HC Deb 01 May 1996 vol 276 cc1061-80

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Conway.]

9.34 am
Mr. David Shaw (Dover)

The United Kingdom has an amazing history—indeed, it has an illustrious history—of inventiveness. Over the years, many people have moved not only this country but the world forward. We have had world-beating inventions for many years. I shall draw hon. Members' attention to some of the inventions that Britain has made in the past 100 years. This country has produced products that have significantly changed the world.

Today, I am grateful for the opportunity to raise the issue of British invention and innovation. From time to time, hon. Members should acknowledge the skills and the abilities of many individuals who have helped this country and who have developed our industries and businesses as a result of small ideas which often had in their back rooms and in their garden sheds.

I shall refer to a small selection of British inventions over the past 100 years. In 1847, Charles Babbage effectively laid the foundations of the modern computer. It is difficult to believe that the computer is slightly more than 100 years old—one tends to think of it as a modern and up-to-date invention. In 1884, Edward Butler invented the motor cycle—obviously, the forerunner of today's motor cars. In 1895, Lord Rutherford managed to get radio signals to go one mile at Cambridge—that was the foundation of modern radio. Today, we listen to radio programmes that either excite or depress us.

In 1901, Hubert Booth invented the vacuum cleaner. I do not wish to be sexist, but that invention has changed the lives of women—and possibly a few men as well. In 1902, Dr. Lanchester invented the disc brake, primarily for the aircraft that were beginning to come into being. That invention has had great significance for the motor car and without it, many lives would not be saved today. While on the subject of lives being saved, I cannot fail to recognise that Sir Alexander Fleming invented penicillin in 1928. In 1926, John Logie Baird—a Scotsman; I am pleased to be able to mention Scotland—invented the television, something that has had a major effect on everyone's lives. People cannot grow up today without television having some effect or impact on their lives.

Mr. Adam Ingram (East Kilbride)

It is in the House of Commons.

Mr. Shaw

The hon. Gentleman points out to me that television has had an impact in the House of Commons, some 60 years after its invention.

The cat's eye, invented by Percy Shaw in 1934, is of great significance in relation to safety. It is difficult to think of those little light reflectors in the road as an enormous invention or innovation, but they have transformed motor transport around the world in terms of increasing safety.

In 1936, Frank Whittle invented the jet engine, which has transformed the approach to global living. As a result, each year, many millions of people engage in tourist activity, business activity, and other activities—numbers that were not previously considered possible.

I move on to 1959, when Sir Alec Issigonis was the author of what was more a great British innovation than an invention. The motor car was already in existence, but Sir Alec Issigonis thought up the concept of the mini-car—a revolutionary approach to the way in which cars were thought of at the time, and an example of what innovation, rather than invention, is about. Innovation is about change; about suddenly having the insight to grab hold of an existing invention and do something with it that has not been done before.

The motor car had been in existence for many years before 1959, but Sir Alec Issigonis took hold of it and said, "We need something new; something different." The motor car had been growing larger, but Sir Alec Issigonis reversed that trend. He counterthought, and his idea was in the opposite direction to the way in which innovation had been going until that time, but no one would deny that he was a man of his times, because the mini-car turned out to be the start of a new design trend. Motor cars are becoming smaller, producing great fuel-saving benefits.

While I am on the subject of minis, it would obviously be inappropriate not to mention Mary Quant, who is credited with inventing the mini-skirt in 1964. That is significant in relation to innovation and invention. I have always considered the fashion industry in this country to show great creativity, and that should be recognised.

I believe that many people are not aware of the significance of one specific scientific invention, because it tends to be much closer to the laboratory, but it is significant nevertheless. In 1944, Mr. Martin and Mr. Synge invented something called paper chromatography, which involves the ability to separate out complex chemicals. As a result, we have been able to analyse a multitude of substances for the benefit of mankind, in the pharmaceutical and consumer industries. I spent some time in my youth in a research laboratory, using chromatographic techniques on spearmint to ensure that our toothpastes today could be better flavoured than they were 30 or 40 years ago.

Those inventions, whether they took place in the laboratory, the back yard or the garden shed, have all developed into major, world-beating inventions. It has been suggested that 55 per cent. of all major inventions since the second world war have come from this country, compared with about 25 per cent. from the United States and 5 per cent. from America.

It was suggested to me—regrettably, it is one of the statistics that one cannot precisely prove—that about half the world's trade today is based on British inventions. I should think that much depends on whether one includes the motor car in that, but whether or not half is correct, the point is that a substantial part of world trade today is based on British inventions. We punch well above our weight in terms of our ability to develop inventions and have them accepted as a fundamental part of world trade.

If we are to go on leading the world, we must recognise that there is always more to be done and that more effort and energy is always needed from Government, from us as individuals and from the public at large. Indeed, one of the depressing factors about discussing inventions and innovation is that the public attitude towards inventions in this country appears sometimes to be very negative. Our inventor: always appear to be struggling to produce their inventions against the odds, and we often criticise ourselves for not being willing enough to accept new inventions and innovation.

It is one of the perversities of this country that, for all the negative aspects, our inventors struggle away and seem to overcome the negativism, and often produce bigger and better inventions as a result of the negativity. Nevertheless, that negativism is a problem and needs to be overcome, because many of our inventions are exploited overseas. However much Governments—of any political persuasion—do, we are confronted with the problem that an awful lot of inventions end up overseas.

I understand that some of the research that I quoted earlier has been carried out by JETRO—the Japanese equivalent of the Department of Trade and Industry. The Financial Times recently studied worldwide statistics and information on inventions, and carried an article suggesting that we are losing about £165 billion a year from our gross national product because, over the decades, we have been unable to take advantage of all our inventions in the way that we should have done. We need to examine whether there are ways in which we can bring that gross national product, that world trade, back to the United Kingdom—whether we can do more to develop our inventions.

