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Session 2008 - 09
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Public Bill Committee Debates

The Committee consisted of the following Members:

Chairman: Sir Nicholas Winterton
Bryant, Chris (Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs)
Byers, Mr. Stephen (North Tyneside) (Lab)
Davey, Mr. Edward (Kingston and Surbiton) (LD)
Dobson, Frank (Holborn and St. Pancras) (Lab)
Evans, Mr. Nigel (Ribble Valley) (Con)
Fisher, Mark (Stoke-on-Trent, Central) (Lab)
Francois, Mr. Mark (Rayleigh) (Con)
Hughes, Beverley (Stretford and Urmston) (Lab)
Iddon, Dr. Brian (Bolton, South-East) (Lab)
Kirkbride, Miss Julie (Bromsgrove) (Con)
Marris, Rob (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab)
Moss, Mr. Malcolm (North-East Cambridgeshire) (Con)
Newmark, Mr. Brooks (Braintree) (Con)
Öpik, Lembit (Montgomeryshire) (LD)
Smith, Jacqui (Redditch) (Lab)
Spellar, Mr. John (Comptroller of Her Majesty's Household)
Gosia McBride, Committee Clerk
† attended the Committee

Third Delegated Legislation Committee

Tuesday 23 June 2009

[Sir Nicholas Winterton in the Chair]

