uk parliament

High-risk research agency could become ‘side door to sleaze’

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The Labour Party has raised concerns about a government decision to shield its planned high-risk, high-reward innovation agency from Freedom of Information (FOI) requests. An amendment proposing that the agency should be subject to FOI requests was voted down by MPs.

The Advanced Research and Invention Agency (Aria) has been planned since at least 2019. It is inspired by the Pentagon’s Darpa, which has played a major role in developing world-changing technologies such as the internet and GPS. The government hopes that Aria will cement the UK’s reputation as “a global science superpower”.

Legislation to create the agency is at present passing through Parliament, with the government aiming for Aria to be fully operational by 2022. It will be led by “world-leading” scientists with greater flexibility and independence than at other public bodies, and funded with £800m for the remainder of this Parliament. The intention is to allow a small number of well-placed experts to pursue high-risk, high-reward projects with a higher tolerance for failure than is normal.

Among other freedoms, Aria will be granted a blanket exemption from FOI requests under the Freedom of Information Act 2000. Darpa in the US is subject to scrutiny via FOI requests.

The Labour Party is seeking to amend legislation to remove the blanket exemption. It drew parallels with allegations of corruption regarding public Covid-19 contracts, after figures with close links to the Conservative Party received contracts after being placed in a “high priority lane” for emergency procurement contracts.

Speaking in the Commons, the shadow business minister Chi Onwurah commented: “We want to deliver greater oversight of Aria and greater accountability for government in order to increase public confidence, particularly at this time when this government is in the midst of multiple cronyism scandals.”

“We do not believe that Aria’s current blanket exemption can be justified. £800m of public money will be spent by Aria. We’ve heard Aria needs to fail, but without transparency and accountability the public will not have confidence in what it is doing or the reasons for those failures, and we believe Aria would provide the government with a side door to sleaze in science.”

Kirsty Blackman, an SNP MP, added that exemption from FOI scrutiny would make it impossible to see if its projects are “further entrenching the inequality we currently have in science and technology and in academia.”

“[It will not be possible to assess if Aria] is doing a good positive job towards breaking down those barriers, towards ensuring people who live in the most deprived communities in Scotland are given the opportunity because they’ve got the best possible ideas rather than because they’ve got the best possible friends.”

Despite these criticisms, the amendment brought by Labour to remove the blanket exemption was defeated by a strong majority of 101.

Amanda Solloway, the science minister, replied that procurement rules will not apply for the process used by Aria to award research contracts. She compared this flexible approach with that of its US counterpart, saying: “Darpa benefits from what is described as “others transactions authority” which offers flexibility outside standard US government contracting standards.”

She added that it would be difficult to achieve the intended culture for Aria “within all the rules that would usually apply to public bodies”.

Former Prime Minister Theresa May spoke in support of the exemption, stating: “It seems to me that restricting the mission of Aria is not where we should be going. This is an organisation which it is important to give its freedom to be able to look widely.”

This week, campaign group Unlock Democracy sent a “letter before action” notice to the Department for Business, Energy, and Industrial Strategy, threatening to sue the government to force it to disclose how the £800m budget will be spent. According to The Mirror, the department stated that it is necessary to keep the work of Aria secret due to the likelihood of massive public interest in its operations.

“Despite its size, Aria will be very much in the public eye. We expect the number of FOI requests to be disproportionate to its size and therefore inhibiting,” an official said.

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