Clause 6 - Information

Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill – in the House of Commons at 8:15 pm on 7th June 2021.

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Votes in this debate

Amendment proposed: 14, page 3, line 15, at end insert—

“(7) ARIA shall be—

(a) a public authority within the meaning of section 3 of the Freedom of Information Act 2000, and Schedule 1 of that Act shall be amended accordingly, and

(b) a central government authority within the meaning of regulation 2(1) of the Public Contracts Regulations 2015, and Schedule 1 of those Regulations shall be amended accordingly.”—(Chi Onwurah.)

Question put, That the amendment be made.

Division number 21 Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill — Clause 6 - Information

Aye: 264 MPs

No: 363 MPs

Ayes: A-Z by last name

Tellers

Nos: A-Z by last name

Tellers

The House divided: Ayes 263, Noes 364.

Question accordingly negatived.

The list of Members currently certified as eligible for a proxy vote, and of the Members nominated as their proxy, is published at the end of today’s debates.

Third Reading

Photo of Kwasi Kwarteng Kwasi Kwarteng The Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy 8:56 pm, 7th June 2021

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read the Third time.

When it comes to the future of the United Kingdom, this Government are unapologetically ambitious, and one of our greatest ambitions is to secure the UK’s position as a science superpower. Through this Bill to create ARIA, a new agency to support the most ambitious research, we are really focusing on delivering on that agenda.

The Bill provides ARIA with broad functions and powers to take an innovative approach to funding high-risk R&D so that each programme manager can provide effective funding to their talented research team. Critically, the Bill allows a balance between oversight of ARIA’s activities and the independence and autonomy that the evidence tells us is so important for its success.

The Bill creates an agency with a unique role to play and the capabilities it needs to do so. ARIA will sit alongside UKRI and other funders in our R&D landscape. It will provide something additional and complementary, and I believe that its offer will indeed significantly improve the UK’s research and development offer in the long term.

I am grateful that today’s debate has focused on making the most of this ambitious new agency. I would like to recognise the efforts of those across the House and in my Department who have got us to this point. I thank the Science, Research and Innovation Minister, my hon. Friend Amanda Solloway. I know that she celebrated her 30th birthday yesterday, and I congratulate her on having achieved this signal success and that significant milestone. I am delighted that she should be such a focused colleague and have delivered what is a really important piece of legislation. I also thank the Bill team for their work at each stage of the proceedings, and parliamentary counsel for drafting such an admirably concise and, dare I say, elegant Bill.

As we continue our progress towards a more normal way of working in this place, I would like to thank everybody who, in the meantime, has ensured that our proceedings have been able to continue with minimal disruption despite these exceptional circumstances. I would like to place on record that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and all the House staff and your colleagues have done a remarkable job in keeping the lights on—so to speak—and making sure that we progressed in a very expeditious and calm way through these proceedings and through previous stages of the Bill. Everything has been to order, Madam Deputy Speaker.

I also thank the members of the Public Bill Committee from across the House for their extremely constructive and welcome approach to scrutinising the Bill. I particularly thank the Chairs of those Committees: Judith Cummins and my right hon. Friend Esther McVey, as well as my hon. Friend Mr Hollobone and Derek Twigg.

I also thank a number of speakers on the Government Benches. I am referring only to the speeches that I saw myself . My hon. Friend Virginia Crosbie gave a very positive account of why this Bill is so important to her constituents. My hon. Friends the Members for Guildford (Angela Richardson), for North Norfolk (Duncan Baker), who is not in his place, for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) and others did a remarkable job in presenting the case for ARIA and in ensuring that the Bill proceeded smoothly.

I would also like to thank a number of Opposition Front-Bench speakers. When I saw her speak, Chi Onwurah gave a customary expert and well-considered view. We have our differences and disagreements, but no one, I think, can doubt her sincerity. I thank the SNP spokesman, Stephen Flynn. I am sorry that the rebellion that he anticipated was not as dynamic as he would have liked, but there you go.

Everybody really has supported the principle of this legislation and the creation of ARIA. While we do not agree on all the details, I think that everybody has brought to the debate a spirit of constructive inquiry and scrutiny, and we have greatly appreciated that.

