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9 July 2007 : Column 1201

Hazel Blears: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman. Clearly his constituents have been through a pretty harrowing time following the explosion. When I went to Doncaster on Saturday, one of the things that left an impression on me was the fact that people were very reluctant to leave their homes. Many were seeking mobile homes that could be established in the local area, so that the community could stay together. The Toll Bar area has a strong community spirit, and people wanted to stay there. The impact of having to leave home is very significant indeed, particularly for elderly people.

The hon. Gentleman makes a point about loss adjusters. It is important for us to keep close to the insurance industry and to ensure that the builders who carry out the work are up to standard and reputable, that they complete work to the right standards and that it is properly checked and assessed. The hon. Gentleman made some extremely useful practical points. Perhaps he could let us have the benefit of his experience from his area.

Mr. Denis MacShane (Rotherham) (Lab): The European Union has a solidarity fund for natural disasters and floods from which up to £2 billion can be claimed for great events and from which much smaller sums can be claimed in the case of serious regional economic damage, which clearly applies to South Yorkshire and east Yorkshire. Why are the Government not accessing that fund?

Hazel Blears: My right hon. Friend will be pleased to know that we are looking at the matter urgently. There are specific criteria for accessing the European Union solidarity fund. As my right hon. Friend said, it is normally for major disasters such as volcanoes erupting and earthquakes. However, I assure him that, if there is any prospect of our making a claim and getting some resources for this country from the European Union, I shall pursue it with the utmost vigour.

Mr. Tobias Ellwood (Bournemouth, East) (Con): We rightly pay tribute to our emergency services, but the death of Mike Barnett near Hull was tragic. What is the Secretary of State doing to achieve better co-ordination between the services so that another tragic death of that magnitude does not occur? She has repeated time and again that the weather was unprecedented, but this is now the norm. Weather patterns are changing and we need to act appropriately. Surely it is better to take more preventive measures rather than wait until the event has happened. That needs to be done. We saw what happened in New Orleans when the United States was shown to be unprepared for a disaster. I believe that the same will happen here unless we take action now.

Hazel Blears: The whole House will want to extend its condolences to Mr. Barnett’s family about the terrible tragedy that happened. I think that I have already said that the emergency services that attended on that day found themselves in an especially harrowing situation. There will be a coroner’s inquest, which will look at the circumstances, and it would be inappropriate to jump to any conclusions about what happened.

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The hon. Gentleman says that we need better co-ordination. My experience has been that the police, the fire services, the ambulance service, the voluntary sector and business support organisations have come together as a result of recent events in a tremendous way. When he tries to say that they have not responded, he makes an unfair criticism. We have a system in this country of proper civil contingency preparation and we can be proud of it.

The hon. Gentleman also said that the climatic conditions are now the norm. Most organisations said that the weather was unprecedented: the amount of rain that fell in such a short time is the greatest since records began. That does not mean that it will not happen again—we must be prepared in future; prevention is better than cure—but the hon. Gentleman’s failure to recognise that the circumstances are pretty unique does not reflect reality.

Mr. Ian Cawsey (Brigg and Goole) (Lab): I was glad that my right hon. Friend acknowledged in her statement that the floods were not only in the big cities. There were several localised floods in my constituency. The numbers affected were not large but the floods were as traumatic for them as for anyone else, as I found when I met several victims over the weekend. Will my right hon. Friend ensure that we learn the lessons of maintenance? It appears to me that several incidents were caused by obstructions in the drainage system and a lack of clarity about which authority is in the lead—the Environment Agency, the local authority, the internal drainage board or the water company. Will she ensure that those parties work together in future so that whatever problems weather brings, co-ordinated and improved maintenance will lead to less flooding and fewer victims?

Hazel Blears: I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his support for the emergency services and for his constituents. I have no doubt that it is appreciated. He makes an important point about maintenance. Although the rainfall was unlike anything we had ever known, continuing maintenance is important. If the drains and the sewers are in good condition, they can absorb more water when it comes through. We will examine that matter to ensure that there is clarity about who is responsible and that good maintenance can contribute to better outcomes in the long term.

Chris Huhne (Eastleigh) (LD): It is clearly not just maintenance that requires good co-ordination. The Environment Agency is responsible for fluvial and coastal flooding, but floods are increasingly to do with drainage problems. Will the Secretary of State review the responsibility for flood prevention—including the responsibility that appears to rest on local authorities and that which rests on, for example, the privatised water companies—to ensure that drainage systems are adequate and that Ofwat, the industry regulator, allows the companies where necessary to proceed with investment, in order to ensure that there is not an enormous discrepancy between the capacity of a drainage system in one part of the country and another?

Hazel Blears: Yes, the drainage problem is important. I have no doubt that increasing urbanisation has impacts on our planning framework, which is why we have been
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looking at PPS25, to try to ensure that we properly manage the risks of building on floodplains and of the kind of developments that are taking place. It is one of the issues that we can pursue. My hon. Friend the Minister for Local Government is leading a group of Ministers across Government to ensure that we look at the issues. What is also important is that we learn the lessons from such events, and we absolutely mean to do that, so that we can best inform our policy for the future.

