Draft Science and Technology Facilities Council Order 2007

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The Chairman: Order. My expertise is handling monkey business in Committee.
Mr. Ellwood: At which, of course, you are equally able, Mr. O’Hara.
I agree with the tacit endorsement to the orders given by my hon. Friend the Member for Wealden. Our concern is that we are seeing a demise in manufacturing industry in the United Kingdom, and that we have plummeted in the league for competitiveness and economic growth. It is therefore good to see an order that reduces the number of bodies rather than one that creates a new one.
Bearing that in mind, I shall start with the Technology Strategy Board. The Minister said that the chairman of the new board will be Graham Spittle. When is he likely to start work, and what will his salary be? Will he be expected to distance himself from his other interests? What influence will the Department have in the selection of the other board members? My hon. Friend mentioned the political connections that can sometimes mar a board’s judgment. Will the members of the board have to retire or otherwise exempt themselves from their other connections, so that they do not have undue influence, given the competitive nature of the large sums involved?
It is good that the research council will see the merging of three organisations, but I do not recall the Minister explaining the composition of the board. It may be too early for such details to be available, but I hope that he can give us an indication of the chairman’s salary and the cost of running the boards. Both boards will be looking after large sums of money, and we need to understand how Parliament will scrutinise their work.
In general, I support the move, particularly because it will reduce the number of bodies.
5.3 pm
Mark Lazarowicz (Edinburgh, North and Leith) (Lab/Co-op): The proposals are excellent; they are very much in line with the Government’s support for science and technology, to which some Opposition Members have referred.
I congratulate the Minister on his new responsibilities. Will he explain how the work of the new board and the council will benefit academic institutions and others involved in research and technological development in all parts of the United Kingdom? It is not simply a question of allocating resources on a regional or national basis just for the sake of it. He will agree, I am sure, that the boards must take account of the interests of the entire UK. I should be grateful if he could expand on that point.
The proposals illustrate the benefit to the entire country of the constitutional arrangements that bring Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and England together. It emphasises once again the advantages to the entire UK that are to be gained from the progressive policies being pursued by the Government.
5.4 pm
Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): First, Mr. O’Hara, I welcome you to the Chair. I apologise profusely for my late arrival. I blame the Government entirely for that: the train did not arrive on time.
I welcome the Minister to his new responsibilities. It is a delight to face him in Committee, and I wish him well. I shall not add to what was said by my hon. Friend the Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, but I am delighted that the Minister with responsibility for these issues is now in the Commons. I know from our exchanges with his predecessor that the Select Committee on Science and Technology enjoyed a warm and productive relationship with his Department.
I do not want to repeat a great deal of what my hon. Friend said, because I think that the Committee would become extremely irritated with that.
Mr. Jones: More, more!
Mr. Willis: The hon. Gentleman asks for more, but we shall try to rein ourselves in.
I welcome both these proposals, as they are eminently sensible. I shall deal first with the establishment of the Technology Strategy Board. It must be right, if we are spending some £3.4 billion in relation to basic science, that we then move on and ensure that we get the greatest return on that investment, and the greatest return is to ensure that we have good transational research and good knowledge transfer. The Technology Strategy Board has a good leader in Graham Spittle; he will lead the new board well. Obviously, in years to come, the proof will be in the pudding in terms of whether that change has made a significant difference.
With regard to the Science and Technology Facilities Council, or the STFC as it will become known, the proposal to bring together the PPARC, the CCLRC and aspects of the EPSRC makes eminent sense. I was pleased that the Minister rejected the proposals by the EPSRC to have the small grant-making body moved from the PPARC to the EPSRC, because that genuinely would be a mistake. Once we start to divide, in our minds, the large facilities from the small-scale research, we are missing a trick. It is important that we maintain the position. In particular, it was important to see nuclear physics and the Rutherford and Daresbury centres moved into the mainstream in terms of physics and particle physics. It is good to see that develop.
May I ask a specific question about the budget? It is clear, when looking at the explanatory notes, that the three aspects of the CCLRC, PPARC and EPSRC are aggregated to form the new budget, but I was somewhat surprised that we are not making any administrative savings as a result of putting those three organisations together. Although an explanatory note says that there will be more back-office staff, perhaps the Minister will explain why we are not making significant administrative savings as a result of putting those three parts of the organisation together so that we can release more funds for basic or transational research.
Dr. Harris: I am grateful for the opportunity to intervene on my hon. Friend to ask him—it is really a way of asking an extra question—whether he shares my concern, which has been raised by some, that the CCLRC enters next year in deficit. The concern is about what the impact will be on the overall budget, the grant-giving budget, rather than necessarily the administrative budget—
The Chairman: Order. Is the hon. Gentleman intervening on his hon. Friend? He is addressing the Minister.
Dr. Harris: No, I am asking my hon. Friend whether he agrees with me—I was looking to you, Mr. O’Hara—that it would be a concern if the new body was handicapped by a deficit carried in when it started, because of the likely deficit that I hear arises in the CCLRC budget.
Mr. Willis: I am sure that the Minister heard my hon. Friend’s comments and will respond in due course, but my hon. Friend knows that we await the new comprehensive spending review. I hope that the setting up of the new body will be the subject of a generous settlement in that review. Indeed, I am sure that the Minister will confirm in his closing remarks that that is the case.