I have no quarrel with the Government about whether the United Kingdom Government are supporting British inventions and inventiveness. Any Government who are putting more than £5 billion a year—in fact, about £6 billion at today's prices—into annual research and development, are putting a very large sum into advancing new inventions and inventiveness in the United Kingdom.

Although about 42 per cent. of that money is spent by the Ministry of Defence on military inventions, we should never forget that some of the greatest inventions of our time, and those that have had some of the biggest consumer impact, have been inventions designed for the military.

The Internet, of which we hear much these days, was designed for the United States military, but the British military has been involved in using and developing it, and much of the development of the information super-highway is now taking place in the United Kingdom because we have been quick, in this instance, to take advantage of those inventions from America, and there is no reason why we should not occasionally play the Americans at their own game.

Government help is available in many different forms. I wish to acknowledge the Government's most recent new initiative—the information society initiative, for which about £35 million is to be made available in recognition of the fact that the information super-highway will be enormously important, not only to this country, but to the world.

The information society initiative, which the Government have brought into being in only the past few weeks, recognises that the communications and telecoms and information technology sector in this country is expected to grow to at least 10 per cent. of United Kingdom gross domestic product not long after the year 2000. Based on current trends—many of the projections in that sector are often underestimates—the super-highway will be a world-changing new invention and innovation as it develops, with worldwide networks, and we need to ensure that the United Kingdom gets a considerable share of the benefits. I am very pleased that there has been a substantive initiative by the Government, to ensure that British business can take advantage of that.

After this debate, at the Conservative political centre, my hon. Friend the Minister for Science and Technology will launch his pamphlet on the information super-highway. I shall be in attendance, to support something which is enormously important and which, I hope, will ensure that a much wider audience becomes aware of what the information super-highway is about.

In the remainder of my speech, I should like to concentrate on the United Kingdom's smaller inventors—one of the purposes behind the debate. I was able to attend a reception organised by The Daily Telegraph last December at the natural history museum. I was grateful to be invited, as the event was designed to promote invention and innovation. As a result of attending that reception, I met not only a number of people in the media who were interested in inventors and invention, but one or two inventors.

One of the inventors who stimulated my interest was Trevor Baylis, who invented the clockwork radio that does not rely on electricity. I shall later explain why that invention is important.

Before I talk about the individuals I have met since then, I should mention that there is a 75-year-old institute in this country for inventors called the Institute of Patentees and Inventors, which was set up with the approval and assistance of the forerunner of the Department of Trade and Industry. It is a non-profit-making organisation, with subscribing and non-subscribing members of the public. It is also supported by, and gives information on complex issues relating to invention and innovation to, small manufacturing enterprises, medium-sized companies, educational establishments and many other organisations and businesses.

The institute receives an enormous number of inquiries from the public. Many people in this country invent things. Sadly, some people's inventions are not up to the standard required in the marketplace, but some people have genuine inventions that they do not know what to do with. They somehow find their way to the Institute of Patentees and Inventors. One problem for the institute is that it has too many inquiries from the public to handle. Its budget in the past few years has been only £35,000 a year, and it has had to exist on virtually nothing. It has been providing a service to vast numbers of the public and, as a consequence, it has been difficult for it to focus on helping individual inventors to any great extent due to its role as a public service.

I was pleased when the Department of Trade and Industry recently announced that it had given an award of £10,000 a year towards the institute's annual costs. While I am delighted that that sum is to help British invention, I urge the Department, within its sizeable budget—1 recognise that it is not enormous in relation to many areas of government—to see whether it can edge up that budget slightly in future years. I do not think that many Ministers or hon. Members on either side of the House would begrudge £10,000, or even £20,000 or £30,000, being spent on helping British invention and innovation.

The institute has made another application to the Department of Trade and Industry because it wants to publish an updated version of its directory of contacts for inventors and innovators, so that they can be best informed of the amazing help available to them in this country. Inventors often do not know what is available and desperately need a contacts directory. The institute is going on the worldwide web—I believe that it has some trial pages and intends to ensure that a lot of information can be disseminated to inventors via the worldwide web.

It is important to look at ways in which the institute can be supported in its work. I fervently hope that it will be able to develop further into a royal academy. Here, I return to Trevor Baylis, whom I met at the reception held by The Daily Telegraph. When Trevor discovered that I was a politician, he wanted to explain not only his invention to me, but his ideas for a royal academy for inventors and innovation. He sees it as fundamental to helping inventors to bring their great British inventions to the marketplace.

I should explain why Trevor sees the academy as so important by giving him a little publicity for his invention. It is a remarkable invention and, clearly, not many people had thought of it. Trevor developed the clockwork radio in order to help to put radio into the third world. He developed it so that it could be used in areas with no electricity. He suffered a number of rejections during the development process. He says that such rejections humiliate one as an inventor when trying to get an important invention off the ground.

One of the other aspects of invention is that one never knows where help will come from. In Trevor's case, help came from the BBC World Service. When the World Service studied his invention, it recognised its importance for the third world and decided that it would be sensible to introduce Trevor to the BBC programme, "Tomorrow's World", in a final attempt to help him to secure the funding that would allow his invention to go into production. It was a make-or-break move for a great British inventor, and if it had not succeeded, the idea would have been lost abroad.

Fortunately, as a result of his going on "Tomorrow's World", the invention secured some financial backing and supporters. As a consequence, 1,000 radios a day are currently being produced in South Africa and there is a demand for many times that number. Many of the purchasers are charities and, in a short period, the turnover could well approach £30 million a year, with some of the benefit returning to this country. I am pleased to say that the Government have been giving their support, and Baroness Chalker, in her role as Minister for Overseas Development, has been very much involved in helping to establish, with the British embassy in South Africa, the initial production factory. President Mandela has taken a great interest in the invention and has met Trevor Baylis.

