Business, Innovation and Skills Questions

George Freeman answers back bench MPs’ questions.

Scientific Advice to Government

12. Valerie Vaz (Walsall South) (Lab): What steps his Department is taking to ensure that scientific advice carries appropriate weight across government. [905329]

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (George Freeman): UK leadership in science advice to Government is well recognised internationally. Most Departments have a chief scientific adviser, and many have science advisory councils and specific scientific advisory committees on selected subjects. My Department supports the work of the independent Government Office for Science, which works with Departments across Whitehall to ensure that their advisory systems are fit for purpose. The Government’s chief scientific adviser, Sir Mark Walport has close contact with both the supply and demand for science advice across government, and the Government Office for Science publishes guidance on the use of scientific and engineering advice in policy making and a code of practice for scientific advisory committees. Science advice is one of the things Britain does best.

Valerie Vaz: I thank the Minister for his response and welcome him to his post, but the fact is that the science budget has been eroded in real terms. The Minister with two brains was removed, and he had the support of the scientific community. Can the Minister explain how the Government Office for Science can be effective when the chief scientific adviser posts in the Department of Energy and Climate Change and the Department for Transport—two crucial Departments—remain unfilled?

George Freeman: I thank the hon. Lady for her welcome. She talks of cuts in the science budget. Let me put on record again the fact that the Government have protected and ring-fenced the science budget. Let me also take this opportunity to pay tribute to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr Willetts), who achieved that success in conjunction with the Chancellor. As for the two Departments that currently do not have scientific advisers, Sir Mark Walport and the Government Office are actively in the process of recruiting and putting in place arrangements to ensure that adequate scientific advice is available.

Ian Swales (Redcar) (LD): Scientists at Teesside university have come up with a unique method of detecting and ageing blood traces at crime scenes. Will the Minister ensure that that technology is fully used throughout the criminal justice system, and will he join me in congratulating Teesside university on once again being a finalist in the entrepreneurial university of the year awards?

George Freeman: I certainly join the hon. Gentleman is congratulating his constituents on the work that they are doing. Let me also emphasise the importance of Government procurement in supporting innovation, which is one of the Government’s key priorities.

Barry Gardiner (Brent North) (Lab): The Minister rightly spoke of the importance of having scientific advice available, but it must of course be based on scientific evidence. As he will know, last year the Government consulted on proposals to stop local authorities gathering evidence on the scientific effects of air pollution in their areas. He will also know that, just this year, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has said that it will not collect any future scientific data on the badger culls that are taking place. Will the Minister ensure that data that are important as bases for scientific advice are collected across Government?

George Freeman: It is a bit rich for Opposition Members to talk about cuts when we have protected the science budget. We inherited one of the worst crises the public finances, and we have a duty to correct it.

This country is internationally respected for the level of scientific advice that we put into policy making. Across the board—on badgers, on genetic modification, and on all the other difficult issues that we face—we are basing policy on the best scientific advice. [Interruption.] It ill behoves Opposition Members to criticise our approach. They set the standard in taking advice from spin doctors; we take advice from scientists.

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Topical Questions

T5. [905340] Oliver Colvile (Plymouth, Sutton and Devonport) (Con): As my hon. Friend knows, Plymouth is the host of the Peninsula medical school. In the light of the Ashya King case, in which Ashya’s parents had to flee to another country to get treatment for him that was not available in the UK, what plans does he have to accelerate research into new drug and medical technology?

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills (George Freeman): My hon. Friend makes an important point. That case highlights the importance of Britain remaining at the forefront of medical innovation. To that end, we have set out our groundbreaking 10-year life science strategy, and I pay tribute to my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Havant (Mr Willetts), for that. My central mission in this new role is to ensure that Britain leads the world and is the best place in the world to develop 21st century medicines and health care technologies.

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Andrew Jones (Harrogate and Knaresborough) (Con): What is the Department doing to make the UK a better place to do business for our already strong pharmaceutical sector? I am particularly thinking about encouraging clinical trials and bringing forward new medicines, which of course will benefit not only our economy, but patients receiving treatment in our NHS?

George Freeman: My hon. Friend makes an important point. As a Minister in the Department of Health and in BIS, it is my job to make sure that we are building a landscape in which the UK is the best place to get quick access to patients, tissues, data and trials. Unless we can get innovations to patients more quickly, not only will we let them down, but, more importantly, we will not attract the investment into 21st century health technologies that we and our patients need.

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