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Point of Order

4.26 pm

Mr. Mark Prisk (Hertford and Stortford) (Con): On a point of order, Mr. Speaker. More than 10 days ago, the new Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform was created and Ministers were appointed. However, 10 days since that Department was created and those Ministers were appointed, I and other hon. Members have been told in response to our inquiries that not only does the Department not know individual Ministers’ responsibilities, but that it cannot say when it will be able to inform us of those facts. In the light of important and pressing issues to do with energy, international trade and, indeed, small businesses that face flooding, as we have just heard, could you use your offices to press the Secretary of State for that Department and have that information made available to us, so that we can put our points to those Ministers? It cannot be right that that Department can be allowed to drift on in this way.

Mr. Speaker: I am sorry that I cannot help the hon. Gentleman, but what I say is this: answers to parliamentary questions are a matter for Ministers. The hon. Gentleman should persevere and keep questioning the Minister concerned, both at oral questions and through written questions. Also, the hon. Gentleman has the opportunity to raise an Adjournment debate. There is another thing that we need to have in this House of ours, and that is patience. I ask him to have patience.

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3rd Allotted Day

ESTIMATES, 2007-08

Department of Trade and Industry

[Relevant documents: Seventh Report from the Science and Technology Committee, Session 2005-06, HC 900, Scientific Advice, Risk and Evidence Based Policy Making, and the Government response thereto, First Special Report, Session 2006-07, H C 307. ]

This Estimate is to be considered in so far as it relates to scientific advice, risk and evidence-based policy making (Resolution of 2nd July).

Motion made, and Question proposed,

4.28 pm

Mr. Phil Willis (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (LD): May I begin by welcoming the Minister of State, Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, the hon. Member for Dudley, South (Ian Pearson), to his new position? I wish him every success in what promises to be a challenging time for the science community.

I should also like to put on record my support for the new Department of Innovation, Universities and Skills, or DIUS. The move to bring together our universities, research communities and the Office of Science and Innovation, underpinned by the emphasis on the development of skills, makes good sense and puts science and scientific method right at the heart of the new political agenda. As ever, the devil will be in the detail; but given the widespread support from the scientific community for the new Department, it would be disappointing if between us we could not make it work effectively.

I should also like to put on record the appreciation of the Select Committee on Science and Technology, which I chair, of the work of the Office of Science and Innovation. We had an excellent relationship with the OSI during its time within the Department of Trade and Industry. We have greatly valued the support that we have received from Sir David King, the Government’s chief scientific advisor, and Sir Keith O’Nions, the director general of the OSI. It is perhaps a testimony to the success of Sir David King, Sir Keith O’Nions and the OSI that science is now at the heart of a new Government Department.

I have two initial concerns, however, and I am sure that other hon. Members will expand on these themes. The first relates to the fact that the word “science” does not appear in the title of the new Department. The widely held view in the science community that this is a
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significant omission was summed up by the president of the Royal Society, Lord Rees, who said:

Indeed, there is concern that the new Department will be dominated by the university agenda, including the inevitable political battles over student fees, and that the focus on science and innovation may be diminished. I trust that the Minister will have time in his closing remarks today to assure the House that science will be the key driving force for his role and for the Department as a whole.

My second concern is about the future of parliamentary scrutiny of science. Alone among Select Committees, the Science and Technology Committee has a dual role, for departmental and cross-government scrutiny of science, yet it appears that although departmental scrutiny may be accommodated within a DIUS Select Committee, the important scrutiny of science across government will disappear.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton) (Con): I am slightly confused. The hon. Gentleman began by welcoming the new Department, yet his subsequent remarks have raised the same doubts that I have—namely, that science will be relegated under the new system. Indeed, I think he is about to make the point that this could mean the end of the Science and Technology Committee. I would share his great dismay, if that were to be so.

Mr. Willis: Given that the new Department was set up only last week, it behoves all of us to have a little patience while we see how the Minister and the Secretary of State approach the issue of science. I tried to make it clear earlier that it must be right to bring together the research councils, the universities, the Department and the Leitch skills agenda. I am sure that the hon. Gentleman and I share the views expressed in that agenda. I am disappointed that “science” is not in the title of the Department because this does not reflect the central position that the Prime Minister, when still the Chancellor of the Exchequer, gave to science when he devoted two Budgets to it.

On my second issue, scrutiny is extremely important. The hon. Members for Bolton, South-East (Dr. Iddon) and for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) are in their places today. There is no doubt that they—along with other members of the Select Committee who have served for a long time and been strong devotees of science, together with many members of the scientific community, including the Royal Society of Chemistry and the Royal Society—feel that the scrutiny of science is crucial for moving forward. I hope that the Minister will be able to give us his thoughts on that later.

