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Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:02 pm on 16th March 2020.

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Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Commons), Chair, Science and Technology Committee (Commons) 5:02 pm, 16th March 2020

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. I am glad to be called to speak in this Budget debate, and it is good to see the Minister for Health, my hon. Friend Edward Argar, in good health on the Front Bench. In the brief time available, I wish to highlight three things in the Budget that we will need to follow in the weeks ahead: the science of the coronavirus; science and technology policy generally; and retaining skills and jobs at this time.

It is essential that our policy and practice throughout this crisis should be based on the science. We are fortunate in this country that in Professor Whitty, as chief medical officer, and Sir Patrick Vallance, as chief scientist, we have two people of learning, authority and integrity, with direct personal experience of the management of epidemics. It is crucial that their advice continues to be followed in the way that it has to date.

I wish to raise two particular issues. The first is that the foundation of our scientific excellence is constant and unimpeded challenge. The peer review system we have and the replicability of empirical research demand that. So it is important in the days and weeks ahead that we do not see it as disrespectful or distracting for the scientific community to question the basis of actions and advice. Such questioning is essential, it is how science moves forward and it is the foundation of the excellence we enjoy in this country, so we need to avoid, in this House and in external commentary, treating any difference of opinion or challenge as being in some way calamitous, as it is the way we get to the right answer. It would help if the Government would publish the membership of the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies, which has a particular duty to scrutinise and test the evidence. That will be important to know, but it would also be good to know when the Government intend to publish the evidence on which decisions have been taken. When will that be available? I know it is going to be published, so it would be helpful to know when.

The second challenge is that this is a dynamic situation, as all epidemics are. It is essential that advice and practice can and do adjust according to the real-time findings of research on the outbreak—according to what works and what does not. Such adjustments must not be derided as U-turns, in the conventional political way, but should be seen as the normal progress of scientific inquiry. Given the intense and absolutely understandable public interest, we need constant explanations of changes when they take place.

Several Members have mentioned the policy on testing. For the past few weeks, the House has been told about the expansion of testing capability: it is important to understand the reason for the change in emphasis in the policy, and I hope that the Minister or his colleagues might be able to provide that to the House. Along with the Health and Social Care Committee, my Select Committee will play a responsible role in backing 100% the scientific approach, while playing its part in ensuring that Parliament understands the reasons for the steps being taken.

Were it not for the entirely appropriate attention paid to the coronavirus over the past week, more attention would no doubt have been drawn to what is an extraordinarily positive Budget for science and research. Just over two years ago, when I was the Secretary of State at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, we published the White Paper on industrial strategy. One of the key commitments made was that the UK should build on its strengths as—in an uncertain world—one of the key powerhouses around the world in innovation and science, which is one of our principal assets. Despite that world leadership, we were at that time devoting less than 1.7% of national income to research and development.

We made a commitment in the industrial strategy to raise the proportion that we spent on R&D to 2.4%—the OECD average—by 2027, and beyond that to 3% thereafter. The publicly funded research budget was increased by nearly a third, from £9.5 billion to £12.5 billion in 2021-22—the biggest such increase in UK history. I remember the battles with the Treasury—before the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, my hon. Friend John Glen was there—and the struggle to achieve that commitment, so it is a momentous achievement to have not only reiterated that commitment to 2.4% but to have increased the funding available, and not to the £12.5 billion that I was able to secure but massively to £22 billion by 2024-25, including a commitment to private investment through an increase in the R&D tax credit. There is much to be welcomed in that commitment. My Committee will scrutinise the prospective use of the funds, but they are warmly to be welcomed.

It is important to emphasise that our excellence is not just confined to science and technology; we are renowned internationally for our creativity in the arts and humanities, and social sciences are an important source of innovation and growth. I commend in particular the work that Sir Peter Bazalgette led on boosting the contribution of culture in our regional towns and cities through the creative clusters programme, which I strongly back.

Finally, I wish to say a few words about jobs and the continuity of employment. We have, during the current crisis, heard of the challenges of the hospitality industry. I draw attention to the Earl Grey tearoom in Southborough in my constituency, which has faced a problem that has been described by Members from all parties: the coronavirus is not included among the conditions in the Earl Grey’s business-continuity insurance. That issue must be addressed urgently by the Government, to provide reassurance to businesses right now. There is no time to be lost.

Skills that are crucial to the continued expansion and flourishing of the manufacturing industry could be lost if the disruption of supply chains means that, for example, components are not available. I hope the Government will look carefully at what is being done in other countries to finance, jointly with industry, part-time working so that skills can be retained in industries—including manufacturing and beyond—so that when the crisis passes, as I hope it will soon, businesses can continue to make progress, just as they have already, based on the excellent skills that have been acquired.