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15 Dec 2009 : Column 221WHcontinued
Most of the changes I have mentioned have been welcomed, although some more than others. Last night we were here from 10.20 pm to 11.20 pm, setting up the London Regional Select Committee. That took a little while, but those innovations are important.
As hon. Members know, events this year related to the crisis surrounding hon. Members' use of allowances have created a pressure for reform of the system, but more generally too, and that is mentioned in the Committee's report. On 10 June, as hon. Members have mentioned, the Prime Minister said that he was happy to support the proposal from my hon. Friend the Member for Cannock Chase (Dr. Wright) to chair that special commission, as we called it then, to advise on the processes that the Committee took forward.
The Committee reported three weeks ago. It recognises that its report contains conclusions and recommendations that are directed not at the Government, but at the House, Ministers and Back Benchers alike. The Committee said that it expects a Government reply on some points, and that it would be due around the end of January. The Committee also said that it expects a debate. The Leader of the House has said that the Government intend to make time for a debate on the important matters we have debated today, and she reaffirmed that at business questions last week. I cannot add more detail to that, but I expect her to announce a date in the usual way. I take on board the point made by the hon. Member for North-West Cambridgeshire about ministerial statements being made on the day. The Leader of the House said she would try to make sure that that did not happen.
Returning to the report, as my hon. Friend the Member for Reading, West said, the appointment of Deputy Speakers was considered by the Procedure Committee, and we will respond on that debate too at the same time as discussing the other matters I have mentioned.
The report of the Reform Committee touches, importantly, on areas in which further work is needed, such as the Liaison Committee's re-examining the current role of Select Committees. We have heard a great deal in this debate about the role of Select Committees. The task of looking again at them may tie into the concerns expressed by my hon. Friend the Member for North-East Derbyshire. There has been strong support voiced in a number of contributions about changing the way the House appoints the members and Chairs of Select Committees, but an important difference was expressed by my hon. Friend, who said that, although we accept that Select Committees work well, we need to consider what we are proposing. As she said, secret ballots of the whole House may not work. The Government could, with a majority, foist their choice of Select Committee Chairs on the House. That needs thinking about. My hon. Friend also asked how such ballots would get a gender and geographical balance and a mix of levels of experience. That deserves detailed consideration. As we have mentioned previously, there will probably be a large number of brand new MPs in the 2010 intake. We need to consider how a ballot would work with a large number of new people.
In the less than one minute remaining, could my hon. Friend be crystal clear with hon. Members from all parties and the House itself and say whether there will be a substantive motion on the report that the
Reform Committee has put forward at some time, and will she tell us when that will be? That is why we have had this debate, and that is the question that virtually every hon. Member who has spoken has raised with her. Will she make that clear so there is no misunderstanding?
Barbara Keeley: I have to say that I disagree. I do not think that is why we have had the debate today. We have had this debate because there is a continuing process of debate. We have opened a debate that will continue into the new year. I have already mentioned that I cannot-
Mr. Jim Hood (in the Chair): Order.
Dr. Vincent Cable (Twickenham) (LD): It is a privilege to have the opportunity to introduce this short debate on science funding. The matter has come to light in the past week with the announcement that the Government will try to trim £600 million from their budget for higher education and science. I am sure that they will be deluged with proposals from other Members of Parliament to discuss how that will affect their constituencies. I have already seen some strong statements on the bigger picture from the Royal Society, the Royal Society of Chemistry, and other bodies. We have only half an hour, so I shall not deal with that big picture; I want to deal with one specific and narrow aspect, which is how the Government's funding proposals affect one institution-the National Physical Laboratory in my constituency.
I shall develop significance of the laboratory in the wider science community. It has approximately 350 of the country's leading scientists-predominantly physicists and mathematicians-and it is the cornerstone of the Government's activity in national measurement. It faces a short-term proposal to remove 10 per cent. of its budget, which Prospect, the trade union representing most of the professional scientists, estimates could involve about 40 professional scientists having to go from core programmes. That may be premature, because we do not yet know how many people will be involved, but the cut in financial and human terms will be substantial, both in an extremely important institution for British science, and for Teddington in my constituency.
First, I shall explain a little of the background to show why the matter is important and why it merits special attention. Measurement science is not dramatic or headline-grabbing, but it is at the heart of scientific work. This country has four significant laboratories specialising in different sorts of measurement work, and three happen to be on the same campus in my constituency. They are the National Physical Laboratory, the laboratory of the Government Chemist, which is now part of a privatised unit specialising in chemistry research, and the National Weights and Measures Laboratory. In terms of resources, the National Physical Laboratory accounts for approximately 80 per cent. of national measurement activity. That is crucial, because any applied science, whether for scientific research or industrial purposes, must have a measurement base, whether that involves distance, time, heat or the measurements required by new sciences such as nanotechnology and bioscience. The concept of Greenwich mean time, for example, is actually Teddington mean time, because the laboratory containing the atomic clocks that determine the basic standard of time is there. Measurement is at the core of applied science which, along with engineering, would not exist without a measurement base, and that is what the laboratory provides. It develops and improves measurement techniques, and derives new systems of measurement for new problems, one of which is carbon. Carbon trading must be based on a common denominator of measurement.
