HC Deb 23 April 1968 vol 763 cc40-7
The Minister of Technology (Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn)

With permission, I should like to make a statement about European Space Policy.

As the House will know, the Government have been considering the report of the Advisory Committee on Programmes set up by the 1967 Rome Space Conference to make proposals for the development of a European space programme. This Report—known as the Causse Report—is due to be discussed at the European Space Conference to be held in Bonn this summer, and all the Governments concerned were asked to make their views known on its recommendations in time for preliminary discussion by the Committee of Alternates at a meeting which had been fixed for today.

Our examination of the Causse Report has paid particular regard to its evaluation of the economic benefits of the proposed programmes. On the main issues raised, our conclusions were as follows.

First, as to launchers. A further development programme of the E.L.D.O. launcher, beyond that to which we are committed, and which ends in 1971, cannot now be justified. The development and production costs of E.L.D.O. launchers would have been prohibitive; and the potential applications for them, both limited and speculative. We therefore decided not to undertake any additional financial commitments to E.L.D.O.

Second, as to the C.E.T.S. project for an experimental T.V. relay satellite. The Causse Report states clearly that this could not yield a commercially viable project unless at least all the research and development costs, both of the satellite and the launcher, were completely and totally written off. Whatever the long-term merits of such a project we consider that in present circumstances it would not be an economically justifiable use of scarce resources, and that for this reason it would not be right for us to participate in the project.

Third, as to the scientific programme. We decided to agree some increase in expenditure in this field over the next three years—though not to the full extent recommended by the Causse Report. Allowing for other claims on the funds available for science, we can support an average increase of not more than 6 per cent. per annum on the 1968 E.S.R.O. budget of 250 million francs.

Having reached their conclusions, the Government decided that it would be right to let them be known as soon as possible. They therefore communicated these to the other Governments concerned, and to E.L.D.O. and E.S.R.O. last week. Because of the likelihood that this would then become public knowledge, I thought it right to issue a short statement at the same time.

The Government realised that these decisions would be a disappointment to some and would be criticised by others, but it would be quite wrong to conclude from them either that we were opting out of space or turning our backs on Europe. Every Government is having to decide for itself whether these proposals represent an economically justiable use of scarce resources. In our view, it really would not make sense for Europe to develop its own total independent capability, regardless of cost and benefit. The Government have, of course, weighed the political arguments in favour of the Causse proposals for E.L.D.O. and C.E.T.S., but do not consider that they outweigh the strong economic arguments against them. We shall all have to think about what limited capability in space technology will enable us all to take up economically justified applications as and when they emerge.

These decisions follow directly from our general approach to European collaboration and the problem of the technological gap between the United States and Europe. We are concentrating upon the development of industrial policies which will promote collaboration between European industries. The efforts of Government should be directed to reinforcing the industrial potential which Europe already possesses.

European scale industries are essential if we are to generate the vast sums required for research, development and marketing to allow Europe to compete industrially on more or less equal terms with the advanced technological industries of the United States. This need is urgent and critical to the very existence of certain industries with a great growth potential, such as computers, electronics, airframes and nuclear energy.

The Government's proposal for a European Centre for Technology is expressly designed to explore the further possibilities of collaboration between industries and to identify the obstacles to the development of European industrial capability designed to meet the assessed needs.

Joint inter-governmental projects on many of which we are engaged have a rôle, provided that they are soundly based, promise benefits commensurate with the expenditure involved and are relevant to Europe's broad industrial objectives, but projects which are economically unsound do not become desirable merely because they are undertaken internationally. The Causse proposals did not pass the necessary tests of cost and benefit and we believe that they are inconsistent with the need to concentrate limited technological and financial effort on those areas which will contribute most to strengthening Europe's industrial capabilities, which must be done if Europe is to develop its economic and political potential to the full.

Mr. Corfield

In view of the fact that the Minister has told us that the Causse Report is due to be discussed at the European Space Conference in Bonn later this year, is it not abundantly clear that a definite statement by the British Government in advance of those discussions cuts right across the concept of any idea of European co-operation in technology or anything else? Will the Minister say what consultations he has had with British industrial firms concerned in relation to redeployment of resources concerned? What assurances has he had from the American Government that American launcher facilities will remain available? Will he use his good offices with the Leader of the House to ensure that we may debate this matter at a later date?

Mr. Benn

A debate would be for my right hon. Friend the Leader of the House. I will convey the hon. Gentleman's point to him.

I had consultations with my right hon. Friends and my European opposite numbers. We were urged by all those who were participating to make their views known to the Causse Report as soon as possible. Indeed, in the House I was asked to allow it to be known as soon as possible what view the Government would take. The industrial interests concerned have made their views known to us about the development of space and we took them fully into account in taking the decision.

We have had launchings by the United States but its attitude towards launchings could not by itself be decisive.

Mr. Wyatt

Is the Minister aware that he is wrapping up a thoroughly unsatisfactory decision in a pseudo commercial mumbo-jumbo? That does not conceal the fact that£135 million will have been spent by us on Blue Streak and in other ways by 1971 and that we are now jibbing at making a payment of£10 million a year from then on to keep a project going in which all our money will otherwise have been wasted?