That is an example of one small British inventor, operating from Eel Pie island in Twickenham—from what is virtually a garden shed. That makes one think how one can succeed in getting a British invention from a garden shed in Twickenham all the way around the world. It is a difficult task, which is why Trevor believes that we need a royal academy, where inventors could not only get together with other inventors to share their experiences, but meet entrepreneurs and others capable of helping them to develop their inventions.

Inventors occasionally meet the wrong sort of entrepreneurs and suffer what might proverbially be called the rip-off. A royal academy would prevent the rip-off and enable inventors to meet people who could assist them in developing their inventions. It is difficult to take an invention from a dream to a successfully marketable product. We must do more to ensure that our inventions reach the marketplace.

I shall briefly mention two other inventions of great relevance. I have no commercial interest in either of them, or in Trevor's invention, but they are worth mentioning. The first invention won the prize at the recent exhibition sponsored by The Sunday Times at the Barbican, which I was able to attend. I was pleased to see 150 British inventions there and I wish that I could mention them all in the debate.

The rules of the House do not allow me to produce an object in the Chamber unless I describe it for Hansard. This invention, which is definitely worth mentioning, consists of a map that is printed at 6 million dots per inch. It is printed so well that it is possible to carry maps of the whole United Kingdom on a few postcards in one's pocket. The invention comprises not only the maps, but the viewer that I hold in my hand. It has been designed carefully to allow the map to rest on a curvature in the viewer, which ensures that the magnifying glass eye-piece is always at the correct angle. That is the skill behind the invention as it was explained to me. I hope that I have done credit to its inventor, Jeffrey Woolf, in describing it.

The viewer went into production this week. It will be useful to those of us who get lost when driving around the countryside, as we shall be able to keep maps of the whole country in a small box in our glove compartment. More significantly, hon. Members will recognise the benefits for our military forces, which will have access to maps of the world on a few postcards. The invention has advantages for use in both civil and military life, and Jeffrey Woolf has done an enormous service to this country.

Although Jeffrey Woolf has been able to get that invention off the ground, he has at least one other invention that would also benefit this country. He has invented a revolutionary windscreen consisting of two pieces of glass with a see-through liquid in between. The liquid remains transparent while the car is under the control of its owner, but if someone breaks into the car and attempts to steal it, the liquid becomes opaque and it is impossible to see out of the windscreen. One may think that that is a brilliant invention that many people in the United Kingdom would wish to purchase in order to improve the security of their car. Sadly, to date, no British company has offered to take up Jeffrey's invention. At present, he is talking to a Belgian company and an American company that have expressed interest in his invention. I hope that a British company will come forward and back it in due course.

We should recognise that some of our inventors have slightly strange images. I hope that Joshua Silver, an academic at Oxford university, will forgive me for describing how he introduced his invention to me. Joshua is sub-warden of New college, Oxford and is undoubtedly a first-rate academic. However, I thought his invention a little odd when I first saw it. How would hon. Members feel if they were approached by someone wearing a pair of goggle-like spectacles with syringes hanging on either side? I am sure that they would wonder what was coming.

In fact, the invention is a third-world eye test. Some parts of the third world do not have electricity, so the conventional eye tests that we have when we go to an optician cannot be performed. Joshua's invention works by pouring water into the syringes on either side of the goggle-like spectacles. One then squirts the water from the syringes into the goggles in order to move the lenses apart and create the number of dioptres that the person looking through the goggles needs in order to see properly. The invention allows eye tests to be performed in the third world without the use of electricity and conventional optical equipment. It is a very imaginative invention. Estimates show that at least 1 million people in the third world need spectacles, so it has enormous market potential. One might describe it as an eye-opening invention.

There are many other inventions to which I should like to refer. When I visited the inventions exhibition, I was enormously impressed by the material that warms up when an electric current is passed through it. Many people will say that the seats in their Swedish motor cars do that also. However, anyone who has sat in those seats will know that the filament that warms the seat is a wire that leaves a funny looped pattern on one's back. A British inventor has threaded the wiring through the material so that it warms the entire surface. The invention has benefits not just for car seats, but for diving suits and for use in industry, when people must be kept warm in adverse conditions. The material is called Gorix and I hope that a British company will develop it. However, when I spoke to its inventor at the exhibition, he told me that an American company was considering using it in car seats.

I was enormously impressed by another incredibly simple invention that has stayed in my mind: a safety lock for curtain rails in hospitals. Apparently 3,000 people die each year by strangling on curtains in hospitals. The safety lock is designed to break when a human's weight is put on a curtain. We must consider how we can do more to promote British inventions and innovation. We must try to produce those inventions in Britain and put them on the market.

I referred earlier to the work of the Institute of Patentees and Inventors. It is only fair that I mention also the chief executive of the institute, Paul Ambridge, who has devoted his life to supporting British invention and innovation. He works for the institute for no remuneration, except expenses, and he organised the exhibition at the Barbican to which I referred. I believe that we should examine the honours list in that context. The Prime Minister has called for the awarding of honours to a wider group of people, and it has occurred to me that British inventors and innovators have not appeared on our honours lists in recent years. A few have been recognised over the years, but I ask the House to consider also the fact that more than 100 civil servants receive honours each year.

We honour our business men who have clawed their way to the top of their field and who do much to promote British business overseas. However, we do not often honour the inventors who invent the products that those business men sell overseas. Perhaps we should be congratulating, supporting and honouring some of those imaginative people who never become millionaires. They have produced many small inventions over the years that are of tremendous benefit to this country, and I hope that the Government will consider recognising a number of our great inventors in future honours lists.

I draw attention also to the great British fashion industry. Some years ago, before I entered Parliament, I was financial adviser to one of Britain's prominent fashion designers. One day after I had given her an accountancy lecture, she said, "I wish that they had taught me that at fashion school." That made me reflect on the fact that there are few £500 million companies in the British fashion industry, although we have some of the best fashion designers in the world. Some of them are world beaters. They are fantastic at developing new ideas and imaginative products. I referred earlier to Mary Quant and the mini-skirt in 1964, but there have been many developments since then.

