HL Deb 10 May 2004 vol 661 cc12-28

3.6 p.m.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State, Department for Education and Skills (Baroness Ashton of Upholland)

My Lords, I beg to move that the House do now resolve itself into Committee on this Bill.

Moved, That the House do now resolve itself into Committee.—(Baroness Ashton of Upholland.)

On Question, Motion agreed to.

House in Committee accordingly.


Clause 1 [Arts and Humanities Research Council]:

Baroness Sharp of Guildford moved Amendment No. 1: Page 1, line 9, after "instruction" insert "and post-graduate studies

The noble Baroness said: This minor amendment relates to Clause 1, which sets out the objectives of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Looking at the objectives, I was struck that paragraph (a), as well as requiring the council to carry out research in the arts and humanities, also requires it to facilitate, encourage and support, instruction in the arts and humanities". Traditionally, research councils have not supported undergraduate teaching but are major supporters of postgraduate teaching. As is clear from the detail on the Arts and Humanities Research Board, around 50 per cent of moneys going to the board today support studentships.

The wording of the first part of the Bill has been taken substantially from the wording relating to research councils in the Science and Technology Act 1965. That legislation was enacted 39 years ago, since when practice has changed. In particular, today we see in many universities both formal teaching of postgraduate students and the incorporation of postgraduate students into research teams to a degree that was not prevalent in 1965. The formal instruction of postgraduate students is an extremely important part of the function of the research councils. I felt therefore that it would be appropriate to have a reference not only to "instruction" but to "instruction and postgraduate studies". That would reflect modern-day practice.

I felt strongly that it was all very well to borrow from the 1965 Act, but we want to bring it up to date. It is appropriate, given the importance of the role of postgraduate support and teaching on the part of the research councils that such a reference should be included in the Bill. I beg to move.

Lord Dearing

If there is any doubt about the inclusion of postgraduate studies in the clause, I would commend the inclusion of the words recommended by the noble Baroness. As she says, such work accounts for getting on for half of the funding that goes through the present board.

Apart from that, I welcome the clause. It completes the Government's implementation of the recommendation made by a committee that I chaired in 1997 that there should be such a council. In welcoming that final stage of implementation, I must say, as we recognised in 1997, how important research in the arts and humanities is to the social and economic well-being of the country. We noted at that stage that the performing arts, fine arts, literature and historic buildings—even if narrowly defined—employed twice as many people as the motor industry and as many as the building societies and banks put together. I hope that, as the council moves into its new life, the Government will ensure that the importance of the arts and humanities is borne well in mind.

The Lord Bishop of Portsmouth

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for moving the amendment and for the support of the noble Lord, Lord Dearing. It is not an ideologically driven amendment, although it is an important one. I hope that the Minister will respond constructively. Well, she always is constructive, but I hope that she will respond positively to the amendment.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean

Whenever someone says that something is not ideologically driven, I feel an instinct to find an argument against it. The noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, has put her finger on an important point.

I know that the Minister will have been told by her officials that the words suggested by the amendment are unnecessary because the meaning of the clause is apparent to all concerned. I studied the amendment, and it was not apparent to me that the meaning of the clause was obvious, so I hope that the Minister will think about the matter and table an amendment in similar terms, if this one is technically defective, which is the other piece of advice that she may be getting from her officials in the Box. It would be a very good thing to make it explicit in the Bill that there is a responsibility in respect of postgraduates as well.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

I begin by saying to the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth of Drumlean, that I did not get either of those pieces of advice from officials. I recognised the words that the noble Lord used from other discussions that I have had in the House and will have in Committee.

I am pleased by the welcome that the introduction of the Arts and Humanities Research Council has had outside the House. I also feel that, although we may be debating some of the issues relating to the council today, the council has generally been welcomed. To the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, I say that I accept that practice has changed, but the basis of the legislation, albeit 38 or 39 years old, is still sound. It is important, as we will see when we discuss later amendments, that we make sure that the research councils can operate together, when that is appropriate. I also recognise that this is another example of how we are catching up at a later date with the noble Lord, Lord Dearing.

I appreciate the importance of the issue of adequate support for postgraduate studies. As noble Lords will know, Clause 1 defines the new research council as a body set up by Royal Charter and outlines its objectives. Postgraduate studies, although not explicitly mentioned, as noble Lords said, are implicit in paragraph (a)(ii) of Clause 1.