I am confident, Madam Deputy Speaker, that, as the Bill continues its passage, our parallel progress to realise ARIA and to make it happen will elicit further debate and further questions. As the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, my hon. Friend the Member for Derby North, said on Second Reading, and as we have heard again today, the UK is home to brilliant invention and innovation, and we should be able to shape ARIA in a way that can deliver on that promise. The creation of ARIA will, I firmly believe, make our outstanding UK R&D system even stronger and more dynamic, more diverse, and it will help us to innovate and level up across the country. On that very firm basis, Madam Deputy Speaker, I am delighted to commend the Bill to the House.

Photo of Ed Miliband Ed Miliband Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy 9:03 pm, 7th June 2021

In this Third Reading debate, I want to start by putting on record our support for this Bill and the establishment of ARIA. The UK is a global scientific superpower, with a proud past, present and future, of innovative scientists, businesses and entrepreneurs. The success of the vaccine roll-out—I pay tribute to everybody associated with that—demonstrates our world-leading science and research power. What we have seen in the debate today and through the passage of this Bill is that we all want to build on this platform. ARIA has the potential to help fill the gap of high-risk, high-reward scientific investment, which is why we welcomed the Bill and sought to play a constructive role in its passage through the House.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend Chi Onwurah—I thank the Secretary of State for doing so—for the superb job that she has done in constructively seeking to improve the Bill on behalf of the Opposition. I also put on record my thanks to my hon. Friends the Members for Cambridge (Daniel Zeichner), for Brent Central (Dawn Butler), for Luton North (Sarah Owen), and for Sheffield, Brightside and Hillsborough (Gill Furniss) for their diligent work in Committee, and all hon. and right hon. Members on both sides of the House who have contributed to this Bill. I join the Secretary of State in also paying tribute to all the House staff who have kept this Bill going and on track and all those associated with it. I want to single out the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Amanda Solloway. I was going to wish her a happy 50th birthday, but I am happy, on this occasion, to be outdone by the Secretary of State. I say a very happy birthday for yesterday to the Minister.

As the Bill goes to the other place, we continue to believe that improvement is necessary and possible. As we heard in the debate, the biggest improvement to it would be a clearer sense of mission for the agency. We do not believe that the Bill as drafted provides ARIA with a clear enough mission. Ministers have suggested that it is for the chief executive, once appointed, to establish its priorities. We heard this a lot in Committee and again today, but this is not in our view the best way to meet our national priorities, which we believe should be set by Government. There is also a danger, we believe, that ARIA’s resources will be spread too thin. The greatest challenge we face, and this is shared across the House, is the climate and environmental emergency, and that is why we have proposed that fighting it be ARIA’s mission for the first 10 years, but however that mission is set out, I hope this is something that will be returned to in the other place.

Secondly, we believe that the freedom provided to those running ARIA should be accompanied by greater transparency and accountability. We do not believe the agency has anything to fear from this, nor is there justification for the blanket exemptions from the Freedom of Information Act and public contract regulations. The Government’s reason for exempting it is that it will be overwhelmed by requests, but that is not the US experience with DARPA. If the Government want ARIA to carry the confidence of the public, we hope they will think again on accountability in the other place.

Thirdly, as we have heard in the debate, it is essential that each nation and region of the UK benefits from the creation of ARIA—we believe that ARIA should have regard to that when exercising its functions. We have suggested that that could be done through the annual report that is already provided for under the Bill.

These are our issues with the Bill, but we cannot ignore in this Third Reading debate the Bill’s wider context, about which I want to speak briefly. ARIA is an important innovation, but it cannot be detached from the wider landscape of Government policy. Today’s amendment on overseas development aid—new clause 4—may not have been selected, but the argument is not going away. We should not be slashing overseas aid to the world’s poorest people. It is not right morally, and it is not right on grounds of self-interest either. With coronavirus and the climate crisis, our fates are bound together.

What is more, these cuts are impacting directly on British scientific researchers doing the right thing for the world on everything from research on infectious diseases to the development of clean water technology. Some £120 million has been cut from the BEIS budget because of the cuts to ODA. As the Sainsbury Laboratory, one of the country’s leading scientific research institutes, puts it, these cuts have

“pulled the rug out from under many scientific projects that were paving the way to solve urgent challenges in some of the poorest countries in the world.”

All this is in the year of COP26, when we are the hosts trying to persuade other countries to accept our moral authority on the climate crisis and development.

