Select Committee on Science and Technology Minutes of Evidence

Examination of Witnesses (Questions 40 - 58)



  Q40  Dr Iddon: You, that is the industry, have been arguing that you should be full partners in the BNSC. In view of the fact that they are the funding agency, do you think it would be proper for the industry to be a fully-fledged partner in the BNSC?

  Mr Paynter: I think it is a question of what "fully-fledged" means. Obviously we would not be a funding partner to that, but we could help have a voice in shaping policy, in shaping and understanding technology that lies five or 10 years out and we could help articulate that. Whether we need to be a full partner to do that, I am not sure, to be fair, but it would be useful to have more of a voice. Interestingly, I am a council member of PPARC personally and there is no real conflict of interest at that sort of research council level in terms of how we articulate from an industry perspective. I personally am asked to leave for areas where there are conflicts of interest, but I think they get benefit out of having those types of skills and knowledge on the council.

  Q41  Dr Iddon: Would any of our other witnesses this morning agree or disagree with what Colin has said? Are you guys arguing strongly for a space agency in Britain or are we happy with the BNSC as it exists at the moment?

  Mr Martin: The last question you ask on the agency, I think I agree completely with what everyone else has said, that at the current level of funding and the staffing that we have in the BNSC to administer that funding, I think we need to stay with the structure similar to that which we have now, apart from maybe some of the details about how the executive of that might work. On the other issues that you raise and on the other issues that we have been talking about here on the partnership of the BNSC, whether the industry should be part of that partnership, I think the impression that I have gleaned over the years is that sometimes some of the partners of the BNSC are maybe somewhat reluctant partners and nobody would be more interested than industry in making sure that the BNSC is a success, so in terms of who are the key stakeholders in the BNSC, I definitely think that the industry has to be one of the main ones. Whether that means we should be part of the partnership, I do not know, but certainly our interest should be part of the interest of the BNSC.

  Q42  Dr Iddon: Presumably you are consulted regularly by the BNSC?

  Mr Martin: Very much so, yes.

  Q43  Dr Iddon: Martin is nodding in agreement with you. David?

  Mr Williams: I think probably I would suggest that the BNSC should have a bit more empowerment. I agree with Stuart that some of the partners have been reluctant. My personal view, which I know is not shared by everybody here, is that some of the other ministries that are involved in the BNSC should be regarded as users rather than as partners. It is easier for us to provide them with solutions that they want and they can use rather than asking them to define it upfront. I would like to see a bit more empowerment of the good people we have got inside the BNSC to enable them to act in an even more entrepreneurial way and show more leadership because the only way that this industry is going to continue to succeed is through speed. We have to do the hard things and we have to do them quickly, so anything that can be done to generate stronger leadership and dynamism in the industry would be a good thing. I am not sure whether that means an agency, but I think more empowerment is important.

  Q44  Dr Iddon: So it sounds very much as if the users should be separated out and we focus on the main decision-makers in the partnership. That is what is coming over to me. Would you agree with that?

  Sir Martin Sweeting: I think broadly, yes.

  Q45  Dr Iddon: Could I turn to the relationship between the BNSC now and the Ministry of Defence which is a major player for obvious reasons. How close is that relationship, Colin, between the MoD and the BNSC and could it be improved?

  Mr Paynter: It could be improved. I think the MoD have some very specific technology requirements in some areas of their activities obviously, but the ability to have benefits through dual-use technology I think is quite high and will be higher in the future as the sort of military customisation of satellites becomes quite specific. I would strongly welcome much more involvement from the Ministry of Defence in the BNSC. I think their involvement is fairly low both in financial terms and in commitment terms, but I have seen some movement in that with meetings set up between Lord Sainsbury and Lord Drayson in terms of recently over the last 18 months. I think that is starting to move in the right direction, but there is a lot more benefit, I think, that could be created out of some joint technology programmes between the MoD and the civil agencies.

  Sir Martin Sweeting: I think perhaps historically the MoD with space has focused primarily on national communications capabilities for the MoD and then has been reliant on the US particularly for other space services. I think we have seen, certainly in the last couple of years, a broadening of interest within the MoD, as has been expressed in the future air and space concept, where the MoD is beginning to look a little bit more widely at space, so consequently I would hope that their dialogue with the BNSC outside in areas other than just communications, for example, for military applications, will increase, so I see a development of interest in the MoD and I would hope that it before too long would follow and the discussions we were having with the previous Minister, Lord Sainsbury, and Lord Drayson on this, I think, are a very good indicator.

  Q46  Chairman: Do you feel also that Britain, that we, looking again at the MoD, ought to have a far greater independent capability for monitoring rather than relying very significantly on the US satellite system for military observation?

  Sir Martin Sweeting: I think that the change in world politics and the threats that we face have started to catalyse a different way of thinking and that the stretching of our allies' facilities in space means that having a degree of national capability to support our own services is becoming, I think, much more appropriate. Clearly the very large-scale and very expensive capabilities that some of our allies have are perhaps not appropriate for us to duplicate and not sensible, but, on the other hand, having a certain set of tools in our toolbox where we can help our Forces under certain situations, particularly when our allies are stretched and their capabilities may not necessarily meet our requirements, I think, is going to be increasingly important to the MoD.

  Q47  Bob Spink: I would like to address regulation, licensing and the possible impact on space debris, if you will excuse that pun. Each country is in itself self-regulating within its international obligations and the UN treaties. Do you think that this system works well, or that some countries do it better than others?