Noble Lords may have seen the draft Royal Charter, which we made available. It creates the Arts and Humanities Research Council and sets out its constitution in detail, along with the detailed objectives for which it is established and incorporated. I draw the Committee's attention to Article 2(1)(a) of the draft Royal Charter, which expressly states that one of the objects for which the research council is established is, to promote and support by any means high-quality, basic, strategic and applied research and related postgraduate training in the arts and humanities". I hope that that will reassure the Committee that the promotion and support of postgraduate training in the arts and humanities will be at the heart of the research council's role and remit.

The Committee will be aware that the charter that creates the new research council will have the weight of law. It is the right place to spell out in detail the requirements on the council. We intend that the charter will be similar, if not identical, to the one that we have made available in draft form. I hope that, on that basis, the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw the amendment.

3.15 p.m.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

I am interested in the drafting of the clause. Why does the reference in paragraph (a)(ii) to, instruction in the arts and humanities preclude undergraduate studies, which, presumably, it does? Can the council fund undergraduate studies?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

As the noble Baroness will be aware, funding for undergraduate study comes from HEFCE. This is a research council, which is why the clause is set out in that way.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

I recognise that, but the Bill defines the function of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. Universities UK says that it is satisfied that the position is as near as possible to the funding of the other research councils. Is the wording taken from that applying to other research councils?

The Bill says that the council will have, objects consisting of, or comprised in, the following— (a) carrying out, facilitating, encouraging and supporting … (ii) instruction in the arts and humanities". The wording does not confine it to postgraduate work. Is the position made clear somewhere else in the Bill? It is a question of the wording of the Bill.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

I refer the noble Baroness to the charter, which makes the position clear. If the noble Baroness is still not satisfied that the link is clear, after looking at the charter with reference to that part of the Bill, I will write to her and make it explicit.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean

I apologise for coming back again on the matter. The Minister said that she had not had either of the arguments that I suggested put by officials. One of them was that the matter was already covered elsewhere in the Bill. She said that it was already covered in the charter. That is almost the same point.

Does not the charter also cover research in the arts and humanities and instruction in the arts and humanities? If we are relying on the charter, which I understand is not a legal document, to spell out the duties, why is it necessary to have sub-paragraphs (i) and (ii)? If it is all right to have those sub-paragraphs, why cannot they be amended in the way suggested by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

When I said to the noble Lord that that was not the advice of my officials, I meant it. The particular reference that, I thought, the noble Lord was making was to advice about the specifics of the Bill. I saw the charter slightly separately. It is a nuance, but, none the less, I shall stick to it.

As I understand it, the legislation has been drafted to ensure that what is in the Bill is appropriate to the establishment of the research council, linked to the legislation of 1965, to which the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp of Guildford, referred. The detail is in a Royal Charter and has the weight of law because of that. My understanding is that, if the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, examines the detail in the charter, which has the weight of law, and links it back to the relevant clauses, she will see that all is conjoined in the right way. If that is not the case, I will, as always, write to the noble Baroness, copy the letter to the noble Lord and put a copy in the Library.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

I am grateful to the Minister for that explanation. I am also grateful to other noble Lords for their support on the amendment.

The noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, expressed precisely my feelings on the matter. The wording in the Bill is misleading. It implies that there is support for undergraduate instruction as well as graduate instruction. The emphasis on postgraduate studies on the part of research councils nowadays is significant. I accept that that is spelt out in the charter. But I come back to my point: as it appears in the Bill, the wording is slightly misleading.

However, for the moment, I shall accept the explanation—

Lord Roberts of Conwy

Perhaps I may intervene before the noble Baroness withdraws her amendment, as I suspect that she will. I support her view, and that of others, that the scope of the charter—Section 2(1)(a)—is quite different from the scope of the Bill as it applies to these matters. The Bill is somewhat broader and the charter is narrower in its scope.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

I thank the noble Lord, Lord Roberts, for his intervention, which probably reinforces my inclination that, in withdrawing this amendment now, we shall probably return to this issue at Report stage and have another shot at it. For the moment, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

Clause 1 agreed to.

Clause 2 agreed to.

