The Councils of UKRI

Part of Higher Education and Research Bill – in a Public Bill Committee at 10:45 am on 18th October 2016.

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Photo of Gordon Marsden Gordon Marsden Shadow Minister (Education) 10:45 am, 18th October 2016

We now move on to some of the meat of an area which has developed quite a head of steam: the relationship between UKRI and the councils. We have previously talked today about some of the ways in which UKRI might devolve its powers, and the Minister has been helpful regarding the councils, but the devil is always in the detail of parliamentary scrutiny.

There is considerable disquiet about some of the blanket powers that the new body UKRI may have and, indeed, that the Secretary of State may give him or herself. This is not a comment on any particular Secretary of State, or any particular universities Minister. If we are to make good legislation, we need to work to the potential scenarios that are most difficult rather than to the simplest ones. If everything went simply in government we probably would not need to think about this, but of course things do not always go simply.

I come back to the reputational issue, which I touched upon earlier when commenting on the amendments tabled by the hon. Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath. We are at a critical period in our higher education history because of the big question marks over Brexit, and the lesser—although still significant—question marks over the machinery of Government changes. We should be doing everything we can to reassure the academic community and indeed the broader business community. We should not propose changes, potential changes or potential shutdowns that will cause problems. It is all very well for Ministers to say, “Well, this would never happen,” or, “It would be dealt with in guidance,” or whatever, but I am sure that we can all think of examples over the years where changes in legislation have set off great concern and scepticism, and in some cases had very bad financial and economic consequences involving overseas investors and overseas academic institutions.

We are debating this Bill at a time when our researchers, our research institutions and research bodies in our universities are being put under severe pressure and are concerned about their future relationship with organisations within the EU. It is highly relevant to changes that might be made to the councils of UKRI that changes in the EU or changes in our relationship with our EU partners do not necessarily have an adverse effect only on relationships with the EU, of course. They have, or can have, an adverse effect on relationships with other international institutions. At a Royal Society fringe meeting at our party conference last month at which I was present, comments were made by Professor Hemingway to the effect that when we think about these sorts of things, we also need to think about the implications for research in francophone Africa or lusophone Latin America, for instance, in terms of what we need to do to maintain our relationships there.

All these things are connected and related. That is why apparently arcane issues around the Secretary of State being allowed to change the name or responsibility of the council by issuing a statutory instrument subject to the affirmative procedure are important. Behind that dry statement lie some of the issues that I have described. As far as I can see, the Bill does not require the Secretary of State to undertake any public consultation before changing the name or responsibilities of a council. We have already had some discussion about the merits or otherwise of automatically deleting references to the Privy Council from the structures and architecture of the Bill, and the OFS in particular. The Government declined to think creatively about ways in which the Privy Council might be a backstop.

The Royal Society is particularly concerned about this, as are most of the major research-intensive university groups. It is worth the Committee reflecting on the Royal Society’s position statement.

“The landscape of Research Councils has changed over time. The Bill giving the Secretary of State the authority to change their number, name, and fields of activity through a statutory instrument is a pragmatic reflection of this. While this change is reasonable, both Parliament and the research community should be able to inform and scrutinise properly any major proposed changes to Research Councils’ form and function. The Society believes the Bill should include a duty for the Secretary of State to consult with the research community on any proposal for major Research Council reform.”

It says it should include a duty, not a possibility. I emphasise those words because I do not want the Minister to come back with the boilerplate response that if the Secretary of State had to consult on all these matters, he or she would not get anything done. We are not suggesting that and nor is the Royal Society. It is saying there should be a duty to consult on a proposal for any major research council reform.

The issue has also been taken up by MillionPlus and the Russell Group. The Russell Group specifically sought clarification that the affirmative procedure must be used to change the councils. That is not a point we have included in any amendments but it is certainly a concern that the Minister should strongly focus on.

We have tabled these amendments to emphasise the vital role of consultation, not simply because it is the right thing to do, but because if it is not done there will be negative effects on our economy, the wider world’s perception of us, the status of our research councils and the flourishing of UKRI, which we all want to develop strongly in its formative years.