Secondly, although the National Physical Laboratory is a national institution, it is part of a global network of institutions, and a leading international institution in
the measurement of science, or metrology. There are comparable institutions in the United States, including the National Institute for Standards and Technologies, and Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt in Germany, but the National Physical Laboratory is recognised as being the leading institution, or certainly among the leading handful of globally important institutions. Those institutions collaborate but also compete, and the laboratories will say that at the very time at which we are embarking on a process of cuts, NIST and PTB should have a massive infusion of resources, because their Governments recognise that if their applied science effort is to improve and expand they must have a strong base for measurement science.
Thirdly, we can all argue for more money to be spent on science. As someone who started his adult life with scientific training at university, I believe in science. However, as the Minister will say, there is infinite demand, and resources are limited, so there must be a return for society. The National Physical Laboratory's work and our national effort on measurement generally is striking in its benefit-to-cost ratio. A departmental report from the National Measurement Office, published by the then Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills says that every
"additional £6 million spent by Government on measurement technology would deliver up to £410 million of economic impact annually."
Most commercial organisations would die to have such a return with every pound producing £60 of return for society. That is an extraordinary benefit. Grossing up the figures and applying them to the laboratory as a whole, as the laboratory's director did in his presentation to the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, shows that about £75 million a year, of which £50 million comes from the Government generates £2 billion a year of economic value. That is an extraordinary multiplier.
At the heart of the controversy is the fact that, despite that extraordinary benefit, which the Government themselves have estimated-it is not a self-serving estimate by the people involved-it has been proposed that instead of adding £6 million to generate that benefit, £6 million will be taken away. Two conclusions may be drawn. Perhaps there is something wrong with the Government's measurement, and perhaps the benefits are not real and something is wrong with the calculation. That is possible-I do not know how they arrived at their numbers-but if they are right, an extraordinarily damaging decision is being contemplated. One of those propositions must be true, and I hope that the Minister will address it when he responds.
That is the context, but I want to take the argument on by stressing that I want a positive outcome. I am not here to make debating points, to lecture the Government, or to apportion blame. That is not the spirit of this debate, and I want to make several specific points. First, I accept that Government spending must be cut, almost certainly in the Minister's Department. I am not for one minute suggesting that that can be avoided-and I have been outspoken in my capacity as a party spokesman in saying that we must be realistic in facing up to the need for cuts-but the issue is how it is to be done. What is particularly worrying is how the process is being managed. It is worth quoting Brian Bowsher, director of the National Physical Laboratory, who said in his evidence to the House of Lords that
"our links with our immediate...BIS colleagues I think are very positive in terms of how we structure the programme. What I am concerned about though is that by the time it gets to them it is difficult to see the evidence base for the reductions and it tends to be, 'We will take ten per cent off everyone'."
That "10 per cent. off everyone" approach by the Department towards the cuts is seriously worrying.
Let me reinforce what I said earlier. I fully accept that there must be discipline in public spending, and that there will almost certainly be cuts. However, that must be done rationally and as far as I can establish, at the moment we have a "10 per cent. off everything" approach, which is not efficient, either economically or administratively.
Mr. Edward Vaizey (Wantage) (Con): Some of my constituents work at the National Physical Laboratory, and there are a number of important scientific establishments in my constituency, which is why I am interested in the points raised by the hon. Gentleman. Does he agree that the science budget has not been well handled for a number of years? We faced a crisis last year with compulsory redundancies because of the way in which the Science and Technology Facilities Council handled its negotiations with what was the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills, and is now the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills.
Dr. Cable: I accept what the hon. Gentleman says-there is probably a systemic problem. The Department might have been good at administering expansion, but it is not good at administering contraction. There does not appear to be a rational, systematic way of making choices, which goes to the heart of what I want to say.
I accept that we are dealing with a financially austere environment, but the issue is about how it is managed. I am not suggesting that my constituency-or the institutions in it-be spared from economies made across the country. It would be easy to say, "Not in my backyard; deal with the problem somewhere else." I recognise that there are 160 Government science laboratories, and they must all be treated fairly and be subject to the same systematic form of assessment.
I have not come here to attack the Government for their handling of science. Over the past decade, a lot of investment has gone into science. There have been good Science Ministers, such as Lord Sainsbury and Lord Drayson, who are very committed to science and are knowledgeable about the subject. I know that the Prime Minister takes a personal interest in boosting science, as does the Secretary of State. However, having built up a reputation for being pro-science, there is a serious danger of the Government blowing that reputation if this more difficult phase is badly handled.
