Brexit, Science and Innovation

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:40 pm on 6th September 2018.

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Photo of Chi Onwurah Chi Onwurah Shadow Minister (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) (Industrial Strategy) 2:40 pm, 6th September 2018

I thank Norman Lamb for opening this debate and the Committee for its report. I am a great admirer of its work under his leadership, as I was of its work under its predecessor, Stephen Metcalfe. I also particularly thank Members who have contributed to this debate.

We do not talk enough about science in this Chamber. All too often it is sidelined for other apparently more sexy subjects, but I hope this debate has shown that science is sexy too. I speak not only as shadow Minister, a chartered engineer and a fellow of the Institution of Engineering and Technology, but as a constituency MP who understands just how important science is to my constituents. As many hon. Members, including the hon. Members for South Basildon and East Thurrock, for Berwickshire, Roxburgh and Selkirk (John Lamont), for Ochil and South Perthshire (Luke Graham) and for Chelmsford (Vicky Ford), have emphasised, the UK has a proud scientific tradition. From Isaac Newton to Stephen Hawking, from Ada Lovelace to Rosalind Franklin, and from Jocelyn Bell Burnell, who we have heard about today, to Newcastle-born Peter Higgs, British scientific giants bestride the globe.

Our science sector leads the world, powering our economy in the process. Science is an engine of job creation: 20% of the UK workforce is employed in science roles, and wages for these jobs are 40% higher than the average. Science is crucial to creating the high-skilled, high-wage, high-productivity economy we in Labour want to see. Our science sector is intertwined with our European partners’ through pooled funding, the free exchange of talent and shared institutions. I shall talk to each of those.

According to the Government’s own 2013 report, it is the increasing internationalisation of UK science, powered in part by European collaboration, that has allowed us to surpass the US in science productivity. I am glad, therefore, that the Government are committed to achieving what they call

“a far-reaching science and innovation pact”,

but as the Committee’s report points out, delays are

“undermining the UK’s position as a science superpower”,

and a no deal scenario would be a

“very real threat to scientific progress” , according to the president of the Royal Society.

One quarter of our research and development funding stems from international sources, predominantly the European Union. As has been said, we are a net recipient of Horizon 2020 funding. While the Government have committed to underwriting this funding, they have failed to commit to the £90 billion successor framework programme. That means that Britain would access these funds as a third country, making it impossible for us to receive the benefits we currently do and preventing us from being a net receiver.

As it stands, we could lose access to over £1 billion a year in the event of a no deal scenario, which has yet to be ruled out, and the Royal Society has highlighted that even with the UK Government’s guarantees, UK-based researchers and businesses will still lose half a billion pounds a year in research funding, which will have an immediate impact on research under way in the UK. The Royal Academy of Engineering has emphasised that EU support for UK small and medium-sized enterprises, including the SME instrument, is critical, crucial and unique. Labour is committed to staying part of Horizon 2020 and its successor programmes. Will the Minister commit the Government to doing the same?

The second key area is access to talent—an issue raised by many on both sides of the House, including the hon. Members for Boston and Skegness (Matt Warman) and for Ayr, Carrick and Cumnock (Bill Grant). One in six academic staff in our higher education institutions is from the EU, while R&D-intensive companies rely on the frequent transfer of highly skilled staff between countries to respond to day-to-day challenges. So as the Committee’s report argues, a science and innovation pact that does not encompass people would be “pointless”. While the Government have said that they do not want to stop the brightest and the best from coming to the UK, their reliance on tier 1 exceptional talent visas fails to recognise that innovation relies on contributions from a wide range of scientific and technical staff, as my hon. Friends the Members for Bristol North West (Darren Jones) and for Oxford East (Anneliese Dodds) emphasised passionately.

In March, 48 leading science organisations wrote to the Prime Minister to say that

“the repeated rejection of skilled workers due to the Tier 2 cap being reached is already damaging the UK’s international appeal.”

Is the Prime Minister listening? More than 6,000 engineers and scientists from outside the EU have been denied visas this year alone. How many more have been put off applying? We cannot carry forward that approach to the EU. Even when visa applications are successful, cost can be a huge deterrent, as we have heard. Will the Minister say today whether EU nationals will be subject to these levels of visa costs? There is also the regional impact. I have repeatedly asked techUK to share the regional distribution of its visas, but it has refused to do so. Will the Minister look into this?

The Campaign for Science and Engineering has argued that

“immigration policy should be contributing to rather than fighting against Government’s wider economic and societal aims”.

Instead, the Government hide their incompetence behind an arbitrary migration figure, which they have never met and which damages our economic wellbeing. Labour would not set any such arbitrary figure and would guarantee the rights of EU nationals to remain in Britain.

Finally, I want to discuss regulation and institutions, an area on which the Government have said very little. International agreements and shared regulation are essential for so much of science, from chemicals registration, so that industry and academia know what it is they are using, to the movement of living animals and organisms, and from clinical trials to the exchange of medicines across borders. At present, 45 million packs of medicine move from the UK to the European Union each month, with 37 million moving the opposite way. Under a no deal scenario, that would be impossible. AstraZeneca, our largest pharmaceutical company, is now openly talking about stockpiling medicines, and this morning, on Radio 4, the Health Secretary confirmed that this would be necessary. This is yet another example of the consequences of current Brexit uncertainty.

We know that Brexit raises complex issues and we also know that the Government lack the intellectual rigour or concentration to resolve them. An additional failing, however, is the lack of communication high- lighted by the Royal Society of Biology. That has led the Wellcome Trust to suggest that a standalone science agreement needs to be pursued. Is the Minister considering that?

Unsure and uncertain, scientists are either leaving our shores or not coming in the first place. Businesses are making investment decisions in a policy vacuum. Labour believes not only in our nation’s scientific future, but in putting in place the policies to make it happen. We would build an innovation nation supporting our world-leading science sector by investing 3% of GDP in research and development by 2030, democratising and spreading both the benefits and the sources of scientific greatness. Our industrial strategy will build on scientific strengths, our national education service and growing innovation infrastructure to provide high skill, high wage jobs in every corner of the country.

Building an innovation nation means retaining and strengthening the innovation union from which we currently benefit, but the chaos at the heart of this Government is preventing that. I thank the Committee for its report and wish we had a Government who could give it the response that it merits.