Although the Prime Minister recognises our designers by holding a regular reception and party at 10 Downing street on the eve of British Fashion Week, we still do not have major multinational businesses on the scale of Versace and Cardin. How can we achieve that? Perhaps the answer is in training, as the fashion designer I helped told me. We should consider whether fashion schools should teach more managerial, financial and marketing skills. Fashion students are taught a great deal about creative design, but not much about the practical aspects of getting the products out into the marketplace. Trevor Baylis made the same point when he wrote to me promoting the concept of a royal academy for invention and innovation as a practical bridge between the inventor and getting a product out into the marketplace.

We need to promote British invention and innovation, to bring benefit to the country. There should be more awards and competitions recognising British invention and innovation. Recently, an American millionaire established a new foundation within the Massachusetts Institute of Technology with a view to helping American invention and inventiveness. That was private sector money. We could do more to encourage people to work with British universities and set up competition and award schemes to help inventors and university graduates.

Our universities should provide more training in the practical aspects of invention and innovation. There should be finance and marketing courses for young graduates considering a career in scientific invention, to help them get their inventions out of the laboratories and into the marketplace.

We also need to educate our children, and we should consider whether the national curriculum should cover invention and innovation to encourage schoolchildren to think of new ideas. Many inventors succeed because they have a childlike ability to think across subjects as well as to think logically. Perhaps we should do more to encourage our children in that direction.

We need to do more in regard to finance—which is my background and that of my hon. Friend the Minister. Inventors always complain about the difficulties of getting access to finance. I suggest that the contacts directory that the Institute of Patentees and Inventors plans to produce and the encouragement of venture capital in Britain—where it is better than anywhere else in Europe—could do a great deal to make it easier for inventors to obtain finance.

We need to do more about marketing, development and encouraging inventors to get their products into the marketplace. It does no harm to learn from missed opportunities. One does not have to be political to recognise that it can be useful to learn from one's mistakes. Governments of both political persuasions have had opportunities to do more.

We could do more to develop our institutions, some of which are a little stodgy in their approach. Inventors and innovators should be more welcome. We need greater recognition of inventors and innovators in the awards and honours each year. I hope that the royal academy that I mentioned earlier might be considered for funding by the Millennium Commission. Although one proposal that was backed by the excellent magazine Inventors World did not succeed in getting millennium money, I hope that people will agree that, in the year 2000, Britain should do something to celebrate British invention and innovation. I am talking about not a one-off building, event or activity, but something that might remain in existence for many years and could be visited by hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people. We need something to inspire the thoughts of many people towards invention and innovation.

I also hope that we can do more to use new technology, such as the worldwide web, to promote invention and innovation. We have a long way to go, although we started from a very good base. It would be sad if Britain did not continue to develop our inventions. We need to be alongside the United States of America and Japan as one of the world leaders in invention. I hope that the Government and the Opposition will produce ideas to support that proposal. I hope that something like a royal academy will be established, and I look forward to my hon. Friend's comments.

10.15 am
Mr. Adam Ingram (East Kilbride)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) on securing the debate. The fact that he did not have sufficient time to cover everything demonstrates the need for more parliamentary time to be allocated to the subject, which is crucial to the competitiveness of British industry.

The hon. Gentleman set out a formidable list of inventions and discoveries by British scientists and inventors. I do not recall whether he mentioned the discovery, by a British scientist, of the electron in 1897—a discovery from which so much scientific and technological work derives. The hon. Gentleman asked for a number of Government initiatives. I am sure that he will join me in proposing the issue of a commemorative stamp next year, marking the centenary of the discovery of the electron.

The Government have a key role to play in creating the conditions for encouragement of invention and innovation. It is clear from his comments today that the hon. Gentleman recognises the importance of that role. The hon. Gentleman is not renowned for commitment to proactive government, believing instead in minimal, "could not care less" government. He is known for belonging to the "get government off our back" school of thought. Therefore, it is good news that he is prepared to modify that quaint and damaging philosophy in regard to invention, innovation and related technological activities. I agree with much of what he said and I anticipate the Minister's response with interest.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned the invention by Trevor Baylis of a new radio which can be used in remote parts of the world and would allow those regions access to the BBC World Service. It is a pity that, although a British invention is on the front line of radio communications, the Government are cutting back on the message that we want to impart. Invention and innovation are essential to a strong, wealth-creating economy. They are also important in improving the quality of life through the provision of life-enhancing and life-giving drugs and of modern means of mass communication and the solving of environmental problems in Britain and elsewhere.

As the hon. Gentleman said, Britain has an enviable reputation for the number and quality of its inventors and innovators. That reputation goes back to the beginning of the industrial revolution and continues to the present day. It has to be accepted, however, that too many of the ground-breaking inventions discovered in this country were never translated into manufacturing strength. There is an all too depressing history of great ideas being discovered in the United Kingdom but developed elsewhere. That history cannot be undone; we must learn from the failures of the past and put in place mechanisms to avoid a repeat of such a mistaken approach to new ideas in the future. The hon. Member for Dover commented on some ways in which that could be done.

It must also be recognised that invention and innovation do not exist in their own separate compartments. They are by-products of a multi-faceted structure involving the private and public sectors, from education through centres of higher learning and research to a vibrant manufacturing base. If all those elements are not pulling together or are not in place, our overall capacity to discover new ideas and translate them into marketable products will surely flounder.

We still have a strong, well-respected science and technology base, from which our major inventors and innovators are still drawn. If it declines, so will our capacity to discover and to develop new ideas. Tragically, on any measure and by any analysis, our science, technology and research and development base is experiencing decline, and as a result of Government policies further decline will take place. Two recent publications of studies undertaken by the groups Save British Science and the Science Alliance, made up of trade unions involved in the sector, point all too graphically to the damaging effects of Government policies on the nation's science, engineering and technology base.

