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Dr. Michael Clark (Rayleigh): I welcome the report and thank the hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) and his Committee for the work that they have done in scrutinising the activities of POST. In the previous Parliament, I had to go before the Information Committee in the same way as the hon. Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) has done in this Parliament. However, he has had more success than me. I managed to achieve a three-year and a five-year extension, but he has persuaded the Information Committee that POST should become a permanent feature of parliamentary life.
I shall not speak for long, but I would like to reminisce on what happened in 1985, because tonight's decision to make POST a permanent feature of parliamentary life is the culmination of 15 years' work. In 1985, we became aware of the work that the Office of Technology Assessment--the OTA--was doing in the United States to inform Congress and the President of scientific issues. We thought that it would be a good idea to have something similar in this Parliament. Three Members of Parliament went to Washington to study the OTA and produced a report suggesting that we should have such an organisation here.
We went to see the then Prime Minister, now Lady Thatcher, and told her of our plans. She thought that it was a very good idea to have such a body to increase scientific knowledge in Parliament, so we asked for Government funding for it. She replied, "Oh no, certainly not. If it is such a good idea, you will find money for it from industry, academia and institutions outside Parliament." She then reached for her famous handbag, took out her cheque book and wrote a cheque for £100. She said, "Raise the money yourself, and let this be the first £100 to get it going." In the next two years, we raised more than £170,000 and were able to institute POST with just three or four researchers and fellows.
POST was a tight ship and the hon. Member for Norwich, North will agree that it remains a tight ship. Its director, Professor David Cope, uses his resources very efficiently. That contrasts with the OTA, which got bigger and bigger until it became so large and expensive to run that it was disbanded. The organisation on which we modelled ourselves no longer exists, but ours has remained neat and small.
Dr. Clark: I am pleased to see the hon. Gentleman nodding. Dr. Norton was a superb director. He got the organisation started with its short notes and longer, more detailed scientific reports. He helped to establish POST's reputation, and he has left behind a legacy of which he can be proud.
As well as helping parliamentarians with proactive notes about scientific issues of the day, POST is capable of helping, and does help, Select Committees when they want an idea of whether a scientific issue should be investigated. POST will write an initial report for the Committee, and when the Committee has decided on a line of inquiry, POST will assist on scientific matters. Of the advisers that the Science and Technology Committee,
Mr. Andrew Miller (Ellesmere Port and Neston): I want to put on record my thanks to the hon. Member for Rayleigh (Dr. Clark) for doing a splendid job when he was chairman of POST. He developed the organisation from the original form that he described. I did not realise that I would find myself on the same side as Lady Thatcher on the issue of Parliament's need for advice. The hon. Gentleman transformed POST in 1994 by persuading the House and the Information Committee to move towards the model that we now have.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Hallam (Mr. Allan) rightly praised the work of my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) in his capacity as chairman of POST. There has been continuity in the work that has been done, and as the only Member who has been on the Information Committee in the two Parliaments, I have studied that work carefully. I took the Committee's decision on POST extremely seriously because it concerned the spending of public money, which is what we are discussing now.
I urge those who have any doubts about POST to read annexe 4 on pages 20 to 23 of the report which lists the excellent papers that POST has produced. Those must be beneficial to Members of Parliament. I started my career--not quite so eminently as my hon. Friend--in a university laboratory and left some years later, having developed several important X-ray technologies. I make it clear that my scientific background is not enough; there is a huge gap in my knowledge on scientific matters, as there is in the knowledge of every hon. Member.
It is a weakness in all our legislative procedures that we do not fully understand the scientific and ethical issues surrounding the difficult decisions that we make, and we will fail in our responsibilities to our constituents unless we achieve that understanding. POST is an excellent way, at a low cost, to help inform Parliament.
The hon. Member for Rayleigh referred to what has happened in the United States and my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North referred to his recent meeting in Berlin. It is clear from Parliaments elsewhere in the world, including some of the emergent democracies, that there is a desire for parliamentarians to receive better scientific information. Few of us come from scientific disciplines and there is a desire for our knowledge base to be increased. POST is a vehicle that will enable that to happen.
I congratulate the POST board on its activities in this and the previous Parliament. I fully endorse--as a member of the Information Committee, I would because the report was unanimous--the remarks of the hon. Member for Hallam. POST is an excellent body and we need more of it.
Dr. Nick Palmer (Broxtowe): I declare an interest because the director of the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology, Professor David Cope, is one of my constituents; he is typical of the scientific excellence that we come to associate with Broxtowe.
As the points made by those who preceded me summarised what I wanted to say, I shall not detain the House for long. I suspect that, like many hon. Members, when I receive a glossy document in the post, printed with many pictures and 40 pages long, my instinct is to chuck it in the bin. That is the fate of much of the printed matter that comes through the post.
The reports from POST, rather like Le Monde, are usually not illustrated. If they are, the illustrations are pertinent. The reports are four pages long and they pass what my hon. Friend the Member for Norwich, North (Dr. Gibson) described as the cornflakes test--we can understand a complex issue while eating, or drinking, a bowl of cornflakes.
As my hon. Friend the Member for Ellesmere Port and Neston (Mr. Miller) said, Members have great difficulty in grasping the complexity of many issues; I am one of those Members. It is surprising that we are expected to be familiar with so many issues. It is essential that we have a body such as POST, which is able to provide information that is small and perfectly formed--like the organisation itself.
Mr. John Bercow (Buckingham): Speaking as someone who is certainly small but would not claim for one moment to be perfectly formed, I am intrigued by what the hon. Gentleman has to say. I am conscious of the scientific expertise with which he speaks. He will be aware of the document entitled "The Sun and Space Weather", which was produced in November 1999. Perhaps he can enlighten me as to its central thesis.
POST is a good predictor of issues to come. Stem cells have already been mentioned. Another issue that arose a few months ago was that of carbon sinks, which is now the central debating ground for the post-Kyoto conference. We would be in a mess without POST. We need it permanently. Let us keep it.
Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield): It has been an interesting debate, and having listened carefully to my hon. Friend the Member for Rayleigh (Dr. Clark), I have little to add to it. The official Opposition's view is that the Parliamentary Office of Science and Technology performs a valuable function. The only point that arises from reading the report, and which may properly be noted, is that one dissenting voice suggested that at times POST overlapped with the activities of other briefing committees. I think that the Select Committee on Defence