The work of the Committee in 2007-08 - Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee Contents


4  Relations with the Government

45. Over the Session we have had a broadly productive and positive relationship with DIUS. The machinery of government changes that created the department inevitably caused some disruption and we were sometimes not notified in advance of the publication of departmental documents. However, active efforts to solve such teething difficulties are in progress. The Department has consistently provided memoranda and responses to our Reports within the requested timeframe, a particular challenge as some Government memoranda have included input from multiple departments and agencies; eight in the case of our inquiry into biosecurity in UK research laboratories.[35]

46. Unfortunately, there have been occasions on which the Department has, in our view, been less than fully co-operative. Despite an explicit request the Government failed to provide us with a written memorandum for the inquiry into the withdrawal of funding for ELQs. Following publication of our Report, which highlighted this, the Government Response made a commitment to do so in future, hopefully resolving the issue.[36]

47. More serious was an exchange of letters following the publication of the Government Response to our inquiry into Science Budget Allocations. The tone of the Response was not constructive and we wrote to DIUS setting out our concerns.[37] However, we feel that the Department, and the Secretary of State himself, failed to engage fully with the Committee, when he stated that:

rather than entering into a detailed correspondence with the Committee on matters about which we are not in agreement, I would prefer to let the Government's response stand. [38]

48. If we accepted this view, we would be unable to fulfil our core task of following up our inquiries, and we hope that this high-handed approach will not be repeated.
"The role of the Committee in scrutinising the application of science and evidence across Government has assumed new importance, especially since the commitment of the Government to evidence-based policy making—previously commendable—has recently come under question. In the last year we have seen:
  • The Home Office deciding to re-classify cannabis as Class B against the explicit advice of its expert advisers;

  • the criticism by the Chair of the UK Statistics Authority of Downing Street advisers over knife crime figures;

  • a statement in the response by the Government to the Science and Technology Committee Report on Scientific Developments Relating to the Abortion Act 1967 being described as 'thoroughly embarrassing' and 'quite unacceptable' by the then Government Chief Scientific Adviser."

Dr Evan Harris MP

49. There were also some problems during our scrutiny of the Draft Apprenticeships Bill, when we were given little notice of the timing of publication. These issues, and some other points about the quality of the information we were given, are set out in detail in our Report on Pre-Legislative Scrutiny of the Draft Apprenticeships Bill. [39]

50. In taking evidence for our inquiry into the Departmental Annual Report, we asked to see all of the DIUS Ministers in turn, appearing together with the Secretary of State in one session. The Secretary of State instead appeared with only the Permanent Secretary, Ian Watmore. We were disappointed that this request, which we considered to be reasonable, was refused.

51. The former Science and Technology Committee held a regular Science Question Time session with Lord Sainsbury when he was Minister for Science given that his membership of the House of Lords denied MPs the opportunity to question him in the House of Commons.[40] This practice continued when Malcolm Wicks MP was Minister for Science but ceased when his successor, Ian Pearson MP, took the post. The appointment of Lord Drayson as Minister for Science is an opportunity to revive this most useful scrutiny opportunity, we are delighted that Lord Drayson has agreed to take up the challenge, and we expect the first Science Question Time to take place in January 2009.


35   Ev 51, para 1.10 Back

36   Sixth Special Report from the Committee, Session 2007-08, Withdrawal of funding for equivalent or lower level qualifications (ELQs): Government Response to the Third Report from the Committee, HC 638 Back

37   Ev 9 Back

38   Ev 11 Back

39   Seventh Report of the Committee, Session 2007-08, HC 1062-I Back

40   Science and Technology Committee, Fourth Report of Session 2003-04, The Office of Science and Technology; Scrutiny Report 2003, HC 316, Q 77 Back


 
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