wish that I were questioned more, because I enjoy being at the

12 Feb 1997 : Column 271

Dispatch Box and answering questions. There is no lack of desire on my part to be open. Obviously, I cannot table questions; I can only appear if the questions are tabled, so perhaps colleagues will think about how they could table a few more to me.

We have tried to make consultations as wide as possible. Naturally, the review groups were very much associated with the sponsoring Department. The explanatory memorandums have been, or will be, placed in the Library. Indeed, the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food placed one there today about its decisions of 9 December. Those are part of a general attempt to ensure that we understand why a particular process has taken place.

I shall not comment on ministerial advice, because, as the House well understands, that matter has wider implications. One point that I do pick up, however, is that in no sense was I anxious to undermine the morale of those who work within the science base. I recognise the importance of the work done in the research establishments and the excellence of the scientific achievements. In some cases, when objectively reviewed, some institutes have shown themselves to be up with the best of any in the United Kingdom. For example, the figures at the Babraham Institute are extremely convincing. Several of the reviews made it clear that research is best carried out in the public sector. I welcome that outcome, so there is no pre-ordained message.

I was saddened by the speech of the hon. Member for East Kilbride, who, having found that the reviews came up with decisions with which the hon. Member for Birmingham, Selly Oak (Dr. Jones) decided that she was happy, had to find a different excuse for the fact that the outcome was not so distasteful, and decided that it had something to do with split Governments, frit Governments and electioneering. It was not the most impressive contribution to the debate, although I pay full tribute to the interest of--I nearly said my hon. Friend; perhaps I will--my hon. Friend in the science base. Unfortunately, it did not extend to his speech today.

Other matters of great importance have been raised. I listened closely to the comments by the hon. Member for Motherwell, South on risk assessment. I have made two speeches: one to the British Association for the Advancement of Science; another to the parliamentary Science and Technology Committee, on risk assessment in its broadest sense. I share many of the hon. Gentleman's concerns. It is almost impossible for a Minister to come to the Dispatch Box with a degree of certainty about what often confuses scientists.

It is also difficult for a Minister--I hope that I shall criticise none of my colleagues--to come to the Dispatch Box and say, "I shall do what the scientists tell me," because scientists may say different things, or their comments may have different orders of magnitude. In those circumstances, we need a wide and public debate, attempting to get the public to understand the degree of risk involved. That is why I proposed a sort of Richter

12 Feb 1997 : Column 272

scale of risk, so that there is at least an objective benchmark when we hit crises such as BSE, E. coli and longer-term matters such as the debate on climate control.

The hon. Member for Motherwell, South made one comment which justified the reviews, although that was not why he made it. He said that, in many cases, the questions will change over time. I accept that, but the process of how one discovers the answers may have to change over time. A particular establishment may therefore need to adapt its mission statement or look again at how it is configured.

The Office of Science and Technology's role in Government has now been well established by its success within the DTI, with enormous improvements in the lines of communication and delivery mechanisms. My hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North mentioned, quite rightly, the work of the Central Science Laboratory at Norwich. He also mentioned the John Innes Centre and the Institute of Food Research. He has been a tireless champion for research at Norwich. I confirm that I hope that open discussions will continue with the university of East Anglia on how to create a centre of research excellence, particularly in food. I underline and confirm his comments, particularly about the strength of the science base. We should make much more of it.

The hon. Member for Selly Oak said that the prior options reviews cost £6.9 million, which is way out. Even the hon. Member for East Kilbride mentioned £4.3 million. The direct cost of prior options reviews is some £1.5 million. Obviously, other factors have been taken into account--for example, with ADAS and moneys connected with the conversion to next steps agencies, which are not directly relevant to the process. Whatever the figures--I stick to £1.5 million--they are tiny in relation to the overall quest for efficiency out of a spend of £690 million. No Science Minister can ignore that fact.

My hon. Friend the Member for South Dorset (Mr. Bruce) said that there are too many reviews. I draw his attention to my announcement, and that of the President of the Board of Trade as the Cabinet Minister responsible for science, that we shall now revert to quinquennial reviews, although we will look very carefully at the management tasks that have been given to the various research institutes. They have been informed that they can put them in place.

The hon. Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston talked about how the House responds to some of these crises, and mentioned predetermination. There was no predetermination, and that brings me to the hon. Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram). Government have a duty to look at the health of the science base. This country has a science base of which it can be proud. Science base expenditure has risen by more than 15 per cent. in the past 10 years. That is a great achievement. British science is well recognised throughout the world as being excellent. We punch above our weight, partly because of the concern of the Government.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Mr. Michael Morris): Order. We must now move on to the next debate and to the Chairman of the Public Service Committee.

12 Feb 1997 : Column 273

Ministerial Accountability and Responsibility

[Relevant documents: Second report from the Public Service Committee of Session 1995-96, on Ministerial Accountability and Responsibility (HC 313), the Government's response thereto (HC 67 of Session 1996-97) and first report from the Public Service Committee of Session 1996-97, on Ministerial Accountability and Responsibility (HC 234).]

11 am

Mr. Giles Radice (North Durham): As you rightly say, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I speak this morning in my capacity as Chairman of the Public Service Select Committee. As a Back Bencher, I remain convinced, as I was on 26 February 1996, when the House debated the Scott report, that Ministers should have resigned over that committee's findings.

When Sir Richard Scott came before the Select Committee, he was asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock and Burntwood (Dr. Wright):

Sir Richard replied:

    "I think so, yes."

When asked:

    "Did something constitutionally improper happen?"

Sir Richard said:

    "Yes, I think it did and I said so."

In the event, the Government won the Scott debate by one vote and Ministers survived. I was always clear in my mind that our role in the Public Service Select Committee should not be to re-run the resignation debate; rather, it was to try to learn lessons from the Scott report and also from the Lewis affair, which had prompted our original investigations--lessons for ministerial responsibility and accountability and how it was to be defined and exercised in the modern world of a powerful Executive, the reformed civil service with new next steps agencies and, of course, rapidly changing events both at home and abroad.

We published our main report on ministerial accountability and responsibility last July. I thank my colleagues, many of whom are here today, our specialist advisers, our Clerk and our staff for their very valuable contribution. I know that hon. Members who are on the Select Committee and others wish to speak in the debate, so I shall summarise the main recommendations of the report.

With respect to definition, the Committee rejected the distinction that Sir Robin Butler attempted to draw when he came before the Scott inquiry between accountability and responsibility--in other words, that Ministers are always accountable to Parliament for the work of their Department but are not necessarily responsible for everything that happens in those Departments. We point out that it is not possible to distinguish clearly an area in which a Minister is personally responsible, and liable to take blame, from one in which he or she is merely constitutionally accountable. That is why we concluded:

12 Feb 1997 : Column 274

    actions. Ministers also have an obligation to respond to criticism made in Parliament in a way that seems likely to satisfy it--which may include, if necessary, resignation."

However, as a Committee we are not obsessed, except in one respect to which I shall return, with the question of resignation. In fact, we tended to agree with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bethnal Green and Stepney (Mr. Shore) that Parliament undervalues accountability, and that proper and vigorous scrutiny in accountability may be more important to Parliament's ability to correct error than forcing resignations.

Next Section

IndexHome Page