The main focus of today’s debate is the report of the Science and Technology Committee’s report on scientific advice, risk and evidence-based policy making, as part of our consideration of the estimate relating to the trans-departmental science group within the Department of Trade and Industry, headed by the Government’s chief scientific adviser. This is slightly redundant because the DTI is no longer. The structures of government may have changed, but the relevance of our report is by no means diminished.

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Scientific advice and risk management play a key role in policy making. Indeed, many of today’s most high profile policy issues are critically dependent on the input of scientists. Those issues include: securing the economic development of the UK through the knowledge economy; protecting the population of the country against avian influenza and other epidemics; mitigating and adapting to climate change; safeguarding the UK’s energy supply; detecting and averting terrorist threats; and tackling obesity. In each case, effective policy development requires both an effective scientific advisory system and the appropriate use of evidence and advice on science by the Government.

Bill Wiggin (Leominster) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman agree that in order to qualify the science, particularly on avian influenza, it would have been really helpful if the Government had had a proper investigation into how the Hungarian strain of avian influenza arrived in East Anglia?

Mr. Willis: I thank the hon. Gentleman for his intervention. On two occasions, the Science and Technology Committee—and, indeed, other Select Committees—have looked into the Government’s preparedness for avian flu and its arrival in the UK. When we met the Government’s chief scientific adviser, we were certainly satisfied that appropriate policies were being put in place to ensure that we remained ahead of the game. I do not believe that the position has changed significantly since then. What we are at times trying to do is avoid scaremongering over what are, quite frankly, small and isolated outbreaks. The efforts made at the Bernard Matthews farms were excellently handled by all the relevant agencies.

Angela Browning (Tiverton and Honiton) (Con): Does the hon. Gentleman share my concern that, however good the science and however much it is evidence based—it is right that that sort of science should influence Government policy and the legislation that comes before the House—we sometimes see trigger words being used and subjects falling prey to the tabloid press through lack of understanding? That problem is holding us back from delivering scientific advances that could benefit so many people, not just in this country but around the world.

Mr. Willis: The hon. Lady makes a wholly valid point. I pay tribute to organisations such as Sense about Science, which try to bring about a good public understanding of science. I shall return to the point in some of my later remarks, but what happened over MMR—measles, mumps and rubella vaccinations—or genetically modified crops, for example, was media-led. The Government and Government agencies did not take a sufficiently strong scientific lead, but left it to the media. I believe that that is a genuinely important task for the Government and, quite frankly, we need to spend a great deal more time applying our efforts in that regard.

Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston) (Lab): I congratulate the Chairman of the Science and Technology Committee on his work. I was particularly interested in
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paragraph 67 of the section of the report dealing with risk and communications, which states:

That is indeed correct, but does the hon. Gentleman agree—if I may take him back to his previous occupation—that we need to do some of that work in the classroom in order to get a better understanding of risk throughout society?

Mr. Willis: The hon. Gentleman makes two excellent points. In respect of departmental chief scientific advisers, it was largely as a result of the work of the previous Select Committee under the chairmanship of the hon. Member for Norwich, North that the expansion of departmental CSAs became a major thrust for the Government. What we say in our report—the hon. Gentleman has picked up the relevant paragraph—is that if the departmental CSAs are to be effective, they must have an independent voice. That is so important when it comes to communicating science.

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to mention what happens in our schools. When it comes to the calculation of risk, our society is incredibly bad at it. It is important that we get realistic risk management in schools. If I may digress a little, my wife took a group of children to the Twenty20 cricket at Headingley last week and I helped her fill in the risk assessment forms. Quite frankly, it was like writing a thesis—just to take a group of school children in a bus to watch a game of cricket. Apart from analysing the bus chassis and establishing whether it was roadworthy, virtually every other conceivable question had to be answered. We have to get away from that and have proper assessment of risk—but I digress.

We need to ensure that there is an emphasis in the new Department on improving the use of scientific advice, management and risk assessment in the use of evidence to support policy. There are, of course, many different ways in which scientific advice reaches policy makers—whether it be through formal scientific advisory committees, departmental chief scientific advisers, the Council for Science and Technology, or scientists and engineers within the civil service.

Since 1992, numerous measures have been introduced to ensure that scientific advice reaches policy makers and is then used appropriately. In 1997 Sir Robert, now Lord, May produced guidelines on the use of scientific advice in policy making, updated recently by the Government’s current chief scientific adviser, Sir David King. In 2001 the Government issued a code of practice for scientific advisory committees, and I am pleased that they have accepted our recommendation that it too should also be updated.

We note that the Government issued a consultation on the code on 25 June, and we are pleased to see that the new code addresses our concerns about monitoring of scientific advisory committees. However, it does not state the Government’s position on lay membership of such committees, an issue about which our Committee was particularly vexed. Given that it was an area of disagreement between the Committee and the Government, I should be interested to hear from the Minister what the code will say about lay members.

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