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Westminster Hall

Thursday 1 February 2001

[Sir Alan Haselhurst in the Chair]

Space Industry

[Relevant documents: Tenth Report from the Trade and Industry Committee, Session 1999-2000 HC 355 and Government Response thereto, Twelfth Special Report from the Committee HC 908, Session 1999-2000.]

Motion made, and Question proposed, That the sitting be now adjourned.--[Mr. Clelland.]

2.30 pm

Mr. Martin O'Neill (Ochil): Space policy is not often discussed in the House. Indeed, I do not think that there has been a Select Committee report on the subject since that produced by the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee in the late 1980s. Perhaps its report was not quite as lengthy and detailed as the one that my colleagues and I have produced.

It is strange that we do not discuss space more frequently, given the amount of public interest in space and space travel, and the excitement of science fiction, such as "Star Trek", "Doctor Who" and "Star Wars". It is rather unfortunate that the British film industry has produced Oscar-winning special effects in movies such as the Star Wars series, but the real thing seems to have evaded the interest of British Governments and the capabilities of certain sections of British industry. If both industry and Government turned their minds to the subject, they could make a bigger contribution than they have made so far.

The responsibility must lie partly with Government, because the space industry is one in which national leadership is paramount. In the UK responsibility has been vested in the British National Space Centre, whose structure and organisation are exemplars of the ad hoc-ery that can be both a boon to and a burden on public administration.

The 1988 Lords Select Committee report described how the BNSC was formed in 1971 as an ad hoc inter-departmental working arrangement, staffed by people from the Department of Trade and Industry, the Ministry of Defence, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, the National Environment Research Council and the Science and Engineering Research Council. The BNSC was reformed in 1985. Only three years later, however, the Lords Committee still had no confidence in the leadership offered not by the individuals but by the institution of the BNSC. The Committee said:

I want to make it clear that I am not attacking individuals. By its nature, the BNSC is a recipe for administrative and budget-winning disaster. It is

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answerable to a number of Departments but has only a small part of each Department's vote. It is likely to be the tail-end Charlie in any fund allocation exercise.

The BNSC is staffed by seconded civil servants. The number of people from industry who come in is insufficient. There is probably no kudos attached to a secondment to such an institution. It does not have its own vote in financial terms, but depends on contributions from members of the resources board, which represents all the partners.

It is little wonder that we spent 0.028 per cent. of our gross domestic product, compared to the United States, which spent 0.187 per cent., France, which spent 0.157 per cent., Italy and Japan, which both spent 0.048 per cent.--that is a little closer to our figure--and Canada, 0.042 per cent. This country is a major player in civil and military aerospace, and at least some of those skills and techniques could have been transferred to the British space industry. We cavil and complain about the small sums involved and the paucity of resources, but it is equally worrying that the sums spent have declined in real terms year by year in the past decade.

I hope that the Minister will say what financing the BNSC will have in the next three years. The sums involved are not particularly large. They do not pose the threat of a great drainage from the main flow of the partners' budgets, but they are vital to the space industry.

As important as the money, is how it will be spent. We are pleased with the Government's promise to produce an annual report which should assist transparency and accountability. That is a constructive response to the Trade and Industry Committee's report.

The United Kingdom Industrial Space Committee said that it was one thing to have a strategy, but that strategy was of dubious advantage without an action plan to realise it. With the funding available over a three-to-five year period, we should move away from the short termism that has bedevilled space planning in recent years. We expect a cautious reply to the debate from the Minister, but if he assures us that there will be a review or a revaluation of spending in the past decade, for example, we would learn some lessons on projecting expenditure that could be applied in future.

Space strategy has international dimensions. Members of the Select Committee will make our annual visit to Brussels next week and meet representatives of the European Space Agency and others. I hope that the Minister, when he responds to the debate, will say what he thinks of the view expressed by the UK Industrial Space Committee that our European partners are too preoccupied with the applications of space rather than with space research and science. Whether or not the Government share that view, greater priority should be given to the development of space science.

There have been some encouraging signs in recent months, not least the creation of ASTRIUM, which is a major force. It is not the only voice in the British space business but it is the biggest. Proper weight should be given to opinion across the spectrum so that a single big player does not dominate the debate and all the players in the UK space industry have an opportunity to express their opinion. Proper opportunities should be given to all the players in the UK space industry.

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Would the Minister share his thoughts on security? Are the Government happy with requests from the European Union and the Western European Union to use the assets of the European Space Agency for military observation purposes? Would that be acceptable to all European Space Agency members? Is it worth jeopardising the participation of countries that would perhaps find such a defence application unacceptable? I do not have strong views on the issue but it merits consideration--it is a small grenade that I lob into the pond to get the Minister's reaction. Since we debate the subject so infrequently, it might prove to be a catch-all debate.

We are talking not only about the relationship with our international partners. The Government have established a fairly good working relationship with industry and the partnership arrangements have been relatively successful in the recent past. The UK Space Industry Committee feels that the Government's partnership arrangements are sometimes too inflexible and that its one-size-fits-all approach may not be appropriate in every instance. In the unfortunate experience of the EGNOS programme--the European Geostationary Navigation Overlay Satellite Service--when its procurement stage was reached and there was talk of getting partnerships together, Britain dithered over how to secure 50:50 partnership arrangements. As a consequence, we missed the boat--if that is the right expression; missed the rocket might be more appropriate--in terms of taking the leading role that our technical expertise should have afforded us. Rather than British companies being in pole position and adopting a more influential role, we are now visibly having to pick up the remaining crumbs.

There is obviously an interface with defence and security but not all the delays and export licensing procedures are necessary. There is no debate involving international trade and globalised businesses in which we do not run up against that old sore of export licences, but it is galling when the delays in the treatment of export licences result in business going to other countries, not least EU or NATO partners who obviously have much the same concerns as we do about the desirability of entering into such contracts.

The next stage of the Galileo programme has also been delayed. It was supposed to start in December and has now been postponed to April. Apparently, there are doubts about whether income flows will be enough to give commercial investors a return. It is a wee bit worrying to hear that the case for Galileo has still to be proved. The Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions is the lead Department on it. One does not have to be an entrepreneurial whizz kid to work out the business significance of the programme. While it is understandable that transport and communications matters are at the heart of the programme, we cannot allow the DETR to lose sight of the business opportunities that its realisation will create. I should like to think that we will stop leaving ourselves open to the charge that there is undue delay or diffidence in this area.

As I said earlier, what became obvious to myself and my colleagues on the Committee was the great enthusiasm and excitement of the people involved in the

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space business. The word "anorak" is often used disparagingly, but in this instance it is not something that is particularly offensive, or it should not be taken as that. These are a group of dedicated people who fired themselves, and others who come into contact with them, with the sheer excitement of what they are about. If anything captures the public imagination, it is the exploration of space.

Could the Minister tell us today what the Government's view is on Mars exploration? It is about time they gave us some excitement in our lives--as far as space exploration is concerned--by saying, "Yes, we are in favour of doing something serious about the Martian challenge", and then getting behind it. If we want young people becoming involved in schools and universities in serious science, then we have to inject that degree of excitement and imagination at critical points of their scholastic careers, and to have something with which these young people can make a connection.

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton): The Mars lander vehicle of the Beagle 2 project, which the Open University co-ordinated under Dr. Colin Pillinger, gives exactly that opportunity of excitement. I once asked the Prime Minister a parliamentary question on the very subject, and now the Government have given some backing. The private sector has also played its part. That is exactly the sort of scheme to which the hon. Gentleman is referring.

Mr. O'Neill : I have to say that the Pillinger example is a great one; the problem is that it is the only one. We need more examples of that character, and to achieve that we come back to the issue of national leadership. This is not a matter of party dispute. The hon. Gentleman and I have discussed it privately on a number of occasions. Although we are often hard pressed to find much that was good about the past Administration, I would pay tribute to the hon. Gentleman for his endeavours on behalf of the space industry--which were almost successful--in keeping the space programme limping along, in keeping it alive.

We now have to move beyond the incubatory stage, but in order to do that we must also address issues. I want to discuss the issue that dare not speak its name--"launching", and whether or not we should have a UK launch capability. I am not the world's expert on matters relating to space. I do think, however, that more serious consideration should be given to this issue, than the dismissive approach, which is often adopted by the British National Space Centre and Government. It should be the subject of a serious study and we should be able to come to a rational decision.