The resources of the smaller facilities, such as the Merlin radio telescope, are tiny as compared with those of some of the major facilities, which the new STFC will look after. However, will the Minister assure the Committee that those important parts of the astronomy community will be protected? How do we propose to protect them against the huge calls on budget from the larger facilities? Also on budgets, does the Minister anticipate any changes in our subscriptions to the major facilities, particularly to the European Space Agency, from the space budget? Are any of those proposals up for grabs again and will any be re-examined? If they are, we need to know as soon as possible, so that those communities can get on with their work.
Overall, the proposals are superb. They make good sense and the science community is solidly behind them. I wish the Minister and the new facilities well.
5.11 pm
Malcolm Wicks: Although this has been a relatively short debate, it has been a useful one. I thank those who made generous remarks about my appointment. Lord Sainsbury was a fine and distinguished Minister for Science and Innovation, and I rather hope that in future the only difference between him and me will not simply be the fact that I sat in the House of Commons. I look forward to discussing the issues with colleagues in different arenas.
As is usual on such occasions, I hope that hon. Members will recognise that I may respond in writing to some of the points that were raised. The Liberal Democrat spokesman, the hon. Member for Oxford, West and Abingdon, raised a number of particularly thoughtful issues, on which I should like to reflect, rather than trying to respond to now, off the cuff. After his expression of thanks, the Conservative spokesman, the hon. Member for Wealden, continued somewhat mischievously with his concern that even members of the Labour party might sit on the board. The right people will be on the board and, strangely enough, they sometimes come from different parties. There will be people of experience and expertise. Some of the issues that the hon. Gentleman raised, such as climate change, will no doubt be of great importance tothe board. It is important that some of the board’s major priorities should reflect the concerns of the Government and Parliament, while retaining its independence as a research council.
Part of the funding for the Energy Technologies Institute is likely to be channelled through the new Technology Strategy Board, which confirms my earlier remarks about the importance of that area of policy.
I am sorry if I do not get some of the answers in the right order, but the Liberal Democrat spokesman asked a number of questions. In general, we are all committed to technology transfer and innovation. Although that is a challenge for a number of different bodies and parts of government, one of the major vehicles in achieving it in future will be through the new Technology Strategy Board, and that is in line with our concern about innovation. Funds will be allocated to the board in the normal way, depending on the comprehensive spending review. We hope that adequate funding will be provided, given the priority that we give to the matter. As I have said, one of the differences is the move from an advisory body to an executive body.
On the matter of the board being business led, the new chairman has a distinguished record in business through IBM, and many other members of the board will reflect that business background. A number of colleagues asked about conflicts of interest, which are an issue in all walks of life from Parliament to bodies such as those that we are establishing. Safeguards are in place for people to declare their interests as are procedures whereby people can absent themselves from making any decisions that might reflect their business interests. I would be loth to see people having to give up their business interests, because their business expertise is important.
Mr. Ellwood: These questions are not flippant; I appreciate the fact that the Minister is answering them. Let us take the example of the decisions that have been made about the Olympic games and the building of the various structures, which are happening in parallel with the creation of these bodies. A lot of questions have been raised both in the media and in the House about how the agreements and sign-ups have been done. The concern is to ensure that we do not end up going down that path in any way.
Malcolm Wicks: The Office of the Commissioner for Public Appointments has clear rules about such matters, given the importance of the concerns that the hon. Gentleman raises. In terms of declarations of interest, in the United Kingdom, we have probably one of the highest records of standards in that, but it is always important that we are probed on such issues so that any new board, such as that proposed, has the highest standards.
Mr. Jones: Does my hon. Friend also agree that it was a Labour Government who brought in the high standards that give transparency to such appointments, and that that was not given by the last Conservative Government?
Malcolm Wicks: My hon. Friend presses me hard on that issue, and the answer to that question is yes.
Dr. Harris: Before the Minister moves on from the subject of the body being business focused, as I sense that he was about to, I understand what he said about the body being business led because the chairman is a business man. However, given that he has described the board as business led, will he reassure us that the business-oriented people on the board will not say “Our decisions must be business led,” against the view of scientists and others on the board? Will he reassure us that the intention is not that, but rather that personnel on the board will have business experience?
Malcolm Wicks: It is important that the board should reflect a wide variety of concerns. Essentially, we are concerned that the science that we undertake in Britain—which is first class—should be properly transferred to the benefit of the whole economy and the whole society. I am approaching this task in a general way, and not in what the hon. Gentleman might regard as a narrow commercial manner. I am happy to enter into correspondence with him on the matter, preferably at a later date.
Dr. Harris: I am hoping to save the Minister from having to send correspondence on the issue. He described the body as business led, and an alternative would have been science led. Unless it is dually led, it cannot be both. The concern—and the talk—has been that it will be led by commercial interests, and that if there is a tough decision to be made, the board will come down on what business wants rather than what the science says. It would be helpful if he could clarify that point now because otherwise he may leave the impression, certainly with me, that business will always win those arguments on the board.
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Prepared 12 December 2006