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Column 568specialist group to some activity, one has to provide the transport, which is expensive and frequently causes worry. For the best reasons in the world, such transport is not properly monitored and controlled.
I do not want draconian measures to be pushed without consultation on to voluntary groups, but if the Government were really serious about the issue, they would make a short statement of intent in the Queen's Speech, find a way of producing the cash, and be prepared to insist on something happening in the next 12 months. If they are prepared to invest much money into how to put tolls on motorways, but not to consider urgently the other problems and how to fund measures to solve them, we shall know that their priorities are badly skewed. Those mums out there rely on the House of Commons to look after their interests. Those dads who are at risk when their children are ferried about the country, sometimes in substandard vehicles, need to know that the Government will do something about it. If they do not, if they do not follow some of the charter lines that have already been set out, we shall know that, as in so many things, the Government's commitment to change is simply a public relations exercise which has little genuine concern behind it.
The Minister for Transport in London (Mr. Steve Norris) : I congratulate the hon. Member for Crewe and Nantwich (Mrs. Dunwoody) on securing a debate on this important subject. It is a pleasure to respond to the points that she made. As of this morning, I am the longest serving Minister in the Department. I grant you, Mr. Deputy Speaker, that that is a dubious distinction, but one of which I might as well be proud.
Much of what the hon. Lady said was from the heart and contained a great deal of common sense. I hope that she will find, in the next few minutes, that we agree about a great deal and that we share concerns about a great deal. I hope that I can expose some of our ambitions, either stated or implicit, in this area and some of the difficulties that we face in achieving, as quickly as she and any reasonable person would want, some of the objectives that she outlined. In most senses, this is not a political debate, but I hope that she will forgive me if I chide her on one aspect of her speech which I thought slightly devalued the otherwise important comments that she made.
It simply is not good enough for the hon. Lady to make the sweeping assertion--as she did in relation to the Transport Research Laboratory, the vehicle inspectorate, the traffic area offices and the operator licensing provisions--that our pursuit of greater efficiency, greater economy and better value for the taxpayers' money must necessarily be at the expense of safety. She knows that that is not true. She is too experienced not to be aware that tremendous economies can be achieved in the services that we operate on behalf of taxpayers, while the cornerstone of our improvements remains that safety standards will not be compromised.
The hon. Lady referred to the 38,264 inspections that the vehicle inspectorate carried out last year. I was not briefed on this specific point, because I had not seen it as central to minibus safety, but I recognise that it is germane to the argument. She knows that the statistics show not only that the vehicle inspectorate is doing a good job in identifying people who run inadequate vehicles but that
Column 569more tests are being carried out. We do not simply test at random. Inspectors target vehicles that are likely to be at fault.
Mr. Norris : My hon. Friend the Member for Southport (Mr. Banks), who takes a keen interest in transport matters, confirms that inspectors target not recently registered, clearly up to date and modern vehicles but those that might be suspect and, to their credit, they are identifying faults on a proportion that is unacceptably large-- I agree with the hon. Lady about that--and are taking action. We now have more action and less administration and bureaucracy in vehicle inspections.
I visited traffic area offices when preparing to take through the operator licensing provisions of the Deregulation and Contracting Out Bill. I am satisfied that none of the Bill's provisions will lower the high standards of traffic area offices' work. We are reducing the administrative tail of such organisations. It is scandalous that whenever we propose to abolish clearly redundant, excessive and burdensome regulations or make any economies in the public service it is portrayed by Opposition Members as a lowering of safety standards.
The hon. Lady knows that that is not true. Like her, my children have been transported on minibuses. We all live in the same world : our children are all exposed to the same risks, and I do not want them to be more exposed to risk any more than she does. I am a motorist. I drive a car and am susceptible to risks from anyone coming towards me. It may be an oncoming motorist who kills me rather than a mistake of mine. I therefore approve of quality testing and safety testing.
What I do not approve of is the extraordinary assumption that we must accept whatever bureaucratic machinery we have and never alter it because to do so would be to betray safety standards or to imply a lowering of our concern over enforcement. The two are not compatible.
