Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:07 pm on 23rd March 2021.

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Photo of Andrew Griffith Andrew Griffith Conservative, Arundel and South Downs 5:07 pm, 23rd March 2021

It is a great pleasure to follow Rob Roberts, who has added to our lexicon of quotes most eloquently today. Today is the national day of reflection, and I join my thoughts to those of the Prime Minister when he said:

“The last 12 months has taken a huge toll on us all, and”— we offer our

“sincere condolences to those who have lost loved ones.”

I remember my own father, John Griffith, who passed away from covid on 2 April last year.

Sometimes—not often, but sometimes—an idea comes along that makes so much sense that we just want to get on with it and see it succeed. Today’s Bill is one such proposal. It is bold, additive and disruptive, very much like, if I may say so, my wonderful colleagues on these Benches from the 2019 intake—and I will support each and every one of their bids for the location of ARIA. It comes against the context of this Government’s already world-leading approach to research and development: increasing spending to 2.4% of GDP by 2027 and £22 billion by 2024, publishing the R&D road map, setting out a vision for global talent and making the UK the best place in the world for scientists, researchers and entrepreneurs. Only this week, the Government consulted on cutting red tape to free up our brightest minds so that they can continue to make cutting-edge discoveries while cementing the UK’s status as a science world superpower.

If we have learned anything at all from the past 12 months it is that we need more disruption, not less. Look at the success of the Vaccine Taskforce, ably led by Kate Bingham. Last summer, she put her role as a life sciences venture capitalist on hold, and used her industry and investment experience to direct the UK’s vaccine purchasing strategy—an outsider in conventional research council terms; someone empowered to take swift decisions, comfortable with owning those decisions, while politicians had her back, and were not peering over her shoulder.

A year into the pandemic, despite limited buying power, we have secured deals for more than 400 million doses of covid-19 vaccine, and we lead all the global rankings for roll-out speed for a country of our size. It is a magnificent, unadulterated success, but it pains me greatly that, rather than being a united national effort, that had to be achieved in the teeth of opposition, with members of the party led by Ed Davey still calling for us to be part of an EU-wide vaccines programme.

Disruption works, and we need more of it. No one is saying that ARIA will live in a bat cave—perhaps it should—or occupy a perfect vacuum, but limited exemptions from freedom of information and public procurement rules make perfect sense. I do not envy the Opposition their job today—clearly neither do they—and I question whether Edward Miliband was a Cummings-ite. Not only should he accept that as a compliment, but he should know that we generally welcome the Opposition’s constructive tone on the Bill. Perhaps in the winding-up speeches we will learn whether Chi Onwurah describes herself as a Dom disciple.

The Opposition take issue with the disapplication of freedom of information measures to the new invention agency. I not only point to public bodies that benefit from similar exclusions, including the BBC and Channel 4, but I am very much with the former boss of the right hon. Member for Doncaster North—the former Member for Sedgefield, who wrote in his autobiography:

Freedom of Information…Three harmless words. I look at those words as I write them, and feel like shaking my head ’til it drops off. You idiot. You naive, foolish, irresponsible nincompoop. There is really no description of stupidity, no matter how vivid, that is adequate.”

I conclude where I began. This is a rare and excellent piece of policy that I hope everyone in the House can get behind. It has been welcomed by the chief scientific adviser, the head of UKRI and the head of the Royal Academy of Engineering. It piles up money invested in research and development to ever greater heights, and by introducing a pinprick of disruptive process and innovation into Government funding, perhaps its biggest long-term impact will not be the money spent by ARIA but the leverage of that disruption, making even more productive the billions of money that is spent elsewhere.