The Work of the Committee 2008-09 - Science and Technology Committee Contents

 
 

 
1  Introduction


Re-establishment of the Science and Technology Committee

1.  The Science and Technology Committee was re-established by the House of Commons on 1 October 2009 following machinery of Government changes reorganising departments within Whitehall. On 5 June 2009 the Government announced the merger of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS) and the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR), to create the new Department for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) under the leadership of Lord Mandelson.

2.  As select committees established under Standing Order No. 152 mirror the structure of government departments it was expected that the Government would bring forward changes to that Standing Order to establish a single Business, Innovation and Skills Committee. We, then as members of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, firmly believed that the opportunity should be taken to reconsider the need for a separate science scrutiny committee and we accordingly produced a special report, The future of science scrutiny following the merger of DIUS and BERR on 12 June 2009.[1] We pointed out that when the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee had been established, following an earlier machinery of Government change in 2007, it had supplanted the Science and Technology Committee in the face of opposition from members of that Committee and the scientific community.[2] The former Science and Technology Committee's Last Report noted the legacy of dedicated science scrutiny within the House:

The House of Commons first established a Science and Technology Select Committee in 1966 in order 'to consider science and technology and report thereon'. This Committee existed for the duration of the 1966-1971 Parliament and was reappointed in 1971 and 1974. The Committee was abolished in 1979 when the departmental select committee structure was established. A similar Committee, with a remit more closely mirroring that of a departmental committee, was established in July 1992 and has remained ever since. The current Science and Technology Committee was appointed on 19 July 2005.[3]

And the Report concluded:

Given the Government's focus on evidence-based policy-making and the wide consensus on the value of science in our society, we believe that this would be the wrong time to downgrade or reduce the scrutiny of cross-cutting science issues within Parliament. The strong view amongst the science community is that such scrutiny is best carried out by a select committee with a clear identity and a clear mission. Given the House's decision to replace the Science and Technology Committee with a departmental select committee, we hope that the new Innovation, Universities and Skills Committee will have the authority to work across Government rather than within the narrow confines of a single department. We believe that in the long term a separate Science and Technology Committee is the only way to guarantee a permanent focus on science across Government within the select committee system. We recommend that the House be given an opportunity to revisit the question of science scrutiny in the Commons at the end of session 2007-08.[4]

3.  Reflecting on our experience after nearly two years as members of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee we pointed out in the June 2009 Special Report that:

Despite the dedication of our core membership—we were the third most frequently meeting Committee in the 2007-08 session—it has proved difficult to balance the scrutiny of the expenditure, administration and policy of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills with the demands of examining the use of science across government.

Looking forward, attempting to do this same balancing act with an even larger department which also covers business, enterprise and regulation will prove impossible for the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee.[5]

We also made the point that:

And there could not be a worse time to reduce scrutiny of science and engineering. We have been told repeatedly during the last 12 months that exploitation of the UK's science base could be the route for recovery for the UK economy.[6]

4.  We are pleased that the Government listened to our advice and with the significant support from scientific organisations brought forward proposals which the House agreed on 25 June 2009 to re-establish a Science and Technology Committee. In moving changes to the House's Standing Orders the Parliamentary Secretary at the Office of the Leader of the House of Commons, Barbara Keeley, said that the Leader of the House had received a letter in support of the proposal from the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee to re-establish a Science and Technology Committee

from the chief executives of the Royal Society of Chemistry, the Institute of Physics, the Institute of Biology and the Royal Academy of Engineering and from the executive secretary of the Royal Society. I am pleased to say that the Government accept the Committee's recommendation. The motion provides for the re-establishment of a Science and Technology Committee as part of the family of departmental Select Committees and it has a remit to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the Government Office for Science.[7]

5.  On the Science and Technology Committee's remit, Ms Keeley explained:

The motion [...] reflect[s] the position between 1992 and 2007, when the Science and Technology Committee was appointed to examine the work of the Office of Science and Technology, part of the old Department for Trade and Industry. The role of the Government Office for Science is somewhat narrower than that of the old Office of Science and Technology. Although the interpretation of the Committee's terms of reference is a matter for the Committee itself, the Government hope that it will take a wide-ranging approach to its remit, examining the full scope of science policy and related matters across the Government. That approach certainly worked well for the old Committee, which conducted inquiries into subjects as diverse as evidence-based policy making, classification of illegal drugs, regulation of hybrid embryos and the work of the research councils.