The same applies, if the hon. Lady does not mind me saying so, to the way in which police forces are reorganising traffic activities. I assure her that I have always found the commissioner constructive, helpful and concerned about traffic enforcement generally, and the service that the Metropolitan police provide is excellent. I readily acknowledge that the hon. Lady knows better than me that more than 100,000 minibuses operate in private use and for hire or reward under the permit system or the public service vehicle operating licence. Many thousands of people and voluntary organisations involved with elderly or disabled people are heavily dependent on minibuses. We reckon that about 10 million passenger journeys a year are made by the voluntary sector, and minibuses are a real lifeline to elderly and disabled people and are extremely useful to young people. They are a safe form of transport.
TRL figures for 1987 showed that occupant casualty rates for minibus passengers per number of miles covered were about a third of those for car passengers. As the hon. Lady well knows, the safety of minibus travel compared with car travel has been confirmed by our statistics up to as late as 1993, the latest time for which they are available. But it would be quite wrong for us to say, and she was correct to infer this, that as a result everything is fine and we need not take more urgent action, because every road
Column 570death is one too many. As she said, it does not matter whether the life is young or old or from one's own family or from outside it : road deaths are a tragedy and must be avoided wherever possible. Against that background, my right hon. Friend the then Secretary of State announced on Tuesday a package of measures to enhance minibus and coach safety through the fitting of seat belts. We need no persuading of the advantages of fitting seat belts, and we want to ensure that they are widely fitted as soon as possible.
At the Luxembourg Transport Council in June, my right hon. Friend called on the Commission to make early progress on proposals for the compulsory fitting of two-point belts to all new minibuses and coaches. He urged it to set the shortest possible timetable. I believe that that is the right longer-term solution. Vehicle standards are, properly, single market measures. Under the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality, it would be nonsense to apply different safety standards across a Community of 12, and soon to be 16, which would have a devastating effect on our export capacity. I am convinced that we must look to Europe for construction and use standards. That is the way to ensure that everyone is properly protected.
The hon. Lady raised some interesting issues--for example, whether the two- point belt or cross-over belt is the more appropriate and whether the implications for fitment and wearing in coaches with high-back seats of different types of belts have been properly considered. All those issues are important and, in so far as they relate to construction and use, discussion of them should be held within the Community.
Mr. Norris : The hon. Lady says, from a sedentary position, "How long, how long?". That is a line from Shakespeare, but, at this time of the morning, I am afraid that my brain, like yours, I suspect, Mr. Deputy Speaker, is sufficiently fuzzy not to be able to recall from whence. She asks a perfectly valid question : is not all this taking a great deal of time ? It will take some time, because the process involves negotiation through the 12 nations of the Community. The hon. Lady is an experienced parliamentarian, especially in relation to some European aviation legislation. She knows exactly how long the timetable will be.
As the hon. Lady and many other people have high expectations of early action, as safety is concerned and as the transport of children is especially sensitive, we have said that we will seek the Commission's agreement for the Government to act ahead of the European Union, to ensure that all minibuses and coaches are fitted with belts when they are used specifically for the transport of children.
That is a fairly straightforward proposition. It requires to be expanded and refined and we are working on the details now, but I assure the hon. Lady that there will be the widest possible consultation on the precise measures, once we have the Commission's views. We shall be taking full account of the concerns of users and of the voluntary groups that own minibuses, which have made such a major contribution to mobility.
I wish that I could give the hon. Lady a firm timetable for that programme today. The hon. Lady knows, from her experience of government, that I cannot do so, but I can
Column 571assure her that it is a matter of the utmost urgency. Subject to the views of the Commission, we hope to go out to consultation this autumn.
We shall also be amending the regulations that permit three children to share a double seat, in cases where seat belts are fitted--the three-for- two rule, with which she is familiar. There is no point in having seat belts fitted if they are not worn. We want children and adults to wear them. Frankly, I know that we have the support of parents, schools, voluntary groups and all those concerned with children's safety when we say so.
Meanwhile, may I take this opportunity to stress one or two matters that perhaps deserve a wider audience. There is nothing to prevent manufacturers from fitting belts to new vehicles in response to customer demand. It is already happening with line-built minibuses, and in most cases there is nothing to stop retro-fitting of belts to existing vehicles. Regulations have been in place since 1987, setting a standard for the fitment of vehicles, and I urge manufacturers and operators to take advantage of them.