Mr. Benn

I hope that my hon. Friend is not blaming me for Blue Streak, but the answer to his argument is really this, that when it becomes apparent that a programme cannot be economic even if the research and development is written off it makes a lot more sense to do what we are doing and put money into an airbus engine, shipbuilding, computers, machine tools, or any technology which leads to a return on our balance of payments.

Mr. Marten

Referring to the question my hon. Friend asked, could the Minister confirm that he had no direct consultations with the National Industrial Space Committee before the decision was taken, that Committee having been set up precisely for this purpose? Secondly, can the right hon. Gentleman say how long Blue Streak remained in production and what effect this decision has on Black Arrow, if any?

Mr. Benn

On the first point, the decision was a decision for the Government to take. The views of industry were represented to us consistently, and the most recent views were conveyed to us before the decision was taken. The future of Blue Streak in part depends on the decision to be taken by the E.L.D.O. Council in May and in part by the conference on space due to be held in June. As far as Black Arrow is concerned, this programme is continuing.

Mr. Palmer

Could my hon. Friend say whether the engineering departments of the Post Office and the British Broadcasting Corporation were consulted on the Government's decision? If so, are they happy about the decision?

Mr. Benn

All the Governmental interests concerned, including, of course, the Post Office, were brought into discussions which took place about this particular programme, but the application of a television satellite in Europe was considered against the likely needs of Eurovision itself, which incorporates and includes the broadcasting authorities in this country, and would not have justified the expenditure involved.

Mr. Lubbock

While it is very disappointing for us to have to opt out of space launchers, is the right hon. Gentleman aware that we think that the worst service he could possibly do to European technology would be to embark on projects which have no economic justification? In his studies of the costs and benefits did he take into account the long-term application for launching systems beyond those proposed by C.E.T.S.? Can he say whether, if E.L.D.O. decides to continue, we shall be able to sell it Blue Streak launchers?

Mr. Benn

I cannot answer the latter part of the question because it will be for the E.L.D.O. Council to decide what to do. As far as the long-term application of space is concerned, there is no doubt whatsoever of its importance. The question for us to decide was whether or not the proposed programme as put to us was economically justifiable. By all the tests, we decided not to support the proposal.

I would strongly agree with what the hon. Gentleman said in his opening remarks, that the worst disservice one could do to European collaboration would be to go forward with an uneconomic project and justify it simply because it is being paid for by a number of other countries.

Mr. Moonman

In reaching his decision, did my right hon. Friend take into account the total commitment to European space and science technology? If not, would he consider setting up some priorities which would be a great advantage to politicians and specialists in Europe?

Mr. Benn

Yes, we did give very full consideration to European technological collaboration. It was for this reason that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister brought forward his proposals for a European technological institute at the Guildhall last November, which are now being followed up actively by C.B.I. and its sister organisations; and I have had the opportunity of discussing them with the European Ministers concerned. We believe strongly that it is in the direction of industrial collaboration in advanced technology that Europe will be able to make good the gap between itself and the United States.

Sir H. Legge-Bourke

Would the right hon. Gentleman make available in the form of a White Paper the Causse Report so that we could have an opportunity of assessing its full merits and importance in the same way that we had an opportunity over the 300 GeV accelerator?

Mr. Bean

As the hon. Gentleman must be aware, the Report was published some time ago.

Mr. Robert Howarth

While appreciating the disappointment in scientific and industrial circles, may I ask my right hon. Friend whether he would confirm that the limited resources would be better spent on developing a V.T.O.L. inter-cities aircraft for which there is a clear European and British requirement?

Mr. Benn

It was, of course, by trying to balance up the alternative advantages of investment in different fields that we reached the conclusion which we have reached. I have citied some of the examples of Government commitments to advance technology. There will be about£50 million for RB211 launching aid, for shipbuilding about£52½million; for computers,£17 million, as recently announced; and, of course, there is the work on the surface transport side as well, including£2 million for the hover train, which may have an inter-cities application, quite apart from the possibility of a vertical or short take-off feeder aircraft for the 'seventies.

Mr. Eldon Griffiths

Does not the Government's decision mean that France will be the only space Power in Europe? Does it not also mean that in a few years, when there is world television, it will be dominated by United States, with all the implications of that? How does this square up with the Prime Minister's speech to the Council of Europe, at Strasbourg, about Britain's taking a lead in a technological community?

Mr. Benn

I think, if I may say so, that the hon. Gentleman really misunderstands technology. He thinks that anything which is advanced is by itself, regardless of economic consequences, worth pursuing. There could be no greater disservice to technology than to suggest that anything which is technological should be supported, or that this country, or even Europe, can necessarily take on every possible advanced field.

The European space position will have to be considered by the Governments concerned. I would not accept that the result of this decision will be to leave France alone as the major space Power.

Mr. Dalyell

Is my right hon. Friend aware that many of us support what he has done as being realistic, but can he say to what extent we envisage supporting E.S.R.O.—to the extent outlined in the Causse Report?

Mr. Benn

I tried to answer that in my original statement. The Departmental responsibilities lie with my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Education and Science. Broadly speaking, we have agreed that within a growth ceiling of 6 per cent. for the existing programme—that is, up to 1971, the current three-year programme—we shall be prepared to see an increase in expenditure. The Causse Report as a whole recommended an increase of 10 per cent. for European space, and we believe that this is a realistic total.