Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.Donate to our crowdfunder
I thank Mr. Hall for calling this debate, which I am delighted to speak to, not only as the Opposition Front-Bench spokesman, but because of my keen interest—I served on the Science and Technology Committee—in the STFC, its formation and the consequences of some of the decisions made through it. I am conscious of time and I want to give the Minister as much time as possible to answer some of the questions and queries raised, so I shall canter through my remarks as briskly as I can.
The science and innovation campus at Daresbury is doing excellent work involving a heady mix of businesses, scientists and organisations able to facilitate innovation. There is no doubt that innovation, and specifically scientific innovation, holds the key to our place in the world over the coming decades. However, we cannot consider Daresbury in isolation from the Government's overall policies and expenditure priorities laid down by Ministers. Without the base level of scientists, Daresbury could not perform its work as it needs to. However, over the past several months, Whitehall has delivered what I would call a Whitehall headbutt to scientists over science funding. There is no question but that the £80 million shortfall in the STFC's budget will impact on the work done through it throughout the country. Did the Minister provide that flat-cash settlement knowing that it would have the knock-on effects demonstrated in the paperwork released under freedom of information legislation? Did he know that his funding decision would have the impact that it did? I guess that the alternative is that neither he nor his Department were aware of it, which would be far worse.
I would like to press the Minister to tidy up the point about the redundancies at Daresbury. We understand that there are plans to close one of the light sources, which will result in 180 redundancies, but how many will there be overall and from which sources will they come? Will they be compulsory, voluntary or lost through natural wastage? What sort of numbers are we talking about? I appreciate that it might be slightly premature on one or two points, but it would be useful if he could tidy that up for us.
Ministers from the Department often seem to boast about the level of science expenditure, but the reality is rather different. While they talk about rising budgets, the P45s appear to be rolling out in several places around the country. About 25 per cent. of research grants will have to be cut over the next few years, until the next spending review. Will the Minister comment? Does he agree with the figure of 25 per cent. or does he have another one for the amount of research that is being cut back on or that will be unable to be delivered?
It is important that the Minister faces up to the fact that his and his Department's decisions have caused the pressures at Daresbury. There is no doubt that Daresbury does superb work in its various areas, from synchrotron and the core sciences to, more importantly, the innovation through its connection with the 60 or so businesses in the area. As a Labour Member observed here, innovation is the challenge for our nation today. We do reasonably well in research citations, but that needs to be converted into products, services and jobs that boost the economy. Daresbury is in a good position to help with that overall ambition.
I shall focus on three points before allowing the Minister to answer in detail. The first point is about the critical mass of scientists in and around Daresbury and whether that will impact on future projects. I quote from a sobering letter from 63 early career scientists:
"The major cuts in the STFC delivery plan will stifle the development of the future physics talent in this country by irrevocably damaging a large number of university physics departments...Consequently, both the inspiration that our ...outreach activities have on the younger generation...will be lost."
If the number of scientists employed or deployed at Daresbury falls below a certain level, all of the benefits from a science and innovation campus will fall away fairly briskly. Everyone knows about Oxford, Cambridge and the triangle, but without enough scientists at Daresbury, it is unlikely that businesses will be attracted to the region or that the vision of expanding innovation in the area will continue. Is the Minister aware of staff concerns, and other concerns raised in the House, that Daresbury might not survive without a critical mass of scientists? How would he address those concerns?
My second point is about comments made by Professor Martin Rees, President of the Royal Society, who made clear two related problems with Daresbury and the STFC. He said that
"the STFC has been constrained in its priority-setting by the Ministry, and...there was inadequate consultation with the relevant communities."
Ministers cannot undercut the STFC's budget and then scratch their heads and wonder why things are changing on the ground.
That brings me to my last and key point, which I shall put as a question: to what degree do Ministers have control over decisions made by the STFC? It seems that quite often Ministers boast about wonderful new projects and say, "We are responsible for the funding of this project, isn't it wonderful, give us a big clap", but that when something goes wrong and there are redundancies, they say, "Oh, this is a decision for the STFC or another body and it is nothing to with me, governor." For clarity, can the Minister make the decision on the fourth generation light source and where it is to be placed, or is that a decision for the STFC? Finally, does he have a regional science funding policy, and, if so, is he satisfied with the distribution, given that Labour Members have criticised the low level of distribution in the north-west?