There is another condition, called market forces--something that the Labour party often derides. How can market forces work in this respect ? I received a letter the other day from a parent, who complained that the local school had transported children in a minibus that did not have seat belts. I wrote back--as the constituency Member of Parliament, rather than a Transport Minister--and confirmed that the school was acting perfectly lawfully, but that if parents were not prepared to allow their children to be transported in a minibus without seat belts they should make that absolutely clear to the head teacher. I sent the head teacher a copy of the letter.
The school rightly took on board that important consideration and I am sure that when it hires minibuses again, the first question it will ask the owner of the minibus, or the person hiring it, is, "Does this minibus have seat belts ?" I hope that all those people involved in the occasional hiring of minibuses will do that, so that retro-fitting becomes more rapid and more organisations demand it. When they do, the market will provide it.
In summary, Tuesday's announcement constituted a major step forward for road safety, initially for children and, as soon as possible thereafter, for the public at large.
I know that the hon. Lady's interest goes much further than construction standards. Perhaps it is worth spelling out some of the background on minibus operation. Vehicles that carry nine or more passengers for a payment are classed as PSV vehicles and are obviously subject to operator licensing. The purposes of the system are to keep up the standards of commercial bus and coach operations, impose entry requirements that must be satisfied before a licence is granted, and control operators' performance and compliance with road traffic law.
In 1977, under the then Labour Government, it was recognised that for many non-commercial concerns that system was totally inappropriate, but they would be caught by it if, for example, they collected money from a scout troop by any charge for the trip being undertaken. For that reason, legislation exempted from PSV licensing arrangements minibuses used by voluntary organisations. The provisions of the Minibus Act 1977 were updated in 1987 and extended the types of groups that might apply for permits. They may be issued to organisations concerned
Column 572with education, religion, social welfare, recreation, or other activities of benefit to the community. It is worth pointing out that organisations that have not sought to obtain permits, but operate under those circumstances, are strongly advised to do so. As the hon. Lady knows, the Secretary of State designated identifiable national voluntary organisations that can issue permits only to their own branches and affiliate organisations, such as the Scout Association. The traffic commissioner acts as an anchor point for the issue of permits to other eligible local organisations. About 44,000 permits have been issued since 1987, and the organisations covered by the permit scheme are responsible bodies that--as I am sure the hon. Lady agrees--can be trusted to take proper care over driving standards, and safety and vehicle maintenance. Permit buses must comply with the same construction and equipment standards as other small buses and must be tested annually for road worthiness from the end of their first year. They are also subject to spot checks at the roadside by vehicle inspectors, and to prohibitions if a vehicle is found to be unfit, or likely to become unfit, for service. Permits will be withdrawn if the Traffic Commissioner is not satisfied by the standard of vehicle maintenance.
In a special exercise in the eastern traffic area this year, vehicle examiners inspected a sample of permit holders, just to establish that permits were applicable for the type of operation ; that the vehicles were being properly maintained ; and that the permit holder was aware of responsibilities in the operation and driving of the permit vehicle. I can let the hon. Lady see some more of the detail of that exercise. I am pleased to say that the results, in relation to the operation of the permit system, were very satisfactory.
Driver hours is another subject on which there has been much discussion. At present, minibuses used in the United Kingdom for private purposes, such as by schools and voluntary groups, are not required to have a tachograph, or to comply with drivers' hours regulations. The argument is that the driving of the minibus is usually only a small part of what the driver does, and the time spent driving is usually short.
When driving is not the main activity and relatively short periods of driving are undertaken, restricting drivers' hours would not be sensible, or effective. Any limitation would need to try to cover working, as opposed to driving, time. That would be extraordinarily difficult and impossible to enforce, not to mention the fact that requiring tachographs to be fitted and used on minibuses would also be expensive and burdensome. By definition, it would restrict the valuable use of minibuses, without making their use safer. The reality is something on which the hon. Lady expounded and on which I have the same difficulty as her. That is that it is virtually impossible to control what people do prior to driving a vehicle. The vital message that we have to get across is that one should not drive when one is tired and that one should take regular breaks if one is going to undertake a long journey. Please, will people consider using a second driver, where sustained periods of driving might occur, especially at the end of the day ?