We do not need the rather cumbersome approach that is currently being adopted, where there is a market assessment of every element that is a bit bigger than a widget. That is a classic product of the "Yes Minister" system of government: there is a review of every single bit, and money and time is spent on reviews instead of on conducting a straightforward independent study, which could be carried out at a measured pace and would enjoy the trust of all who participated in providing evidence to it. At the end of the day we could then say that for 10 or 15 years we will or will not play a major part in the development of a launch capability. It is necessary to say, in these circumstances, that

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perhaps the greatest fear that we have is fear itself. There ought to be an attempt made by the BNSC in this way and Government have to give a lead.

The Government have to be given credit. I know that my hon. Friend is not the Minister responsible but that it is Lord Sainsbury who is in another place. I have to pay tribute to him because he has, in large measure, developed the nascent programme which the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor) sought to keep alive in the dying days of the past Administration. We need more than that. There are rising expectations and we have to give the British space community a sense that the Government are backing this work and that the priorities are set in the context of a longer-term strategy for developing the industry's strengths and exploiting new areas of technology that the UK is in a strong position to develop. If we could do that, we could excite the public and particularly encourage young people to study space science. There is a wealth of talent in academia and in the UK.

We bemoan our inability to produce enough good scientists and technologists. We hear the ritual complaint that more people are doing media studies than anything else or that they end up doing that. That is because people think that it is glamorous or that they might get on television. Heavens above, the glamour and excitement associated with space is far greater than carrying an Uher tape recorder around on behalf of a local radio station on a wet Tuesday afternoon to an old folk's treat, which is the nature of the end product of media studies for all too many people. People do not appreciate that. The advantages to UK plc of a higher priority and a better sense of purpose and direction to the space industry would go no small way towards encouraging other areas of British business and industry as well as British academia.

My colleagues and I on the Select Committee enjoyed our brief foray into space policy. The fact that the Government have taken a decision to produce an annual report will provide successor Committees--I am assuming beyond a general election which might be held this year--to invite interested parties to discuss the contents of these reports in the years ahead. This debate will not necessarily become commonplace. If it does, it will assume other dimensions which are not particularly attractive. If it can engage the attention of Parliament by being effective, we can praise it and if there are shortcomings, we can criticise it. Sometimes, all too sadly in this House, it is more attractive to criticise than to praise. The Government have done a good job in the available time, but by doing so they have created a demand for even more effort, more assistance and more resources.

I hope that today the Minister will be able to tell us that more resources are available, and that there is a better focus and greater encouragement for all those who are thinking about or who are involved in the UK space industry.

2.54 pm

Mrs. Cheryl Gillan (Chesham and Amersham): It comes as something of a surprise to be in the Chamber again for a debate in which I am not speaking from the Front Bench. Some people would think that I am a glutton for punishment because I seem to spend most of

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my life in this Chamber discussing various parts of the world. I make my few comments today purely in my capacity as a Member of Parliament, not in my capacity as a Front Bencher dealing with international matters.

I am delighted that we are having a debate on space policy and on the Select Committee report because it has been some seven years since the previous debate on space: an Adjournment debate in 1994 secured by me and answered by my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor). I think that I am correct in saying that he had been a Department of Trade and Industry Minister for some three or four hours when he was summoned to the House to respond to the debate. Needless to say, the record shows that he acquitted himself admirably. I associate myself with the remarks by the hon. Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill) about the way in which my hon. Friend handled his brief when he was in charge of space matters, among other things.

The Minister has been in his post considerably longer than my hon. Friend had been when he replied to that debate, so we will expect great things from him when he rises to his feet. Not least, I hope that he will tell us that we will not have to rely on the good offices of either Select Committees or Back Benchers to have future debates on space, but that the Government will think about inaugurating an annual debate on space in Government time in the main Chamber of the House of Commons. I hope that he will give that some thought. It would be welcomed by hon. Members who have consistently taken an interest in these matters.

I make a few comments that lead from the excellent work by the Select Committee. I agree with much of what has been said and what appears in the report, so I am able to keep my remarks fairly brief. The institutional arrangements are an area that the Select Committee recommended for review. I read the Government's response to mean that they supported the Select Committee's view.

ESA has grown out of the European Space Research Organisation and included the failed ELDO--the European Launcher Development Organisation. The remit was to help to build a competitive space industry, notably for communication satellites. It was the centre of excellence in European space and was the natural leader in Europe; it was inconceivable at the time that individual countries could afford comprehensive competence in space. When the British National Space Centre was set up in 1985, most of the innovative funding was provided by Government. Expensive projects, such as space station, were politically justified and therefore had to depend on Government funding.

What is the situation today, some 16 years later? The pursuit of space science still depends predominantly on Government finance. The European Space Agency has a proven track record on developing European space science and an enviable record on international co-operation with National Aeronautics and Space Administration in the United States and other countries' space programmes. I would not want to change that. Indeed, it would be fair to congratulate the European Space Agency on having appointed the eminent Professor David Southwood from Imperial college as science director on the retirement of the successful present science director, Professor Roger Bonnet, who has led ESA space science to its present position of international eminence.

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As to the rest, we have a totally different scenario. Our space companies have prospered, originally on a national basis, but now on a European basis. UK industries operate with their erstwhile French and German competitors in ASTRIUM. Those companies are comparable in size to companies in the United States and have matched their technical and competitive capabilities. I would, however, still like them to grow into greater entrepreneurial and financial risk takers. It is worth mentioning that smaller companies, among others, have grouped themselves into an organisation called ASTOS, the Association of Specialist and Technical Organisations for Space, which does well in representing smaller industries in the sector.

For those companies to grow into greater entrepreneurial and financial risk takers, more space programmes and policies need to be switched to industry, with fewer being the initiative of the European Space Agency, which prefers Government funding and has little experience of market forces. Although I welcome the belated involvement of the European commissions, which have complementary roles to the ESA, we must not let them rule the roost as they have even less experience of market forces than ESA.

I can illustrate my point with one or two examples. The Galileo project is massively expensive with no certain market, largely because the United States is now providing the Global Positioning System free. Incidentally, I have an excellent gadget in my car, a satellite navigation system that I find indispensable. Not only does it take me along routes that I would never discover by studying a map and successfully get me to my destination, but it gets me out of major cities that are unfamiliar to me. It has proved to be an absolute bonus. Many of our car manufacturers are fitting that as standard in cars and it will be a growth market.

I have no doubt, therefore, that there will be market demand for Galileo services, but I recognise why, in the current circumstances, the industry is reluctant to provide upfront funding. That does not mean that the project should be run by an organisation in which the commission takes the chair and ESA provides the design and contracting functions. Surely we must establish an industrial consortium to design, build and exploit the system if it is to have any chance of commercial success.

That could mean Government support through subsidy. We should not be frightened of that. After all, if we think about how Airbus was created and run, who would have thought that Airbus would be equal to Boeing by the end of the previous century? Certainly the companies could not have taken the risk without Government support. That is arguably good use of taxpayers' money.

In looking at the British National Space Centre, the Minister should consider appointing a new director general from industry or from outside in order to give pre-eminence to individuals with market experience. I should like to make it clear that that is not an attack on the present director general, who is a fine official and has made a very good impression since he took over. At the very least, however, that option should be considered by the Minister. He should not allow the

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position to remain an hereditary one within the civil service. After all, that was not envisaged when BNSC was first set up.

I agree with the Select Committee that we should rigorously review our attitude to future launches. We missed the bus by refusing to join the Ariane programme when our Blue Streak had been 100 per cent. successful, notwithstanding the failure of the ELDO rocket. I still have a vivid picture in my mind of the rusting rocket in the jungle in Kourou in French Guyana--a success story that we never pursued, an opportunity that we missed. We deprived our industries of a lucrative market. What can be more lucrative than building a high-tech component for Ariane that is used only once and destroyed and is then reordered for the next launch? After all, Ariane is remarkably successful and now has more than half of the commercial launcher market.

The future lies in reusable launcher vehicles that can reduce the cost of launches to a 10th; some say more. We have innovative industrial and technical contributions to make, but the long-term cost of developing a successful launcher seems to terrify us. Obviously, that means that we must co-operate with our European colleagues, but we should not refuse to take part at the early stages, as the Government are doing. The marketplace is well established. Launchers will be required and, if the early research points to the probability of a successful reusable launcher, surely money will be made available from the private sector to help to fund the development.

