HC Deb 21 March 1961 vol 637 cc219-22

3.56 p.m.

Mr. Woodrow Wyatt (Bosworth)

I beg to move, That leave be given to bring in a Bill to provide for the establishment of a Minister of Space Research and Development; and for purposes connected therewith. I am proposing the appointment of a Minister of Space Research and Development, because I do not think that we shall make real progress in this important new field until we have a Minister in the Cabinet whose responsibility it is to co-ordinate everything to do with space. The Americans are spending £3 10s. a year per head of their population on space development. The Russians are spending an equivalent sum. The British, the most inventive, scientific and engineering nation in the world, are spending not more than 1d. per head.

America and Russia are doing it because they know that the advances in technology involved will be injected into other branches of industry. They know that making a major effort in the space field is not merely a matter of prestige—which is important—but the challenge that it presents to their scientists and engineers keeps pressing upwards the standards that have to be achieved in every sphere of scientific and engineering endeavour.

We shall soon not be able to make advances in industry generally unless we are engaged in the space technologies, as well. Our resources may not be as large as those of the two giant nations, but they are not so small as to justify the enormous gap between what we are doing and what the Russians and Americans are doing. Nor have we much time. To fall three or four years behind in any department puts a grave handicap on our technologists. It makes their task of keeping Britain in the forefront even more difficult.

The trouble today is that too many Ministers have a fringe interest and none has a single over-riding concern in matters connected with space. The Minister for Science appears to have some authority over the pure scientific research aspects among many other things, but that is not his main preoccupation. In fact, he takes a frivolous attitude towards it. Just at the moment when the Minister of Aviation was touring Europe trying to persuade the Euro- pean countries to back Blue Streak, he made a strange contribution. On 19th December, in a television programme, after boasting that the whole of his Office could get into an omnibus, he said that he did not attach much importance to the possession of a rocket launcher. This was at the moment when the Minister of Aviation was trying to interest Europeans in Blue Streak.

The Minister for Science did as much damage to the Minister of Aviation's mission as The Times leading article which, at about that time, sneered at the Minister of Aviation for being an assiduous commercial traveller hawking round a commodity of doubtful value. We could do with a few more energetic salesmen of this kind trying to sell British goods instead of succumbing to the general complacency which is sapping the morale of the Government and so much of the country.

The Times made its attack just at the time when a party of German technicians was in Britain examining the Blue Streak project. They concluded that The Times, not the Minister of Aviation, reflected the real intentions of the Government and gave their advice accordingly. If Germany decides now not to come into a European co-operative attempt to develop the Blue Streak, it will be the fault of the Minister for Science and The Times.

If there had been a Minister of Space with real weight in the Cabinet the matter would have been dealt with the other way round. Instead of the Minister of Aviation trying to persuade the European countries to produce enough money to continue the development of Blue Streak, we would have gone ahead with it ourselves. Then, when we were making a success of it, we could have asked the European countries if they would care to join in—with much more hope of their eager agreement. The Europeans must be excused for thinking that the British Government have been trying to get them to make good the British taxpayers' losses on Blue Streak rather than take part in an adventurous scientific project.

As it is, because there is no Minister of Space with a budget for spending on space development, those who work on the Blue Streak project are now thoroughly demoralised. Quite a few have drifted away, some to other countries. The rest, because they have no certain future to aim at, have been merely tinkering at the project for the last year.

I understand that no really worth-while technical advance has been made on Blue Streak since the military side of it was cancelled last April. Even now, the team does not know its future. It has been told that all depends on whether the Germans agree to back it or not—and that this will not be known until the end of the month. If this uncertainty continues much longer there will be no team left to proceed with the work. A Minister of Space would surely come to a decision one way or the other straight away.

Again, the Americans know that there is an enormous profit to be made out of communication satellite systems. In this country the Postmaster-General, not a Minister of Space, has the responsibility of going into this problem. His officials refuse to consult industry. As a result, firms like English Electric, Hawker-Siddeley and Pye are making parallel studies at the same time as the Postmaster-General. Expense and effort are being duplicated.

When these firms offer the results of their thinking to the Postmaster-General he refuses to look at them, or at least his officials do. They preferred to continue half-hearted and desultory inquiries on their own. This is actually happening at this very moment, today. Surely a Minister of Space would put a stop to this ostrich lunacy. He would presumably give study contracts to various engineering firms and groups of firms and he would see that the Post Office's officials would co-operate and treat a communications satellite system seriously and urgently.

Up till now, most of the information that the Government have worked on has been supplied through back benchers, working in consultation with independent scientists and scientific organisations, particularly the Inter-Party Space Committee of which the hon. Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) is Chairman. Surely the Government ought now to set up a really authoritative Ministry rather than rely on what back benchers, in consultation with the scientists, bring to them. When Wilbur Wright flew the first aeroplane an Air Ministry and a Ministry of Aviation became inevitable, although no one would have thought so at the time.

Now, it is just as inevitable that there will one day be a Ministry of Space. The great question is whether we are to delay its coming so long that years of useful progress will be lost by the time it arrives. It is sometimes said in Government circles that there is no public demand for British space development. The truth is that there is no real demand for it in the Cabinet—the public would be all behind it if the Government got on with it. The shift of opinion is needed at the top.

The public are beginning to realise—which the Government do not seem to—that a large part of Britain's exporting future and prospects of increasing the standard of living depends on Britain not being left out of the space age. We must have a Minister co-ordinating the activities of this colossal new field, just as the new Department announced today will co-ordinate activities in technical assistance. If we do not, all those Ministers concerned with it will continue to shift responsibility from one to another to the general detriment.

The best effort has been made by the Minister of Aviation, but he cannot do much if the instructions he gets from the Government are lukewarm and the authority that he has is not very considerable. What is needed is a great act of faith from the Government. If they do not make it future generations will place a heavy responsibility on their failure.

Every month that passes without our embarking on a serious space programme is a month notched up against us. We need a Minister to tackle the problems, armed with a Budget, and with authority to co-ordinate everyone's activities both in industry and in the Civil Service Departments.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill ordered to be brought in by Mr. Wyatt.