Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:16 pm on 23rd March 2021.

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Photo of Ed Miliband Ed Miliband Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy 2:16 pm, 23rd March 2021

That just makes the case; if what the hon. Gentleman says is the case, would it not be a good idea, as the former Science Minister Lord Johnson suggested, for ARIA to share information with UKRI, for the two bodies to work effectively together and for the agencies to enter into a memorandum of understanding, which will benefit us all? If it is as easy as that, I am sure that will not be a problem for ARIA. I have been called many things in my time, but a secret Cummings-ite? Perhaps not. I have been called worse things. If it is as simple as that, they should be able to work together, and I hope the Secretary of State will reflect both on the mandate question and on this life cycle question.

Thirdly, let me turn to the issue of Government oversight and public accountability. We believe it is right that ARIA should be given operational independence from Government. As I say, we support the idea of specifying high tolerance to risk and failure. The challenge for public policy is how to establish this tolerance of failure. Obviously it starts with the agency’s leadership, where the Bill is also very vague on what attributes or skills the Secretary of State is looking for. My understanding is that this position is not going to be recruited outside the normal civil service procedures—okay, I think I understand the reasons for that—but it cannot just be decided on the whim of the Secretary of State, brilliant though he is. I hope the Minister will clarify this during the passage of the Bill. There does need to be an answer on who else from the scientific and research community will have a say on the decision and how this person is going to be chosen, given that, in the Government’s own words, they will have

“a significant effect on the technological and strategic capabilities of the UK over the course of generations.”

On freedom of information, we just strongly disagree with the Government. I do not think there is justification for ARIA’s blanket exemption from FOI. The Government say it is necessary for agility. DARPA is subject to the US version of the Freedom of Information Act. The Secretary of State and the Minister might be interested to know that DARPA, in the US, had 47 of these requests last year, so this is hardly an obstacle to getting on with the day job. There is a disagreement here about how we give public confidence. Just saying that everything should be secret does not give public confidence. Accountability matters to the public and we should have confidence that we can defend the approach of the agency. Tris Dyson from Nesta Challenges has said:

“The public will expect to know what’s happening with public money and greater risk requires transparency and evaluation in order to determine what works.”

We also believe there is a role for the Science and Technology Committee in scrutinising ARIA’s role. Perhaps that can be clarified as the Bill progresses.

I am conscious of time, so let me say in conclusion that we face enormous challenges as a society, including new threats from disease, as tragically illustrated by the pandemic, the advent of artificial intelligence and, as I have said, the climate emergency. So the challenges we face are huge, but I believe—I know this is shared across the House—that the ingenuity, know-how and potential of our scientists, researchers and others is as great as, if not greater than, the challenges. If we support them, they can succeed. ARIA can support our scientific research. We support this Bill as a way to add capacity and flexibility to our research and innovation systems. It needs to be done in the right way. On the Bill and what is happening to British science, we will support the Government when they do the right thing but we will also call them out on cuts to science funding, and during the passage of the Bill we will seek to improve it so that it can strengthen our science base and do what is required to help us meet the massive challenges we face as a society.