There is an argument for establishing an explicitly cross-cutting Committee with its own Standing Order to examine such issues, and we are sympathetic to that idea, but at this stage in the Parliament, the new Committees can be expected to run for only seven months from October, so we think it right for us to revert to the old status quo, retaining the existing membership and chairmanship of the two Committees, but changing their titles and terms of reference.[8]
I welcome the transformation of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Select Committee back into the Science and Technology (S&T) Select Committee. Our previous role was just too big and Members found it hard to meet two days every week. In particular I welcome the fact that the S&T Committee will be able once again to scrutinise the use of science (let's not forget engineering) across government departments and agencies.

In the past year the work that our Committee has done on engineering seems to have been welcomed all round. We have focussed on plastic electronics, nuclear engineering and geoengineering. Our most controversial report in the past year appears to have been 'Students and Universities', which appears to have touched some raw nerves.

I would question the value of the so-called pre-appointment hearings that it has become fashionable for Select Committees to hold. It seems to me that the horse has already bolted by the time the committees hold these sessions.

A number of Members of the present Committee will retire from Parliament at the next General Election, and I hope that the huge new intake will keep the flame of the Committee alive in the next Parliament.

Dr Brian Iddon MP  

SCOPE OF THIS REPORT

6.  Under the arrangements agreed by the House, the Science and Technology Committee was established on 1 October 2009 with the same membership and Chairman as the former Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee and that Committee's proceedings were deemed to have been in respect of the Science and Technology Committee—so that, in effect, there has been one continuous committee. This report therefore covers the work of both the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee (to 1 October) and the Science and Technology Committee (from 1 October) in the 2008-09 session.

7.  The Innovation, Universities and Skills Committee was nominated on 8 November 2007 having been established as a consequence of earlier machinery of Government changes announced in June 2007 which created DIUS. The House of Commons agreed on 11 March 2008 to include the word 'Science' in the Committee's name. The Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee examined the expenditure, administration and policy of DIUS, which as a result of the machinery of Government change in June 2009 became part of BIS, which is now scrutinised by our sister committee, the Business, Innovation and Skills Committee. As noted, the Science and Technology Committee is appointed by the House of Commons to examine the expenditure, administration and policy of the Government Office for Science, and our interpretation of this remit, as the minister indicated, is to examine the full scope of science policy and related matters across the Government.

THE ANNUAL RETURN

8.  During the 2008-09 session we held 41 Committee meetings and five Sub-Committee meetings and took oral evidence on 25 occasions. We published eleven reports and over and above the evidence for these inquiries also held six separate oral evidence hearings.

  • Table 1 shows the relationship of our inquiries and evidence sessions to the objectives and core tasks set for select committees by the Liaison Committee (set out in Box 1).
  • Table 2 records the status of our inquiries at November 2009.
  • Table 3 shows the visits we have made both in the UK and abroad.

The Sessional Return, giving more details and setting out the details of the Committees' activities in the 2008-09 session, is annexed to this Report as Annex 1.

MEMBERSHIP OF THE COMMITTEE

9.  We must add a word of caution about the figures on attendance in Annex 1. We put on record when we reported on our work in 2008-09 the fact that we had had problems during the year with Members leaving the Committee and not being replaced.[9] This problem has worsened during 2008-09. We now have six Members who want to leave the Committee as well as one vacancy caused when Dr Ian Gibson left the House. In our view, it is understandable that with the change in our remit some Members may wish to move to other committees. We now stand at seven active members, that is just half of our membership of 14 provided in the Standing Orders. These seven are carrying the burden of the work of the Committee.

