Higher Education and Research Bill - Report (4th Day)

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:07 pm on 15th March 2017.

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Photo of Lord Prior of Brampton Lord Prior of Brampton Parliamentary Under-Secretary (Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy) 6:07 pm, 15th March 2017

My Lords, this is the first Bill that I have brought through the House of Lords to this stage, it having been through Committee, and I have to say that it has been a good experience. Everyone who has contributed can take some credit for having improved it considerably. For me, it is a good example of the value this House can bring to a Bill of this kind. Therefore, I thank all noble Lords who have contributed to improving the Bill.

I should like to start with the governance structures of UKRI and its councils. The issue of co-operation with the charitable sector was debated widely in Committee. Following the compelling argument put forward by a number of noble Lords—including the chair of the Association of Medical Research Charities, the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey—I am pleased to have tabled Amendments 159 and 164, which are also kindly supported by the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn.

These amendments will require the Secretary of State also to consider experience of the charitable sector on the equivalent basis to those other criteria in Schedule 9 when making appointments to the UKRI board. In doing so, we are recognising the vital contributions of charities to research in the UK, and ensuring that UKRI will be fully equipped to work effectively with this important sector.

In Committee, the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, tabled an amendment calling for an executive committee for UKRI. On that occasion, I was able to offer my reassurance that such a committee would be established. Now going a step further, we have tabled Amendments 168 to 171, which will include that in the Bill. Amendment 168 will also further empower the executive committee by enabling it to establish sub-committees, should it deem it necessary.

Also in Committee, a number of noble Lords made the case for increasing the maximum number of ordinary members on each council; including the noble Baroness, Lady Neville-Jones, and the noble Lord, Lord Willis, who drew on their own experiences as research council board members. Having listened to their concerns, we have now tabled Amendment 165 which will increase the maximum number of ordinary council members from nine to 12, thereby allowing individual councils greater flexibility for managing their breadth of activity, while still being mindful of best practice guidance on governance structures and board effectiveness.

While discussing the councils, allow me to introduce Amendment 167. In Committee, the Secretary of State’s power to make one appointment to each of the councils was questioned. This is an important power; in particular, it provides the mechanism to appoint an innovation champion who will sit on both the UKRI board and Innovate UK council. However, it is right that such appointments should be made in consultation with UKRI. This amendment seeks to address concerns by requiring the Secretary of State to consult the UKRI chair before making such an appointment.

Amendments 179 to 181 seek to address the concern, raised in Committee by noble Lords, including the noble Lord, Lord Sharkey, that UKRI may steer away from the pursuit of knowledge for knowledge’s sake, with the Bill being too narrowly focused on economic growth. As I did in Committee, I reassure noble Lords that UKRI will fund the full range of basic and applied research and will create opportunities to make serendipitous discoveries. I have tabled these amendments to make this absolutely clear. Amendment 181 explicitly recognises that the advancement of knowledge is an objective of the research councils. Meanwhile, Amendments 179 and 180 clarify that when councils have regard for economic growth in the UK, this may result in both indirect as well as direct economic benefit.