Topical Questions

Science, Innovation and Technology – in the House of Commons at on 15 November 2023.

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Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Conservative, Witham

If she will make a statement on her departmental responsibilities.

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

This week, the Secretary of State is building on the momentum from the artificial intelligence summit by meeting with key partners and policymakers in the United States, championing Britain’s leading global role in AI, space, tech, online safety, quantum and other areas. It is only two weeks ago that Britain convened 28 countries and the European Union at Bletchley Park to sign the world’s first agreement on tackling the risks of frontier AI. This followed the historic passage of the Online Safety Act 2023, which has been viewed across the world as the gold standard of online child safety legislation. The Secretary of State will be consolidating and accelerating Britain’s global advantage in these priority areas, ensuring that the special relationship grows even stronger when it comes to science and technology, and that the collaboration between our two countries—

Photo of Priti Patel Priti Patel Conservative, Witham

My right hon. Friend will know that the planned retirement of the public switched telephone network in 2025 will bring very significant concerns across rural communities, particularly in Essex—he will be familiar with that. Can he provide some assurance about the work that is under way between the Government and telecommunications providers to help improve services in Essex, particularly where we have poor broadband connectivity?

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

As I suggested earlier, the retirement of the PSTN land network is a decision for the industry, but the Government have a key role to play in ensuring vulnerable consumers are protected through the transition. I have regular meetings with communications providers and Ofcom to discuss progress on that.

With regard to Essex, I share my right hon. Friend’s concern—my constituency is the neighbouring constituency to hers—about the need to ensure that vulnerable constituents are protected. I can assure her that I will continue—

Photo of Matt Rodda Matt Rodda Shadow Minister (AI and Intellectual Property)

The Prime Minister has said that terrorist groups could use artificial intelligence to build chemical or biological weapons, but he has still failed to act decisively to regulate AI, even though the US and the EU are both taking action. Will the Minister tell the House whether the Secretary of State is using her current trip to the US to learn from the Biden Administration, or will our country have to put up with yet more dither and delay?

Photo of Saqib Bhatti Saqib Bhatti Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

The Government have always been clear that we will have a contextual and proportionate response to AI. I spoke to the Secretary of State yesterday, and it is very clear that the US sees us as global leaders and will be working with us.

Photo of Matt Vickers Matt Vickers Conservative, Stockton South

Teesside was built on steel and now, thanks to Ben Houchen, British Steel is bringing steelmaking back to Teesside. Green steel will be forged thanks to a new £1.25 billion arc furnace, leading the way in decarbonising our industries and bringing highly skilled jobs. Does my hon. Friend agree that any business looking to invest in green tech and energy in the UK should look to Teesside first?

Photo of Andrew Griffith Andrew Griffith Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

Teesside is a wonderful net zero powerhouse, and I commend the green steel project. That is one reason why Teesside was chosen to pilot the Innovate UK programme of launchpads, each of which will receive up to £7.5 million.

Photo of Carol Monaghan Carol Monaghan Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Education), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Science, Innovation and Technology)

I welcome the new Front-Bench team to their positions. Since November 2020, £1.1 billion of taxpayers’ money has been invested in the Rosalind Franklin Institute as a mega-lab to defend Britain against future pandemics. Can one of the new team explain why the mega-lab has been put up for sale?

Photo of Andrew Griffith Andrew Griffith Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

The Government are investing record amounts in innovation and research in technology, including across the life sciences sector. I will happily meet the hon. Lady to discuss this matter in more detail.

Photo of Andy Carter Andy Carter Conservative, Warrington South

What impact does the Minister think the passage of the Online Safety Act 2023 into law will have on children and families in Warrington South and across the country?

Photo of Saqib Bhatti Saqib Bhatti Parliamentary Under Secretary of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

As a father, this issue concerns me greatly. The Online Safety Act is the most powerful child protection law in a generation. All in-scope companies will need to take robust steps to protect children from illegal content and activity on their services. Those safety measures will need to protect children from harmful and age-inappropriate content and activity, such as bullying and content that promotes eating disorders and self-harm.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow DUP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office)

Will the Minister help to co-ordinate a comprehensive analysis of the most successful enterprise zones across the UK and the ways in which zones that have not been as successful can maximise the opportunities such zones provide, such as in Coleraine in my constituency?

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right to flag up the value that successful enterprise zones can bring to local communities. I want to see DSIT sectors benefiting as well, and I am happy to co-ordinate further with colleagues in other Departments to explore those opportunities.

Photo of Elliot Colburn Elliot Colburn Conservative, Carshalton and Wallington

Given the revolution in AI, what steps is my hon. Friend taking to ensure that young people in Carshalton and Wallington have access to the skills they need for the future?

Photo of Andrew Griffith Andrew Griffith Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

The Government are committed to ensuring that the UK has talent that supports research and innovation and drives growth. That is why we are investing millions in the brightest researchers through scholarships, PhD placements and fellowships in technologies such as artificial intelligence and quantum.

Photo of Alistair Carmichael Alistair Carmichael Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Home Affairs), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Liberal Democrat Spokesperson (Justice)

What are Ministers doing to ensure that Members of this House are not included in disinformation reports compiled by the counter-disinformation unit in their Department simply for being critical of the Government? Their own Back Benchers are particularly interested to know.

Photo of John Whittingdale John Whittingdale The Minister of State, Department for Culture, Media and Sport, Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that the counter-disinformation unit is there to flag up to platforms potentially misleading information, but it has no power to have it removed. I can give him an assurance that it does not identify any Members of this House or professional journalists.

Photo of Peter Aldous Peter Aldous Conservative, Waveney

Research and development tax credits have been remarkably successful in promoting investment by small and medium-sized enterprises. However, the Suffolk chamber of commerce has highlighted that the system has ground to a halt due to the sledgehammer approach of His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs to tackling fraud. Will my hon. Friend liaise with HMRC and the Treasury to ensure that a more pragmatic approach is adopted?

Photo of Andrew Griffith Andrew Griffith Minister of State (Department for Science, Innovation and Technology)

My hon. Friend is a champion of his constituency, and I am happy to speak to the Financial Secretary to the Treasury on that important matter on his behalf.