Clause 3 [Expenses of Council]:

Baroness Sharp of Guildford moved Amendment No. 2: Page 2, line 7, at beginning insert "The Council shall be responsible for developing a programme of activities consistent with the objective listed in section 1 and

The noble Baroness said: In speaking to Amendment No. 2, I shall speak also to Amendments Nos. 3, 4, 5, 6 and 7, which apply to Clause 3. They are probing amendments that relate to the relationship between the new research council and the Secretary of State. As in Amendment No. 1, they question whether the current wording of the Bill reflects present-day practice in relation to research councils and the desirability of giving research councils slightly greater autonomy and freedom of action than implied by the current wording of the clause.

I confess that I have put down those amendments because it is important that the Committee should have a chance to debate the detail of the Bill in relation to the setting up of the new research council. Like others, I welcome the fact that the current Arts and Humanities Research Board will finally obtain the status of a fully-fledged council. In no sense, do I want to detract from that achievement.

From the debate at Second Reading, it is quite clear that there is support for this research council on all sides of the House. However, it became apparent in the discussion on Amendment No. 1 that the structure still reflects that created in 1965. Therefore, the Bill presents us with an opportunity to review that structure and to consider how appropriate it is almost 40 years on.

I turn now to Amendments Nos. 2, 3 and 4. Clause 1 sets out the functions of the council. As it stands, Clause 3(1) states boldly and baldly that, The Secretary of State may pay the Arts and Humanities Research Council such sums as he determines in respect of the expenses", incurred in carrying out those functions. Yet, for some time, it has been the practice of the research councils to develop programmes of activities that reflect and balance the priorities of their different functions and the expenses that derive from these activities.

I would therefore argue that it would be more accurate for the Bill to lay down that the council should develop such a programme of activities and that the Secretary of State's role is to provide the funding for that programme. By changing the word "may" to "shall", I am also arguing that while it is recognised in the words, such sums as he determines", that the Secretary of State has discretion to decide how much money he gives to the research council in respect of its activities, it is, nevertheless, his duty to pay something towards those expenses. The word "may" leaves to the Secretary of State's discretion not only how much shall be paid, but also whether he will pay anything at all. Implicitly, in setting up the research council, I would argue that the Secretary of State is willing that the activities described in Clause 1 should be undertaken. Therefore, he should accept an obligation to fund those activities—hence, the word "shall" should replace the word "may"—while retaining the discretion through that funding function to have some say over the scale of those activities.

Amendments Nos. 5 and 6 relate to subsection (3). As it stands, the wording is stark; that is, The Council must comply with any direction of the Secretary of State as to the use of expenditure of payments made under subsection (1)". The amendment would make clear the relative autonomy of the research council to determine its own programme while recognising that, ultimately, "he who pays the piper calls the tune". But, on such occasions, that should be transparent. If the Secretary of State disagrees with the priorities developed by the research council and fails to persuade it of his way of thought, it is open to him to insist on his way, but only by issuing a direction to the research council that is open and transparent.

The Minister may argue that this wording is no different from that in the Bill; that the research council is obliged to comply with any direction from the Secretary of State and that the word "direction" implies an open transaction. I would argue that by breaking the sentence into two parts—making it clear the Secretary of State has to issue a clear direction and that the research council has to comply—we are subtly endorsing the relative autonomy of the research council in relation to the Secretary of State. It does not have to do everything that the Secretary of State tells it to do. Where there is disagreement, the Secretary of State must be open and transparent about why he is insisting on his way.

On reading the debate that took place in Committee in the House of Commons, the Minister may respond that the wording cannot be changed because it is taken from the Science and Technology Act 1965 and applies to all research councils. As I have said before, much has changed since 1965. The whole function and relationship between government and research councils has changed. We now have a director general of the research councils sitting within government. In 1965, the research councils were set apart from government and were relatively autonomous with a board pulling together the workings of the research councils in a very loose way.

That has now changed. There is a direct line of responsibility from the Minister to the director general of the research councils sitting in the Office of Science and Technology. It is a different relationship now, which should be reflected in the Bill. I would argue strongly that it would be a good thing to incorporate within the wording of the Bill that relative autonomy and that where there is disagreement the Secretary of State must issue a directive to the research council. I beg to move.

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe

I am delighted to have an early opportunity to speak in favour of this part of the Bill. In so doing, I declare my interest as chief executive of Universities UK, which has long campaigned for the establishment of a research council for arts and humanities. We have been a partner in bringing forward these proposals.

