It is a pleasure to speak in this debate. First, I congratulate Neil Gray and wish him all the best as he leaves this place. I always find him a very easy fella to get on with. We have worked together in many debates; usually I intervened on him, and maybe there was the odd time when he intervened on me. We have a good friendship, and I wish him and his family well. We will miss his friendship in the Chamber.
I am a strong supporter of Government’s aim to increase public research and development funding to £22 billion by 2024-25 and to increase overall UK spending on R&D to 2.4% of GDP by 2027. I welcome and am really pleased to see the Government’s proposals. I will not make a plea for my own constituency, but I will make a plea for Northern Ireland as an area where we believe that we can help each other.
If we ever needed proof or a supreme example of just how well we can do things—when I say “we”, I mean the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland; all of us better together under the Union flag, which is where the strength of our co-operation and friendship should be—who could fail to be amazed by the development of the vaccine? From the start to the end, we have got a number of effective vaccines on the streets within a year. After all the difficulties of the last year, the success story has been the vaccine and its roll-out. Which of us did not feel a wee bit better when the vaccines were announced by the Health Secretary in the Chamber? We could almost feel a smile on our face and a skip in our step. That was because of the scientists and the expertise that we have in this great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, leading the way. That is why I believe that the science and the R&D can and, indeed, will succeed.
I can understand those who are concerned at the speed of the vaccine development—they know that R&D usually takes years, but the coronavirus is an example of where it can take less time. The difference that dedicated funding and governmental support makes is clear. The Government and the Prime Minister in particular initially made sure that money was set aside for the research. Clearly that was a good move, and we thank them for it. The money is there to roll out the programmes, hire the staff and purchase the necessary equipment, and we have vaccines available because we invested; our Government and our country—our great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland—invested.
Imagine what we could achieve if we put resources into other goals—if we thought big and funded those thoughts. Is it wrong to aim for the stars? I do not think it is. In the last year, we have aimed for the stars and achieved it. Chris Skidmore referred to the moonshot goals. One of my favourite films is “It’s a Wonderful Life”. We all know the scene where James Stewart’s character talks about lassoing the moon, and it is not impossible to do some things we have always talked about doing in a romantic way. We can do great things in research and development through the moonshot goals.
Of course there must be regulation and restrictions. Common sense should go hand in hand with idealism, and we must ensure that safety is paramount. If we look at what we have done, it shows the best of British and the best of what we can achieve, with co-operation between Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the mainland, as well as with our international colleagues; what a sight that is to behold. The Bill applies to the whole United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Supporting scientific research and development sits within the legislative competence of the devolved nations—in my case, the Northern Ireland Assembly—although specific reservations exist, and I look forward to the devolved nations contributing to this process and passing their consent.
In a debate in Westminster Hall last week, at which the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Amanda Solloway, was present, I mentioned Queen’s University Belfast and the great partnerships that it has in health research in particular to find cures for diseases such as cancer and diabetes. Every now and again, that research has dividends and they are able to announce some of the good things they have done. Again, I ask the Minister to ensure that we can all benefit from the partnerships with universities and companies. As others have said, universities across the whole of the United Kingdom can deliver opportunities for people to progress their degrees, carry out investigations and find cures.
Northern Ireland has an excellent workforce—highly skilled, young, capable and educated to the standard that we all want. To give just one example, cyber-security in Northern Ireland is the best in the United Kingdom—indeed, the best in Europe. I suggest to the House that our workforce, their skills and their capability be used as we all move forward together.
My one note of caution is that while we must be ambitious, we must also be realistic. There cannot be a blank cheque for any project, but I believe that clause 3, on long-term ambition, must have a common-sense element and that projects must have an end date. We must be aware of our finite budget and of the need to fund projects that can provide immediate results and benefits such as pancreatic cancer drugs. I am my party’s health spokesperson, so I am very interested in how we can work together to find cures for diseases and reduce the number of deaths they cause across the whole of the United Kingdom. I look forward the fund being made available for health projects, as well as technological advances.
I support our research and development, I support the Bill and I support this Government and the Minister in the work she does. The Bill gives us a vision of the future—a vision that we must grasp. We have a glimpse of what we can achieve, and the potential can and must be exploited in a reasonable way for everyone in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, always better together.