I am not here to attack the Department either. The director of the National Physical Laboratory has gone out of his way to point out that its relationship with the Department has generally been good and productive. I can attest to that, as some years ago there was a difficult process of managing the private finance initiative project that rebuilt the laboratory. It was handled sensitively and came to a successful conclusion. It is more worrying that in a very difficult environment, the process is not being carefully managed, and we have across-the-board cuts without any attempt to prioritise and establish costs and benefits.
I would like the Minister to provide some reassurance that a proper process is being established to look at how a more difficult resource environment can be managed. At some point, a process must be established that asks what things are in the science budget that cannot be dealt with by the private sector-if the private sector will do them, there is no need for the Government to do them. However, almost by definition, measurement science for the most part cannot be dealt with by the private sector. If we go back to mediaeval times, long before Governments accepted the need to provide roads, let alone schools and hospitals, a basic function of government was to provide a common or standard system of weights and measures. Providing that basic public good is basic government, and it cannot simply be shifted on to the private sector.
The things that survive and are given priority will presumably be those that produce the highest returns to society. I have quoted figures from the Minister's Department which suggest that this area is very productive, and surely that should be the rational basis on which decisions are made. When establishing priorities, it is clear that some activities must be focused on the things that will matter in the future-the whole carbon economy problem is obviously at the centre of the Government's priorities. I worry that as a result of the cuts, the critical mass needed in British measurement for dealing with the carbon economy might not be there.
My question to the Minister is this: has the Department got a method? Has it got a system of risk assessment? There is no need to rush into these cuts. The Government agree with my party that although we will have to economise substantially on public spending, we should not rush to do so during a recession-that would be the worst thing to do. It would be better to act in a measured way and establish a proper system for assessing risk and costs and benefits. I am pressing the Government to indicate how they will do that.
At the same time as announcing cuts, the Government have announced increases in spending in something called a strategic investment fund. I think that £200 million has been allocated to that, and I am sure that it is a desirable thing to do. However, who decided which money goes into the expanding field and which money is taken out of other scientific institutions? Is there a basis for calculating such things? I notice that technology for video games is included in the list of activities funded by the strategic investment fund. I do not want to be snobbish; I am sure that video games could usefully benefit from improved technology as much as anything else. However, who has decided that £3.5 million invested in video game technology is more valuable than £3.5 million invested in measurement science? There must be a system for doing such things systematically.
To conclude, and to give the Minister a proper opportunity to reply, I have not come here to launch a tirade against the principle of cuts, or to lecture the Government on their poor performance in science, because in general they have been very pro-science. I want to make two simple points. First, I want an assurance from the Minister that a proper, rigorous, deliberate process will be set in train to decide how the cuts in the Department will be made, and that they will not be made on a
scattergun basis or on the basis of "10 per cent. off everything". We need a proper, rigorous process for evaluating this.
On a more personal level, I hope that it will be possible to pursue these issues in more detail with the Minister for Science and Innovation. Perhaps, as the icing on the cake, we could persuade the Secretary of State to come to the laboratories in Teddington, which is just down the road from Westminster. He would be extremely welcome, and I am sure that he would learn a great deal.
The Minister for Higher Education and Intellectual Property (Mr. David Lammy): Let me begin by congratulating the hon. Member for Twickenham (Dr. Cable) on securing the debate, and thanking him for the manner in which he made his contribution. He is known to the general public as his party's Treasury spokesman, and once again he has demonstrated his sound grasp of finance issues. He also has a long-standing interest and background in science, and today he has been able to combine the two and we are grateful for that. In spite of the difficulties experienced at the National Physical Laboratory, I hope that the hon. Gentleman will allow me to present the context in which we are having this debate-the position of science in wider society, and what the Government have been attempting to do.
The Government inherited a UK science base in chronic decline, thanks to a sustained period of underfunding. Not only was there a shortfall in recurrent public funding of science, but the science facilities in our universities and research institutions were, in some cases, literally crumbling and falling behind those of many of our competitors. We still had great scientists, but many of the best found that they could fulfil their potential to make new discoveries only by joining the brain drain of scientists leaving our shores and going to other countries. In addition, the next generation of British scientists coming up through our schools was being short-changed, because the numbers of specialist science teachers were falling dramatically across the country.
There was a widespread feeling that the problem was too big to tackle; indeed, there was an effective campaign at the time called Save British Science. However, we came to office and we tackled the problem. The Government have invested in science and research, and that investment has risen year on year. It has risen dramatically, and by next year will be double in real terms what it was in 1997. Equally importantly, the science and research budget remains ring-fenced-protected-to ensure that the money voted by Parliament for science and research is allocated to support science and research.
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