The hon. Lady mentioned the tragic incidents of which we have all been aware recently. It is not appropriate or right for me to expound on those in any detail, but she and I are both concerned about the sort of situation in which an
Column 573adult takes a group on a day out. The adult might get up early, drive a long way, work with the children all day-- keeping stragglers in line, ensuring that they keep their money together, seeing them through the attractions, and giving them a meal in the evening- -and then drive the coach again. One must wonder whether it is not appropriate to take a second adult along when one contemplates that burden, just to share the driving load. The hon. Lady is right--the key is to be sensible and to understand just how important it is not to be below par when one is going to drive many other people. We fully share the hon. Lady's concern about minibus safety. As she knows, we are to improve the driver training regime and public consultation has recently been concluded on a number of issues arising from the second EC directive on driver licensing. This is an important issue and the hon. Lady's enthusiasm for early action is understandable. I hope that I have demonstrated that the Department is equally committed to early improvement in standards and that the actions announced this week by my right hon. Friend will go a long way towards achieving that.
Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham) : I start by paying tribute to my hon. Friend the Member for Derbyshire, West (Mr. McLoughlin), the immediate past Minister with responsibility for space, who has given sterling service to the country and the Government over several years. I remember canvassing for him in the hills of Derbyshire during the by- election at which he entered Parliament in 1986. I am sure that we all wish him well for the future.
I also welcome to the Dispatch Box the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry, my hon. Friend the Member for Esher (Mr. Taylor), and congratulate him on his well-deserved appointment to the Front Bench. I hope that he will always remember that his first debate was on space and that that subject will always be at the top of his list of priorities. I hope that he will find my speech helpful, certainly in setting a new direction for space policy and maximising the United Kingdom's potential in that area. He will find that the space community throughout the world will welcome his appointment and be willing to assist him on every occasion. Perhaps one or two European aspects of my speech will strike a chord with him at this early stage in his ministerial career.
I am delighted to have secured this opportunity to raise the subject of the UK's position in the space industry, an issue that has not been properly debated in the House since 1988. It is also apposite as this week there have been widespread celebrations to mark the 25th anniversary of the moon landing, a remarkable feat for mankind. However, several matters need to be examined urgently in relation to UK space policy, not least because in September 1995 the European Space Agency Ministers' conference will look at the long-term programme, which will obviously be important for European space programmes for the next couple of decades.
The European Space Agency is now producing positioning papers and it is important that the UK participates not only in the ministerial but in the preparatory work. Without the assurance of a modern national space programme, the UK will at best be able only to react to other proposals. Until now we have depended heavily on ESA, and if we are to ensure that the ministerial meeting approves programmes that are useful to the UK, we need to be active in defining what we want to achieve from space activities.
The policies that we laid down in 1988 and the funding level are not producing the results that we intended, and there is evidence that they could even be damaging the chances of our space industry becoming competitive in a very competitive market. It is also urgent because we now have to take into account important new players in the European space scene, particularly the European Commission which has a potentially significant new role both as a user of space systems--earth observation is just one example--and, complementary to ESA, to help European industry benefit from large new marketing opportunities in, for example, navigation.
ESA was set up some 30 years ago to create a European space industry and to ensure that Europe could gain a foothold in an area that was then dominated by the space war between the USA and the USSR. At that time my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade represented
Column 575the UK as a junior Minister and showed his great ability in conducting the negotiations that established ESA. It would now be most helpful if the President could again inspire the UK to a leadership role in reconstructing ESA to meet the needs of Europe for the next 20 or 30 years.
