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Four Public Affairs in conversation with Norman Lamb MP

Four Public Affairs in conversation with Norman Lamb MP: What does the UK need to do to become world leaders in science & technology and how can Parliament support this?

Four Public Affairs were pleased to welcome Norman Lamb MP, Chair of the Science & Technology Select Committee for a breakfast briefing with leaders from industry, trade associations and the voluntary sector.  In his opening remarks, Mr Lamb told guests that it was essential that there is a strong voice for science and technology in Parliament as the “Government have lost control of the policy agenda”.

The event was an opportunity for attendees to understand and explore the Committee’s priorities; how it plans to engage with key sectors and the wider public; and how it will influence Government policy and hold key Ministers to account.

A Government losing control….but can Parliament fill the vacuum?

There is no question that Select Committees have an essential role to play in scrutinising the Government and they are acting strategically as a result. As Mr Lamb pointed out, “the Prime Minister is in office but not governing” and that means meaningful Committee reports and inquires can play a big role in shifting policy.

One way this might happen is through joint working between Select Committees. The Liaison Committee, which brings together committee chairs from across the Commons, could play a leading role in looking at issues that straddle different Departments and policy areas. Mr Lamb has campaigned for cross-party solutions on health and social care in particular, and explained a sub-committee of the Liaison Committee may be the only way forward for examining the sustainability of the NHS. In terms of his own Committee, Mr Lamb outlined the current and forthcoming inquiries and committed to pursuing the issues that will have a significant impact on the future health and prosperity of the UK such as genomics, artificial intelligence and the impact of early-years development on mental health conditions.

Ambition & innovation the way forward

Mr Lamb set out his views on the Digital and Industrial Strategies, and in order to ensure they are a success, argued that unleashing innovation will be key to give the UK a competitive advantage in the future.  The question however is how to ensure the country is among the leaders of new technologies. Funding, as ever, is crucial and currently the UK allocates 0.7% less in terms of GDP than the average R&D spend among OECD countries. Despite this Government’s R&D spending pledges, the increases proposed will not bridge this gap in any substantial way. According to Mr Lamb, the Government’s target of drawing level with other comparable countries in just ten years looks optimistic and if they are truly serious about it then a clearer roadmap is required.

Mr Lamb went on to argue that funding is not enough on its own though. A modern infrastructure is equally important and the UK needs to be “much more ambitious” in this area. He pointed out that, while he might be Chair of the Science Committee, the fact remains that businesses in his own constituency and most of East Anglia are held back by poor broadband connectivity and there is a larger role for Government to deliver an economy fit for the new industrial revolution. He added that a strategy is also only as good as the framework that underpins it, and that most transformational reforms implode when faced with short-term political pressure. Government needs to be stronger and build greater consensus to avoid this.

Brexit & the future

Looking forward, Mr Lamb set out the case for “a progressive, liberal United Kingdom that is dynamic and entrepreneurial but also based on compassion and justice”; a vision, he believes, that would have a strong support across all parties and from the wider public.

More broadly, Mr Lamb bemoaned the dearth of ideas in UK and Western politics. It seems that no one is attempting to frame and provide solutions to the big challenges in our society – from the inefficiency of health spending to democratic engagement. Yet whichever political party is able to harness the potential of emerging new industries, whilst mitigating against their dangers, will own the political agenda for a long time to come.

On Brexit, Mr Lamb referred to himself as the “reluctant remainer” during the EU referendum, who now – unlike his Liberal Democrat parliamentary colleagues – believes the referendum vote has to be accepted. He acknowledged that the EU needs to become more democratic, less robotic and less uniform – Brexit should be the wake-up for EU leaders who thus far have shown a limited desire to evolve. Nonetheless Mr Lamb said he wants - and believes there is appetite for - a close, inter-connected relationship with the EU, although he fears the current UK political landscape will not allow this.

One of the aspects of Brexit that concerned him most was the undermining effect it could have on the science & technology sectors in the UK. The flow of data across borders is of fundamental importance to these industries and world-leading scientists operating in the UK require access to the successor to Horizon2020 or an equivalent – therefore it is crucial that a close collaboration is maintained. Mr Lamb said that many universities and other institutions have told him they are concerned because they are planning research projects now and need clarity on what the relationship will be.

In thanking Mr Lamb for his time and frank contribution, John Lehal, Managing Director of Four Public Affairs said that the Science & Technology Committee in this Parliament was set to be “inquisitive, innovative and influential”, and whilst its remit spanned a host of policy issues, it was important that organisations engaged with the committee and closely followed its work.

For further information contact Joe Cormack at Four Public Affairs on 020 3761 4404 or Joe.Cormack@fourcommunications.com

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