Draft European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (Immunities and Privileges) Order 2009
10.30 am
The Chairman: I welcome Members to this Third Delegated Legislation Committee on this lovely, sunny day. I also welcome the Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs for what is, I presume, one of the first such Committees in which he has participated in his capacity as a Minister. I sat with him on the Modernisation Committee, and we have tangled with each other but in a friendly and agreeable manner.
This is certainly a high-calibre, high-pedigree Committee. If I may say, with no disrespect to the Opposition, I look in particular at the Government Benches and am almost overwhelmed by the number of ex-Ministers, ex-Secretaries of State and those who have held important portfolios in Government. With the hon. Member for Bolton, South-East here—he is an intellectual of high pedigree, and someone who takes a great interest in science—I am sure that we will have an agreeable Committee.
The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs (Chris Bryant): I beg to move,
That the Committee has considered the draft European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (Immunities and Privileges) Order 2009.
The sun is in the sky, as you said, Mr. Winterton, and you are in the Chair—there can be nothing more suitable and more reassuring to the people of Britain. I believe that we fleetingly have a third former member of the Cabinet on the Back Bench for this debate. I think that that is more of a tribute to the Comptroller of Her Majesty’s Household, my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley, than it is to me.
The draft order will confer the legal capacities of a body corporate and privileges and immunities upon the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere, which is also known as the European Southern Observatory. It also confers privileges and immunities on representatives of the states parties, and the director general and officials of the organisation.
The ESO employs some 700 staff members around the world. Its headquarters comprises scientific, technical and administrative divisions and is located in Garching near Munich in Germany. However, its observatories are located in Chile, where it operates three world-class observing sites in the Atacama desert region at La Silla, Paranal and Chajnantor.
The Paranal site at 2,600 m hosts the very unimaginatively named very large telescope, which comprises four 8 m diameter telescopes plus the UK-provided Vista survey telescope. The La Silla site at 2,400 m is home to several telescopes in the 3.5 m range dedicated to high-profile long-term programmes. The Chajnantor site is the location for the Atacama—even more imaginatively named—large millimeter/submillimeter array telescope, which is a $1 billion intercontinental collaboration between north America, east Asia and Chile.
Through the ESO, the UK plays a critical role. The UK industry and research community delivers key elements of this vast global project through provision of novel construction materials, and through construction and testing of receivers and support systems. It plays a significant role in ESO’s development of the yet more imaginatively named European extremely large telescope, which is a proposed 42 m diameter facility that is planned to be operational by 2018. UK companies have worked on the design of its dome and on the polishing of mirror segments, while universities and research institutions are intimately involved in the design of potential instruments.
This order, and a similar order to be passed by the Scottish Parliament covering devolved issues, will allow the UK to comply with its international obligations in giving full effect to the Protocol on the Privileges and Immunities of the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere. I hope that this important order will not prove to be particularly controversial and that it will receive the Committee’s full support.
The Chairman: As Jodrell Bank lies partly in my constituency and partly in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Congleton (Ann Winterton), I shall listen to the debate with considerable interest.
10.35 am
Mr. Mark Francois (Rayleigh) (Con): It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Nicholas, on what I agree is an absolutely beautiful, God-given day. The Committee is now aware of your family interest in the issue, and we will do our best to maintain that interest during the proceedings. This is the first time that I have debated opposite the new Minister in Committee; I look forward to many such occasions in the future.
The order puts into effect in the UK an existing multilateral protocol on privileges and immunities agreed by the original parties to the ESO that was signed in Paris in July 1974. When the UK joined the organisation in 2002, the UK also became a signatory to that multilateral agreement. The instrument is designed to give legal force to some of those obligations in the UK. When the UK joined the ESO, British scientists gained access to some of the most powerful astronomical equipment in the world. At its facilities in the Atacama desert in Chile, the ESO has, as the Minister has intimated, a new technology telescope that, using active optics, can compensate for atmospheric conditions, and a very large telescope array consisting of four 8 m array telescopes. Furthermore, as the Minister has also intimated, the ESO even plans to build a European extremely large telescope.
I am advised that that technology is extremely advanced in terms of modern astronomy. The furthest galaxy ever observed from earth was identified using the ESO’s facilities. Also, the facilities are apparently very good at identifying black holes, so at some point we may see if we can borrow the kit to look at the Treasury. All of that work is done from facilities in northern Chile, 2,400 m up in the middle of the driest desert in the world. If that sounds like a set from a James Bond film, that is because it is. In “Quantum of Solace”, the baddie, Dominic Greene, chose the ESO facility in Chile as his hide out. I added that to give some colour to the debate.
As I have explained, the instrument puts into UK law a 1974 agreement to grant special status to the ESO. As the Minister has suggested, the instrument is relatively uncontroversial, but, as the measure technically constitutes an international agreement, we still need to scrutinise it. I therefore have a few questions, but I shall not detain the Committee unduly.
First, will the Minister reassure the Committee that, whatever the movements in exchange rates—specifically those in relation to sterling relative to the euro—the funding for the projects will remain secure? The Minister has gone to some length to explain the importance of the funding to the quality of the technology, but there have obviously been big developments in the financial markets and movements in exchange rates. Will the Minister explain whether that will have an impact on the funding of the facilities?
Secondly, given that the organisation’s headquarters is in Germany, and its facilities are in Chile, what will be the practical effect of putting the measures into UK law? What will be the difference in simple terms? For instance, will anyone working at that facility enjoy diplomatic immunity if they visit the UK? That is a technical question, but I would still like to know the answer.
Thirdly, how many British staff will be working, either in Chile or Germany, and enjoying diplomatic immunity under the auspices of the order? Lastly, on a purely procedural point, if the United Kingdom signed this agreement in 2002, why are we dealing with it this morning, some seven years later? I am sure that there is a very good answer to that, but I would nevertheless like to hear it.
