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.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Lord Sharkey Lord Sharkey Liberal Democrat 6:07 pm, 15th March 2017

My Lords, I declare an interest as chair of the Association of Medical Research Charities. Government Amendments 159 and 164 mirror amendments that we put down in Committee. As the Minister said, they rectify the omission of the desirability of experience of the charitable sector in those appointed to UKRI. The charity sector plays a vital role in UK research. Medical charities alone spend £1.4 billion each year, 93% of which goes through our British universities. It is clear that UKRI needed to recognise the importance of engaging with and understanding the sector. Sir John Kingman and the Minister were quick to accept that. These amendments put that acceptance on the face of the Bill. We thank the Minister for that and enthusiastically support the amendments.

Amendment 165 responds to a Committee amendment from my noble friend Lord Willis and me. It increases the maximum number of members of research councils from nine to 12. In Committee, my noble friend Lord Willis confessed that in our proposal to increase membership we had chosen a completely arbitrary number. We simply wanted to tease out from the Minister the reasoning behind their proposal for what was then a truly radical reduction in the size of the councils to nine from an average today of around 15. I am not sure we really got an explanation then in Committee, and I am not sure we have had a rigorously defended explanation today of this new figure of 12. Perhaps it is simply an application of the Goldilocks principle. However, nine seems to us to be too few and much too radical a reduction. Twelve is better than nine and likely to cause less disruption to the working of the councils themselves, and we welcome the amendment.

Amendment 165A is in my name and those of my noble friend Lord Willis of Knaresborough and the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, whose support I am grateful for. As in Committee, the amendment would preserve the position of lay members on the research councils. As I pointed out, at the moment the existing councils have between 10 and 17 members, with an average of 15, of whom four or five are lay members, depending on how one defines “lay”. I am sure the Minister would readily acknowledge the importance of having lay members on the council and the valuable contributions they make, not least in combating magic circle groupthink. Our amendment would simply include in the Bill the requirement that councils have lay members. At a time when the membership size and constitutional and governance arrangements of councils are all being rewritten, we believe it is important that the Bill preserve lay membership. I hope the Minister can confirm the Government’s commitment to lay membership of councils, preferably by accepting Amendment 165A, but I am sure there are other means of doing that.

Finally, we welcome Amendments 179, 180 and 181, which helpfully clarify the areas to which the councils must have regard when exercising their functions. Amendment 181 is particularly useful. Its inclusion avoids imposing on councils what may be seen as exclusively economic obligations.