As someone who was at the ill-fated Copenhagen climate summit of 2009, I want to tell the House that mistrust between developing and developed countries was the biggest reason it failed and is one of the biggest risks at COP26. The cut in aid spending undermines our efforts and undermines trust; the Government are wrong to be doing it, and it is self-defeating for our country. There is a very strong feeling about this across the House—quite possibly a majority—and the Government should reverse this cut in funding forthwith. My general experience is that when there is a majority in this House for something, it will find a way to express itself one way or the other. I suggest that the Secretary of State and the Government take heed.

ARIA should not come at the expense of cuts to the core science budget administered by UKRI. This year, UKRI’s budget will be £7.9 billion, a cut from the budget last year of £8.7 billion. That is why Jeremy Farrar said recently:

“There’s a growing gulf between rhetoric and reality in the government support for science.”

It massively ill serves British science and our country to be cutting science spending, and ARIA, welcome though it is—£800 million over five years—simply does not make up for that.

To conclude, we support this Bill, but hope, in the spirit with which we have approached it, that the Government will reflect on the constructive concerns raised throughout its passage on the urgent issue of aid spending by Members on all sides, on science spending and on the detail of the Bill. We hope that the other place can build on and improve the Bill as it progresses.

Photo of Greg Clark Greg Clark Chair, Science and Technology Committee, Chair, Science and Technology Committee 9:09 pm, 7th June 2021

It is a pleasure to follow Edward Miliband. It is a particular pleasure as Chair of the Science and Technology Committee to warmly congratulate the ministerial team for bringing this important Bill to such a happy conclusion in this place. I pay tribute to the Secretary of State, the team of officials in the Department and the Clerks in the House, and to the Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, Amanda Solloway, whose enthusiasm and charm contributed in no small part to the sense of consensus, good feeling and good will that there is about the Bill. The fact that its House of Commons stages culminate after the weekend of her birthday is absolutely fitting, and I congratulate her on that.

As Members know, the Select Committee took extensive evidence on the Bill and published a report. We had some fascinating sessions, including a rather less high-octane performance from Dominic Cummings when he came to talk about science policy, as opposed to covid. I think it is a fair reflection to say that the suggestion of this agency, and indeed the important role that science played in the manifesto on which Conservative colleagues were elected, was an important contribution, whatever disagreements and disputes there may be on other aspects.

We can agree on several things. First, it is desirable and appropriate, when we are a science superpower, that we have agencies that do things differently from others. Diversity is a strength, and it is a good thing that we are having a very new agency doing things in a very different way. I think that that has been evident in the contributions we have had.

We took the view on the Committee that it is important that ARIA does not spread itself too thinly. Although £800 million is a lot of money, when it comes to substantial, world-changing projects of inquiry, it can soon go. It seemed for a time today that the budget would be rising not to £800 million but to perhaps £4 billion a year, in which case the advice of the Committee to—in the words of the book by the right hon. Member for Doncaster North—go big on a smaller number of projects may have been redundant, and we may have been able to do everything. However, it seems that that is not going to be the budget for ARIA, and the advice that the Committee has given the incoming chair and chief executive does stand: we should make sure that we do a few things well, rather than many things superficially.

On the subject of the chair and chief executive, leadership is crucial. Graham Stringer emphasised the difficulty and the importance of choosing them, comparing it to electing a Nobel prize winner. That is quite a high bar, but I hope we will find people equal to the task, and they should be encouraged. I hope that those people, when they are appointed, will come before our Select Committee, not because we want to tie them down in any way and to constrain them with bureaucracy, but quite the reverse: our Committee champions science—we are enthusiasts for science—and we want to understand the ambitions and the motivation of the new team.

Achieving stability for a long-term agency such as ARIA is of great importance. In a Parliament that is limited to five years, and when Governments change from time to time, finding mechanisms to entrench institutions and policies that are there for the long term can prove challenging. David Cameron thought that passing a law to require 0.7% of GDP for aid spending was a solution to precisely that, but we found that there are circumstances in which it is not possible to achieve that. In office, I set up the Industrial Strategy Council to inject a bit of stability, but that is not continuing. So these things are challenging. I know that the intention of Ministers and the whole House is to achieve longevity. I think how this very desirable objective can be implanted will require a bit of thought.