Perhaps I may draw attention to the role of UUK's former president and the current president of London Metropolitan University, Professor Roderick Floud, who played an enormous part in pressing for the establishment of the AHRC. Together with a number of vice-chancellors, he felt passionately that research into arts and humanities should be treated in the same way as other research councils.

I know that academics in arts and humanities have sometimes felt that their work is not taken as seriously by the Government as that in other fields. I am sure that, in her reply, the Minister will want to reassure them that the Government recognise the importance of research in these fields to our national and cultural life, as well as to our international reputation.

Research in the arts and humanities underpins our understanding of science and technology and their impact on society; that is, its history and the legal, ethical and social implications.

The current world climate convincingly demonstrates the need for experts in the arts and humanities. Like their counterparts in the sciences, our academics in the arts and humanities help us to understand the world in which we live in all its religious, cultural, geographical and historical diversity. This is not about window dressing; it is essential.

I should like to make one further point. In the past I and others have had some cause to criticise Ministers, in particular following the publication of the White Paper, The Future of Higher Education, for tending to assume that all research is like big science. It is not, and I hope that the Arts and Humanities Research Council will help to work, within the Office of Science and Technology, to redress the balance in government thinking.

In my view, the legislative framework is sound. It closely resembles the framework for the other research councils contained in the Science and Technology Act 1965, and where there are differences between the structure used in that Act and what is set out in this Bill, the reasons for them are good. Therefore I do not support the amendments tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, although I am grateful to her for providing the opportunity to say that Clause 3 provides the right balance between the legitimate influence of the Secretary of State in directing the way in which public money should be spent and freedom of operation for the council.

3.30 p.m.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean

I hesitate to disagree with the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, after our love affair on the last amendment. I should say that I agree with her objectives. We have now a more centralising, control freak Government than we have ever had, or at least in my lifetime. Again and again we see the Government determined to bring power and control to the centre and to Whitehall. Therefore when I first saw the amendment, I thought that it marked a step in the right direction. Moreover, when listening to the noble Baroness introduce it, it is clear that that is what she has in mind. But I do not think that it does the job.

To seek to change "may" to "shall", so that subsection (1) would read: The Secretary of State [shall] pay the Arts and Humanities Research Council such sums as he determines", means that he could determine to pay the council nothing. The amendment would not meet the objective of securing for the council a degree of independence over the use of its funding. Although I have not tabled an amendment in my name, I think it would be better to be altogether more radical by proposing that the role of the Secretary of State should be to set out the broad strategic approach and objectives rather than that of issuing directions.

Amendment No. 5 seeks to delete subsection (3), which states: The Council must comply with any direction of the Secretary of State as to the use or expenditure of payments made under subsection (1)". I say amen to that. Unfortunately, however, in a later amendment the noble Baroness seeks to put in something almost as bad, thereby defeating the object of the exercise. I do not know whether the noble Baroness will return to this point at a later stage in our consideration, but I think that she is on to something here, which is the need to set up a body, give it a clear set of objectives and let it get on with the job. Otherwise there will be a continual determination on the part of others to make changes—I hope that that ringing is not from my telephone. No, it is not, although the ring tone is similar to mine, which is always alarming. As I said, there will be a determination to second-guess these bodies which have been set up with clear objectives and which are staffed with able people. That is true of all governments; it may even have been true of previous governments.

I do not know what the noble Baroness intends to do, but if she returns with a slightly more robust amendment that seeks a greater degree of independence for the Arts and Humanities Research Council, then we may be in a position to give her some support.

Lord Sutherland of Houndwood

I wish to endorse rather than repeat the remarks of the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick of Undercliffe, on the importance of the research council. She made the case very well.

I plead for one principle to operate in this area, which is that of consonance and congruity in the arrangements between the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the Government, and other research councils and the Government. For a long time the arts and humanities community has felt itself to be two or three steps behind the other academic areas and I see this part of the Bill as a move to change that situation. Whatever further amendments or changes may be proposed in due course by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, we must look for consonance and congruity between this proposed new research council and the other research councils.

