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

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:15 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) 7:15 pm, 15th March 2017

My Lords, I start by expressing my gratitude to the noble Lord, Lord Krebs, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, who have worked so constructively with me and my colleagues over the past few weeks and months. I am also indebted to my noble friend Lord Willetts, whose written definition of the Haldane principle is, and will continue to be, a beacon for Ministers, setting out in detail this important principle and its practical applications.

The Government have been consistently clear in stating that the spirit of the Haldane principle, through various provisions, is already, to use the word of the noble Lord, Lord Mendelsohn, “hardwired” into the Bill. I am grateful to all noble Lords who spoke on this point at Second Reading and in Committee, many of whom asked for a firmer form of words that directly refer to the principle itself. I offered to reflect on this, and I am delighted to table Amendment 191. I hope noble Lords will be equally delighted to accept it. We have drawn from the first line of my noble friend Lord Willetts’s written statement to define the Haldane principle as the principle that decisions on individual research proposals are best taken following an evaluation of the quality and likely impact of the proposals, such as a peer review process. This amendment is hugely symbolic and an important protection for UK research by putting a reference to the Haldane principle in legislation for the first time.

Amendments 176 and 182 place a duty on the Secretary of State to consult formally before laying regulations to alter the names, number or fields of activity of the research councils. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, who asked for clarity on the point of prior consultation in Committee. I hope that these amendments overdeliver on my promise to address the noble Lord’s question. While this Government previously committed to consult before altering a council, these amendments will bind future Governments to this commitment.

Likewise, this Government have been consistent in their pledge to allocate separate budgets to each council of UKRI. I listened carefully in Committee to the calls from the noble Lords, Lord Patel and Lord Broers, and the noble Baroness, Lady Brown, for greater protections. I have reflected on their speeches, and in response the Government have tabled Amendment 188, which requires the Secretary of State, when making grants to UKRI, to publish the whole amount and the separate allocations that will go to each council. This will ensure complete transparency, from this Government and future Governments, on all funding allocations to UKRI and to the research councils, Innovate UK and Research England.

In Committee, my noble and learned friend Lord Mackay spoke passionately about the definition of “relevant specialist employees” in Clause 91. This provision is intended to ensure that the research councils may continue to recruit directly certain specialist staff who are employed in relation to a council’s field of activity. My noble and learned friend raised concerns that the current definition could lead to ambiguity for relevant staff who may not be considered by some to be researchers or scientists. I have reflected very carefully on the powerful case that he put forward, and I am very happy indeed to table Amendment 178 to address his points. This amendment draws on the language my noble and learned friend employed in his amendment in Committee and expands the definition to include any person with knowledge, experience or specialist skills that are relevant to the council’s field of activity who is employed by UKRI to work in that field of activity. I sincerely hope that this amendment alleviates the concerns of my noble and learned friend.

I look forward to hearing noble Lords speak on the other matters included in this group, and I will respond after they have had a chance to speak to these amendments.