We should not lapse into thinking that that is a sector in which the French have become predominant and that we must leave it to them--quite the reverse. Let our industries and technical people free to persuade others that they have some inspirational ideas. As things stand in the European Space Agency, that can be done only with Government support. I am sad that that support has been refused.

I welcome the debate. We need to examine the institutional arrangements rigorously to put our industries in the driving seat on future developments. I see ESA carrying on in space science more or less as at present, but it should act as the research centre for application programmes. Industries, which must operate in a competitive environment, should be responsible for the direction and specification of the work. Naturally, they will have to make a contribution to the funding of the research and development, but they will have greater confidence if they have control of the direction and specification of the work and the ability to stop it if the research is getting nowhere commercially.

I hope that I have not taken up too much of the Chamber's time, but, as it has taken nearly seven years to secure this debate on space policy, I should just like to pay tribute to the space industry in this country, which has kept hon. Members engaged in debate and informed on developments throughout that time through the good offices of the all-party parliamentary space committee. The United Kingdom Information Storage Consortium and the British Association of Remote Sensing Companies have led the way. The organising officer Frank Richardson has ensured that MPs have been given the opportunity to meet and to discuss space issues with industrialists in a way that provides an excellent example to other industries. I thank him and the companies in the sector for

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maintaining the involvement of parliamentarians and hope that the Minister will ensure that space policy is high on his and his Department's agenda in future.

3.7 pm

Mr. Ian Taylor (Esher and Walton): It is an honour to follow, for the second time in seven years, my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan). She was correct in her opening remarks. I was sitting with my new boss at the DTI, my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine), being allocated my various exciting responsibilities, when at about 10.30 he looked at his watch and said, "Well that's pretty clear. By the way, you'd better get back to your private secretary, because in 10 minutes' time you're answering a debate in the House on space policy." That was the debate that my hon. Friend had initiated.

There was a denouement that evening. The Prime Minister held a reception at No. 10 for Ministers and I duly turned up. He took one look at me and said, "Oh, Michael Heseltine tells me that you've already performed in the House since your appointment this morning, and that you didn't make any spending pledges. That's a good thing, because Ministers have been sacked for less." I had survived for 24 hours and did not make any spending pledges, although subsequently--I can now speak with the gross irresponsibility of an Opposition Back Bencher--I wished that I had. There would have been satisfaction if I had committed the Government to spending more on the space project and got away with it--[Interruption.] This is an unscripted aside.

I must declare that I have at various times acted as an adviser to Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd., close to my constituency--which is the world's foremost designer, launcher and monitor of the products from micro and mini satellites--and to Satellite Observing Systems, which, with SSTL, had put together a project for GANDER--the global altimeter network designed to evaluate risk, to which I may return later. Sadly, that project did not receive British National Space Centre backing, despite being an ideal example of what Britain could do in space. It is vital to develop it if we are to make the world's shipping safer and more effective.

I shall now reflect on some of the interesting points raised by the excellent Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill). One does not have to agree with every word of the report to view it as first class, and a huge contribution to the debate about Britain's role in space. I congratulate the hon. Gentleman and the Select Committee on their report.

The main problem is that resources are limited under all Governments. Another is that space is not an issue on which Governments wish to stand or fall, so when it comes to the spending round, Ministers fighting for the space project are unlikely to come out well.

Sometimes enthusiasm among the wider public reaches unreasonable proportions. I know that if posterity notices me at all, it will accuse me of being the Minister who did not take part in the project for the international space centre, which has no British flag flying on it. There is not enough time to record the interesting history of that episode in full, so I offer an abbreviated version.

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In short, most other countries did not take part in the international space station project either--and some who did wished they had not. The German Minister cried on my shoulder, saying that Chancellor Kohl had insisted that because the Americans and Russians were going to take part, Germany could not be left out. The French Minister took me out to dinner to ask me to help persuade his Prime Minister that the French should not take part in the space centre project, because France could not afford it. I offered that help, but it was decided that if the Germans were going to participate, so must France. Both the French and German Ministers then took me aside at a conference to explain why the Italians had to participate if the French and Germans were: and money was lent to the Italians to help them with their bid. Our budget was not big enough to contribute to a project that undoubtedly receives public admiration, but is second-rate science.

The Chairman of the Select Committee also spoke about education and enthusiasm. I took part in many sixth form and university conferences on space, and there is no doubt that a Minister speaking to such an audience does not engender breathtaking excitement--particularly when his speech is delivered two minutes after Helen Sharman has finished. In case anyone does not know, Helen Sharman was the first British woman in space--courtesy of the Soviets--and her photograph is enshrined in the Mir space centre library in Moscow. She is certainly larger than life, and bounces around the stage. Sixth formers looking for inspiration about space do not look to Ministers, and I obviously did not bounce very effectively. The young looked up to people who had been out there and done things.

I regret that we have not done more to direct British participation in manned space travel. I greatly admire one of my predecessors, the right hon. and learned Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke), but he did not regard it as sensible to carve out part of the budget to contribute to the project. We have lost some of our past enthusiasm for it, but I understood my right hon. and learned Friend's financial constraints.

I wish we had done more on launch capacity. It is impossible to have a proper space policy without a good commercial launch capability. Once it had become less about putting Frenchmen into space and more about launching satellites, the Ariane project was very good indeed. I should like to pass on a reminiscence connected with that project. I had had a small union flag placed on Ariane 5 when it was launched into space one Tuesday. In those days we had Prime Minister's Question Time twice a week, and that Tuesday happened to be one of those days. Unfortunately, Ariane 5 exploded. The Prime Minister had had the normal briefing from departmental Ministers, and had heard some months beforehand my proud mention that we had now got some money in Ariane 5. No. 10 phoned and said, "What's all this about our money exploding in space?"

I had to explain that the good news was that we were in the development programme but not in the Ariane 5 rocket that had gone up--but that the bad news was that piggy-backing on that rocket were some important satellite experiments that had been led by the United Kingdom--by the University of Kent, by both the universities in Leicester and others--and were intended to look at the magnetosphere and the ionosphere. Sadly,

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of course, those had been lost, although subsequently part of that mission was recreated. Those are the risks for space Ministers if things go wrong.

The United Kingdom space industry is vital and diverse. Logica, in my constituency--its space and defence element is based in Cobham--is a typical and vital player. To the wider public it is better known for its other activities, but is nevertheless a crucial player constantly at the cutting edge of expertise. There are many other companies, some of which I know about, that have contributed to the fine technology required for the engineering perfection necessary to get into space and to survive once there.

We have, of course, been involved in space science projects as well as civilian projects. The Hubble telescope, for example, has a leading British content. All that means that industry needs to know there is a future for space activity and plans for it. Some of the areas with which I had most difficulty in wrestling as a Minister were the public-private partnerships. Those allowed industry to participate in the project and get the full benefit from doing so, but at the same time the Government, or someone else who would get the project going, would be an anchor tenant, so that the ultimate commercial exploitation of it, which would come from the users of the raw material, could be developed.

Many projects have been stillborn, or British industry has not participated sufficiently, as those elements were not properly brought together. I have already mentioned GANDER, a project that could put 16 satellites in space to give a complete guide to wave movements and incipient storms at sea, so that in real time ships' captains can change course or manoeuvre. Losses at sea run into hundreds of millions of pounds, as Lloyd's will confirm, and yet at the moment we have inadequate satellite coverage. That means that the information to ships' captains tends to be theoretical or projected by mathematical models, unless by chance a satellite is over the area at the time.

We could get that project off the ground with a combination including industry and private investors. It is led by Britain, and we could do some exciting work with altimeters; again, Britain could take a lead in that. However, that would require assistance from Government, as an anchor tenant, so that the long-term future of the project could convince industry that it was in their commercial interest to back it, and to get the products out of those satellites into better management of shipping fleets. Some of the big shipping owners, such as the oil companies, certainly have expressed serious interest in the project.

If we are really to make sure that Britain makes progress in the commercial application of space technology, we need public-private sector partnerships that work better. The British National Space Centre was slightly unfairly criticised, although I understand the motivation of the Select Committee in doing so.