Baroness Carnegy of Lour

It is clear that many noble Lords in the Chamber know exactly how research councils function because they have worked with them in various different contexts. However, we do not all do so and I am finding it hard to envisage exactly how this is to operate. Does Clause 3(1) mean that a research council should always hold discussions with the Secretary of State before embarking on any operation in order to ensure that funding will be provided, or is that not the case? What is the process here?

The subsection states that: The Secretary of State may pay … such sums as he determines in respect of the expenses that the Council has incurred, or expects to incur, in carrying out the objects listed". How would the council ensure that the Secretary of State will provide the necessary funding?

Lord Morgan

I too strongly support the proposed Arts and Humanities Research Council and I am sorry that, due to circumstances beyond my control, I was not able to express that support at Second Reading. I should declare an interest as one who has spent the past 48 years doing research in the arts and humanities, and not much else. So I warmly endorse what was said by my noble friend Lady Warwick.

I do not think that the amendments proposed by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, are necessary. However, she has made an extremely important point; that is, to encourage the underlying autonomy and freedom of operation for the board. I say that for one particular reason: research in the arts and humanities is commonly different in character from that undertaken in the social and natural sciences. Most of us are single scholars. Broadly speaking, my own methodology has been that of the Venerable Bede, and I do not think that things have changed very much. I hope, therefore, that the new council will be encouraged to appreciate the different character of research in this area. It has been observed that this is crucial work and we should not try to impose inappropriate models on it. Having said that, I warmly welcome the proposal in the Bill.

Lord Walton of Detchant

It has been 26 years since my membership of the Medical Research Council ended, so perhaps my experience is somewhat out of date. In those days the financial allocations made to the research councils were provided as a total sum by the government. The then advisory board for the research councils then recommended allocations to individual research councils. As the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, observed, at that time it was quite clear that the research councils were totally independent of government and were absolutely autonomous in their decision making.

However, the situation has changed. In those days we would not have accepted Clause 3(3) relating to a direction by the Secretary of State because independence was one of the principles underlying the activities of the research councils. However, today there is a Director General of the Research Councils who presumably is the agent of the Secretary of State and who may direct in this way. That, I think, was conceded many years ago.

Although I sympathise with the reasons why the noble Baroness has tabled these amendments, in retaining the principle of equity between the different research councils—and I welcome very much the establishment of this new body—it is reasonable to keep the clause as drafted.

Lord Brooke of Sutton Mandeville

I rise to make a tiny point and in doing so I mean no disrespect to the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp. She has taken great trouble with her amendments to make sure that they observe the consequential order, but I observe that were Amendment No. 2 to be carried in Committee, I would move an amendment on Report that the words "Arts and Humanities Research" should be substituted between the first two words of her amendment, and that the subsequent reference in line 7 to "Arts and Humanities Research" should be deleted.

I appreciate that the words "the council" stand by themselves towards the end of Clause 2, but that is because the Arts and Humanities Research Council has already been referred to earlier in the clause. It is a purist's point. but it is sensible to be vigilant.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

Let me begin by saying that it is interesting to see how keen noble Lords are to see this research council come into being, and I am very grateful for the support for the Arts and Humanities Research Council from all sides of the House. It is an important step.

When we talk about the 1965 Act, and the underpinning that it gives this new legislation, it is important that we recognise that it is not precisely what is needed. That is why the Bill seeks to mirror that Act and to bring it up to date. It is important to recognise that that is a 39 year-old piece of legislation. When I was looking into this area of policy, I asked when we had last looked at the way the research councils were functioning, and how well they were functioning. I know that noble Lords in the Chamber will be aware of the quinquennial review in 2001, which found the system to be working well. It made a number of recommendations—about the strategic framework, about working with other stakeholders—but overall it was felt that the research councils were performing well. Adding this new research council is done on the basis that, in general, this is the right way to go. As the noble Lord, Lord Sutherland, indicated, it is important, in setting up a new research council, to ensure a synergy of activity and the opportunity for councils to work together in areas where there is an overlap between the arts, humanities and science.

We wanted to avoid a situation whereby, for example, the Office of Science and Technology—to which the research council will report—or even the Department of Trade and Industry would need to offer different guidance to different research councils in advising them of their legal responsibilities. Nor did we want one reporting framework for some councils and another for the AHRC, which could make crosscutting programmes more difficult to achieve.