I do not agree with all the conclusions of Save British Science—a non-political group of eminent scientists who have developed a detailed analysis of what is going on—but its publication points out that one indicator of the UK's relative decline in the scientific sphere is the number of Nobel prizes obtained by scientists and researchers working in this country. In the decade following the second world war, 10 Nobel prizes were awarded to UK scientists. In the decade after that, we won 11; in the decade after that, 12. Between 1976 and 1985, however, we won only eight, and that dropped between 1986 and 1995 to only one.

That dramatic recent reduction in what could be classed as the high ground of scientific endeavour runs in parallel with the Government-induced collapse of the British manufacturing sector. Between 1979 and 1994, the proportion of gross domestic product generated by that sector dropped from 28.5 to 20.9 per cent. When the Government took office in 1979, there were 6.6 million jobs in manufacturing; by the end of last year that number had fallen to just 3.9 million. While the Government forced through that retreat from manufacturing, they also participated in a retreat from publicly financed research and development activity.

Save British Science points out in its publication: The gap in total civil R and D investment between Britain and other countries remains wide, in some cases wider. In a unique act of policy the United Kingdom Government has deliberately reduced its investment in civil R and D in real terms. Expenditure in 1993 was approaching £500 million per annum less than in 1981 and it continues downward…as a fraction of national wealth there has been a steady fall from 0.72 per cent. of GDP in 1981 to 0.47 per cent. of GDP in 1995. Those are dramatic and worrying trends, and the cuts are matched by others of similar dimensions in the higher education sector. As the Association of University Teachers and others have pointed out, the Government plan to cut £630 million in real terms from spending on higher education over the next three years. A 6.3 per cent. cut in spending in 1996–97 will be followed by cuts of 3.7 per cent. in 1997–98 and 1.9 per cent. in 1998–99. Perhaps more critically, the universities' capital funding allocation for England and Wales has been cut by 30 per cent—£110 million—in 1996–97, with a further reduction in the following year, giving a total 50 per cent. cut over the next two years.

It is hard to see how any of that can be seen to be encouraging industry to commit itself to long-term R and D investment or to be a facilitator of innovation and technology transfer.

Mr. Barry Sheerman (Huddersfield)

Does my hon. Friend agree that, with all those cuts in university research and development, it is hardly surprising that vice-chancellors and senior scientists in the university world are all talking about low morale? In some ways morale is more important than cash, but the latter is related to the former because there is a feeling that the Government do not care about innovation and research.

Mr. Ingram

I agree. If time permits, I shall discuss the collapse of morale among researchers. My hon. Friend is right to refer to the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals, which has been highly critical of the Government recently—to the point of suggesting that cuts in medical research will lead to deaths. An anonymous spokesperson at the DTI tried to rebut that idea, with the result that the head of the British Medical Association accused the spokesperson of being a liar. That shows just how deep the anger runs in the university and research sectors.

The Government's attitude and cuts are hardly likely to lead to a resurgence of Britain's pre-eminence in the generation of innovative ideas or new inventions. All in all, the picture presented is a dismal one. I realise that the Minister may claim that he has other indicators pointing to successes. He is likely to say that R and D has increased in real terms in the past year and now stands at £14.6 billion. That is true; but a careful analysis of the statistic by comparison with our major international competitors shows that in certain key sectors—aerospace, telecom, cars and chemicals—we are lagging behind.

Much of the increased expenditure is down to one sector—the pharmaceutical sector—coupled with an unexpected rise in defence R and D. The Minister must therefore deal with the real dimensions of Government policy and their impact on the nation's science and R and D bases. He must not rest on a few specious feel-good indicators. Without a commitment to research, there is little hope of expansion at the level of innovation and invention.

That relationship is borne out by recent figures produced by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, which measures the level of relevant activity in a country by its inventiveness co-efficient: defined as the number of patent applications filed by organisations in a given country per 10,000 of population. The UK co-efficient fell from 3.71 in 1981 to 3.23 in 1993. In the same period, the OECD average rose from 4.38 to 5.61.

The reason for the decline is clear. The most recent OECD science and technology indicators show a dramatic fall in the number of UK companies and organisations applying for patents in the UK—from just under 21,000 in 1981 to just under 19,000 in 1993. While I accept that the details of patent data should always be treated with care, the overall trend speaks for itself. Put simply, it would appear that there is less innovation in the UK under the Government than there was before they took over.

The hon. Member for Dover is to be congratulated on stimulating today's debate. He has highlighted several concerns, and many others could he examined. If time permitted, it would be useful to look at how the Government are undermining areas of research excellence under their direct control—the public sector research establishments, which could be used as part of an incubator strategy for small start-up companies looking to test innovative ideas. The hon. Member for Dover mentioned that possibility. Those establishments are faced instead with—at best—contraction to possible privatisation or even closure.

I understand that the Deputy Prime Minister has directed Ministers to examine the future of the research establishments with the object of obtaining more contracts from the private sector—not in itself a bad thing—privatising them, or rationalising them. No mention is made in that directive of the overall scientific objectives of the establishments and how they could be used to create wealth or enhance the quality of life. Is the Minister convinced that such an approach helps in any way to bolster or add to the sum of innovative activity?

There is significant demoralisation within the nation's university research base, which is the generator of so many new ideas and innovations. There is an increasing movement towards short-term temporary contracts for so many researchers. There were 11, 500 such contracts in 1982, but there were 21,500 in 1994, and the trend continues. Researchers in such circumstances spend so much time worrying about the future and trying to generate more finance to keep themselves in a job that they overlook many new ideas. There is a less conducive environment nowadays within our centres of research excellence to stimulate the pursuit of new ideas.

It would be tempting to enter into a debate on the many detailed ways in which a Government can assist in the generation of new and innovative ideas, and the ways in which the inventor can be helped to the market, but that would be the wrong approach. The debate should focus not on the minutiae of Government policy or on whether this or that glossy shop-window initiative is working as intended by the Department of Trade and Industry, but on the fundamentals of Government policy.