The paradox of government is that interdepartmental co-operation is obviously necessary, but rarely works. I remember going to the Department of Transport, as it was in those days, trying to persuade it to get in on the ground station of what has become the Galileo project. To some extent we were successful. I remember going to

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the MOD and being much less successful in getting the people there to understand that the same project had important interests for their Department.

In both those cases, BNSC was a staunch ally for me as the Minister with responsibilities for space at the DTI, but we could not overcome the turf wars that went on inside the Department. One of the problems of anyone transferred from, say, the MOD to BNSC is that he retains his friends, but little influence, in the MOD. In turf wars, Government Departments look after themselves.

The BNSC is an excellent organisation, but it has the problems within it that interdepartmental co-operation leads to. It has done a very fine job. I was the Minister who, in 1996, initiated and put through the first overall strategy review of what we should be doing in space. That was largely piloted through by the BNSC, and as a result we managed to re-focus some of its efforts, moving, perhaps, from a project that was becoming mature in certain areas to other projects. I do not have time to discuss, as the report does, the relative maturity of telecommunications, earth observation and so on.

I hope that the Minister will bear in mind the fact that space is one of those subjects about which, as the Minister responsible, one has to be aggressive. There is no point in being nice. One has to kick the living daylights out of your colleagues at the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions and the Ministry of Defence so that they give in, because they do not want one back. That does not always work, but I would much rather fail and leave bruises than not have tried. The Minister may care to take that on board.

I do not want to take up any more of hon. Members' time, but I am a great enthusiast for space. I think that what Colin Pillinger has done with the Beagle 2 Mars lander, which I mentioned earlier, is quite remarkable. Our universities have phenomenal scientific ability and expertise. I have mentioned some of them today. The universities in London are also active. We have, for example, the laboratories of University College.

The Beagle 2 Mars lander will depend on parachutes to get down to the surface, which is the business of Martin Baker, in the private sector, working closely with the Open University and Colin Pillinger. The probe, which will go into the surface of Mars to analyse it in situ and avoid the corruption of the material that bringing it back to earth would involve, will give us for the first time some idea of whether there has been bio-organic life on Mars, particularly if there are any methane traces. Those are incredible opportunities, and British science is in the forefront of them.

In welcoming this debate, and the work of the Select Committee, I add my voice to those in this Chamber who have said that space has a terrific role in education, in enlightenment, in broadening our horizons, and in commercial reality, because of the value of the data that we achieve from earth observation and telecommunications. All those factors should be better recognised by Government than I was able to achieve in my time in office--and I am sure that toady the Minister will astonish us by talking about the budget increases that he intends to announce shortly.

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3.23 pm

Mr. Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire): I grew up with space in my head.

Mr. O'Neill : It is still there.

Mr. Öpik : Somebody had to say that.

While my friends were watching "Star Trek", I was watching the stars, because my grandfather was a professional astronomer for 70 years. That was why I was inspired to realise how marvellous, unimaginable, inspiring and breathtaking the opportunities for the human race really are when we start looking up--and even how, to some extent, it helps to put the problems that we create for ourselves here on earth into perspective. If we can survive without destroying ourselves--or, indeed, allowing ourselves to be destroyed--I am sure that we will move on to colonise the solar system. Mars will probably be the next significant staging post after the moon. Who knows, we might even colonise other solar systems in the suburbs of our galaxy.

The UK can take part in that exciting voyage. It will be a voyage not only of scientific discovery but of potentially enormous commercial benefit to the country. My biggest concern is that the UK has been faced at least three times in the 20th century with comparable commercial opportunities in glamorous and exciting areas of technological advance, but did not take them. First, the TSR2 fighter project was an example of a technology in which Britain could have led the world. Tragically, for political reasons, we chose not to pursue the project and cancelled it. The exceptional Lightning fighter survived only as a result of the rather stealthy and quick reactions of its manufacturers in taking it out of the political debate.

The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) mentioned the second opportunity--the Blue Streak project, which was technically superb for its time. Again, for political reasons--I would say primarily for financial reasons--we abandoned that initiative. If it had been allowed to evolve, it would have given us a commanding lead in the European Space Agency.

Thirdly, and perhaps most tragically in the past 20 years, came the demise of HOTOL. Again, Government did not support a superb and inspiring initiative by British business people and scientists. We must not allow that to happen again. This interesting and exciting document on UK space policy should enable us to draw a line in the sand and say that we will not walk away from the opportunities that the world of space presents to us and to British industry.

The hon. Member for Ochil said that people who were interested in space risked being accused of being "anoraks". I must point out that the technology in many modern anoraks comes directly from the Apollo space programme. Even those who wear anoraks without meaning to support the space project are benefiting from the work done in the 1960s, primarily by the United States.

This morning I spoke to Patrick Moore, who cited a couple of important examples of how space investment has led directly to benefits in everyday life. He saw, I think in Bristol, a device to scan babies for medical

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reasons that was derived directly from space technology. We all know the example of the teflon frying pan. The non-stick frying pan exists because men walked on the moon in the 1960s--but I stress that they were not cooking with one on the moon; things were not quite that primitive.

Many other examples in technology and computer development point to the benefits of the enormous, virtually pure research project that the United States undertook. Admittedly it was undertaken for national prestige, but it led to enormous commercial benefits. It takes vision to achieve those goals, and political courage to make the investments that sometimes pay back only in the long term. If we consider how paybacks have come about in the past, we see that such investment does pay back.

In that context, I shall comment on the Government's observations on the report. I want to highlight the ease with which we can become so cautious that, although with good intent, we tie the hands of people in the British space industry and of scientists who are interested in space. I do not think that the Government intend to shackle the opportunities that we have been discussing.

On the European Space Agency, the Government response says that it is important

On higher education and space, the Government are right to respond by agreeing with the report that space is "a beacon subject". That is one area in which the Government can safely invest; a small investment earmarked for space research leads to an enormous return in inspiring young people and attracting them to science. The Apollo programme, for example, attracted some of the best brains and the most able individuals, who wanted to be part of an exciting national project. I am sure that the same can be done in the United Kingdom. People regard the SETI--search for extra-terrestrial intelligence--programme as a bit of a laugh, but for very little money it keeps people talking about space, although I do not expect the Minister to commit the Government to major investment to search for extra-terrestrial intelligence.

The Government are equivocal on the Galileo project, and I understand why, but scientists and British experts are firmly behind it. I take issue with the Government's response that the case is still to be proved, because if we delay our support for too long we may miss the boat and thus the attendant benefits.

The subject of launchers was raised; the Government's response, understandably, focuses mainly on the cost. Their response to the report was:

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The Government response states:

In response to the report's claim that

My final comment on the report is that I would like reassurance from the Minister that we will not slip back into the small thinking that could prevent David Ashford and other such individuals from co-operating in line with the kind of strategy that the Government document has already laid out.

No space debate would be complete without my mentioning the near-earth object task force. As hon. Members know, I have spent considerable time in the past two years getting the Government to take the threat of cosmic disaster seriously. I remind hon. Members that the likelihood of an impact--sufficiently big to wipe out most of the human race, and seven tenths of life on earth--is 100 per cent. It will happen, we just do not know when. It could be before I finish speaking--in which case I apologise for the fact that my words will be the last thing that hon. Members hear--or it could be in 50 million years. My guess is that it will be somewhere between those two--[Laughter.] I suppose that that is not a very daring speculation to make; I apologise for sounding so vague.

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On a more serious note, there is some evidence to suggest that the last fatalities from cosmic impact in the UK took place in 1783, from when there is a reasonable amount of evidence that 16 people were killed by an unusual object from space. Dinosaurs were wiped out 65 million years ago, and we know that species will be wiped out again in the near future--unless we take action to prevent it. Jupiter was hit in 1994 by fragments of comet Shoemaker-Levy 9, and there are many other examples, which show us the certainty of the danger. One thing that worries me about the UK space policy document is that this aspect was not mentioned.

There is an industrial opportunity, as well as a scientific one. Telescope Technologies Ltd--TTL--which manufactures some of the finest telescopes in the world, and is based in Liverpool, has constructed a robotics telescope which would be perfect for the purpose of tracking what is coming in the earth's direction. Diverting the object would take international co-operation, and I have no doubt that the UK could benefit commercially, as well as scientifically, by making a commitment in principle to work on that basis now.