Until the mid-1980s, ESA was a great success. It helped to establish the European communications satellite industry, notably in the UK, which led to the creation of Inmarsat and Eutelsat, both of which were originally based on ESA satellites. It also provided the basic industrial infrastructure leading to the successful military communications satellites of which the latest Skynet 4 version has been bought by NATO in preference to US military satellites. ESA also led in the production of meteorological satellites which are the basis of Eumetsat and the daily pictures on TV weather reports. Those technologies have led to the new generation of earth observation satellites, especially ERS 1 with its all-weather observation capabilities for which the radar was developed in the United Kingdom. ESA also has highly regarded international scientific programmes for astronomy and solar system science in which the United Kingdom's scientific community and our industries play an important role. For example, the space probe Giotto was built in the UK. I am sad to say that the UK took only a small part in the final ESA success, the Ariane launcher. I say "sad" because Ariane is now winning over half the commercial launches that are put out to global competition. That success is bringing considerable benefit to the industries in those countries that decided to take a share. Since we use Ariane launchers for Skynet and pay a share of the cost of the launches that are required by ESA, we are contributing to work which largely goes to benefit space industries in countries other than our own.
However, I must not fail to acknowledge our contribution to the manufacture of the very accurate guidance system for Ariane and also the SPELDA system that separates the satellites as they are released into space. Those are impressive British accomplishments. During the 1980s, ESA decided to pursue a policy of seeking full autonomy in space for Europe and particularly for man in space, an aspect on which we have relied on US co-operation. The programme that was decided upon included continuing co-operation with the United States through the newly proposed space station in which Japan and Canada were also to be partners. But autonomy in putting man in space was to be achieved through an ambitious space plane--Hermes. Furthermore, this was to be achieved by the year 2000.
That ambitious programme was approved at the ESA ministerial meeting in The Hague in 1987, notwithstanding the fact that it required a doubling of the ESA annual budget. The UK refused to join on the ground that it was an expensive endeavour to achieve what the USA and the USSR had achieved 20 years earlier. In the aftermath of the demise of the USSR and one or two dramatic failures in the NASA programme, especially the failure of Challenger, money for space activities was put under more political scrutiny both in the United States and in the European countries.
Column 576NASA has had difficulties in funding the international space station, even with the new involvement of Russia. ESA Ministers found the escalating costs of ESA and especially Hermes unacceptable. Consequently, ESA has abandoned Hermes and is seeking a programme within, at best, level funding which Ministers might approve next year.
I have outlined that to show that ESA has served Europe well, but that it now appears to have lost its way in the prevailing political circumstances. Since we have funded most of our space activities through ESA, the uncertainties surrounding the programme and its direction is damaging to us and to our industries. That is why I am encouraging my right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade and our new Minister to renew interest in ESA and to help to seek a new role that will suit our purposes as well as those of the rest of Europe.
We need strong political leadership, because our refusal to support the man in space programme and the subsequent decisions to leave our funding at the existing level, has left us outside the main stream of ESA thinking. It is ironic that being proved right about Hermes has not endeared us to those who have tried and failed.
Due to our perceived attitude to space, the United Kingdom has lost much of its influence, not only in ESA, but in all parts of the world. That does not affect only the British national space centre ; the effect inevitably rubs off on British industry, too. More to the point, the fact that we have placed a ceiling on expenditure, which is committed for the next few years, means that we cannot join new programmes, however meretricious, except, possibly, at a derisory level. That is bound to be damaging to our industries and is hardly likely to leave us in an influential position of forming new ESA policies, if we cannot participate.
I shall mention just three cases in point. We cannot join the new ESA communications technology programme, even though our industries are prepared to contribute 50 per cent. of the funding
themselves--unique in Europe. We are offering a very small contribution to the ESA share of the second generation meteorological satellite, which will damage our industries' chance of taking part in the operational programme, for which satellites will be needed for the next 20 years.
ESA is starting to examine the next century's generation of launchers, in the Festive programme, in which our ideas on the horizontal take-off and landing launcher or alternative systems have been world leaders. A share in that would be of major benefit to our capabilities in the areas of advanced materials, avionics, software and to all markets in which we presently have some eminence. If we cannot participate in all those programmes, we shall severely damage our competitiveness and, perhaps, the existence of the many capabilities which our ESA contributions have helped us to create over the years.