So we have sought to mirror arrangements which we believe are working well, with the necessary updating of terminology. We will be setting out the detailed requirements for strategic and annual planning in the "management statement and financial memorandum". That will be similar to that of other research councils and modelled on the guidelines applying to non-departmental public bodies.

That is the backdrop to the approach that we have taken on these amendments. Amendments Nos. 2 and 4, tabled by the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, are inter-linked. They would require the council to develop a programme of activities consistent with the objects set out in Clause 1. The Secretary of State would then be obliged to fund the carrying out of those activities. We looked very carefully at the effect of these amendments, and I can reassure the Committee that the development of a programme of activities is already implicit within the research council's fulfilment of its objects, as outlined in Clause 1. That is the advice I have received. I hope that that will satisfy the noble Baroness.

I am mindful of the comments of the noble Baroness, Lady Carnegy of Lour, on Amendment No. 3 about the way in which the research council will operate in terms of receiving its grants within the strategic overview that the Government will set. There are good examples of research councils receiving additional moneys for specific, additional special projects that the Government may wish them to look into. That has worked successfully in the past.

We believe that the way in which research councils function—receipt of their grant, strategic overview, reporting, because this is public money, but with autonomy over whom they choose to support—is the right balance. If the noble Baroness would like more information, I would be more than happy to write to her and set that out in greater detail.

In Amendment No. 3, the noble Baroness, Lady Sharp, suggests that we replace "may" with "shall". I understand the objective of ensuring that the council is properly funded, but the existing "may" ties in with the discretionary power being given to the Secretary of State to determine how much she pays in respect of the expenses of the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The word "shall" would imply that the Secretary of State was obliged to pay the money and this would sit awkwardly with her discretionary power under this clause to determine how much she pays.

I am categorical in saying that the Secretary of State has every intention of supporting the AHRC financially, and would certainly wish to pay the sums that are determined to be paid. Pending this Bill gaining Royal Assent and the secondary legislation gaining approval in the Scottish Parliament, and both in this House and the other place, we will be ensuring that there is a once-and-for-all transfer of funds to the Department of Trade and Industry. This will be from the departments responsible for the funding councils in Scotland, Wales and England as well as the Department of Education and Learning in Northern Ireland. Our objective is to ensure that the proposed Arts and Humanities Research Council is able to operate from 1 April 2005.

Turning to Amendments Nos. 5 and 6, I want to establish a point of principle with regard to the funding. It is, as your Lordships will be aware, taxpayer's money. It will be important, as I have indicated, that there is accountability for the use of that money. The seven science research councils work in support of the Government's strategic objectives for science and research, under the auspices of the Office of Science and Technology. Taken together, Amendments Nos. 5 and 6 would replace the existing subsection (3)—as the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, has indicated—with similar wording which would have the same effect. We see no additional benefit gained by the proposed wording. I noted that the noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, mentioned amendments that might come at a later stage in this area. We shall see, and I look forward to them if that is the case. We believe that the use of the Royal Charter is a means by which we can ensure that the research councils operate in an autonomous way within the strategic objectives that have been laid down.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean

Perhaps I did not make myself very clear, as I was distracted by someone's telephone. Could the Minister perhaps give us an example of when and how Ministers might wish to use the power contained in Clause 3(3)? In what circumstances would Ministers use this power to give a direction? What concerns me is the possibility of having a government which did not like some research which had been commissioned. We are not talking about pure science. It could be social research which went against the flagship policy of a particular government. There is always a worry that politicians might be tempted to use their power in a way which would minimise their embarrassment.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

It is hard to find an example of such behaviour on the part of Secretaries of State, although I am prepared to dig and find any that might be pertinent. The general way this clause would apply is if, for example because of changes in technology or because of a particular issue of great import to the nation, the Secretary of State felt it right and proper for the research council to undertake some research, then the Secretary of State would provide additional moneys and would direct the research council to undertake that research in whatever manner the research council felt was best. That is the normal usage to which this power has been put. If I am able to indicate some circumstances beyond that, I will of course write to the noble Lord, and place a copy in the Library of your Lordships' House.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean

I am sorry to press this, but I cannot believe that any research council, offered some money by the Minister to do some research, would say "No thank you, we don't want the money to do that". That is not an example of using the power of direction. If the Minister cannot think of an example where the power would be required, would it not be better to take it out of the Bill?

