Select Committee on Foreign Affairs Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 113 - 119)




  113. Good afternoon. Welcome. Thank you very much for joining us this afternoon to discuss the concerns you have expressed. For the shorthand writers, could you identify the other two witnesses, Professor Floud?

  (Professor Floud) I am Roderick Floud, I am Provost of London Guildhall University and President Elect of Universities UK. My colleagues are Mr Nick Bohm, who is adviser to Universities UK on these matters, and Dr Andrew Tilbrook from Imperial College Business Gateway, particularly concerned with the work of Imperial College with the Ministry of Defence.

  114. Thank you very much indeed. We have read your original expression of really deep concern when the White Paper came out at first, and we have just received your two-page submission to the Committee, in which in paragraph 4 you say that the draft Bill "goes some way towards meeting the concerns we expressed in 1998 about interference with legitimate academic activities." Can we identify where those concerns still linger or are real?
  (Professor Floud) I think our major concern is that the protection for academic activities and academic freedom is still not intended to be on the face of the Bill. We believe very strongly that in the interests of the international aspects of scholarship and in the interests of the international activity of British universities, it is extremely important that legitimate academic activity should be protected and seen to be protected on the face of the Bill rather than simply by statutory instruments or decisions of Ministers. That is our primary concern. We have obviously some suggestions about how that should be done and in particular we have set out in paragraph 8 of our memorandum three possible ways which would go some way towards securing what we would like. They are briefly that all information in the public domain should be excluded from controls; that all information exchanged in the ordinary course of academic teaching or research should be excluded, except of course when the provider knows or is informed by the Government the matters might be helpful to the production of weapons of mass destruction, and, thirdly, all transfers of information within the UK should not be subject to the controls proposed. What we are really concerned about is that there should not be unintended consequences of good intentions. Of course we support the attempts to control the dissemination of weapons of mass destruction, nobody could be against that, and I believe the academic community have often taken the lead in such matters, but we do not believe that the current proposals sufficiently safeguard the activity which is integral to our work.

  115. When you say you want to put it on the face of the Bill, there is so little on the face of the Bill on all issues. It is very much—the word "shell" is not a fair word perhaps—a Bill which spawns a great deal of secondary legislation. What if you found your concerns addressed in the secondary legislation as opposed to putting it on the face in primary legislation?
  (Mr Bohm) The Bill does attempt to set out some broad principles, as the Scott Report recommended that it should, by spelling out what interests Control Orders ought legitimately to be able to protect, and it does that in the Schedule but at a level of principle.

  116. In the Purposes?
  (Mr Bohm) Yes. Our argument could be summed up by saying that the protection of academic freedom was a principle which deserves an equal level of protection and which ought similarly to be controlled at the level of primary legislation. It should not be left to the detailed processes of secondary legislation with their much more limited opportunities for amendment, challenge, debate and so forth.

  117. When I read your earlier submissions, and I have briefly read this one, I was trying to think of a practical illustration of a problem which could arise. Can you illustrate the nature of your concern by an experience that you think is now happily proceeding but which could get caught by the Bill?
  (Professor Floud) We feel that as currently drafted the Bill could affect major areas of academic activity in virtually every field of science, technology and medicine, and not only at post-graduate or PhD level. Part of the concern which underlies this issue is that the United Kingdom could be potentially training people, particularly perhaps at the research level, who would then use that knowledge in the creation of weapons of mass destruction. Obviously we would not want to do that and the Government has means to protect the UK from that situation. The Bill as drafted would essentially affect, for example, the whole of the teaching of medicine—bacteriology, virology, toxicology, biochemistry, pharmacology—

  118. In what way?
  (Professor Floud) They are all relevant to chemical or biological weapons programmes, so in theory if a teacher in this country were to lecture on those aspects of medicine that would be potentially giving information which might at some future point be used in biological weapons programmes. There are similar activities in a whole range of scientific subjects. Computer science is one example, aerodynamics is another example. Dr Tilbrook might like to give some more specific examples.
  (Dr Tilbrook) To give a very specific example, signal processing is a technology which is used in many areas ranging from mineral exploration, non-destructive testing, medical imaging, but the same techniques can equally well be applied to control weapons of mass destruction. One important thing for academia is to ensure there is good and constructive exchange of information between disciplines and we are certainly concerned that inappropriate legislation may restrict our ability to communicate things of that nature, even though the intention is to communicate them for the benefit of mankind rather than otherwise.

  119. But no one can believe that DTI officials or Ministers, when they produced this draft Bill, would for one moment think or believe this Bill would sweep up all the activities you are describing. So when you discussed it with them, what was their response? Do they feel you are unnecessarily worrying? What was their response?
  (Professor Floud) We are very pleased, as you implied in your first question, Chairman, at the response there has been to the concerns that we expressed in 1998. We do accept that the DTI and other officials are anxious not to put in unnecessary inhibitions. We still feel however that the principles that Mr Bohm enunciated are very important ones and that at the moment the Bill could be read as inhibiting a lot of activity which we believe is to everybody's benefit.
  (Mr Bohm) Could I offer a specific example of a project that was carried out but that might very well be inhibited if the controls were extended under these powers? Some years ago the United States National Institute of Standards set going a competition for a replacement to the data encryption standard; a competition to develop an advanced encryption standard. One of the competitors submitted to that competition, called Serpent, was a collaborative project between computer scientists in the University of Cambridge and counterparts in Norway and Israel. Their work involved a large volume of exchange by electronic mail which included pieces of cryptographic code, including cryptanalytic work which was necessary to demonstrate the effectiveness of their proposed contender. Cryptanalytic software and technology is currently controlled and under this Bill controls would extend to intangible transfers. It would not, I think, have been practicable for those academics to seek consent from the DTI for each successive e-mail in the course of the several hundred which were required for that project, at least not consistently with the timetable. Their contender was, as it happens, not successful but I do not think that detracts from the quality of the example.

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