Provided that we are reassured by the Minister on those few points, we regard this as a relatively uncontroversial order, which puts into legal effect Britain’s obligations towards the European southern observatory, as a result of the international agreement. I hope that the Minister can provide us with some good answers to those questions and, if so, we see no reason to oppose the measure.
10.41 am
Lembit Öpik (Montgomeryshire) (LD): May I declare an interest? My grandfather was a professional astronomer and would have given anything to have access to the technology that we are discussing today—or at least the protocols that relate to it. May I point out, Sir Nicholas, that you have revealed yourself as an amateur astronomer this very morning? By saying “What a lovely sunny day!” you are making an astronomical observation about the sun, which is 865,000 miles in diameter, 93 million miles from us, and whose light takes eight minutes to get here. I fully concur with your observations. You will also be aware that Jodrell Bank has a radio telescope, which means that it can make such observations even when it is cloudy.
We are discussing optical telescopes, by which we have more trouble seeing through clouds. Nevertheless—as the hon. Member for Rayleigh correctly points out—they are of breathtaking capability in their technology. The very large telescope is called that because it is very large. Not half a century ago, the largest telescope available on earth for observations of space was 200 inches in diameter. That was the Mount Palomar telescope in the USA. I believe that my grandfather had the privilege to use it, or to at least work with people who had direct access to it.
The four 8 metre telescopes that form the very large telescope are each almost twice as large in diameter as the Mount Palomar telescope. They work in an ingenious fashion. The four telescopes combine their observations to operate as a single unit. As has been correctly observed, active optics play an important part in that; they make corrections to the atmospheric perturbations that occur as a result of changes in the density of the air. Very small changes can be very important when the telescopes are so sensitive. They could easily observe a lighted match from a distance of hundreds of miles.
The United Kingdom has an enormous opportunity to participate in the most advanced, deep-seeing optical equipment ever available to mankind. It seems that the future of telescopy may lie not in orbiting telescopes, such as the Hubble space telescope, but in ground-based telescopes that use the kind of technology that we are discussing. For those reasons, it is very important that we get such protocols right.
The hon. Member for Rayleigh asked some technical questions, and I have no specific additional questions of that nature. However, I have two questions for the Minister. Given the enormous scientific potential that such telescopes provide, will the Minister confirm that the order is an indication that the Government are finally taking our role in international space observations more seriously? I went to the Canary Islands to look at the telescopes and to talk to some of the staff involved in European observations, which we are sometimes peripherally involved with. They were concerned that telescopes that are pretty much ready for action—they have been used for many years—are lying dormant for the want of perhaps £100,000. Leaving a telescope to lie dormant for long enough will render it unusable. Therefore, I hope that the discussion on the protocol is confirmation that the Government will start making the relatively modest investments—as a proportion of the Government’s total expenditure, even on science—needed hugely to improve the UK’s contribution to these projects.
The second specific question is on a matter of ongoing frustration to me and something that I have campaigned on for over a decade: Britain’s role in detecting near-earth objects, which present a serious actuarial risk to economic performance and human well-being. Almost a decade ago, the Government’s near earth objects task force confirmed that there was a clear and present danger and that such objects should be observed and tracked lest they came our way. The report made 14 specific recommendations, of which only one was implemented. I hope that the fact that we are discussing the order indicates that the Government are getting not just their technical house but their investment house in order.
We all know that we have the world-class facilities across the country. Jodrell Bank has been mentioned. Mark Bailey at Armagh observatory and his colleague, Jay Tate, who runs the Spaceguard centre in mid-Wales, and many others are ready, willing and able to make a profound contribution to such research. Supporting the order obviously makes sense, but will the Government also assure us that they will finally implement the other 13 recommendations that have been lying on their desk since the report’s publication? I do not oppose the order, but I seek an assurance that, at long last, the sun will not just shine upon the Committee but rise on long-overdue investment in our world-class astronomical research.
The Chairman: Before I call the next hon. Member to speak, may I say that I have used my discretion and allowed the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire to range slightly wider than the rather narrow order? If the Minister wishes to reply, I am happy for him to do so, but I recommend that it be brief.
10.47 am
Dr. Brian Iddon (Bolton, South-East) (Lab): I am sure that you, Sir Nicholas, and all members of the Committee will be pleased to see the order passed this morning, because ground-based astronomers have been through an anxious past 12 months. Astronomy is important in attracting schoolchildren to study science and engineering in universities. Britain has always been one of the leading countries in astronomy. We are capable of building the best telescopes in the world, and I compliment the group at Edinburgh university, which had a very uncertain future a few months ago when the research funding, particularly from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council and the Science and Technology Facilities Council, was shifting from physical sciences to biological and life sciences. The Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee, of which I am a member, had to put up a fight to preserve ground-based astronomy, such as that at Edinburgh, and to get adequate funding, so that the kind of organisations mentioned in the order are supported. The fashion is shifting to satellite-based telescopes, such as the Hubble telescope, which is probably the most famous, but there is still a need for ground-based astronomy, as the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire pointed out, so I have great pleasure in supporting the order.
10.49 am
Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West) (Lab): It is a pleasure to appear before you again, Sir Nicholas. I welcome the order and the Government’s commitment to pure research, whether into this sort of issue or CERN in Geneva. I have a technical question about legal liability.
The organisation employs about 700 members of staff and was funded by the UK to the tune of ,22 million in 2008—I imagine that that is an annual figure. I refer my hon. Friend the Minister to the explanatory notes—the hon. Member for Rayleigh touched on this issue, and I could tell from his speech that he had read them assiduously—and paragraphs 6(1)(b), 14(1)(a) and 16(1)(a) of the order. I make these remarks as a trade unionist and a long-time member of the Transport and General Workers Union, now Unite, and as a trade union solicitor dealing with employers’ liability claims. I note the
