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

4  Relations with the Government

57.  As we reported last year we continue to have a broadly productive and positive relationship with Government. Up until the machinery of Government changes in June 2009 our relations with DIUS had settled down and the problems that we reported last year[69] with the notification of publications did not recur. We are also pleased that Lord Drayson has been a willing participant in Science Question Time (see paragraph 14). The Department consistently provided memoranda and responses to our Reports within the requested deadlines, with one exception. The Government's response to our Report, Engineering: turning ideas into reality, due on 27 May was not received until 19 June. That was three weeks late and, as we wished to follow-up matters raised in the earlier report, put considerable pressure on the timetable for completing our Report, Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy.

58.  Inevitably the machinery of Government created disruption as new arrangements were put in place. This has proved to be less of a problem than might have been anticipated because we have reverted to the pattern that the former Science and Technology Committee had established. Our primary contact is with the Government Office for Science but on individual inquiries we deal directly with the department which has primary responsibility for the area we are scrutinising. It is early days but the departments we have dealt with, Children, Schools and Families for literacy interventions, Health for homeopathy, and the Home Office on the dismissal of Professor Nutt from Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs, have all responded quickly and efficiently to our requests for information. We are grateful for their assistance.

Science Budget Allocation letters

59.  One area where we continue to experience problems is the provision of financial information. During our inquiry in 2007-08 on the CSR07 science budget allocations we encountered concern on the level of control that the Government exercised over the research budget. [70] To clarify the issue, we asked to see the letters that the Government sent to each of the Research Councils laying out the details of their allocations. As we explained in our Report, Putting Science and Engineering at the Heart of Government Policy, the fact that the letters were not published caused us concern on two counts.

First, there is the principle of transparency. The basis for decisions on how public money is spent is the public's business; and these are not small sums of money: many billions of pounds will be handed over to the Research Councils in the coming years.

Second, the letters should throw some light on how much control the Government had over how the Research Councils were to spend the money they were given. The allocation letters to the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE) and the Learning and Skills Council (LSC) are published as a matter of course, and although Professor Adrian Smith, Director General of Science and Research, told us that the equivalent to the HEFCE and LSC letters would be the Allocations Booklet, which is published, Nick Dusic, Director of the Campaign for Science and Engineering, told us that "the science budget allocation booklet gives us the high-level commitments for the different research councils [… but] not the rationale".[71]

60.  Freedom of Information requests from the Campaign for Science and Engineering and a Member to see the allocation letters were turned down. We then asked the Government to see the letters in confidence, but we were refused again. Most recently, we asked the then the Secretary of State, John Denham, why he was refusing to hand over the letters. We set out the exchange that took place on 20 May 2009.

Chairman: We accept that you are not going to publish [the science budget allocation letters], but the reason we want to see them is that there is a suggestion that the Government is taking an overly prescriptive role in determining the way the Research Councils spend their money. Given the fact that the Osmotherly Rules state, July 2005, that the Government is committed to being as open and as helpful as possible with select committees and that, indeed, during your time as a select committee chairman you received from Charles Clarke, the then Home Secretary, papers which were very sensitive but were relevant to a committee inquiry, could you give us an explanation as to why you are digging your heels in and not allowing the committee to have those on a confidential, not to publish, basis, and will you reconsider?

Mr Denham: Chairman, I would never refuse a request from you to reconsider, so I promise you I will go away and look at it again. The view that I have taken up to now is that it does raise a precedent for the release of papers which were intended to be confidential which I am concerned about. I would say two things. I will go and consider it again, because you have raised it with me quite fairly. I would also say to you, Chairman, this may come as a surprise to my officials, but as we look forward to the next allocation process, which we have already discussed with you as to ways in which we can make that more consultative, perhaps we can find a way which avoids this situation happening again.[72]

61.  We pressed the matter further and the Government responded on 31 July 2009. In refusing again the Government said that it regards "the process of discussions between [Research] Councils and Government on specific allocations, leading up to Ministerial announcements on allocations, as properly conducted in private".[73] The Government's continued refusal is unacceptable and puzzling given the range of sensitive documents—with the protection of a government security classification—that are made available to select committees. As we explained in our Report, without seeing the Science Budget Allocation letters, we are forced to speculate that the Government may have exerted inappropriate influence over the Research Councils.[74] We are concerned at the Government's continued refusal to supply the letters and this is an issue we may return to in the 2009-10 Session.

69   HC (2008-09) 49, para 45 Back

70   HC (2007-08) 215-I, paras 20-27 Back

71   HC (2008-09) 168-I, paras 161-62 Back

72   HC (2008-09) 530-I, Q 283; see also HC (2008-09) 168-I, para 163 Back

73   Ev 50 Back

74   HC (2008-09) 168-I, para 165 Back

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