The situation is made worse by the fact that the modest national programme, which the Department of Trade and Industry has always funded to help our industries to achieve success in the applications market, is being seriously eroded over the next few years. The space industry is no longer what we instinctively think--or rather thought--it to be. Its constituency has widened, so that many companies, such as those in the service industry, now use space as one component in their portfolio of activities.
Column 577They will not be able to operate successfully unless there is some judicious, planned and sustained Government direction and investment.
It is often said that industry is primarily responsible for making itself competitive. I know that our own industry accepts that challenge, but in partnership with Government, as I have outlined. This week, we have seen the merger of our largest companies, Matra Marconi and British Aerospace Space Systems, bringing together their complementary capabilities, which will put the single company in a much better position to compete effectively.
I welcome that change, but I recognise that we have smaller companies with space capabilities, such as those represented by ASTOS, based in my constituency. Those companies also need to understand the sense of purpose in Government policy if they are to thrive. It is, after all, the smaller companies that are likely to achieve the growth in jobs which we all want to see as one of the products of our space policy. A rethink of space policy on what we want to achieve and how we want to achieve it is necessary and necessary now. The policies of 1988 may have been right then, but they do not seem to be right now.
I mentioned earlier the entry of new players on the space scene. When I visited Brussels last week, with colleagues from the parliamentary space committee, we were delighted to hear how the Commission has come to recognise that there are a number of things which it can do to help European industry to achieve benefit from space activities. The Commission is already the biggest single user of satellite earth observation data.
In recent years, DG VI, the agricultural directorate, has come to use those data for assessing crop yields, and I especially look forward to it using the data to help combat common agricultural policy fraud. That alone could ultimately represent major financial savings to the European Union on the escalating costs of detecting fraud. Several directorates use data for dealing with environmental problems in the European Union and, in developing countries, for example, for mapping and exploration of natural resources. The Commission is also conducting with ESA an important study on how we can handle and distribute earth observation data in Europe to benefit those who can use the information. By the end of the century, there will be enormous quantities of data pouring down from earth observation satellites which are already planned. We need to agree how we can best handle that data in Europe, but eventually, we shall need co-operation on a global scale very much as was envisaged at the environment conference in Rio.
The Commission is also making progress in reaching agreement in Europe on satellite navigation. In that area, there are massive opportunities for our industries ; airlines, ships, cars, and lorries. Europe has a strong involvement at present in satellite navigation systems and we need to ensure that we at least maintain that position and that we do not lose out to the United States or Japan in the future.
There are other areas requiring Commission involvement : negotiating for a level playing field for our satellite industries and for the Ariane launcher ; regulation of satellite communication in Europe ; and negotiating, especially with the USA, on future mobile systems. Those would be useful negotiations which require action at a European level.
I hope that I have given the House the flavour of my argument--we have an urgent need to review space policy.
Column 578We have important interests to protect and some exciting new fields to explore and exploit. Our level of funding for national programmes and our contributions to ESA should not be related to some historical level of funding. At the international level, and especially in ESA, we need to show how our policies of favouring space applications, with which many countries have come to share, can bring benefit through the adoption of market-led policies.
At the same time, we need to support our industries where they face competition, not least from United States companies, which have received support from their own Government. In due course, we may be able to persuade other Governments to reduce their support, but I am afraid that we are not there by a long way yet.
Space is no longer the sole province of the space enthusiast, although I hope that those enthusiasts will continue to point the way not least for our children, for whom space is a great incentive to study science and technology. I have tried to indicate some of the economic and social benefits which space activities may bring to earth. With the fresh thinking in other countries, it is the right moment for us to review our policies and re-engage in international planning for space activities, which can achieve our objectives. It would be a great pity if the 25th anniversary of the Apollo landing also heralded the abandonment of space by the UK because of its apathy towards policy and future planning and expenditure. In September, ESA will be present at the Farnborough air show for the first time in 15 years. I know that we welcome it to that venture. The UK will also host the first European parliamentarians conference on space. I hope that the Under-Secretary of State will be able to send the right messages to ESA, to our industrialists and especially to that conference, so that we can again lead Europe on the formation of space policy as we did 30 years ago.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Ian Taylor) : It is a particular pleasure to reply to the debate. My hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) is a great expert in these matters ; she has pursued the subject of space with great expertise and knowledge since arriving in the House. I admit to the House that it is a subject with which I am somewhat less familiar.
