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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:30 pm on 15th March 2017.

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Photo of Lord Wallace of Tankerness Lord Wallace of Tankerness Liberal Democrat 6:30 pm, 15th March 2017

My Lords, I shall speak to Amendments 184, 193 and 194 in my name. Amendments 184 and 194 are supported by the noble Lord, Lord Patel. In many respects these amendments complement the amendment that has just been moved. I will describe briefly what they would do. Amendment 184 would require that, before approving a research and innovation strategy for UKRI, the Secretary of State would be obliged to consult the devolved Administrations. Amendment 193, which relates to Clause 100, would add an obligation to the general duties of UKRI to have regard to the promotion of research and innovation in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. Amendment 194 refers to guidance that would be given by the Secretary of State to UKRI. It states that the Secretary of State,

“must have regard to the promotion of research and innovation in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland”.

I apologise that I was not able to be here in Committee as I was abroad at the time, but I noted the debate and the amendments moved very effectively and eloquently by the noble Lord, Lord Patel. He emphasised that this is not special pleading for Scotland or any of the devolved parts of our United Kingdom, but rather seeks to address a situation where UKRI will have a remit right across the United Kingdom but, in respect of some parts of its business, will be focused on England only. We know that, with the best will in the world, if you are dealing day by day with one part it is sometimes easy not to have the full picture of—I do not mean ignore—what is going on in other parts of the United Kingdom.

We know from what has been said in previous debates that the contribution of Scotland’s universities to United Kingdom research and innovation has been immense. Scottish universities certainly punch well above their weight in terms of the research funding that they have received from the research councils. That is a mark of the quality of the research that goes on in Scottish universities and, in turn, of what they put back in to United Kingdom research and innovation. That is something I am sure we all wish to see continued.

There have of course been reassurances from the honourable Member for Orpington—the Minister, Mr Jo Johnson MP—and from Sir John Kingman that UKRI will work for the benefit of all parts of the United Kingdom. I do not for a moment doubt the sincerity of these aspirations and the personal commitment, but the principal of the University of Edinburgh—I declare an interest that it is one of my almae matres—Professor Tim O’Shea, said in a letter to Mr Jo Johnson on 17 February:

“I remain concerned that UKRI’s attention to devolution issues relies on personal trust rather than being hard-wired into the statutory framework of UKRI”.

These amendments would ensure that some of that hard-wiring was put in statute.

I read the Minister’s response to the debate on 30 January. I also express my thanks to him and his officials from meeting me earlier this week to discuss these amendments. In response to the amendment on statutory consultation he said:

“I disagree that this should be achieved by requiring the Secretary of State to formally consult with the devolved Governments on reserved UK government policy, which would undermine the whole devolution settlement”.—[Official Report, 30/1/17; col. 1004.]

With respect, there is a bit of hyperbole there; nor do I think it is wholly accurate, as I will deal with in a moment.

There is no doubt that important aspects of research and innovation are devolved. I recall when I had responsibility in the Scottish Executive as Minister for Enterprise and Lifelong Learning. The annual letter that I sent out to the Scottish Higher Education Funding Council referred to priorities, including priorities for research. Research and innovation are in a number of respects devolved matters. The Scottish Government put money into research and innovation in Scotland. This is not a situation where, as was perhaps suggested, having statutory consultation would trespass on a reserved matter. It is important that we have such consultation because important work in research will be going on with which the Scottish Government, or for that matter the Welsh and Northern Irish Administrations, are wholly cognisant.

The Minister’s department, BEIS, will be dealing day in, day out with what is going on in England. It will have a much better picture of what is going on in England, but it is no criticism that it will not be as familiar with the landscape of research and innovation in Scottish institutions. It would not be a very effective use of public funds if, through lack of proper consultation, it led to duplication or it cut across things that were being done in Scotland that could have been done much more effectively and efficiently if there had been that consultation.

My preferred option would certainly be that the Minister would accept the hard-wiring of a statutory requirement, but he knows that devolution has shown flexibility as it has proceeded. There are memorandums of understanding between the United Kingdom Government and the Scottish Government, and indeed the other devolved Administrations. I hope he would be willing to consider that a memorandum of understanding would be possible, if he does not feel that the statute book is the proper place for these requirements. Regarding the guidance that the Secretary of State would give to UKRI in Amendment 194, a commitment from the Minister that that guidance will not be in statute but nevertheless would include a direction to UKRI to have regard to the promotion of research and innovation in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland would be very welcome indeed.

I said that it was not wholly the case that these matters were reserved. The reservation in head C12 in Part II of Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act 1998 refers to:

Research Councils within the meaning of the Science and Technology Act 1965. The subject-matter of section 5 of that Act (funding of scientific research) so far as relating to Research Councils”.

That has been amended quite significantly. That amendment, passed by a Section 30 order under the Scotland Act in 2004, added the Arts and Humanities Research Council. When it was established it was not covered by the reservation in the Scotland Act 1998. I recall that when the then Higher Education Bill was going through this Parliament, I had to take the legislative consent Motion through the Scottish Parliament to allow the Arts and Humanities Research Council to apply in Scotland. There was subsequently an order—I think that it was the first ever order which reserved something which had previously been devolved back to the Westminster Parliament. My concern is that the minor repeals schedule to this Bill—it is a small-print detail—puts the work of UKRI into Schedule 5 to the Scotland Act. The Bill defines the functions of UK Research and Innovation as to,

“carry out research into science, technology, humanities and new ideas”.

That is probably quite right, because, as we stand here today in March 2017, we do not have a clue what kind of issues will be here in, let us say, March 2027, where it would seem perfectly right and proper for there to be research council activities. However, I do not see “new ideas” in the 1965 Act. Therefore, what I think is being done by this legislation is to extend the reservation. I am not sure that the legislative consent Motion picked that up. I do not think for a moment that it is a deliberate subterfuge or land grab, but I think that it has not been fully thought through. I invite the Minister to address that, because he knows that we are in sensitive times dealing with devolution and devolved and reserved issues.

My main point to the Minister is that he should recognise the different landscape—the different environment —for research and innovation. There is great merit in going forward as a United Kingdom, but the specific arrangements in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have to be catered for.