The reforms that are embodied in this legislation—low bureaucracy, risk taking and the ability even to fail—are important to encapsulate in ARIA, but that is not to say that the rest of the research landscape could not benefit from those reforms. I hope that the Minister’s appetite, demonstrated through the passage of the Bill, to reform science funding and find ways to do things better and vigorously will not be completely satisfied with the passage of this Bill, but that, with the Secretary of State’s enthusiastic support, she will apply herself to the funding landscape more generally in order to have that same principle of vigour there.

The proposal for this new research agency was included in our party’s 2019 election manifesto and then the Queen’s Speech at that time. Two years on, we are at the point of recruiting the chief executive and the chair, and sending the Bill to the other place to make further progress. I hope that the Lords will give it their customary scrutiny with rigour and enthusiasm, but that they will not detain for too long because this is an important institution, which we want to see up and running and strengthening further our great attributes in British science as soon as practically possible.

Photo of Stephen Flynn Stephen Flynn Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 9:16 pm, 7th June 2021

It is a pleasure to follow the Chair of the Select Committee, Greg Clark, and the shadow Secretary of State, Edward Miliband. The points that have been made by both, although varied, have certainly covered off many of the points that I would seek to address. I have no desire—and I am sure that Government Members have no desire—to hear many of the arguments that I have expressed previously tonight on Report, in Committee and on Second Reading.

I would like to place on record my thanks to all those involved in proceedings over the course of recent months. They have done an outstanding job, particularly those in the House Service. I also thank our research team—in particular Scott Taylor and Jonny Kiehlmann, who have been a tower of strength, and provided us with a great deal of assistance and information.

I do not intend to keep the House much longer, as I am keen to get home myself, so I will leave it at that.

Photo of Daniel Zeichner Daniel Zeichner Shadow Minister (Environment, Food and Rural Affairs) 9:17 pm, 7th June 2021

It is a pleasure to follow Stephen Flynn. On Report, I said that I would be brief because I was going to make a contribution on Third Reading, so I hope the House will accept my apologies for making a few points.

I have been on this Bill throughout its passage, as others have been. It has been a really positive experience as far as I am concerned. The only puzzlement to me is that the Bill was so perfectly drafted that it is in exactly the same state today as when we started; clearly it was impossible to improve. Now, I do not think that is the case. We heard some really important contributions, particularly during the evidence sessions. I echo the comments of my right hon. Friend Edward Miliband in hoping that improvements will be made in the other place and that the Government will listen to some of the suggestions.

I looked at the job adverts for the chair and chief exec. I am grateful to research professionals, as ever, for pointing this out this morning: a remarkably vague canvass is being painted. Tonight it is being presented as a great opportunity. We have had the discussions in Committee, but, frankly, all we really know about it is that this is a unique and unprecedented opportunity. The right person may be out there. I thought this point was well made by my hon. Friend Graham Stringer and referenced by Greg Clark. There may be such an exceptional person, but I rather suspect that, in the process of choosing whoever is to do the job, some of the issues that they will pursue will inevitably follow. I think that, as we trace it back, we will find that the decision to give direction and mission, which has been ducked by this House, will inevitably have crept in during that process.

To some extent, as the shadow Secretary of State picked up, there has been an elephant in the room in our discussion. During the entire process of discussing the Bill, there has been a background rumble of unhappiness in the research community as we have seen some of the issues around BEIS allocations unfolding. There was uncertainty in my constituency running through March as people were very worried about the ODA cuts; perhaps many of us had not quite appreciated just how much that money was being spent in our constituencies on research programmes. For large numbers of people, it was left to the very last with projects having to be cancelled.

One of the moments that will stick in my mind from the evidence sessions was when I asked the chief exec of UKRI

“if you had £800 million to spend…would you spend it on this?”––[Official Report, Advanced Research and Invention Agency Public Bill Committee, 14 April 2021; c. 13, Q8.]

Of course, it is all about the timing, because she is an impeccable and superb public servant. She hesitated just long enough before coming up with the right answer for the entire room to know that of course she would not—and nor would anyone else in the room.

If the money were genuinely new and extra, it would be a different debate from the one in which it is being taken from elsewhere. My worry—we are seeing this week in, week out with the rumours and debates about what is happening to Horizon Europe—is that it is deeply unsettling the research community. These are long-term issues, and I am afraid that they are doing huge harm.

My conclusion is that, if the funding is new and extra, of course we support it, but my fear is that over the months and years ahead it will get pulled into the general discussion and debate about where budgets are allocated from. It is all too familiar. Governments over many, many years have tried to lift spending on research and development, but sadly there is almost an inexorable law that we fail to do it. We need to do better in future.