I raised this matter at Prime Minister's questions, and the Prime Minister requested that I be patient and wait, because there might soon be some response to the near-earth object task force report, which was published in September 2000. Can the Minister give me any more information than that? Can he give me an assurance that the Government will respond fully to the 14 recommendations of the near-earth object task force?

When I started on this project many people laughed, but I am glad to say that--aided in part by Hollywood--people now understand the danger, and actually recognise that this is not cloud cuckoo land, or empty speculation. It is scientific fact, and there is clear and present danger that the human race needs to face up to sooner or later. The UK has the expertise to play a profoundly important role, for example with Mark Bailey at the Armagh Observatory, and with Jay Tate and the many others who helped with the campaign at Spaceguard UK.

Finally, I conclude with a disappointment. I was saddened that Helen Sharman had to be taken into space by the Russians. It would have been great if we in Europe had progressed enough to be taking ourselves into space. I have much respect for the Russian space programme, but it served to highlight the fact that western Europe's manned space programme has fallen quite far behind compared with other partners.

I hope that the Minister will respond to some of the points already made about a manned mission to Mars. It would be cruel to suggest that that would present an ideal opportunity to send the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland there; none the less, it would be good to be involved in a manned space programme.

I remind hon. Members that when JFK committed the USA to sending a man to the moon, the USA had had 15 minutes of manned space flight experience. We are a lot further along the track to a manned mission to Mars, and I have no doubt that British involvement in such a project would inspire the next generation of scientists to recognise the opportunities in space technology, and the next generation of British business people to turn those opportunities into tremendous profit for UK industry.

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3.40 pm

Mr. Richard Page (South-West Hertfordshire): There is no chance that a near-space object will protect the Committee from my contribution.

I congratulate the Chairman of the Select Committee, the hon. Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill) on the report. That Committee is as near as one can get to the Public Accounts Committee, on which I sat for almost 10 years and which, as all hon. Members know, does not look at policy. It is a sign of the maturity of Select Committees that they are starting to look at policy issues without dividing into partisan groups and to make effective and constructive contributions on ways in which we can make legislation more effective in future. The Select Committee on Trade and Industry is in the forefront of that change. I value its reports, which are well worth reading.

We have all expressed our credentials--some a little more esoteric than others--and our interest in space technology. I have followed the House's space agenda for some 20 years, was fortunate enough to visit the Ariane satellite under construction, saw the space satellite farm ASTRA in Luxembourg, visited satellite construction companies in the UK and also went to Peru to see an Ariane launch--I obviously put a hex on it as it fell into the sea, which did not best please the French. I read the report with a growing feeling of nostalgia because the old issues keep coming back. The EU-ESA relationship continues, in a state of dynamic tension. The old dalliance with launches was floated delicately to us. Several of my hon. Friends and the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) touched on that issue, to which we may return at the end of our debate.

The report also mentions earth observation. There is a worry about the lack of enthusiasm about taking up the data that are being produced and paying for it in the process. There is also the perennial problem of project management. The Government have made a series of sensible decisions over the years. They have not always got it all right, but they batted hard for satellite communications right at the start and that, in addition to the funding that they gave, was a valuable fillip for British industry. In particular, our IT industry did well from that boost.

With one small exception, the Government were also right about launches. I do not want to disagree too much with my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor), but putting the pimple called Hermes on top of an Ariane rocket and shoving two unfortunate people into space with a thermos flask of tea because that is all that could fit into the capsule--with nothing for them to do but come back when they reached their destination--was not a satisfactory use of taxpayers' money. My right hon. and learned Friend the Member for Rushcliffe (Mr. Clarke) rightly expressed concern about the financial viability of that operation. However, we can all agree to disagree.

The Government have a serious problem in that the Conservatives are apprehensive about politicians being able to back winners. I can now move into one of my manufacturing speeches and talk about the National Enterprise Board, which did not have a single success in picking winners. It will be seen how all this fits into a seamless whole when I advance my next point.

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Space is at the cutting edge of technology; it is right at the forefront and if manufacturers get it wrong, they will go out of business. If manufacturers lose a battle, they can actually lose a war. However, countries never go out of business, although they may have hard times and may have to cut back. Therefore, when a decision is made to provide backing to this cutting edge of technology,

If I were to go through every single point in this excellent report, our debate would last long past the allotted three hours. I shall take up three or four points that have already been mentioned by previous speakers; indeed, if I have them noted and they have already been raised, they are probably the points that matter the most. I can only endorse what my hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) said. This debate is the first one on this subject in this Parliament, when the space industry is an issue that should be given the chance to canter round the course more regularly than once every six or seven years. I hope that that message is understood by the various members of the Government and the government machinery and that we have a debate on the space industry more often.

I am delighted that the Government have managed to retain the organisational arrangements that were put in place by my hon. Friend the Member for Esher and Walton when he was Minister for Science and Technology. I say that because organisations need stability--it is not necessary to see constant change to the point that an arrangement never settles down long enough for us to discover whether it works.

I also echo the point about the uncertainty of the funding arrangements over the past three years--they have been somewhat erratic. After the election, when the positions are reversed, the Conservatives will be bringing a greater stability to this funding so that people can plan ahead with greater certainty. I hope that the Minister will respond to that point about future funding, which was also made by some of my colleagues and tell us how the Government see the taxpayers' money being spent.

Mr. O'Neill : Is the hon. Gentleman suggesting that we should continue with level funding, that is to say probably 2.5 per cent. per year being sustained on the basis of the inflation target? Or is he saying that we should have stability and have an increase? Or is he saying we should have stability in the sense that we know how little we are going to get every year and it might well reduce?

There are three options, and the hon. Gentleman may wish to consult his colleagues before saying which of the three he prefers, and before making yet another spending pledge from a tax-cutting party. Those present would benefit from sharing the hon. Gentleman's thoughts.

Mr. Page : I am disappointed that, after all the nice things that I have said about him, the hon. Gentleman

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has asked me nasty questions about funding. I used the word "stability" and stability would mean that we would maintain spending at the level that it is, not allow it to keep dropping down as apparently has happened over the past three to four years and, in that period of time, we would obviously carry out a review. The hon. Gentleman will know about reviews, as he comes from the party where they are as thick on the ground as snow in the Antarctic.

I am looking for stability and some ability to plan ahead knowing that there will be funding, rather than people working up enthusiasms and having the disappointment of seeing all plans cancelled. I do not think that there will be any difficulty or harm in carrying out a review of the benefit of the taxpayers' investment in space and in it having a slightly wider remit. I say this because the soon-to-be-published DTI audit will consider only the consequences of reduced or stable expenditure.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire had to succumb to the temptation of mentioning the teflon frying pan; no debate on space would be complete without mentioning it, and I should like to take the matter a little further. I hope that, when the review takes place, it will be on a slightly wider basis. We have not looked right throughout the piece--for example, we have not looked to see how many meals have been saved because it is a teflon frying pan or how much food has not had to be thrown away because it was in a teflon frying pan. I do not want any hon. Member here to take me up on this too closely, as it could become a little difficult for me, but having been given the lead-in on teflon frying pans, I felt that I should just make the point that any review should be wider than the immediate consequences and benefits that appear to be flowing from whatever investment has taken place.

The DTI is conducting an assessment of civil spending in space programmes over the past decade. It is important for the House and the taxpayer to know the rate of return on that particular investment. I agree with the UK Industrial Space Committee that the value of return on the taxpayers' investment is far greater than the investment itself, because it sustains high-tech industries, that there is a spin-off of valuable property and environmental businesses, and that it is time that we were given a glimpse of what we as a nation are getting from this investment in space.

I mentioned the European Space Agency earlier and the EU, and the sense of nostalgia that things have not really got better, although there is a slight improvement. It is rather like one of these stately gavottes where there is a move, a counter-move and then another move, gradually getting closer together until, eventually, the two will start to realise that they need each other and it is just a matter of negotiating a secure and stable relationship. The implementation of the recently agreed joint European space strategy by the EU and the ESA is fundamental to achieving the full social, economic and technological benefits that flow from the space industry. Working together, we have something that will be for the benefit of everyone in the EU, and the quicker that they get together on that, the quicker the benefits will flow.