10.  The arrangements for discharging Members are primarily in the hands of the party whips and, in practice, do not allow a Member to be discharged without nomination of a replacement. Despite making representations to the Government and Official Opposition whips, we regret that it has not been possible to date to find Members willing to join the Committee at this stage in the Parliament. The consequence is that several Members have to all intents and purposes have left the Committee: Dr Roberta Blackman-Woods is a Parliamentary Private Secretary to a minister at BIS; Mrs Nadine Dorries is a member of the Energy and Climate Change Committee; Bob Spink, who joined the Committee as a Conservative and now sits as an independent, has indicated that he does not wish to continue as a member of the Committee; Dr Desmond Turner is a member of the Energy and Climate Change Committee; and Mr Rob Wilson is now an Opposition Whip. Some of these Members have been criticised in the press—unfairly, we believe—for poor attendance. This state of affairs has also skewed the overall attendance figure in Annex 1, which, if those who had "resigned" were removed, would be around 70% rather than 45%. We consider that the House needs to examine arrangements which would allow Members to resign from select committees.

Core tasks and objectives (Box 1)
OBJECTIVE A: To examine and comment on the policy of the department

Task 1: To examine policy proposals from the UK Government and the European Commission in Green Papers, White Papers, draft Guidance etc, and to inquire further where the Committee considers it appropriate

Task 2: To identify and examine areas of emerging policy, or where existing policy is deficient, and make proposals

Task 3: To conduct scrutiny of any published draft bill within the Committee's responsibilities

Task 4: To examine specific output from the department expressed in documents or other decisions

OBJECTIVE B : To examine the expenditure of the department

Task 5: To examine the expenditure plans and out-turn of the department, its agencies and principal NDPBs

OBJECTIVE C : To examine the administration of the department

Task 6: To examine the department's Public Service Agreements, the associated targets and the statistical measurements employed, and report if appropriate

Task 7: To monitor the work of the department's Executive Agencies, NDPBs, regulators and other associated public bodies

Task 8: To scrutinise major appointments made by the department

Task 9: To examine the implementation of legislation and major policy initiatives

OBJECTIVE D: To assist the House in debate and decision

Task 10: To produce Reports which are suitable for debate in the House, including Westminster Hall, or debating committees  

Table 1: Relationship of inquiries and evidence sessions to objectives and core tasks
Inquiries/ Evidence Sessions  
A
 
B
 
C
 
D
 
 
1
 
2
 
3
 
4
 
5
 
6
 
7
 
8
 
9
 
10
 
DIUS's Departmental Report 2008     
x
 
x
 
x
 
x
 
 
x
 
 
Engineering: turning

ideas into reality  

 
x
 
  
x
 
x
 
x
 
 
x
 
x
 
Evidence Check: Literacy Interventions   
x
 
 
x
 
      
x
 
Evidence Check: Homeopathy   
x
 
 
x
 
      
x
 
Further Education Colleges capital expenditure   
x
 
 
x
 
x
 
 
x
 
  
x
 
Office for Strategic Co-ordination of Health Research   
x
 
  
x
 
x
 
     
Pre-appointment hearing with Chair-elect of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council          
x
 
  
Pre-appointment hearing with Chair-elect of the Economic and Social Research Council          
x
 
  
Pre-appointment hearing with Chair-elect of the Science and Technology Facilities Council          
x
 
  
Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy   
x
 
 
x
 
x
 
x
 
x
 
 
x
 
x
 
Re-skilling for recovery: After Leitch, implementing skills and training policies  
x
 
x
 
 
x
 
x
 
x
 
x
 
 
x
 
x
 
Science and Technology Facilities Council   
x
 
  
x
 
x
 
x
 
   
Science Question Time  
x
 
x
 
 
x
 
x
 
x
 
 
x
 
x
 
 
Setting the scene on science, engineering and technology issues across government   
x
 
  
x
 
      
Sites of Special Scientific Interest  
x
 
x
 
         
Students and Universities   
x
 
 
x
 
x
 
x
 
x
 
 
x
 
x
 
Technology Strategy Board   
x
 
  
x
 
x
 
x
 
   