There was also advice from the Americans about how to make this work, which was not really listened to. They have a model that seems to work in their system; whether it can be transported into ours is a moot point, but it is sad that we are not even listening to their advice.

Finally, it seems slightly curious that the Government continue to pursue a scheme that, basically, was pursued by a now discredited former adviser. I just hope that they will reflect, take the opportunity to change course, give this new idea a real mission, make that mission the climate emergency, and make something of it.

Photo of Mark Logan Mark Logan Conservative, Bolton North East 9:22 pm, 7th June 2021

How many times do we see politicians tweeting, Facebooking or, for that matter, speaking in the Chamber and saying, “I welcome—” or “It is with great delight that—”? The irony is that I have tried to ban such things from my previous external communications, but today I am both proud and delighted to welcome the Government’s Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill. Along with the Secretary of State, I thank everyone who has been associated with getting us to this unique moment this evening.

A framework in the future, as the Minister said, will ensure that all parts of the United Kingdom will benefit from ARIA, which is why I continue to extend my hand of friendship to ARIA for it to be headquartered in Bolton. Bolton is a town of invention. We have a steady supply of inventors, long-standing institutions of invention, the appropriate infrastructure for future inventions and the mother of all invention: I have already secured a premier office location in Bolton that is ready for ARIA to move in. Essentially, invention is in Bolton’s DNA, and ARIA is made for Bolton.

ARIA is not just for Bolton or for Britain, but for the world and for the brainchildren of tomorrow. Invention blossoms from competition and diversity, so ARIA needs a range of cultural backgrounds to catalyse that creativity. We have the human capital, and people will come from far and wide to this new centre of invention, from all walks of life. I very much welcome the job advertisement, which I think went live last week, for the position of CEO of ARIA.

In conclusion, we have the tools ready to welcome a world-class invention hub. I would welcome the opportunity to discuss the points I have raised with the Department, the ministerial team and, of course, the new CEO once they come on board. With that, I very much congratulate everyone who has been involved in getting us to this point this evening.

Photo of Sarah Olney Sarah Olney Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Transport) 9:25 pm, 7th June 2021

I promise not to detain the House much longer. On behalf of the Liberal Democrats, I welcome the Bill. We support all science and technology spending. We support what the Bill is trying to do, and we wish it safe passage through the other place.

I beg your indulgence, Madam Deputy Speaker, but I want to take just a couple of minutes to talk about my new clause on climate change and some of the other amendments on similar themes. I have listened to what those on the Government Benches had to say about why they did not want to support those amendments. Broadly speaking, that seems to be around not wanting the agency to be constrained in any way and wanting it to have full rein to take the science where it leads. Obviously, that is a laudable enterprise, but the point I wished to make in tabling that new clause was that nothing innovative can stand the test of time if it does not meet net zero targets or respond to the challenge of climate change.

If any of the new inventions or new research that come out of this new agency do not respond to that challenge, they cannot be a sustainable part of our future economy and society. That is why climate change has to be a baseline, and that is what I was trying to achieve. The need to tackle climate change is going to be a constraint anyway on the agency, so why not have that in the Bill?

During this debate, there has been a lot of reference to the vaccine roll-out, which has obviously been a great success. The research and how it has been carried out is obviously a fantastic example of science and technology really succeeding, but the key point is that the research and the vaccine were responding to a very clear and present challenge. The scientific community has responded amazingly, but the lesson to learn is that the science was responding to a challenge. We have no greater challenge ahead of us right now than tackling climate change. We will find, I believe, that even without the climate change amendments in the Bill, that is what the agency will be doing anyway. It will be responding to the challenge of climate change and it will need to take account of carbon emissions.

I briefly want to talk about scrutiny. I understand the reluctance to allow too much scrutiny and not allowing freedom of information requests. I know that scrutiny can sometimes be vexatious or opportunistic, but science answers questions. That is what science is for; that is the function of science, and it should never shy away from questions. At its best, scrutiny can be constructive and improving, and that can only be of benefit to the agency being set up by this legislation.

To sum up, we support the Bill. We absolutely want ARIA to succeed. We very much look forward to seeing what it can produce, and we support the Bill’s passage to the other place.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read the Third time and passed.