BIS remit ‘too broad’ for one select committee

Government urged to separate science and technology for scrutiny. Rebecca Attwood reports

June 12, 2009

MPs warned today that it would be “impossible” to fully scrutinise the Government’s new “mega-department” for Business, Innovation and Skills (BIS) via a single select committee.

Members of the Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills (IUSS) Committee warned that BIS covered so many policy areas that to examine them all through one committee would be difficult.

The committee, which was responsible for scrutiny of the now-defunct Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills (DIUS), is expected to be abolished after DIUS was merged with the Department for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform (BERR) to create BIS last week.

Select committees usually mirror the structure of government departments, but in a report published today, MPs called for the establishment of a separate committee to cover science.

Concerns had already been raised that the remit of the IUSS committee, which covered higher education, further education and science, was too broad, leading to a poor attendance record.

But the new BIS department has an even bigger remit, combining higher education, further education and science with the business sectors of aerospace, marine and defence, automotive, chemicals, construction, manufacturing, materials, engineering, retail, services, and handling issues such as corporate governance, competitiveness, enterprise and the Post Office.

“Despite the dedication of our core membership – we were the third most frequently meeting committee in the 2007-08 session – it has proved difficult to balance the scrutiny of the expenditure, administration and policy of the Department for Innovation, Universities and Skills with the demands of examining the use of science across government,” the IUSS committee’s report explains.

“Looking forward, attempting this same balancing act with an even larger department that also covers business, enterprise and regulation will prove impossible.”

There “could not be a worse” time to reduce scrutiny of science and engineering, when the Government is arguing that exploitation of the UK’s science base could be the route to economic recovery, it says.

The report calls on the Leader of the House to propose the creation of a separate science and technology committee alongside a new committee for business, innovation and skills.

It also criticises the Government for appearing to treat science “as a bargaining chip passed around departments” and warns that science spending and policy must not be “subordinated to the short-term needs of industry and business”.

Phil Willis MP, chairman of the committee, said: “Despite all the reassurances we have heard from ministers about the importance of science and engineering in government planning and policy, yet again we face the reality that science could be lost in a black hole of this new, all-encompassing ‘super-department’ of Business, Innovation and Skills.

“We urge the Government to create a science and technology select committee alongside the new business, innovation and skills committee to ensure that the crucial work of science scrutiny across government is maintained.

“The desire to exploit the UK’s world-class science base in order to contribute to economic recovery is commendable, valid and not in dispute. Establishing a science and technology select committee is critical both to reassure the science community that proper examination of science and engineering across government remains a priority, and to ensure that MPs have an effective and transparent arena in which to hold the Government’s science policy to account.”

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