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Chamber and committees

Meeting date: Wednesday, October 27, 2021

Education, Children and Young People Committee 27 October 2021 [Draft]

Agenda: Decision on Taking Business in Private, Subordinate Legislation, Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill


Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill

Under the ninth item on our agenda, the committee will take evidence from the Minister for Higher Education and Further Education, Youth Employment and Training, Jamie Hepburn, and his officials on the legislative consent memorandum on the Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill. I welcome the minister to the committee. He is accompanied by Roddy MacDonald, who is the head of the higher education and science division, and Magdalene Boyd, who is a solicitor, both with the Scottish Government. Mr MacDonald and Ms Boyd are joining us virtually. Good morning to you all.

Minister, would you like to make a brief opening statement?

Convener, it might be a while since you took up the role but, as this is my first time at the committee since you did so, I congratulate you on assuming the convenership of the committee. I look forward to working with the committee and you in that role.

Thank you for the opportunity to speak to you about the Scottish Government’s perspective on the Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill. As I stated in my letter to the committee, the Scottish Government is supportive of the overall policy intent of the ARIA bill—namely, to create a new agency with independence from Government influence and with minimal bureaucracy in order to give it maximum freedom to achieve its aim of supporting visionary high-risk and high-pay-off research and development. However, the Scottish Government has had some fundamental issues with the bill that creates ARIA. The UK Government failed to consult fully on the bill before its introduction in the House of Commons. Since being given sight of the bill and the related policy statement, the Scottish Government’s ask has been consistent. We seek involvement in the agency through the chief scientific adviser for Scotland and removal of the reservation that is currently in the bill.

As you know, reservation is a significant step that the Scottish Government will recommend to the Scottish Parliament in only the most compelling circumstances. I believe that the Parliament would expect nothing less. The key reason that the UK Government has given for including a reservation in the bill has been that it is to create distance between ARIA and the Government. The Scottish Government has always recognised the need for that and, as I have set out, supports that. However, reservation has always seemed to be a heavy-handed and unequal approach to creating distance from the Government.

The committee will have seen the LCM in the name of the Cabinet Secretary for Education and Skills, which laid that out as our position. I had intended to attend this meeting to reiterate our position. However, I am very glad to announce that the UK Government has finally recognised that reserving ARIA is an unnecessary step.

Two days ago, I agreed in principle with my UK counterpart, George Freeman, a memorandum of understanding and an amendment to remove the reservation from the ARIA bill. The memorandum of understanding will lay out very clearly the principle that ARIA will operate independently of ministerial direction from any Government. It will also contain arrangements for consultation of the chief scientific advisor for Scotland on ARIA as an alternative to board membership, which the Scottish Government has been willing to compromise on to come to a resolution.

George Freeman wrote to me yesterday afternoon, following our conversation, to agree such an approach, and I responded to him this morning. In the light of that, I anticipate that, subject to Cabinet agreement, the Scottish Government will seek to lodge a supplementary LCM recommending consent to the ARIA bill as soon as the UK Government has tabled an amendment in the House of Lords to remove the reservation from the bill. We will sign the memorandum of understanding as soon as possible once it is confirmed that the other devolved Administrations are also content.

I trust that the committee will agree that that is a very positive development.

Indeed. I thank you for your statement. Both you and minister Freeman are to be congratulated and thanked for the way in which you have resolved the Scottish Government’s concerns.

Having said that, I wonder whether colleagues have any further questions to ask of the minister, given the very comprehensive, although short, statement that he made to the committee.

Given that the minister is here, it would be a shame not to ask one or two questions, to make full use of his time.

I note from the meeting papers that the Scottish Government’s concerns included the UK secretary’s power to appoint the chair and first chief executive officer for ARIA and the possibility of other appointments by the UK Government at future dates that would change the dynamic within ARIA. What is the current situation with that? Have concerns been fully resolved around ensuring that there is no political interference in the independence of the organisation?

I thank my friend Bob Doris for making best use of my time, as he always seeks to do.

Those were concerns that we had. They were on the basis of the broad thrust of the concerns that we laid out in relation to the potential unequal balance that could exist between the two Administrations. As things had been laid out, there was always the potential for a change of approach from the UK Government. The UK Government has certainly been consistent in talking about the independence of ARIA; I take that at face value and do not doubt the good faith with which that has been laid out. However, as things stood, there was the potential for that to change with different Administrations.

Although ARIA will be a creature of statute and could be subject to alteration in due course, we will now have in place a memorandum of understanding that lays out the clear independence of operation of the organisation—not just from the Scottish Government and the other devolved Administrations, which seemed to be the concern of the UK Government, but from the UK Government. The memorandum of understanding takes account of those particular concerns.

I thank the minister for that response. Those are helpful reassurances. I have no further questions.

As nobody else wants to make good use of the minister’s time with the committee today and we are all content, it remains for me to thank the minister for his very brief initial appearance before the committee. I thank him and his officials for their time.

The public part of today’s meeting is now at an end. I ask members attending remotely to reconvene in five minutes on Microsoft Teams in order to allow for a comfort break. We will then consider our final two agenda items in private.

10:29 Meeting continued in private until 11:19.