Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:27 pm on 23rd March 2021.

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Photo of Anthony Browne Anthony Browne Conservative, South Cambridgeshire 5:27 pm, 23rd March 2021

If you do not mind, Mr Deputy Speaker, I wish to make a slight confession: I am suffering from a rather extreme out-of-body experience. I have spent the past three and a half hours listening to Members from all parties—from not just the Conservatives but Labour, the SNP, the Liberal Democrats and the DUP—praising the Advanced Research and Invention Agency. I am having an out-of-body experience not because the House is the most united it has been since I arrived in this place, but because it is so united behind an idea promoted by Dominic Cummings. That shows what an indisputably good idea it must be.

It is absolutely right that the Government do everything they can to promote innovation, which has been the single engine for human progress over the past few centuries. Innovation is the single main reason why our health and wealth are immeasurably better than they were in generations past. Cambridge, my city, is the capital of innovation in the UK and, indeed, in Europe—perhaps in the world. It has had many successes, which have been referred to by a lot of colleagues—it is the global headquarters of AstraZeneca and it has had more Nobel prize winners than almost any country in the world.

One strange feature of innovation is that people often cannot tell where it will lead to when they are doing it. To give one topical example, when the Cambridge researcher Francis Crick was decoding DNA, he had no idea that more than half a century later, it would lead to the Wellcome Sanger Institute in my constituency doing more decoding and genome sequencing of the coronavirus than the rest of the world put together, helping us to track and tackle this pandemic.

The Government do a huge amount to promote innovation already, and we have heard a lot about it this afternoon, so why do we need another agency? Why do we need ARIA? ARIA will help tackle one of the main obstacles of innovation in the public sector, which is that in the public sector, as compared with the private sector, the costs of failure are higher and the rewards for success are lower. What do I mean by that? In the public sector, if somebody fails, they get pilloried in the press and they get the Opposition after them. Ministers have to resign and civil servants lose their job. That does not happen in the private sector. In the public sector, if someone does something that succeeds massively, they do not get bonuses. They are not rewarded by an increase in profits and share prices. The incentives are less.

What we need to do with ARIA is reduce the costs of failure, and that is why it is so important to have a separate, stand-alone organisation that is not part of UKRI—one that has a culture of taking risks and knows that sometimes it is worth having failure. Indeed, if there are not occasional failures, it is not really succeeding in its objective of disrupting and taking risks.

It is important—I urge the Minister to do this—that we help ARIA get more of the rewards for success. Several of my hon. Friends touched on this point earlier. ARIA is able to commercialise and go into business, but let it keep some of the rewards from success, if those projects succeed. That would be a huge incentive for it to try to make sure that those things work.

I have four general points about ARIA. The first is that it must be additional to other forms of research and development. If it is just funding projects that get funded by UKRI already, it is not really doing what it should be. Secondly, it is very important that it can experiment to try out different forms of funding. It has to be able to do a whole range of different types of funding for different projects as it sees fit, and it should be flexible in doing that. For example, we can have a company or academics doing some sort of research that we think is disruptive and amazingly good, but it does not fit into any of the general pots we already have. ARIA needs to be able to give grants to projects that it thinks are worthwhile. It has to have flexibility, and that means not going through the public procurement rules as they exist at the moment.

When I worked in City Hall in London, I was responsible for the London Development Agency, and I did a whole range of projects with public procurement. All I can say is that the only people who think that public procurement rules do not strangle innovation are people who do not have direct experience of them. It is absolutely right that ARIA is exempted from the worst parts of those rules.

Thirdly, picking up on value for money, which some Opposition Members mentioned, it is absolutely right that the Treasury and the Government ensure value for money from public investments across the piece. The Treasury Green Book does that, but it is also right that the Government have a portfolio approach, like a private investor. They might have some lower risk investments in Treasury bonds and then some higher risk investments in venture capital, and they are not all judged by the same rules. We absolutely should not judge ARIA by the same blanket value-for-money rules as we would if we were building a bridge. That would strangle ARIA.

Fourthly, it is absolutely right, as a couple of Members have touched on, that ARIA has multi-annual budgets inasmuch as the Government and the Treasury can allow. Funding disruptive research often takes many years, and simply giving a drip-drip of funding one year at a time will mean a lot of disruptive technologies cannot take flight.

When I was chair of the Government’s Regulatory Policy Committee, I remember civil servants at the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy saying to me sagely, “Governments have always set up organisations as independent, and then the politicians realise all the problems of independence and then chip away at the independence over coming years, and the organisations gradually get brought down to heel.” It is very important that does not happen to ARIA, otherwise it will lose the reason for its existence. We have heard Opposition Members in particular talk about the need for FOI requests, for procurement rules, for mission statements and value for money assessments. I ask the Minister and the Government not to listen to those siren calls, which will clip ARIA’s wings at birth, and it will then never take flight.

Finally, I just want to settle one little discussion or dispute that we have had this afternoon. Many of my hon. Friends have been making bids for the location of ARIA; we have heard about Bristol, Bolton, Sedgefield, Doncaster and Guildford. I can sort this for the Government. Put the innovation agency where the innovators are: Cambridge—done.