If the Government continue to erode and undermine the very fabric of the nation's science, engineering and research and development bases, it does not matter how many small-scale initiatives they start. Either the talent will not be there to participate in such initiatives, or it will have gone abroad to a more fertile innovative environment. The Minister must take that reality on board. For those reasons, the Labour party is committed to improving the nation's education base, to increasing the skills of the work force, to re-energising the public sector research base in universities and other public sector research establishments and to developing a coherent and structured approach to pushing forward the technology foresight programme in a co-ordinated and cross-departmental approach.

Above all, we need a Government who recognise science, technology, innovation and design as vital ingredients in the nation's economic health. A Government who cut and undermine that base sell the nation short. That is why the Government have lost the confidence of large sectors of British industry, and why they are under attack from the scientific and research community. The only hope for revitalising and expanding innovation and invention is the return of a Labour Government. That cannot come soon enough.

10.32 am
The Minister for Science and Technology (Mr. Ian Taylor)

I, too, add my congratulations to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) on securing the debate, to which the House should pay attention. It is an important subject. Indeed, it is one that goes to the heart of so much that I as Minister for Science and Technology am trying to encourage. Apart from the party political comments with which the hon. Member for East Kilbride (Mr. Ingram) concluded his remarks, there was quite a lot in what he said with which I agreed. 1 shall deal with points of difference, because I think that he grossly underestimates the exciting things that are happening. However, the hon. Gentleman will have to wait while I first respond to my hon. Friend's excellent speech.

My hon. Friend's speech was excellent in its coverage and in its sympathetic understanding of the plight of inventors, many of whom feel rather lonely in their struggle to gain wider acceptance. I have met many inventors who are perhaps slightly more fortunate than others. If I am meeting them, it is probable that I am providing them with Government money through small firms merit awards for research and technology or support for products under research. Perhaps those inventors I meet have larger smiles than one or two of those my hon. Friend has met. There is no doubt, however, that some exciting things are happening.

Sometimes I have to face certain difficulties. For example, I went to Newcastle to see some exciting new developments. One of the awards that I gave was to a company that had introduced a new generation of lugworm, which was capable of enabling fishing to take place 365 days a year. As the cameras were present, and as I was publicity conscious on behalf of the company while self-effacing on my own behalf, I agreed that I would hold up the lugworms to the camera, which I duly did. I replaced them when the photographs had been taken. The director of the company virtually embraced me and said, "Minister, you are extremely brave because they bite." He gave me that information after I had handled them. He added the good news that not so long before Neil Kinnock had had the opportunity to do the same thing, but had taken fright and not done it. At least my action demonstrated the vibrancy and standards of Ministers in this Parliament.

It is important that innovation is part of the title of the debate. Inventors and inventions are crucial, but the process of innovation is the broader encapsulation of turning a good idea into a commercially possible product, or even taking an old idea and turning it into a commercially viable product. When I first became Minister for Science and Technology I found it difficult to define innovation precisely. A definition quickly came to me, however, and the hon. Member for East Kilbride will enjoy the way in which it arrived.

I was at a university in front of an extremely large and erudite audience. The vice-chancellor gave me a lengthy introduction as the visiting speaker. Finally, he announced the title of my talk. It was one that I could not understand. Furthermore, it bore no resemblance to what I thought was the subject on which I was to speak. I stood in front of the audience, momentarily nonplussed. To gain time, I said, "I am from the DTI and I am here to help." Somebody at the front of the audience said, "Well, that is an innovation." In those circumstances, I rapidly realised that there were many things with which I had to get to grips.

Innovation and invention are crucial to the competitive challenge that Britain needs to face. I am sure that, unless we make better use of our inventors and innovators, the country will not be properly equipped to face the challenges of the next century.

I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Dover that not all inventions have been properly understood. In a pamphlet imminently to be launched to an expectant world, which my hon. Friend was kind enough to flag, and which I have written, there are some examples of inventors' original purposes and activities not being fully understood. Alexander Graham Bell, who invented the telephone, thought that its main use would be to pipe music to remote groups of people. When Bell demonstrated his equipment in 1876 to Western Union, the company's executives wrote to him as follows: Mr. Bell, after careful consideration of your invention, while it is an interesting novelty we have come to the conclusion that it has no commercial possibilities. As we all know, Marconi invented radio. He thought that it would be used mainly for ship-to-shore telegrams. And, wait for it, a Government report of 1956 stated that four computers would satisfy the needs of the whole nation. That is an example that all Science Ministers and, if I may say so, Opposition spokesmen on science, should bear carefully in mind. It is possible that the Government do not always get it right. That is especially so in the context of the Government being asked to do more in recognising inventions and innovation. In my judgment, the Government's role is that of a support and encouragement operation. We should not try to second-guess which ideas are most likely to be taken up by industry in the wider community.

I visit universities and companies throughout the country and I have no doubt that the creativity for which we have been famous is alive and well. We are doing some stimulating things. On a recent visit to Japan, interestingly, the one thing that Japanese industry wanted to talk to me about was the creativity occurring in the United Kingdom. As a result of their inward investment here, the Japanese see that creativity and are taking advantage of it. In conversations with Bill Gates of Microsoft, I found that he was certain that creativity in computer software existed in the UK in a way that it did not in any comparable economy, so we have tremendous opportunities to succeed and to take advantage of our creative skills in all dimensions, in research and in industry.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dover mentioned the fashion industry. I enthusiastically endorse his comments about the talent here. The Government have done much to sponsor London fashion week and we help to focus what the markets can offer in that sector. I should like even more attention paid to it.

My problem is that it is difficult to know which inventions will be the real killer applications, which ones we should be pushing and in which environment they are most likely to come. My hon. Friend mentioned many lone inventors and I have already paid tribute to them, but often some of the great breakthroughs in applications occur in big companies.

