HC Deb 13 February 1995 vol 254 cc656-8
24. Ms Lynne

To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what proportion of the budget of the Office of Science and Technology is devoted to research into new technology geared to improving the lives of disabled people.

The Parliamentary Secretary, Office of Public Service and Science (Mr. Robert G. Hughes)

Some 0.4 per cent., which is more than £4.5 million. That is in addition to the money spent by the Department of Health, the European Union, by healthcare industries, the United Kingdom drugs industry and medical charities.

Ms Lynne

Is the Minister aware that more funding needs to be given to core research into environmental control systems, which will enable disabled people with very limited muscular movement to switch on gadgets with a minimum of effort? Can he tell me whether the Office of Science and Technology is prepared to put funding into that?

Mr. Hughes

That is not dissimilar from other questions from the hon. Lady and, indeed, from some Labour Members. Whereas of course I agree with the first part of the hon. Lady's question—about the importance of that research—the fact is that the freedom of the Medical Research Council to determine how best to commit its money and to decide which projects are backed has served it well for 80 years, and I do not intend to change from that.

Mr. Harry Greenway

Can my hon. Friend confirm that there is very valuable research into assistance and aid systems for disabled people at the Brunel university, which is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge (Mr. Shersby), and that it is low in cost and valuable in terms of production? Will my hon. Friend do all he can to encourage it?

Mr. Hughes

Yes, indeed. Also being a Member of Parliament for a constituency in north-west London, I recognise the very high reputation of Brunel university. It has had that reputation for a long time. The work is important, because we all know how it can transform the lives of people with disabilities, and it is important that as much money as possible goes into that research.

Mr. Battle

I am sure that we all agree that there is no better way to promote a positive understanding of the need for basic research in science and for technological development than improving the quality of lives for people with disabilities. Professor Stephen Hawking is an eloquent testimony to the best technology in the service of people with disabilities.

While the Minister proclaims that that work is important, are not reductions in the Department of Health's budget for near market research, which could enable people to hear, see and move better—not to mention the blocking of the Civil Rights (Disabled Persons) Bill—undermining his best efforts? Where is the Government's overall strategy in that respect?

Mr. Hughes

One thing has always been clear to me in terms of issues related to people with disabilities: playing to the gallery does them no good whatever. What is more important than that is that, last month, the Department of Health announced a new programme—Medlink—amounting to £8.5 million over five years, with the same amount being matched to that from industry. That is the sort of thing that helps, not the empty rhetoric that we have just heard.