As the committee stage closes, Naomi Weir provides an update on the HE & Research Bill.

There is a saying that links laws and sausages; you don't want to see how either are made. Many in the research sector are getting their first glimpse of the process. And although it may seem to some like the Higher Education and Research Bill second reading was in the distant past, it was in fact only three months ago. Less in Parliamentary time if you consider much of that time was taken up by summer and conference recess. And yet there has been considerable effort and activity from many in the sector, in Westminster and Whitehall seeking to get the legislation in better shape before it becomes law. But there is a long way to go and a lot of Politics to navigate on the way.

Story so far

CaSE’s last update on the Bill followed a workshop we convened for members and others in the sector to go through the research and innovation aspects of the bill in detail and by theme to share concerns and identify priorities. The second reading of the bill in the House of Commons on 19th July, triggered the formation of a Public Bill Committee. This cross-party committee of MPs are tasked with going through the bill clause-by-clause and line-by-line, proposing, debating and agreeing amendments. This phase concluded yesterday (18th October) and it was only in that final session that the committee reached Part 3 of the bill, which is the area predominantly concerned with the changes to the research and innovation landscape. Parts 1 and 2 relate to changes to the higher education landscape more broadly and contain some very contentious proposals including relaxed rules around the entry of new providers to the system as well as setting up a new HE regulator, the Office for Students.  

The next phase will be report stage in the House of Commons, which will take the form of a debate in the main Commons Chamber, after which the bill will move over to the House of Lords for their consideration.  For more details, the Higher Education and Research Bill page on the parliament website has links to all official documents including the current version of the Bill, a record of debates in committee sessions, lists of tabled amendments, upcoming dates and stages.

CaSE action

Following the CaSE workshop and wider discussions, we produced a briefing on the key concerns that were raised by the sector and worked with others to consider appropriate amendments or areas for clarification. This briefing was sent to CaSE members and Bill Committee members as they began their considerations. Over the summer many organisations across the sector provided written evidence to the bill committee, setting out their priorities and views on the bill and proposing areas for amendment and clarification. CaSE took the approach of engaging directly with members of the bill committee through providing briefing and meeting one-to-one to discuss the research and innovation aspects of the bill. These meetings provided an opportunity to discuss the views we’ve collated from across our membership and to point the committee members to areas we viewed could benefit from clarification from the minister on parliamentary record, or specific text for amendment.

One of the clarifications we have been seeking is around whether or not the Executive Committee of the UKRI CEO and the heads of the nine councils as described in the Nurse review would exist. It was not mentioned in the Bill or the white paper before that. Last week the Government published a document on the UKRI Vision, principles & governance which clarified that their “policy intent is for the Executive Chairs of the Councils – along with the CEO, CFO and other senior directors of UKRI – to sit together on an Executive Committee, to support engagement with the Board and cross-council working.” We hope there will be opportunity for that to be confirmed by the Minister on Parliamentary record. There are still some questions outstanding but it is a good first step.

Progress?

On one level, the closing comments of the final committee session perhaps sum up the progress in terms of text amendments to the bill:

Joseph Johnson: I thank Committee members personally for giving so much of their time and energy to the scrutiny of the Bill and for the constructive way in which they have engaged in debate. We have been listening carefully to all the points made during the Bill’s passage through Committee and are grateful for all the observations, comments and proposed amendments, even if we were not able to accept all of them—

Gordon Marsden: Any!

Joseph Johnson: Or indeed any.‚Äč …

There have been a number of government amendments that have been approved in the committee stage, these include updating the descriptions of the research activity covered by each research council. But, due to the government’s majority on the Committee and all Conservative members voting with the Government, no other amendments have been approved at this stage. I’m told by others with more experience in legislation this is not entirely unusual and that there is still a long way to go and many opportunities to see amendments included in the bill, and for clarifications on intention to be written into parliamentary record.

So as the bill continues into the Lords, we will be getting in touch with Peers to provide briefing, share the views of our members and propose amendments. Unlike in the Commons, there is much more time in the Lords as well as many individuals well placed to comment on the subject. We therefore hope that the research aspects of the bill in particular will receive appropriate scrutiny and consideration.

Leadership & governance of UKRI

In parallel to the legislative process, we are also engaging with the team working on setting up UKRI. Some of the sector's concerns could relate to the implementation and operation of UKRI rather than a matter to be dealt with through the Bill. Therefore, on Monday of this week we arranged a small roundtable discussion with Sir John Kingman on the leadership and governance of UK Research and Innovation (UKRI). The meeting was an opportunity for Sir John to set out his vision for UKRI and provided an opportunity to discuss how to ensure its governance and leadership contributes to the success of UKRI and of research and innovation in the UK. Attendees included CaSE members and others with a spectrum of past engagement with the Research Councils and Innovate UK; from outsiders looking in, to former leaders and council members, across academia, industry and charities, and from across the UK. We will be writing and publishing a summary of the discussion on our event summary page soon.

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