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

It is precisely the power of direction that says the Government wish to undertake a specific piece of research, have indicated which of the research councils is best placed to do that, and thereby, through additional resources, as I have indicated, directs the council so to do. My clear understanding is that that is the case. If my understanding is wrong, rather than prolong the noble Lord's concern, I will of course put that right in a letter in the Library of the House. I have before me a couple of examples that may help the noble Lord and no doubt help the Minister as well.

Lord Forsyth of Drumlean

I am not the Minister.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

I meant myself, actually; though far be it from me to take it away from the noble Lord. He has been there. He knows what it is like.

The increasing stipends for PhD students are increasing the funding for some specific research priorities; post-genomic research is an example. I think that that fits within what I have indicated. As far as I am concerned, that addresses the issue. However, as I said to the noble Lord, I am very happy to return to the point if it would enable us to bring this to a suitable and satisfactory close.

Lord Walton of Detchant

One concern which may arise relating to Clause 3(3) is not so much that the direction should invite or direct the research council to carry out research in a particular field—there have been many examples of that in the Medical Research Council, and in the other research councils, over the years; I could cite the example of HIV/AIDS and very many more—but that the Secretary of State may direct that certain research given priority by the research council should not be carried out. I think that that is the concern we would like to have allayed.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

As I understand it, there is no indication that that has happened. However, noble Lords have pressed the point and I shall take it away and look at it further. It is very clear to me that there are no indications from the work of the research councils or from the quinquennial review that the issue is of concern in the actuality of the circumstances, if I may put it like that. However, I undertake to look at it again on the understanding that the Government are clear about our intentions. However, I have heard the comments of the noble Lord, Lord Walton.

Amendment No. 7 would specify that the research council should have to provide details of its programmes and estimates of its expenses to the Secretary of State. We believe that this amendment could make the situation less clear. There is a risk, albeit a small one, that the addition of "details" could be interpreted as narrowing the scope of' information provided within "programmes and estimates".

With those provisos, and on the understanding that I shall write to noble Lords on any points not covered—and I pick up the comments of the noble Lords, Lord Forsyth and Lord Walton, about ensuring that the wording entirely reflects our desires—I hope that the noble Baroness will feel able to withdraw her amendment.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

I thank the Minister for her response and other noble Lords for their contributions—although they have not wholly supported my amendments.

I turn to the issue of examples and where it might be appropriate to give an explicit directive. The example that I had in mind, although it relates not to the research councils but to one of the funding councils, occurred about a year ago when the Minister put pressure on the Higher Education Funding Council to withdraw funding from those rated "poor" in the research assessment exercise. There was a dispute, as I understand it, and it became explicit in hearings before the House of Commons Select Committee on Education and Skills that the funding council leadership was not too happy at that time to comply. I believe that an explicit letter was exchanged.

The point I was trying to make is that on these occasions it is better that the situation comes out into the open and there is an explicit letter of direction, as distinct from the Minister simply putting pressure on the research council chief executive and compliance behind the scenes. In the interest of public accountability we want to know about these matters. Implicitly, what I was trying to get at is that where such a direction is issued it should be an explicit direction in the form of a letter that goes to the research council and to which the research council has to respond. I think that most noble Lords understand that my wish in these amendments is to try to reinforce a degree of relative autonomy. The noble Lord, Lord Forsyth, thought that I had done completely the opposite. Perhaps we can get together and think about how to come up with something better.

I was not clear about one aspect of the Minister's reply. I had understood that the wording in Clause 3 was precisely that used in the Science and Technology Act 1965 and that one reason it could not be changed is that this wording applies to all other research councils. As the noble Baroness, Lady Warwick, said, we do not wish to have separate rules relating to separate research councils. I would argue that this is an opportunity to update the rules of the research councils to bring them partly up-to-date with current practice. That was another reason why I tabled the amendments. Perhaps the noble Baroness can write to me on whether it is the 1965 Act. She implied that it had already been updated, but I did not think that that was so.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

We took the 1965 Act and updated the legal terminology, for example. As noble Lords have indicated, that legislation was passed 38 years ago. However, the thrust of what we were trying to do was to put the research councils on an equal par. Based especially on the quinquennial review, we were content that the research councils were functioning very satisfactorily. That was the underlying principle. Off the top of my head I cannot remember whether the words exactly mirror the earlier ones, but I am happy to write to the noble Baroness. However, I think that the principle to which she alluded is right. We want these research councils to be the same. They work well. We believe it would be wrong for the Bill to change in any way the underlying way in which they work.