Dr. Coyne of 3M gave a fascinating speech at the DTI-sponsored innovation lecture. He said that one of the great skills that 3M had always had was that it encouraged research and other employees to come up with ideas and to develop them in company time, almost for themselves. One of the most interesting involved the use of sticky tape. An employee had tried to sell more sticky tape to car paint companies, which were using it for spraying and then had to pull it off and touch up the bits where it had taken paint off as well, which was time-consuming. He developed the idea of almost non-sticky tape, which has become part of our everyday lives. That was good lateral thinking. It was developed in 3M, which then adopted it.

There are many examples of companies not realising what they have. "Triumph of the Nerds" is a wonderful programme that has been running on Sunday evenings on Channel 4, I think. It showed that the Xerox board failed to realise that it had at its fingertips the future of personal computers. No personal computers ever had the Xerox name on them despite the fact that all the great breakthroughs were made in Xerox laboratories. We must, therefore, be extremely careful when trying to anticipate how the Government should best provide support in this sector because, even in circumstances where industry had a clear motive to bring things to the market, it has failed to do so.

Mr. Sheerman

I am listening carefully to what the Minister says, but what can the Government—any Government—do to stimulate across the board? He has mentioned some of the biggest companies. There is a serious and worrying decline in research and development. I mentioned universities in my intervention. Even at the level of the small inventor, which the hon. Member for Dover (Mr. Shaw) mentioned, the enterprise allowance has been knocked back. We need a policy that stimulates such innovation across the board. Sir Ron Dearing is not dealing with the aspect even of universities. Surely we need a thorough look at what works and at what is successful, and then go for it.

Mr. Taylor

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for raising that. It is crucial that we do try to look across the board, partly because I cannot predict where good ideas will come from. I have been applying a logical policy. We are encouraging universities increasingly to consider their use of intellectual property. Recently, we have encouraged, through, for example, the DTI challenge competition, a technology transfer award, won by University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in conjunction with Aromascan. It produces an electronic nose for detecting changes in smells, which is crucial in certain production processes or where smell change can mean a security risk. Universities are increasingly being encouraged to consider spin-outs.

Some research councils are also considering that closely. The Medical Research Council has its own internal spin-out company. When I visit companies, I constantly deal with the point of them working more closely with universities. Our best universities are comfortably working with industry, but I need more industry to realise that that is the right way forward.

The DTI is applying pressure at each stage. We have the small firms merit awards for research and technology for companies with fewer than 50 employees. They can receive a grant of up to £150,000—which includes intellectual property, incidentally. That is a crucial early stage. Often, the companies employ not 50, but two or three people. I have given many of those awards, which migrate into a SPUR award for slightly larger companies with up to 250 employees.

The new business link structure throughout the country involves innovation credits and information technology counsellors. We give £250 to enable companies, especially small companies with a good idea for a product, to seek outside advice so that they can have the confidence to take the project further forward. I am convinced that I am putting in place a framework for the sort of objectives that the hon. Member for Huddersfield (Mr. Sheerman) seeks to influence me on.

My hon. Friend the Member for Dover raised many points and I cannot touch on all of them in the time remaining. Let me try nevertheless to do some of them justice. There is no doubt that this country is losing money because some of its inventions have gone abroad, but it is difficult to estimate it accurately. The figure that he quoted of nearly £160 billion a year does not seem to break down into anything that we can identify.

In a recent report, the Intellectual Property Institute has estimated that the share of gross domestic product produced by the 10 most patent-intensive industries by rank has increased only from 5.2 per cent. of GDP in 1985 to 7.81 per cent., or some £46.5 billion. Hence, it is difficult to see how the Exchequer could be losing £157 billion each year either as an additional contribution to GDP or, certainly, as tax, so we need to be careful about some of our use of figures. We do not want to get things out of context, exaggerate and then find that we cannot justify them.

My hon. Friend was right to say not only that the Government are spending about £6 billion a year, but that a proportion of that—around a third—was on defence research expenditure, which is not a growing sector. One of the intriguing things, however, is that much of what used to be spin-out from defence research is spinning in from civilian research.

Not long ago, I was at a company that will remain nameless, finding that a product that had been developed for civilian use had interesting defence implications. With the chief scientific adviser, I am considering some of the interfaces between civilian and defence research to ensure that this country's overall technological base is safeguarded. It is important that we do that.

One of the areas that I am concerned about is information communication technologies. The information society initiative is an important way of safeguarding the creativity in the UK that has stemmed from the liberalisation of communications here. We have a tremendous opportunity to be one of the research centres—if not the research centre—in many sectors of communication technologies in the world. The initiative was one of the key parts of the technology foresight exercise, which allowed the Government to attempt not to pick winners, but to identify the areas that we should concentrate on in our research and technology activities. Information communication technologies are crucial in that.

My hon. Friend mentioned the Institute of Patentees and Inventors, which is an important player in the matter. I am delighted that we have been able to provide some modest support for it. On his request for further funds, obviously I will always consider such requests. There are difficult competing indicators, but I want to draw his attention to other sectors where we are reinforcing the institute's work. In the business link system, for example, we provide genuinely independent advice for small companies and lone operators, not only on their corporate development; we also provide information and technology counsellors and design counsellors. We can help them to marry management skills and to identify sources of potential finance. The combination of business links with some of the initiatives that were mentioned will be an important way forward, and I shall monitor that carefully.

The idea of a royal academy of inventors is intriguing. I shall encourage people to work on the project and to discover how it might be financed and justified, because it will obviously need private and other support. I cannot influence the Millennium Commission and we should be cautious about that because the commission is independent. I would certainly give an application a fair wind.

There is no deliberate passing over of inventors in the honours list, but I shall certainly raise the issue again to see whether there is another way to provide objective recognition of the enormous work of people such as Trevor Baylis, which my hon. Friend has mentioned. I am going to South Africa shortly for the Group of Seven developing nations conference on the information super-highway. I should like to take some of the details that my hon. Friend mentioned about production in South Africa of the clockwork radio.

