[Albert Owen in the Chair] — Science and Research

Part of the debate – in Westminster Hall at 10:39 am on 24th June 2015.

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Photo of Liam Byrne Liam Byrne Shadow Minister (Business, Innovation and Skills) 10:39 am, 24th June 2015

I will in a minute.

We have heard three clear policy priorities that I hope the Minister will attend to. The first relates to money. As we have heard this morning, Britain is seeing not growth but substantial decline in its science budget, yet we are at a crossover moment in global science spending. China will probably spend more on science this year than the EU28 put together. By 2019, China will spend more on science than the United States of America. Four of the 10 biggest tech firms in the world are now Asian. Shanghai’s results in the programme for international student assessment are well in advance of our PISA results here in the UK. We are now at a crossover point that we perhaps last saw in 1455, when the good jobs in the world were created in the east and the cheap labour jobs were created here in the west. If we are to guard against that, we must make more progress on funding.

The Business, Innovation and Skills Committee was absolutely right to say that the right target for science spending in this country is 3% of GDP. There is a cross-party consensus about that figure in Germany; Korea has already exceeded it; and it is the norm in parts of Scandinavia. What we need to see in the Budget in a couple of weeks’ time is the launch of a consultation by the Chancellor on the measures that would most effectively bring in private sector money. Some of those measures would be national policy, but, as we have heard this morning from my hon. Friends the Members for Southampton, Test (Dr Whitehead) and for Nottingham South, some would ensure that science begins to regenerate our cities and towns. This is about not just crowding global spending into the UK but making sure that we unlock the regenerative power in science throughout the country. I hope that one of the ideas put on the table as part of the consultation will be a radical expansion of university enterprise zones, which are a good idea that is currently confined to only four towns and cities in the UK. We should use university enterprise zones far more radically in the years to come.

Secondly, we need a new consensus on technical education. The Minister’s colleague, the Minister for Skills, has said that he is interested in agreeing high-level principles that would guide a technical education system for the future. We go through this crisis decade in, decade out in this country, and we have got to begin making progress. I suggest that the right place to start is by putting a serious submission to the Treasury that calls for the Chancellor to save our further education system. We will not be able to build a world-class technical education system if we kick out its spine, and as Alison Wolf made very clear this morning, that is precisely what is coming. We cannot build a world-class technical education system if we are shutting down further education colleges all over England and closing down adult education. That is a good place to start rebooting our technical education system for the 21st century.

Thirdly, we need changes to our immigration system, which we have heard a lot about this morning. We in Parliament should be calling for the free movement of scientists and students. That is the only way we will be able to make sure that this country is connected to the best brainpower, wherever it happens to be born. I was the author of the first post-study work visa when I was the Minister responsible for immigration. It was not perfect, but it was a lot better than the system that we have today. If we are to ensure that we train and educate the best students for the years to come, we have to look again at how we put in place a much better post-study work visa, and I would be happy to work with the Minister on getting that right.

Finally, I underline the call that my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central made for a new consensus in Parliament. Some 350 years ago, two groups of men from different sides of the political spectrum came together at Gresham College, on the site where Tower 42 now stands, in the constituency of Mark Field. On one side of the divide were the royalists and on the other side were the parliamentarians. At that moment in November 1660 they decided to put aside historic divisions and work together in the interests of science. The Royal Society was born on that afternoon after an astronomy lecture delivered by Sir Christopher Wren. We need such consensus again. If the royalists and parliamentarians could do it in 1660, the Labour party, Conservative party, Scottish National party and others could perhaps make the same move. I hope the Minister will work with us constructively and creatively, and I hope he will take to heart the points that he has heard this morning. Over the days and weeks to come, in the run-up to the Budget, he would do well to read again the excellent opening speech made by my hon. Friend the Member for Sheffield Central.