Baroness Blackstone

I support the Minister's comments, and I speak now not as a former Minister but as a former deputy chairman of one of the main committees of the social science research council. The issue must surely be whether the arrangements that are in place are working well. I have not heard any serious criticism from the existing research councils that the relationship with the Government, in terms of the kind of powers of direction that exist, is in any sense a problem. Were it one, then I think that we should be pressing the Minister to make changes. However, I honestly do not believe that there is an issue.

My only question is on the drafting of the last provision of Clause 3. I think that it is improved by including "details of". The Bill reads very oddly by dealing only with "programmes and estimates". I ask the Minister to think again about that. I was not totally satisfied with her reply to that minor detail.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

I am very happy to look at that. Noble Lords have made very good points. As I said, the underlying principle—that we wish to have parity—is clear. I am grateful for my noble friend's comment that issues or complaints have not arisen in this regard. Of course we will look at the wording. The value of Committee stage is to enable us to do precisely that. I am very happy to do that.

Baroness Sharp of Guildford

I am grateful to the noble Baroness for her suggestion. It reminds me that Amendment No. 7 was a purely drafting amendment. I am glad to have some support for it. With that, I beg leave to withdraw the amendment.

Amendment, by leave, withdrawn.

[Amendments Nos. 3 to 7 not moved.]

clause 3 agreed to.

Clause 4 agreed to.

Clause 5 [Pensions]:

On Question, Whether Clause 5 shall stand part of the Bill?

Lord Skelmersdale

One is always told when one starts public speaking never to begin with an apology. But I am afraid that, today, I must begin with an apology to Members of the Committee. There are a couple of points on Clause 5, which is to do with the existing and future employees of the council and their pensions. I must admit that these points occurred to me rather late in the day; hence my not giving warning, publicly anyway, in accordance with the Companion. But the Companion is mercifully rather vague on this, so I am not conducting what my children were brought up to call a no-no.

The beginning of Clause 5 states, section 1 of the Superannuation Act 1972 … can"— I stress the word "can"—"apply", or, I suppose one could say, "from now on be applied" to anyone employed by the Arts and Humanities Research Council. The first question is why "can"? Surely to goodness that has always been the intention. Any member of any research council has always come under the Superannuation Act 1972 and no one has the slightest intention of changing that. Surely, "will" or "must" would be much more appropriate, especially as the word "must" has come into the modern vocabulary to replace "may" or "shall" in some pieces of legislation. We may come to that matter a little later in the Bill.

The Minister's right honourable colleague, Mr Johnson, said in Committee in another place: all we are doing in clause 5 is ensuring that employment by the arts and humanities research council is included among the kinds of employment covered by the Superannuation Act 1972", as I have just said and as Clause 1 more or less states. But he went on to say something rather mysterious: The employees of the AHRB are already covered by the Superannuation Act 1972 … This is a belt-and-braces job—my understanding is that the Transfer of Undertakings (Protection of Employment) Regulations 1981 would cover them anyway".—[Official Report, Commons Standing Committee H, 10/2/04; col. 51.] What on earth is the Superannuation Act doing in this part of the Bill?

4 p.m.

Baroness Ashton of Upholland

The noble Lord could never commit a no-no on something as important as this. I am grateful to the noble Lord for indicating to me outside the Committee that he would raise this matter. My understanding is that the word "can" is used because one could look to another kind of superannuation programme if one wished. That is why the wording is as it is. If that is incorrect I shall be corrected, but that is my understanding.

The noble Lord is absolutely right that employees are already covered under the Superannuation Act 1972. My understanding of the purpose of the clause is that it ensures that once people transfer into the research council their pensions will transfer across and be unaffected. The clause enables us to be certain that that is the case.

The noble Lord may feel that it is unnecessary. However, with an area as important as this we wanted to make it absolutely certain that that will happen. If I can supply further information to the noble Lord I shall be happy to do so.

Clause 5 agreed to.

Clause 6 agreed to.

Lord Renfrew of Kaimsthorn moved Amendment No. 8: After Clause 6, insert the following new clause—