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This joint strategy on applications must be seen in the context of overall benefit and the importance of space science. I just float a thought in all of this. Should we consider reforming the ESA, so that it can accept private funding as part of the natural financing of projects? It would have to be across the board and every country would have to be a player, but the introduction of private funding on a properly negotiated basis would be of benefit to everyone.

I am not going to repeat everything that is said in this report, or everything that is said generally, about earth observation, but there has been an extraordinarily slow take-up of the commercial services for such data. It has been disappointing, and the public market has clearly failed. Let us hope that the EU global system for environment and security programme will be a catalyst for driving that forward once more in improving and developing the public-user community. Although I am disappointed by progress so far, I know that earth observation is important, will still be important and will still need funding, and our earlier investment has put our industries in a good position to compete for work in the global monitoring for environment scrutiny programme.

The general difficulty is the difference between the US and ourselves. In the US, earth observation data are made available via the use of public funds, while in the UK, we think that it is better to create a commercial market for them, so people with a profit motive will try to sell them on.

That leads me to another of my concerns, on which the report touches slightly. Within the space industry, we do not pay enough attention to marketing and correctly calculating what might be the take-up of any service or of any data that might be provided. I put that failing down to our own centre, to ESA, the EU and, in many ways, to the industries themselves. Our industries make the case to the wider public and a proper marketing strategy, correctly worked out, would give greater guidance and greater confidence in progressing particular projects. I am concerned that Galileo may suffer from this lack of focus.

My hon. Friend the Member for Chesham and Amersham has outlined some of the risks. In this report, the Committee makes a fundamental criticism that

In turn, have the Government, along with their EU and ESA partners, been able to reach agreement with the Americans over the future of the global positioning system, because there are implications over the potential size of revenues that the Galileo programme has been estimated to attract? If those figures do not stand up, one can see the difficulties and the expenses that will arise.

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The Committee was fortunate enough to attract Antonio Robota, the Director General of ESA, to speak to it on 30 January 2001. Unfortunately, I did not find him totally convincing over the timing and progress of the Galileo programme and this is of obvious and considerable concern when we have the decision of the US Government to open their GPS. Again, I hope that the Minister will say a few words on that.

It makes it that much more important, given the UK's strengths and private-public partnerships, that the UK Government should take the lead in the proposed Galileo navigation programme to ensure that it is established on a sound, long-term basis. Taking the leading role in the ESA programme will be advantageous when ESA procures the early stages of Galileo, and failure to do so might mean UK industry being locked out from the downstream phases of the programme.

We have heard emotional pleas around the Chamber about launchers. Everyone likes to see a big firework: we light the fuse, stand back and whoosh, off it goes. It is all very sexy, but we have more launchers than we can shake a stick at. The old eastern bloc countries and China have launchers, as does the Ariane project; the Americans have theirs and now there are sea-launchers from oil rigs and other platforms. Unless a convincing argument is made, we should not go anywhere near that. It might pay us, however, to examine the horizontal take-off and landing project, now SKYLON, to find out whether a re-usable launcher and sub-space transport--travelling to Sydney in just a few hours--is feasible. Lord Sainsbury is worried about us getting sucked into that programme, but that need not be so. An evaluation could be made and a proof of concept taken. A sum of between £500,000 and £1 million would be enough for the evaluation, after which no commitment or obligation on either side would apply.

I agree with the call for a more regular debate on the subject of the space industry. I also endorse the call to evaluate what we can get out of space research--we should try to get out more in the future.

4.1 pm

The Minister for Competitiveness (Mr. Alan Johnson) : I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil (Mr. O'Neill) on securing the debate on the Select Committee's excellent report, which has been rightly praised from all quarters. The report's first recommendation was for a parliamentary debate on the subject. The Government welcomed that suggestion--hence today's debate.

The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham (Mrs. Gillan) can rightly take credit for instigating the previous debate on the topic, all those years ago when we were all so much younger. She mentioned that she would like an annual debate. That was not the Select Committee's recommendation, but it is a splendid idea. There are such things as Opposition days and I am sure that Conservative Members will for many years have many opportunities to use those days for debates on the subject.

I want to make the Government's intentions clear on the issues surrounding this important topic. Almost all the main points are in the report. I shall also respond to some of the questions from the hon. Member for

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Montgomeryshire (Mr. Öpik) that were outside the scope of the report, but germane to the issue. I am very much a space cadet and far too passive to answer the questions raised by the hon. Member for Esher and Walton (Mr. Taylor).

My noble Friend Lord Sainsbury's mix of aggression and charm has driven the agenda forward successfully over the past few years.

4.3 pm

Sitting suspended for a Division in the House.

4.29 pm

On resuming--

Because of the quality of the contributions and the depth of experience on both sides of the Chamber on the issue, it is a great shame that Lord Sainsbury cannot respond to those points himself. It would take a major constitutional upheaval to allow that. He will be reading Hansard carefully, not least to ensure that I have made the right commitments and statements in my speech, so I had better stick fairly closely to my brief.

The Committee's inquiry has drawn attention to the valuable part which space, and more particularly satellite technologies, play today in the lives of people from all walks of life. The distribution of television channels is probably the most obvious application, but satellites are not just important to business and leisure; they are crucial to the well-being of society. It was in 1996 that the amount of money going into that industry from the private sector overtook Government investment. That was an important turning point.

I should like to illustrate the effects that new technologies are having with examples from the fishing industry, which is very important to my constituency in Hull. Before the fleet even leaves port, crews consult weather forecasts that have been compiled using satellite imagery and satellite wave measurements. Those will be updated and delivered by satellite while the ships are at sea. Earth observation satellites are used to guide the fleet to the most favourable catch locations, based on sea temperatures and, in future, actual radar sighting of the fish stocks. Other satellites may become the eyes of authorities policing the same fleets.

Fishermen now routinely enjoy the benefits of satellite navigation, satellite communications and, in times of distress, the use of satellites to relay calls to search and rescue services. Many of those services are provided commercially. Some may wonder whether it is important that any of them should be based around British technologies and supplied by British companies. The Government believe that it is and the Committee endorsed that view.

In August 1999, we set out in "UK Space Strategy 1999-2002: New Frontiers" the goals that we would pursue for the space sector. Briefly, those were to pursue scientific excellence in our space research and to deliver success in sectors with greatest commercial promise. Those objectives were fully in tune with the Government's broader aims of opening up new commercial opportunities in the knowledge-driven economy; increasing the quality of life through the application of new technologies and protection of the environment; and pursuing knowledge and enhancing

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education through building on the strengths of the science and engineering base. In short, whereas formerly the policy may have been the pursuit of national glory, two criteria now drive policy: commercial success and scientific excellence.

Space is important because the annual global market for communication and navigation services is expected to catapult from $20 billion to $150 billion by the end of the decade. The UK needs to be a significant player in that market. It must run right through: from the development of satellites, ground hardware and software to the operation of satellites and their exploitation for service delivery. Those are knowledge-based businesses with high value-added aspects, particularly as one moves down the supply chain.

The UK has achieved some notable successes in the sector. The European space company ASTRIUM has selected Stevenage as the headquarters for its communications satellite manufacturing business. ASTRIUM secured orders for six satellites last year: that was more than 20 per cent. of the accessible commercial world market. All together, European satellite producers outperformed the United States suppliers in the market last year. Overall, the turnover of the UK space industry is considerably less reliant on Government expenditure than those in other European countries. That is the result of a bipartisan policy, which has avoided sinking vast sums of money into projects of national prestige.

Mr. Ian Taylor : I know that the Minister is keeping up to speed with developments in the sector, leaving Lord Sainsbury to lead it. Can he at least understand the frustration that the UK industry feels when contracts are let by the Ministry of Defence to American companies, which themselves have been driven forward by United States Department of Defense and NASA contracts? The technological breakthroughs that we would otherwise have in this country thereby go to American companies. That is a serious problem in looking after British and European industry.

Mr. Johnson : I take the point, but we have had tremendous success in that sector. We should continue to work with business to find opportunities and to ensure that we can win such contracts.

Hon. Members have made points about expenditure and the restrictions placed on British companies, which I shall try to answer in more detail at the end. In general, our approach is well respected throughout Europe. The hon. Member for Chesham and Amersham secured the previous Adjournment debate on the subject in 1994--I know that she will remember her words well--and talked about our taking a lead in Europe. She will accept that great advances have been made. We have had a bipartisan policy and have avoided sinking vast sums into projects of national prestige. The British space industry is lean and competitive. It is important that Government policies keep it that way.