Certainly, I did not expect to have the honour of replying to my hon. Friend until a short time before she got to her feet. However, that is one of the excitements of assuming a ministerial office and learning about the portfolios that one is honoured to have at one's disposal.
My hon. Friend made a timely contribution, because there is no doubt that space is a subject of enormous interest to British industry, which she stressed, and, of course, for reasons which any cursory glance at the television would show, it is of great interest to the British public and to the public around the world. The extraordinary events that we are seeing on our television screens are the result of much hard work in the past by industry. Therefore, the timing of the debate is particularly appropriate. It has been a long time since the previous debate on space in the House, which I am told took place in 1988. I am delighted to have this opportunity to reply to my hon. Friend.
As my hon. Friend said, yesterday we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the first manned landing on the moon.
Column 579The Shoemaker-Levy comet, as it disintegrated and descended into Jupiter, has had the most extraordinary effect in galvanising public opinion behind what can be achieved by the technology that is available to us in monitoring such events.
We should draw attention to the role that the Hubble space telescope has played in monitoring the Shoemaker-Levy comet and to the remarkable corrective action that was taken last year on the telescope to enable us now to have a wealth of new information for analysis by the scientific and astronomical community worldwide. We in Britain can take justifiable pride in the contribution that we have made to the telescope. It reminds us of the high regard in which our space science is held worldwide, which my hon. Friend underlined. We have an industry of which we can be proud.
We have also played our part in the European Space Agency's Ulysses mission, which has been able to observe the event from space. The British public should appreciate the role that we have played in ensuring that these dramatic events can be seen.
There are other examples, of course. In 1985, United Kingdom industry led the development of the Giotto mission to intercept Halley's comet. That proved to be an outstanding success. It was also United Kingdom industry which primed all ESA's satellite telecommunications missions which have flown so far.
Our major contribution to the Earth remote sensing satellites has provided- -it will continue to do so--a wealth of data about the Earth and the development of its environment.
An important feature of these achievements is that they are possible through our collaboration with other nations in pursuing space activities. It is clear that no nation--not even a super-power--can afford the cost of major space missions in today's economic climate. Indeed, it may not be possible for a nation to try to meet the cost, given the exchange of know- how that can take place with other countries.
That was not always the case. America and Russia separately pioneered space programmes, for example. As my hon. Friend remarked, co-operation is now the order of the day. In that sense, the space race between nations is over and the old rivalry has been merged into co-operative ventures. We have only to have regard to the efforts to include Russian participation in the international space station to perceive how much progress has already been made in that context. We are talking about new opportunities, but they will bring problems of adjustment. We are working closely with our partners in ESA in adapting the agency's operations to the new situation. The other major change since the epic first steps on the moon has been the emergence of an identifiable commercial requirement for space telecommunications, broadcasting, navigation and business services. My hon. Friend mentioned all those items. Governments are no longer the only players in space, so our attention has turned to industry's need to be competitive in world space markets. That is an important part of the responsibilities of the Department of Trade and Industry. My former responsibilities as parliamentary private secretary to the then
Column 580Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster gave me a great insight into the wide range of input that comes from the science community. The Government's science budget is operated through research councils and is dealt with by the Cabinet Office.
The House will be aware that the Government's White Paper on competitiveness was a result of extensive consultation with industry, taking account of experience in identifying the key factors that determine success for world-class companies in the international market. Particular attention must be paid by the Government to creating a stable macro- economic environment and to fair and open markets. At the same time, our firms should be committed to innovation, quality and better management practice, for example. Space can be no exception to the need for partnership between industry and Government. I was delighted to hear my hon. Friend underline that.
The House will wish to be told that the British National Space Centre is this morning consulting a broad cross-section of United Kingdom space companies on the full range of issues raised in the White Paper, including further development of an export strategy which involves our embassies, export promoters, trade specialists and, of course, industrial managers and market specialists.
My hon. Friend referred to telecommunications. Over the past year, the BNSC has worked closely with companies and trade associations to agree a strategy for that sector of the space industry, taking account of business opportunities, perceived barriers to markets and realistic levels of resource.
