Wednesday 21 April 2021 / 10:30 PM Chi Onwurah

Labour warns against Tory sleaze threat to science as Conservatives plan to exempt new agency from Freedom of Information and procurement rules

Labour warns against Tory sleaze threat to science as Conservatives plan to exempt new agency from Freedom of Information and procurement rules


Labour has warned that the Government’s new taxpayer-funded research and invention agency risks being a front for “sleaze in science” if the Conservatives plough ahead with their plan to give the agency a blanket exemption from FOI and procurement rules.


Despite the scandal currently engulfing the Government, Labour fears Ministers are failing to learn any lessons – with new agencies being established but exempt from oversight, risking opening the door to further cronyism.


The creation of the Advanced Research and Invention Agency (ARIA) has been welcomed by Labour but not so the Government’s plans to “remove the burden” of FOI requests and allow ARIA to circumvent procurement laws to “quickly access suppliers”.


The US science agency DARPA, on which ARIA is modelled, is subject to FOI and procurement rules. When asked what the key characteristic of ARIA should be, DARPA’s Acting Director Peter Highnam answered “Honour in Public Service” – and made clear that oversight and accountability are important parts of DARPA’s success.


Labour has put down amendments, being debated this week, that would ensure ARIA is:

  • Accountable to the public and media through Freedom of Information requests
  • Subject to oversight and existing procurement rules
  • Accountable to Parliament through Science Select Committee oversight
  • Accountable to Parliament by reporting on tolerance of failure
  • Accountable to Parliament with regard to national security through a report to the Intelligence and Security Committee when asked


Labour would extend the FOI Act to cover public contracts won by private bodies, expanding rather than restricting the current rules.


Another Bill currently making its way through Parliament also demonstrates the Government’s failure to learn lessons on the need for oversight.


The National Security and Investment Bill, which will establish a new government unit inside BEIS that could block takeovers on national security grounds, currently does not allow for oversight by the Intelligence and Security Committee. The Government has argued that the BEIS Select Committee can provide oversight – despite members lacking the security clearance to see the intelligence information on which a decision to call in or stop an investment would be made.


Margaret Thatcher’s former Defence Secretary said this oversight “is a serious gap, and we could well pay the price for it in the future”.


Chi Onwurah MP, Labour’s Shadow Science Minister, said: 


“The ongoing sleaze scandal engulfing government makes clear why transparency and accountability for government agencies is so important.


“We cannot allow cronyism to sully science, with privileged access and contracts for mates, creating a two-tier science community. Everyone should benefit from the creation of ARIA, which could play a big role in scientific progress if it is open, accountable and driven by an agreed mission.


“A blanket exemption from FOI and procurement regulations cannot be justified and has no precedent in the US. The UK has a proud tradition in science and innovation and Labour supports high-ambition science, but Tory secrecy plans mean the new agency risks being a front for sleaze, threatening UK science.”