The UK is becoming a magnet for satellite operating companies. The international satellite operator for maritime services--INMARSAT--has been located in the UK since the early 1980s. It is being joined by several

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internationally mobile operators, notably the new commercial spin-offs from INMARSAT and INTELSAT. Even EuropeStar, which is a joint venture between French and United States space companies, has chosen London for its marketing operation. Clearly, the UK is a place where those companies want to do business.

We need to be able to influence the development of satellite systems at European level. They have strategic significance. The Trade and Industry Committee focused on one in particular--the Galileo global satellite navigation system. As well as exploiting the commercial opportunities that that system will present, we want to ensure that there is maximum value for European taxpayers' money. The case has not yet been made. There is further work to be done in that respect.

That goal will be achieved by involving the private sector in the programme at the earliest opportunity, but not merely as a contractor. The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire (Mr. Page) touched on that point. The UK has pioneered the private sector's involvement in investment in space technology. As the Committee noted, that has not been without challenges. However, major infrastructure projects such as Galileo should go ahead only on the basis of a developing public-private partnership. Bringing in private sector disciplines and sharing risks flexibly will ensure a market-orientated programme. We do not live in a command economy. Early private sector involvement should ensure demand-led services.

I do not want to give the impression that space is only about big projects and big companies. The UK has a core of small and medium companies that display great innovation in developing sub-systems and components for spacecraft. Many are also active in the delivery of services and content by satellite.

We have one of the most competitive manufacturers of small satellites of less than 500 kg. Surrey Satellites Technology Ltd., which was mentioned by the hon. Member for Esher and Walton, is a world leader and supplies spacecraft to the United States and French militaries and to many developing countries. It has recently launched groundbreaking nanotechnology satellites. It is a small firm, integrated into the University of Surrey, and is a prime example of what can be achieved when academic and business principles are brought together in science and engineering.

That brings me back to the way in which the UK pursues world-class science through the space programme. We do that by looking up, through astronomy and interplanetary missions, and by looking down, through environmental monitoring of the earth and its atmosphere.

Mr. O'Neill : I raised the question of funding. I recognise that the partnership principle is, by and large, desirable, but there are occasions when it appears that the insistence that the ratio be 50:50 and that one size should fit all is unduly rigid. If the Minister cannot give me an answer, perhaps he could write to me on the point. There could be circumstances in which it may be more convenient for all concerned to make the ratio 70:30 or 60:40 in the early stages of a project, when the

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Government's participation may be critical in pulling in private sector partners that have been a little uncertain, or cannot afford to make the commitment.

Mr. Johnson : That is a well made point. It will be considered and perhaps I will write separately to my hon. Friend. I will come to the whole area of finance and whether we spend enough in a separate part of my contribution.

We have a strong scientific community. It develops outstanding missions and commands the respect of its international peers. I can illustrate that with an example. The American spacecraft Cassini is on its way to Titan, one of Saturn's moons. It is a shame that the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire is representing the Opposition in the debate. I thought that the hon. Member for Rutland and Melton (Mr. Duncan) might be here. I gather that he understands the issue so well that he has written a book on Saturn. Titan carries the European Space Agency lander Huygens on a seven-year journey. Between them, those spacecraft carry a total of 18 experiments. That is related to the point that my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil made about the excitement of such endeavours. There are more of them, which I will come to later.

British scientists are the principal investigators for the surface science package on the lander, but such is the strength in depth of the science community that it is also involved in a further seven experiments. A total of 11 different research groups are involved from throughout the country.

It is perhaps inevitable that the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council is a victim of its own success in fostering that community. Several Committee recommendations were critical of the research council's inability to fund all the attractive space science projects at the time that they were presented to it. The Committee was particularly concerned that another exciting development, the Beagle 2 Mars lander, should be fully funded.

I am delighted to confirm that the project is firmly on course and fully financed. Since the Committee's report, the Government have negotiated additional support from the European Space Agency for the project. Lord Sainsbury told me last night that Blur, as opposed to Blair, has recorded a track to be taken in Beagle 2 to Mars. Damien Hirst has designed something. It is an exciting project, of which we should all be proud.

It must be for PPARC to judge competing priorities for finite funds. Most of those involve long-term commitments. The Cassini-Huygens mission is an extreme example of that. There is, inevitably, only limited flexibility in the research council's budget from year to year to accommodate even relatively small proposals for additional funding. Nevertheless, the research council and the research group on Beagle 2 have been innovative in their approach. That has allowed that exciting mission to go ahead. I am sure that, when Beagle 2 lands on Mars at around Christmas 2003, it will stimulate great excitement among students and school children throughout the UK, as well as delivering its demanding scientific objectives of establishing whether conditions have ever existed on Mars for life as we understand it.

That brings me to the Committee's recommendation that the next space strategy must take account of higher education needs and the supply of graduates to the

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industry. The Government recognise that space-related courses in science and engineering have the potential to attract young people. We agree that we should find ways of maximising the beacon effect that such courses can have. In that way, we will encourage more people into science and technology careers, both generally and in the space sector.

I remind hon. Members that the Government embarked on a major reinvestment in the science base. We have listened carefully to the consistent message from researchers that constantly declining budgets were beginning to damage the physical and intellectual capital of the nation. As a result, in 1998, we established the joint infrastructure fund, a groundbreaking £750 million public-private partnership with the Wellcome Trust to fund first-class research infrastructure projects. The fourth round of awards was announced in December providing £125 million of new investment. With the Wellcome Trust, we are investing £1 billion over three years in the science research investment fund, ensuring world-class facilities for world-class science, keeping Britain at the forefront of scientific advances.

We have announced a major package of Government investment in science that includes escalating increases to the science budget amounting to £725 million over the next three years. That represents an average year-on-year growth in real terms of 7 per cent. That will significantly improve our position in the science world and help our industry to compete internationally and to push back the boundaries of technology. We are proud of the long-term commitment to science and engineering that that represents.

Such was the task facing this Administration that it has been essential to prioritise even within those substantial sums. It has not proved possible to increase the £45 million or so that the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council invests in space research. The research council has, however, benefited from the new funding for ground-based astronomy and the new synchrotron.

As I said earlier, the scientific uses of satellites are no longer confined to looking outwards from our planet. Environmental science has benefited greatly from the ability of satellites to provide global information on the earth, its oceans and atmosphere. UK scientists have been the most successful in Europe in obtaining observing time on the European Space Agency satellites ERS 1 and ERS 2. That is a result of their high-quality research proposals.

In July this year, ENVISAT, the agency's environment satellite, will be launched. That is a highly complex satellite with some 10 different instruments, including the advanced along-track scanning radiometer. That is being funded by the Department of the Environment, Transport and the Regions in order to provide a continuous long-term series of sea-surface temperatures. That will shed much-needed light on the issue of global warming.

The agency now has the support of its member states for a continuous programme of environmental research to follow on from those one-off missions. The UK has been highly influential in determining new ways of working in that programme. There will be considerable flexibility between missions of different costs and sizes.

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The researchers will work much more closely with the industrial teams developing the satellite, so that better cost-benefit trade-offs are made. We anticipate gains in both the effectiveness and efficiency of the mission.

The first mission to be selected under those new arrangements was a study of the ice sheets, another important element in understanding global warming. That was chosen in competition and the scientific proposals were led by a team from University College London. That is a further example of the excellence of British science in space.

I shall pick up some of the issues that have been raised in the debate. I have thought further about what my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil said about 50:50 funding, which is an important point. In addition to the letter, I can say to him now, as a result of very swift deliberation on my part, that in developing public-private partnerships--Galileo, for example--we will approach the issues flexibly. It is important to introduce private sector disciplines from the start, although exactly how to do this will vary between each project.

My hon. Friend also talked about military uses. I think that he described that as "throwing a grenade" into the debate. He will know that ESA is a civil space agency, funded for civil space purposes. However, civil defence synergy, especially in telecommunications and navigation, plus some other military links, should be considered. Obviously it would need to be considered in co-operation with other member states.