“immunity from suit and legal process”
in paragraph (6)(1). It states:
“the Organization shall have immunity from suit and legal process except—
(b) in respect of a civil action by a third party for damage arising from an accident caused by a motor vehicle”.
There are similar provisions in paragraphs 14(1)(a) and 16(1)(a), and I am worried that employees of the organisation who are UK citizens could be disadvantaged. They could claim in respect of an accident caused by a motor vehicle, but they might not be able to claim in respect of another sort of accident at work—for example, if heavy equipment were dropped on their foot by another employee. Will the Minister clarify today, or subsequently in writing, that UK citizens who are employed by the organisation will, if they unfortunately suffer an accident at work, be able to sue to recover damages if it was caused negligently or if they contracted an industrial disease negligently through their employment, and that the perpetrators of any such negligent action would not be able to hide behind the immunities in the order?
10.52 am
Chris Bryant: I am grateful to all hon. Members who have raised interesting points. My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West hit the nail on the head when he referred to the necessity for pure research. It is sometimes not obvious to ordinary members of the public precisely what advances might be made, but when the process of science and the innate curiosity of the human being are allowed to flow, the subsequent benefits for society may be enormous.
I should have guessed that the hon. Member for Montgomeryshire would be a member of this Committee. There cannot be another of which he would be a more suitable member. I can think of many Committees that he would not be a suitable member of, but he knows a great deal about astronomy. I was slightly bewildered by the idea of a dormant telescope, never having seen one alive.
The hon. Member for Rayleigh raised some significant issues. He tried a rather cheap joke about black holes, but the Tory manifesto for the next general election has already disappeared into a massive black hole and is unlikely to come back in any form. He raised a significant and important question about exchange rates and how they may have affected the funding for the ESO. Our subscription is ,24 million, and the Science and Technology Facilities Council, with other research councils, has faced a difficult financial situation because of exchange rate changes around the world. It has worked with the Department, and an extra £50 million, to ensure that those problems do not dramatically affect any of the programmes that the council supports.
The hon. Gentleman was right in asking about the practical effect on the United Kingdom when the organisation is based in Germany and the observatories are in Chile. If its headquarters were moved to the United Kingdom, the effect would be more substantial. It held meetings here on one occasion, and when it is operating in the United Kingdom it will be covered by the privileges and immunities, but in large measure, the order will not make a dramatic difference.
The hon. Gentleman asked whether diplomatic immunity would apply to people who work for the ESO when they come through the UK on holiday or on passage. It would not. It would apply only when they are operating in an official capacity in the UK. He asked how many British staff are based in Chile. The figures fluctuate because the international astronomical community moves around a fair bit, I understand, in the process of their research. At any one time, however, there are about 50 members of staff. There are also significant numbers of British contractors because a large amount of the new work being done for the future is being carried out them.
The hon. Gentleman also asked why there has been such a delay in bringing forward the measure. There are two main reasons. First, there have been issues to iron out related to devolution—about Scotland, particularly. That is why, in my opening remarks, I referred to the Scottish Parliament’s bringing forward a similar measure so that the two can work in harmony. That has applied where we have had several international treaty obligations with devolution issues. We have had to work with legal officers to decide precisely how to proceed. The second issue was finding parliamentary time to bring forward the measure.
My hon. Friend the Member for Wolverhampton, South-West asked whether if UK citizens were to contract an industrial disease—as a result of negligence or if there had been an accident at work—they would not have the rights to sue that one would expect them to have. I think I am right in saying—if I am wrong I will write to my hon. Friend to say so—that they will not be deprived of any of their rights. If that had been otherwise, I would not have been able to sign the assertion in relation to the Human Rights Act 1998.
Lembit Öpik: I resist the temptation to pursue my near earth object campaign here, though I will probably write to the Minister on that question.
The measure has not come forward before because it has not been a priority—it is good to see it now. Before we finish, may I make a suggestion? On the assumption that the measure is passed, will the Minister write to the astronomical community—I am happy to provide a list of people that would be interested—to indicate that it has been passed for the practical reason that it is technically more straightforward for the meetings described to take place in this country. In the past, they have chanced their arms by holding the meetings in these countries because this had not been passed; if it is now, there will be some practical benefit and it will probably directly increase our involvement in the matters to which this pertains.
Chris Bryant: I think the hon. Gentleman is trying to create a mountain out of a molehill. [Interruption.] Yes, it is not unusual. I think he has his telescope the wrong way round and the issue seems larger than it is. It is a simple measure which, for the most part, will not make a significant difference to the UK. However, it is an international treaty obligation that we are happy to enter into. The idea that a letter from me to the scientific community will make a dramatic difference to their lives is also—if the hon. Gentleman does not mind my saying—cloud cuckoo land. I do not think that would be useful. He did, Mr. Winterton—
The Chairman: Order. It took me 31 years to get a title, I hope that, before the end of Committee, the Minister will use it.
Chris Bryant: Sir Nicholas, I have always been amused that when one becomes a knight, one ends up being known by one’s first name and not by one’s surname. I do apologise, most abjectly, for failing to acknowledge your manifold greatness, to which I now pay vast tribute. I do not think you would allow me to digress at great length on your good—
The Chairman: I would.
Chris Bryant: But always at my back I hear my right hon. Friend the Member for Warley, who is trying to entice me to talk about matters of investment, and so on. That would be straying far too wide of the mark for what is a very simple measure. Mr. Winterton, I hope—
The Chairman: Sir Nicholas.
Chris Bryant: The lady doth protest too much, I think. I hope, though, that the Committee will support the measure.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Committee has considered the draft European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (Immunities and Privileges) Order 2009.
11 am
Committee rose.

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