Backbench Business — House of Commons Administration and Savings Programme

Part of Business of the House – in the House of Commons at 1:38 pm on 8th November 2012.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Adam Afriyie Adam Afriyie Chair, Members' Expenses Committee, Chair, Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology 1:38 pm, 8th November 2012

I rise to speak to amendment (a), which would insert in the motion after “sector” the words

“agrees that the saving to the annual budget of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology (POST) by 2014-15 should be no greater than the 1.4 per cent saving cited in the Savings Programme as set out in Appendix B (Table 3, item 3) to the report”.

The amendment appears on the Order Paper in my name and in those of many colleagues who have a keen interest in and concern for the future of science in Parliament. This debate marks a watershed moment for science in Parliament. Depending on the way in which the budget changes are introduced, there is a danger that they could spell the end of science in Parliament as we know it. I shall elaborate on that in a moment.

I thank the Chair of the Finance and Services Committee for presenting such a well considered report. The report recognises the financial pressures on this place and skilfully manages to identify sensible cost-saving and efficiency measures. It intends not only to reduce expenditure, but to improve the level of the services that are available to Members. It is self-evidently a carefully thought through and well balanced report, and it benefits from a great deal of consideration. I also pay tribute to the House of Commons Commission, which is ably chaired by Mr Speaker. There is no doubt that he and other Members of the House have the best interests of this place in mind.

I commend fellow members of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology board on their dedication to science, which I am sure they will make clear later today. I also recognise the hard work and commitment of John Pullinger who heads the Library services, his staff, Chris Tyler, who is the new director of POST, and the expert staff who keep parliamentarians informed on scientific matters. Finally, I say a quick thanks to the Campaign for Science and Engineering, the Royal Society, research councils, many distinguished scientific bodies, and distinguished peers for their input and support.

We have come a long way since the days of the debate on genetic modification, and hon. Members are far more informed than they once were on issues that used to create partisan rivalries and arguments on ideological grounds. Nobody would wish to see science in Parliament undermined in any way, and this debate is a chance to ensure that science and reason prevail in future Parliaments.

As Chair of the POST board, I urge the House of Commons Commission to take note of this debate. We are in danger of sleepwalking into drastically reducing science and technology services for Members at a time when scientific issues are rising up the political agenda and becoming increasingly important in public policy debates, and I therefore draw the attention of the House to my amendment. The third recommendation in table 3 on page 20 of the Finance and Services Committee report refers to a total saving of £98,000 by 2014-15. I am aware of talk behind the scenes about potentially removing a senior position within POST to try to fulfil that reduction in costs, or of moving a member of POST to the Library. In previous, carefully conducted consultations on the matter, the option of removing staff from POST or of reducing POST services came at the bottom of a list of dozens of options. I hope there will be further meetings following this debate, and that we will get to the nub of the issue, but to depart from that careful thinking, consideration and sensible process of prioritisation would be dangerous. I hope that will not be the case.

The Department for Information Services has a budget of about £20 million, £6 million of which is for the Library and research budget. POST has a budget of just £570,000, so to remove £98,000 from its budget seems deeply disproportionate. I am sure that is not the intention, however, and I hope we can resolve the issue. It would be the biggest cut to the smallest body in the Department for Information Services. All hon. Members recognise the economic realities that we face, and I, the POST board, and those who work at POST recognise that we need to make a contribution, which we are happy to make.

POST is vital for many reasons. I do not have time to run through them all, but they include its independence, balance and authority, which are critical to improving the use of science and technology in Parliament. POST never offers policy recommendations; it is non-partisan and its analysis is entirely impartial, while recognising that science and technology has a key role to play in public policy making. It plays a vital horizon-scanning role for Parliament, and identifies topics that will be upcoming in the near future and about which Members of Parliament and peers will need to make decisions. POST is rigorous and professional—that is important—and all its publications are peer-group reviewed. All its events are open to outsiders as well as Parliamentarians, and furthermore, it creates a great network and makes connections with other members of the science community in Britain.

Rather than mere assertions, I will provide some facts. More than 1 million POST notes were downloaded from its website over the past year; 80% of Members use POST notes twice a year or more, let alone parliamentary researchers and peers. One thousand people attend POST events each year, and for every POST note written, 15 external contacts are formed, amounting to several hundred new contacts each year. Above all, through its fellowship scheme, POST leverages in a huge amount of external resource that can be used in the Library and to support Committees. At last count, that incoming resource amounted to approximately £300,000, which could be said to substitute the £570,000 taken up by POST’s budget. POST is the golden goose; it is the gateway and platform for leveraging in external scientific support.

John Thurso has gone some way towards this, but it would be helpful if he could clarify, unambiguously and sooner rather than later, a precise figure or percentage for the future budget, so that the POST director and board can make decisions about work programmes and how to leverage in external support.

I have a couple of observations and then I will draw my remarks to a close. The most important point concerns the removal of a senior post from POST.