Companies in the United Kingdom and elsewhere in Europe meet various forms of tariff and non-tariff barriers in international markets. The Government are already heavily engaged in reducing those barriers. We work closely with the European Commission on conditions of trade.
The Government set out their civil space policy in a statement to the House in 1988, to which we have firmly adhered. Its key elements have been, and continue to be, to develop and introduce work space technologies. That is carried out principally by selective and cost-effective use of ESA programmes. Additionally, our national programme is aimed at achieving further exploitation of our investment in ESA, alongside necessary investment by industry. The first priority objective of our policy has been, the development of Earth observation for environmental and long-term purposes. Again, my hon. Friend mentioned that. The second objective is to help industry to take advantage of past investment to make a commercial success of satellite communications and, where appropriate, to foster development of specialised telecommunications technologies for niche markets. The third objective is the maintenance of a sound space science base. I can assure my hon. Friend that our membership of ESA remains an important part of our space policy.
The space agency has undoubtedly been a source of many successful missions and developments in space technologies. The agency, with the United Kingdom as the lead participant, laid the foundations for today's thriving satellite telecoms sector. With the United Kingdom as a major proponent, the agency is at the forefront of Earth observation. Our contribution to the ESA science programme has been and still is extremely successful. The UK is playing a leading role in ESA's major contribution
Column 581to our understanding of the Earth's environment through the successful Earth remote sensing satellite and its future missions. Our main driving force is to identify and develop the applications of Earth observation data that are available from ESA and other sources. We are working on potential commercial applications in agriculture, fisheries and transport, ensuring that UK companies are in a good position to exploit market opportunities. In addition, the BNSC is working with the EU, which is a potentially large user of environmental information. I was glad that my hon. Friend discussed co-operation between the various directors-general of the European Commission. It is an extremely important matter. I am delighted that the Commission is becoming effective in attempting to gain the most out of the ESA programme.
With regard to telecommunications, it is useful to look beyond ESA and to consider sources of investment and the Government's role. Over many years, we have led, or have been a major subcontractor, for a series of very successful telecommunications or communications satellites. As the perception of a real market for space telecommunications has matured, Governments have created European and international satellite operating companies.
European manufacturers, in a strong position from success in ESA programmes, have had considerable success in supplying those operators. As they are exposed to international competition for their service, those operators expect European industry to be competitive with United States suppliers.
Sir Peter Emery (Honiton) : I thank my hon. Friend for giving way. I simply wanted to congratulate him, as an old friend, on his first appearance at the Dispatch Box. It gives me the greatest pleasure to be able to do that.
Mr. Taylor : That intervention has not thrown me, although I am delighted by my right hon. Friend's comments. I am grateful to him, and I hope that all his subsequent interventions on me at the Dispatch Box will be as kind and generous.
As I was saying, operators in the European industry must be competitive with United States suppliers. As markets for telecommunications, weather forecasting, broadcasting and so on have become more mature, opportunities have become available outside Europe.
Although there have been successes, European companies have faced fierce competition from American contractors who benefit from their large civil and defence home markets. Reductions in American defence expenditure have heightened that competition.
The United Kingdom and European industry acknowledges the need continually to improve competitiveness, particularly on time and price, to win a more significant slice of opportunities in Japan, China, Korea and elsewhere. The Department of Trade and Industry is very much behind those efforts.
Increased Government expenditure on research and development would have little direct effect. In these circumstances, we must be driven by British industry. Action by Government to create fair open markets, and by European industry to increase competitiveness, can have a decisive influence.
However, ESA programmes continue to provide real opportunities to develop scientific instruments, technology, components and applications relevant to
Column 582telecommunications and European markets. We contribute to a number of aimed development programmes which are consistent with our overall policy.
Some emerging markets require a more global and more rapid response than ESA has traditionally provided. The market in satellite navigation is an example of that. My hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham referred to that point and, in so doing, revealed her considerable knowledge of that sector.
The British National Space Centre is currently talking with ESA, Eurocontrol and the Department of Trade and Industry about the next generation of air traffic navigation systems in order to ensure European success in that market.