My hon. Friend, like other contributors to the debate, also mentioned launchers. On that subject I agree with the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire, as I do on many issues in this debate. There really seems to be a consensus on how to proceed. The question of launchers was fully discussed by the space community before the conclusions on the space strategy were reached in 1998, after extensive consultation. The problem is that those in the space community themselves were not convinced of the argument on launchers. It is important that those who wish to take the UK back into the launcher market recognise that they failed to persuade the space community when we had a very comprehensive debate on the issue. They failed to persuade the Government to reverse the decision of a decade earlier, and I do not think that that was the fault of the British National Space Centre; I simply think that the facts do not support the case.

Mr. Öpik : It is important to say that by the same token, the technology that has been available to the UK has at times been exceptional, and there are many of us who still feel that HOTOL was an enormous opportunity that was missed by the United Kingdom industry and Government.

Mr. Johnson : The hon. Gentleman makes that point for the record. We believe that the case has not been made. Several contributors have asked about funding, and whether we should spend more on space. As the hon. Member for Esher and Walton reminded the House, the UK chose not to be involved in the development of the international space station. Several Members have also pointed out that we have not

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invested significantly in the Ariane 5 programme. Between them, those programmes account for a large slice of European space expenditure. For other programmes--scientific and commercial satellites and so on--the UK budget is comparable with those of our international partners.

When the hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire was speaking in response to a mischievous intervention by my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil--who has a degree in mischievous interventions--on spending pledges, he said that the Opposition would maintain current expenditure, and would not make the cuts that had been made previously. If one says that one will maintain current expenditure, one is accepting that expenditure has been brought to the right level. There has been a reduction, but one based on ensuring that we are getting value for money for the British taxpayer. For the future, we intend to keep to the present budget. In terms of this Government's record, that has been money well spent; the BNSC has given us value for money.

Mrs. Gillan : This is an important part of the Minister's speech. He is in effect saying that he rejects the recommendation of the Select Committee, which said:

Mr. Johnson : We will stick to the response to the Select Committee, and we will review the issue. The hon. Lady has to recognise, for reasons mentioned by the hon. Member for Esher and Walton, who has some experience of these issues, that my noble Friend Lord Sainsbury fights hard to maintain the budget, and we will be looking to maintain it. As we said in our response to the report, there is a case for examining all the issues very carefully. In advance of that review, we believe, as has been reaffirmed by the Opposition spokesman, that the expenditure is about right at this moment, but we will take into account the important points that were made by the Select Committee.

Mr. Page : The Minister is giving a mixed message. One moment we are going to maintain the budget and the next moment we are going to fight hard to maintain it. Do those two statements have the same meaning? Is the Minister needlessly creating doubt?

Mr. Johnson : I am merely explaining what happens in every spending review. It is a fact of life, for reasons that have been set out. It is an important feature of the Select Committee's report and our response to it--and of the

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debate--that they lift the profile of the issue and make clear the commercial advantages to Britain of further development in the area.

Mr. O'Neill : Perhaps my hon. Friend could clarify a point for me. I understand that we produced our report in July, that the Government responded in October and that the three-yearly public expenditure review has been published. All the contributing Departments know what resources they have. Is my hon. Friend telling us that the BNSC has conducted an assessment of what is to be spent, or is he saying that that is still going on, and that we do not yet know whether it will be in excess of the £181.19 million spent in the year 1999-2000? Is that figure still being negotiated? My hon. Friend has not made that clear to us.

Mr. Johnson : My understanding is that we are still reviewing all the points made by the Committee, some of which could lead to greater expenditure. We do not believe that there is a case for reducing the budget, but nor do we believe that the argument that we are not spending enough in this area is sustainable.

Mrs. Gillan : As we have plenty of time for debate, I hope that the Minister will not mind my pursuing another point. Perhaps he will seek inspiration before answering, because I appreciate that he is not the leading Minister on this subject--although he is doing a sterling job in replacing Lord Sainsbury. I hope that the day will come when we can bring Ministers who are in the House of Lords to this Chamber and question them directly. Can the Minister allay our fears by telling us how long the review process is, and when we can expect a final outcome? In their response to the Select Committee report, dated 24 October, the Government said that decisions had yet to be taken following the conclusion of the annual spending round, but that the evaluation would be completed later that year--that is, last year. That timetable seems to have been pushed out further. Can we have reassurances on that--if not verbal ones now, in writing later?

Mr. Johnson : I thank the hon. Lady for understanding the need for a little time to think about the issue. Spending plans for the next three years are not yet published and are therefore not finalised in detail. This debate and the other representations made to us have enabled us to consider the issue further. That is probably the best that I can say.

Mr. Page rose--

Mr. Johnson : If the hon. Member insists on intervening again, I will of course give way.

Mr. Page : I just want to make sure that I have summarised the Minister's position accurately. Am I correct in saying that he is committed to sustaining existing levels and will fight hard to do so, that there are no fixed spending plans agreed, and that the Government will consider the various recommendations for increased expenditure made by the Select Committee?

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Mr. Johnson : If I can summarise the hon. Gentleman's point, the spending plans for the next three years have not yet been published, so we have not finalised the budget in detail.

I want to pick up the other point about the BNSC, which was the subject of one of the recommendations; my hon. Friend the Member for Ochil mentioned "ad hocery"--a term used in the Committee's recommendations--in that regard.

I think that the BNSC is an example of joined-up thinking, because if a separate agency were established, other Departments would have to be involved in a co-ordinating committee, whereas Departments actually work together in a single organisation. As far as I know, the BNSC offers a unique example of how such an arrangement can work. As the hon. Member for Esher and Walton said--I am sorry to keep mentioning him in this debate, but he does have considerable experience in the area--although there are problems, they are the problems of a system that is far better than an agency that would then have to co-ordinate different Government Departments. The present system encourages co-operation and breaks down artificial barriers. The success of our approach can be seen in our ability to influence the European debate over the past three years.

The hon. Member for Montgomeryshire has a great interest in this issue and made some important points, one of which was about near-earth objects--the subject of a debate that he instigated a couple of years ago. We have not made our full response to the task force on near-earth objects. We expect to announce our response to its recommendations before too long, and the hon. Gentleman has done a great service in drawing attention to the issue through the Adjournment debate that he secured.

The risk of collision is extremely low, but the consequences could be very significant on a global scale. I agree with him that such an event could happen either in the next second or in 17 million years' time. Like him too, I think that it will be somewhere in between. Action to increase the detection of near-earth objects with the potential to collide should therefore be addressed internationally. That is what the hon. Gentleman said, and we agree with him.

On manned space flight, space stations and life sciences, the Government are supporting several research groups who wish to conduct experiments in space. Astronauts undoubtedly attract public attention to space, but putting people into space is extremely expensive, harks back to the old criteria of obtaining national glory, and cannot be an end in itself. We keep an open mind on the commercial and scientific opportunities that the space station may offer.

The hon. Member for South-West Hertfordshire talked about private funding for ESA. At the last Ministerial Council we encouraged the director general of ESA to come forward with proposals that would allow the agency to participate in public-private partnerships. Galileo and GMES--global monitoring for environment and security--are two programmes in which private funding may be involved. Public funding from other bodies is an alternative source; that is a relevant point, which we pursued as recently as December, I believe, when the last meeting took place.

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If I have not managed to respond to every point that was raised, I hope that I have at least managed to add to the gaiety of the nation in my response and covered most of the major points.

In summary, the Government found the Committee's report a valuable opportunity to move space up the political agenda, we have welcomed the constructive recommendations in the Committee's tenth report, we believe that the space programme is delivering excellence in science and that that is underpinning a vibrant and innovative commercial sector. We continue to achieve more for less from the programme as we introduce new management methods and attract new external sources of funding.

Mrs. Gillan : I may have missed a reference to it, but one of the responses to the Committee's recommendations was the annual publication of

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"UK Space Activities". Can the Minister give us an idea during which month in each of the years to come we can expect to read that great document?

Mr. Johnson : I am afraid I cannot, but I will drop a note to the hon. Lady when I have had the benefit of talking to Lord Sainsbury, so that she gets quality information rather than--[Interruption.] I have just remembered in a blinding flash of inspiration that that document will be published in March this year. I shall look forward to reading it as much as the hon. Lady will.

In conclusion, I believe that Members of the House would not expect anything less than the approach we are adopting to using public funds and getting good value for money. This has been an important debate, and has probably been more enlightening for me than for the other Members present. Again, I congratulate the Trade and Industry Select Committee on an excellent report.

Question put and agreed to.

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