Table 2: Status of inquiries at November 2009
Inquiries/ Evidence Sessions  Number of Evidence Sessions in 2008-09  Status Government Response  
DIUS's Departmental Report 2008  
0
 
Reported January 2009

(HC 51-i)  

March 2009 (HC 383) 
Engineering: turning

ideas into reality  

2
 
Reported March 2009

(HC 50-i)  

June 2009 (HC 759) 
Evidence Check: Literacy Interventions  
2[10]
 
In progress N/A  
Further Education Colleges capital expenditure  
2
 
Reported July 2009 (HC 530)  October 2009 (HC 989) 
Office for Strategic Co-ordination of Health Research  
1
 
Minutes of Evidence

Printed July 2009 (HC 655-i)  

N/A 
Pre-appointment hearing with Chair-elect of the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council  
1
 
Reported May 2009 (HC 505)  N/A 
Pre-appointment hearing with Chair-elect of the Economic and Social Research Council  
1
 
Reported May 2009 (HC 506)  N/A 
Pre-appointment hearing with Chair-elect of the Science and Technology Facilities Council  
1
 
Reported July 2009 (HC 887)  N/A 
Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy  
5
 
Reported July 2009 (HC 168-i)  October 2009 (HC 1036)  
Re-skilling for recovery: After Leitch, implementing skills and training policies  
0
 
Reported January 2009

(HC 48-i)  

March 2009 (HC 365) 
Science and Technology Facilities Council  
1
 
Minutes of Evidence

Printed July 2009 (HC 171-i)  

N/A 
Science Question Time  
2
 
Minutes of Evidence

Printed July 2009

(HC 169-i and -ii)  

N/A 
Setting the scene on science, engineering and technology issues across government  
1
 
Minutes of Evidence

Printed December 2009 (HC 1001-i)  

N/A 
Sites of Special Scientific Interest  
1
 
Reported July 2009 (HC 717)  October 2009 (HC 990) 
Students and Universities  
8[11]
 
Reported July 2009 (HC 170-i)  October 2009 (HC 991) 
Technology Strategy Board  
1
 
Minutes of Evidence

Printed Oct 2009 (HC 384-i)  

N/A 

Table 3: Committee Visits
Location of Visit  Date of visit   Participants  Purpose of visit  
Imperial College London[12]  19 March 2009 1 member and 2 members of staff  Students and Universities  
Liverpool[13]  23 March 2009 3 members and 4 staff  Students and Universities  
Oxford[14]  30 March 2009 5 members and 8 staff  Students and Universities  
Washington DC, USA  19 - 23 April 2009  6 members and 2 staff Students and Universities and Putting science and engineering at the heart of Government policy  
Swindon 22 September 2009  1 member and 2 staff  Engagement with the broader Science and Technology community to inform Committee programme  
Teddington 23 September 2009  1 member and 2 staff  Engagement with the broader Science and Technology community to inform Committee programme  



1   Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, Fourth Special Report of Session 2008-09, The future of science scrutiny following the merger of DIUS and BERR, HC 662 Back

2   HC (2008-09) 662, para 3 Back

3   Science and Technology Committee, Thirteenth Report of Session 2006-07, The Last Report, HC 1108, para 1 Back

4   HC (2006-07) 1108, para 38 Back

5   HC (2008-09) 662, paras 6-7  Back

6   HC (2008-09) 662, para 8 Back

7   HC Deb, 25 June 2009, col 987 Back

8   HC Deb, 25 June 2009, cols 987-88 Back

9   Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, Second Report of Session 2008-09, The work of the Committee in 2007-08, HC 49, para 44 Back

10   Oral evidence taken by Science and Technology Sub-Committee Back

11   Three oral evidence sessions taken by the Sub-Committee on Students and Universities Back

12   Visit undertaken by the Chairman as a rapporteur for the Students and Universities inquiry Back

13   Visit undertaken by the Students and Universities Sub-committee. Back

14   Visit undertaken by the Students and Universities Sub-committee; staff numbers include two Specialist Advisers. Back


 

 
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Prepared 15 December 2009