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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 6:45 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) 6:45 pm, 15th March 2017

My Lords, I thank all noble Lords who have spoken in favour of the amendments. I think we all share the sentiments that lie behind them.

Perhaps I may first deal with the interesting, rather technical point raised by the noble and learned Lord, Lord Wallace, about the scope of the matters in the Science and Technology Act 1965 that are reserved under the Scotland Act 1998. He raised it with me earlier in the week and I agreed to write to him on it if I can, as it is of a fairly technical, legal nature, and to put the letter in the Library for others to see if they are interested.

I acknowledge that I and the Government appreciate the sentiment of the amendments and the underlying concerns from those working in the devolved nations. It is essential that we continue to work together to secure for the long term the UK’s global reputation for excellence in research and innovation. This joint working happens on a number of levels, from regular informal discussions to formal partnership arrangements. Where appropriate, it can include the development of an MoU between the bodies, the devolved Administrations and their agencies and institutions.

There are many such arrangements at present, from ESRC’s MoU with the Scottish Government on the What Works programme to the MoU between HEFCE and the devolved funding bodies, which ensures the operation of the UK Research Partnership Investment Fund across the whole UK. There is even an MoU between BBSRC and the Scottish Government for the horticulture and potato initiative. These arrangements will continue and I can commit to new MoUs being put in place where appropriate. I know from my own experience that MoUs can be window dressing, but they can be of great substance—it varies, entirely depending on the intent behind them of both parties. I sometimes think that we are beguiled by an MoU, when it is the informal relationships that lie behind them which are often much more important.

As we have debated at length and agreed on a number of occasions, it is vital that UKRI, a body which will operate UK-wide, is empowered to work for the whole of the UK. Noble Lords do not need to take my word for this. Duties for it are built into the Bill—hardwired, if you like—in multiple clauses.

Let me make it clear that these reforms will not affect current funding access for institutions in Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland. As part of UKRI, the research councils and Innovate UK will continue to operate across the UK, funding projects through open competition on the basis of excellence wherever it is found.

On the UKRI board, the Bill as amended in the other place recognises that the Secretary of State has a duty to consider appointing at least one person with relevant experience of the devolved nations. This change means that the Bill already goes further than the current legislation, which makes no such requirement. Of course, this should not be taken to mean just one person. The search for UKRI board members now under way actively seeks suitable applicants with experience from across all nations of the UK. We want and are actively working to recruit a board that will have this broad experience. However, requiring experience of all four countries at all times could have potentially unintended consequences. If a member of UKRI’s board were to step down from their position, we would not want only to be able to recruit a like-for-like successor with the same background as their predecessor. Equally, we would not want to limit experience of each nation to just one individual on the board if the quality of applications is high. Such flexibility is essential to ensuring that the diversity and quality needed to deliver the best outcomes for research and innovation across the UK is present on the UKRI board at all times.

Amendments 193 and 194 ask that UKRI and the Secretary of State have regard to the promotion of research and innovation in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I agree wholeheartedly with the sentiment of these amendments. In fact, we already provided for UKRI to undertake this in its functions, described in Clause 89(1)(h), which says that UKRI may,

“promote awareness and understanding of its activities”.

However, the proposed drafting of these amendments limits the scope of this additional duty to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. I understand noble Lords’ admirable desire to ensure that the interests of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are suitably protected, but this should not be done at the expense of English institutions. Ministers’ responsibilities are to the whole UK, and the Secretary of State, and UKRI, should be held to account by Parliament on that basis.

I also share noble Lords’ desire that UKRI’s strategy should work for the whole of the UK. The strategy will be the product of consultation and engagement with research and innovation institutions and bodies from across the UK. Let me also assure noble Lords that this consultation will of course incorporate the views of the devolved Governments. However, the development of a full research and innovation strategy for the UK may be an infrequent affair. I have spoken to Sir John Kingman, chairman-designate of UKRI, and he agrees that regular consultation with the devolved Administrations on UKRI’s priorities would be a more appropriate way of ensuring their views are captured and taken account of regularly. This would be consistent with the MoU between the UK Government and the devolved Administrations, in which the principle of good communication with each other is key. The primary aim is not to constrain the discretion of any Administration but to allow them to make representations to each other in sufficient time for those to be fully considered. I commit today to putting this intention regularly to consult on strategy with devolved Administration colleagues into guidance from the department to UKRI.

I have been clear today that there are many areas where we expect UKRI to work with the devolved Administrations, and many areas where we have a common goal. I have committed to capturing this in guidance to UKRI. Therefore, I ask the noble Lord to withdraw his amendment.