We are doing important work to spread information through the developing world not only through that invention but by way of some remarkable happenings. The global digital mobile network was developed in this country and is now the global standard, and the remarkable use of satellites, through the very small aperture terminal systems, is rapidly bringing information to parts of the world where the people thought that they could not receive it because of the sheer cost of digging up parts of deserted areas to lay cables. Cable is no longer required to carry information technology.

I have mentioned interesting ideas that I have seen. In the recent Science, Engineering and Technology Week there was a demonstration of glass changing its molecular structure at the flick of a switch so that it becomes impossible to see through. That is not quite the invention that my hon. Friend the Member for Dover mentioned, but it is an example of the ways in which new technology is transforming the way in which we view a product. Glass is no longer glass in the sense that we just look through it or that it can be pretty or painted. We can now change its molecular structure, and such inventions will eventually affect our way of life.

I hope that British companies will give a good reception to UK-based inventors. I accept that, in that respect, the record is not perfect, but as I travel around the country I preach to people to look more at the innovative process. However, I do not want to underestimate the matter. I have met some inventors who think that the invention is it, a wonderful idea. But the inventor is only one part of the process, and I am not being cruel to the inventor when I say that.

One of our more interesting awards is the MacRobert award, which is funded by the DTI in conjunction with the Royal Academy of Engineering. The award is for innovation in engineering but also recognises the excellence in engineering which achieved the commercial success of the original idea. It is a combination award, and that is important because one of my objects is to raise the status of the engineer in our society. That is crucial, because, while an inventor can produce a good idea, it will be the engineer who will help it to become a commercially viable product.

The 1995 winner of the MacRobert award was British Gas research division and Gill Electronics for a new gas meter based on ultrasound. It is accurate to many decimal places and can be installed and left in place for 10 years. Mr. Gill told me that developing his invention, which is based on the ultrasound testing of gas flows, through British Gas research laboratories into a product that can be marketed worldwide was a complete eye-opener to him. He could not have done it without the resources of British Gas. I have seen other developments of that process.

British Steel is developing a new railway steel. That emerged from work on mathematical models in Cambridge, when, I believe, two years of work on mathematical models suddenly resulted in a breakthrough which British Steel is taking forward in conjunction with Cambridge university.

Mr. Sheerman

Will the Minister give way on that point?

Mr. Taylor

I am running short of time, so I shall not give way. [Interruption.]

Madam Deputy Speaker (Dame Janet Fookes)

Order. It is clear that the Minister is not giving way.

Mr. Taylor

One of the key points in the debate related to management training, which is crucial. I am trying to enthuse the Engineering Council to bring management training into engineering courses so that more engineers can be competent managers. The same goes for many scientists because management is a key tool for the engineer or researcher or anyone else. I am glad to see that more universities are beginning to pick that up, because it will determine success.

From my discussions with the venture capital industry it seems that there is no shortage of money, but marrying a good idea to finance often requires other factors, most particularly management. In the DTI we are attempting to work with financiers and industry to find a way to encourage greater access to management skills for people with ideas so that the venture capital industry can have more confidence in evaluating a project and in trying to determine how it will become a commercial proposition for the industry. I hope that that process will yield results in the near future.

I shall deal briefly but determinedly with the comments about the decline in the science base. When I visit universities, I do not see any decline in that base. We could trade statistics across the Dispatch Box, but I can say that the amount spent on the science base by the Office of Science and Technology and by the higher education funding councils in terms of research is up in real terms by 10 per cent. over 10 years. However, I do not want to go into statistics or engage in trade-offs about Nobel prizes which often reflect research that has been carried out some time before such awards are made. However, I congratulate the chief scientific adviser on winning the prestigious Crafoord prize from Sweden only this week.

I do not wish to trade statistics on manufacturing, save to say that the prospects for manufacturing investment and for productivity and output are currently extremely good. We discussed that at a recent Question Time. Allowing for the various economic cycles, over the past 10 years productivity in the United Kingdom has been extremely good. I appreciate the point about capital funding. That is why the higher education funding councils and I this year presented a targeted project for capital funding of £18 million of Government money which is reassigned specifically to equipment. With matched funding, that will amount to £36 million.

I am looking longer term at how we might overcome some of the difficulties of universities in funding capital equipment, which is vital for universities and for the quality of their research. I recognise that, and I do not intend to duck that issue, because it is important for us to realise that the quality of university research can often depend on fairly mundane pieces of equipment such as fume cupboards.

On its science and technology activities, the DTI will spend level cash of about £350 million over the next few years. Our figures have been distorted by factors such as the fast breeder and by launch-aid inputs. The Department is firmly behind the work of industry in innovation and application. It has a series of initiatives, some of which I have mentioned, such as the management in the 1990s programme, an area in which we wish to improve our activities and raise the standards of British companies.

Increasingly, I talk to universities about the way in which they can identify smaller companies, which can be difficult. The Faraday concepts are being examined by research councils, particularly by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. We are working with research and technology organisations and trying to get people to transfer from universities to companies because the skills-based transfer is important. The teaching companies scheme and the postgraduate training partnership are crucial. I have introduced a college-based scheme to ensure that we do not lose sight of the role that colleges and vocational qualification college students can play in companies in the areas in which they work. All that is themed to try to improve the competitive position of the United Kingdom in the vital fields of science, technology, innovation and inventiveness.

I pay tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Dover for his work in highlighting the matter. I warmly endorse the work of inventors. I am trying to provide a successful framework for them and to stimulate British industry to realise that in the next century, we will succeed only by adding value and using our wits. It is not only a question of keeping our costs down but of trying to compete with the rest of world with better products, new ideas, better design and a way that leads us forward into the next century based on the competitiveness and creativity of industry in Britain. Inventors have a crucial role to play and I pay tribute to all those mentioned by my hon. Friend. If there is anything that I can do to stimulate them, I shall ask my officials to consider it closely.

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