  Mr Williams: I have something to say on that subject, as an operator who has recently been awarded a licence. We are also going through the process of seeking further licences and we are hoping to build another eight satellites. The system in general is a good one. It is an unusual system and it is an accident of history, but I think it works reasonably well. In the UK it is administrated for us by Ofcom and I think that Ofcom is a first rate regulator across the board. I think they do their job very well and very diligently and they were very helpful to us in the early days. There is a problem that we face, which is that not all regulators outside the UK are quite so good at their job as Ofcom, or perhaps they take a different view. It is certainly beyond contention that some regulators will interpret ITU guidelines and rules in a way which is very flexible and gives a distinct competitive advantage to other satellite operators. So there are satellite operators in Europe, for example, for whom the same standard of rigour in interpretation of rules and guidelines that apply to me does not apply, and that gives me a competitive disadvantage. Ofcom do their job and they do it very well but I other people are doing things differently and it is causing us a problem, I think we need to address that.

  Q48  Bob Spink: Do you think there is a pragmatic problem? For instance, are you suspicious about the fact that some satellites just inexplicably stop? Do you suspect that that might be impact related?

  Mr Williams: There are dirty tricks that are played in the space industry without doubt, and sometimes regulators outside the UK have a role to play in that, so either we have to police—

  Bob Spink: Rather than dirty tricks I was thinking of accidental impacts with space debris, but thank you for your answer to that question; we will come back to that!

  Q49  Chairman: That was much more interesting!

  Sir Martin Sweeting: Stepping out of that minefield for a moment, may I come back to your point about the dangers of space debris and space? Yes, it does exist. There are about 2000-odd satellites in earth orbit and there are about 100,000 pieces of space junk. Space is very big but the shuttle, for example, does make regular manoeuvres to avoid space debris, and satellites have suffered damage from space debris but it is still, fortunately, a very small fraction and the risk is quite remote but real, and there are now regulations to try to reduce the generation of space debris. The worst hazard is not from the satellites themselves but it is when they fragment, and to make sure that at the end of life they do have a finite lifetime so that we do not just keep adding to this problem. Coming back to the regulatory side, everybody has very ably discussed the communications regulation area but the other areas of regulation associated with the international space treaties and the national treaty in this case, the Space Act, and how the industry in the UK carries a large part of that burden in terms of providing the necessary third party insurances and so forth, which are not necessarily reflected in other countries where it is carried at a national level. Particularly if we apply back to the question about SMEs, as was mentioned earlier, as spacecraft are getting smaller and lower cost the insurance for this actually dose not actually shrink and the standing burden of the regulatory side in the Space Act does become a larger proportion of these activities and that, I do think, needs to have some examination to see whether the regulatory environment in terms of our international obligations is appropriate in the UK.

  Q50  Bob Spink: What do you want to see come out of the review of the Space Act?

  Sir Martin Sweeting: In terms of looking at the burden on industry and the commercial activities, to make sure that essentially the licensing and the insurance regime contained within that Act does not suppress the entrepreneurial activities, particularly as we see some of the new and different strands of activity coming up in the space programme.

  Q51  Bob Spink: Ignore the shorthand writer and talk turkey now. Do you think that we are over interpreting the regulation, gold-plating the regulation in this country, where other countries are not, and that is putting us at a competitive disadvantage? Do you further think that that might drive some operators from this country to operate in other countries?

  Sir Martin Sweeting: The UK is very diligent in the way that it interprets the Act and quite rightly so, but I think it is perhaps an area where government can play a larger area rather than shifting the full burden on the industry, which might then, I believe, curtail the entrepreneurial opportunities that we face.

  Q52  Bob Spink: Is there anything that the government can do or the international community can or should do to look at this increasing issue of space debris in order to prevent problems that are lining up for generations in the future?

  Sir Martin Sweeting: If I can quickly answer that, and perhaps others might add, that there are now policies which are going to try to ensure that satellites have at the end of their life proper passivation, so that they do not fragment, which is by far the biggest danger. Then after that, in orbit, where it is practicable, to ensure that they have a finite lifetime, so that they are brought back into the atmosphere if in a lower orbit or moved to safe orbits if they are further out.

  Q53  Chairman: Can I ask for the very briefest of answers, if I may, from all of you? Last week we had NASA in town and they announced their new lunar exploration programme, which is very, very exciting. They made a clear offer to the UK government to become involved in parts of that programme; do you think we should?

  Mr Williams: Yes.

  Sir Martin Sweeting: Slightly more expansive on that; I think definitely but I think we need to play a role—

  Q54  Chairman: Is that definitely yes?

  Sir Martin Sweeting: Definitely yes, but in an appropriate way, exploiting our robotic and communications expertise in the UK.

  Q55  Chairman: Stuart?

  Mr Martin: Yes, I agree. From an inspirational point of view—and we have not talked about that at all yet—I think an active and very public space programme in the UK would be very important.

  Q56  Chairman: By that you mean a human space programme?

  Mr Martin: We have particular strengths in the area of robotics and communication services that we already have in our space industry here, which we could apply to the—

  Q57  Chairman: So you would agree with Martin about the robotics?

  Mr Martin: I agree with Martin, yes.

  Mr Paynter: I agree with that answer.

  Q58  Chairman: To become involved in a very specified area?

  Mr Paynter: Yes.

  Chairman: On that note could I thank you all very, very much indeed for your time with us this morning. We will move on to our next panel.

previous page contents next page

House of Commons home page Parliament home page House of Lords home page search page enquiries index

© Parliamentary copyright 2007
Prepared 17 July 2007