HC Deb 21 July 1970 vol 804 cc457-69

2.50 a.m.

Mr. Ray Carter (Birmingham, Northfield)

It is purely fortuitous that I should rise to speak on a technological matter so soon after having been involved in something of a fracas with the Ministry of Technology, and I must congratulate the Minister on being here at 10 to three on a Wednesday morning after finding it impossible to be present at 2 o'clock on a Friday afternoon.

I wish to call attention to our contribution, covered by the Bill, towards the European Space Conference. I do so for a variety of reasons, but, in particular, because I worked for nine years in the aerospace industry and, quite apart from my political interest in the subject, I have, naturally, some technical interest in it as well. I have seen in aerospace what indecision means both to the industry and to the workpeople. On the other hand, I know in technological terms what the benefits are from playing a part in the pace-setters of the technological age.

In addition, I know to some extent the minds of scientists, the world's greatest enthusiasts. In my opinion, it is something of a tragedy that too few politicians have taken an interest in matters of science and technology. So often, in this Chamber or in other places where we discuss the political aspects of these matters, politicians enter the debate with a poorly informed approach. I believe that the principal reason for any troubles and difficulties we have had in science and technology has been our lack of grasp of the subjects as politicians. I hope that, in the coming years, Parliament will have among its Members a greater number of people who can bring rather more specialist knowledge to bear than we have shown so far.

I turn to the conference and the European space effort flowing from it. I do not wish to dwell on the past, which is riddled with failure and indecision. E.L.D.O. started out in a poor fashion and, most people would agree, has been a failure. On the other hand, E.S.R.O., which was constructed rather differently, has been a success. What we should do now, and I hope that the £50,000 which we are to contribute towards the cost of the conference which starts today will be used in this way, is to use our money and influence to ask Europe to chart a new course for its space effort.

Initially, however, I should like to look at the historical background of our space effort so far and Europe's position in science and technology. Euro-space amply illustrates the political and economic dilemma in which Europe finds itself. We do not speak with one voice. We are still a continent of nations lying behind very protective frontiers. It is extremely difficult to mount this operation in this part of the 20th century with anything like the kind of effort required to sustain the most modern forms of technology.

Europe is economically large enough to support a space effort, but it is politically divided. Until we look at the problem of Euro-space in strictly political terms and put behind us those things which divide us, Europe will never play a worth-while and lasting part in space.

Britain's rôle in this is critical. In the past, our perspective has been clouded by history, but one hopes that by 1970 at long last Britain knows its rôle in the world and is prepared to play a European rôle in this matter. More than any other nation in Europe, Britain is equipped to play a full and leading part in this aspect of technology. We have the background space projects such as Blue Streak and others, a highly sophisticated electronics industry, with good manpower, the brains, the scientific effort to be able to play a major part in any European endeavour. I like to think that the European nations are waiting for us to take the lead. If we did, I am sure that we should be surprised by the result.

Britain should now spell out Europe's dilemma and give a lead at the conference. On this point I offer my suggestions about what that advice and encouragement should be. First and foremost, at the conference we should ask the members to look at the problem in a strictly political context and ask them to commit their Governments to a European endeavour.

If I stress one thing it is that our commitment in space should be European. We must plant a bee which has sound roots, which will grow attractively, and will be of benefit not only to Europe but to the world. We should confine ourselves to peaceful efforts. Europe has a great part to play in the stability of the world and I hope that any efforts it makes in space will be limited strictly to peaceful, civil purposes. Why should Europe venture into space? I will not go into too many technical details, because I am trying to keep to a strictly political attitude.

The first, critical point is to do with communications. It is the world's fastest-growing industry. To a large extent attitudes and standards adopted today throughout the world are fashioned by the communications media. If Europe were to be left out of this we would be saying goodbye for ever to any influence that Europe could have over two-thirds of the world which has as yet escaped the tremendous influence that the communications media can bring to bear on it. The influence is cultural, educational, scientific and a host of other things.

If we want as a culture to have any real influence in future we must ensure that Europe is represented in space communications. To opt out of space communications would be to opt for cultural and political impotence. There are other aspects of space which are of economic benefit, geophysical, meteorological, industrial. One can envisage in the years ahead computer links, data processing and so on carried out by satellite. It is not too far away. It is not science fiction any more to think in these terms. In 10 years these things will be a reality. We should concern ourselves here with the strictly political aspects of space. We should play a European rôle, limited directly to peaceful purposes and outward looking. That means we should restrict ourselves to communications and those other aspects of space I have mentioned.

Another important point is the present proposal put forward by the United States that we should participate with them in the post-Apollo programme. This would be a mistake. We should try to retain a strictly European rôle.

To go in with the United States would in the not-too-distant future reduce us to the level of sub-contractors. The economic and social benefits would be quite unknown. A commitment of this kind would be quite open-ended. Some of us think that Concorde was a mistake, but many people feel that to undertake a venture of this sort would be to walk into the unknown. One aspect of a possible link-up with the United States to which we should pay considerable attention—

Mr. Speaker

Order. With respect, linking up with America is outside the terms of this debate. This debate concerns a European space conference.

Mr. Carter

With respect, Mr. Speaker, the space conference was to discuss the proposal that Europe should participate with America in the post-Apollo programme.

I was going to mention one of the worst aspects of involvement with the United States. To throw in our lot with the United States would be to give over, possibly for all time, our electronics and computer industries. Before long this centre of the European economy might well become just another arm of the United States economy. It could be argued that that would not be a disadvantage, but in my opinion we should not become too closely enmeshed with the United States. To do so would leave us at the mercy of the United States politically and economically.

The form of the European space effort which I would like to see adopted would be modelled on E.S.R.O., a permanent body to act in the European interest with a realistic budget but backed by political commitment. The national efforts which are at present being pursued in Europe should be subordinated and eventually dropped in favour of a European endeavour. This is a most challenging task and would do a great deal to cement European unity.

Whether or not we get into the Common Market, I believe that ventures of this sort can go a long way to provide a more united Europe, drawing its countries together through such organisations in the scientific and industrial world. I should like to see Britain go forward to the conference with clear political ideas. I am quite sure that if we go forward in that spirit the other European nations will take our lead and Europe will be able to play a worthwhile part in the space effort.

3.9 a.m.

Mr. Anthony Wedgwood Benn (Bristol, South-East)

The hour is late and I shall be brief. This is the second debate on space that has taken place at an odd hour. I wish to thank my hon. Friend the Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Carter) for raising this subject in such a helpful way. He is one of the new entrants to the House and is himself a technologist.

The purpose of my intervention is simple. I understand that the Minister of Technology is now in Brussels and that he and the Minister of State are there to meet with their European colleagues to discuss space problems. This is the first time for six years that Conservative Ministers have been in Europe discussing space, and we have no idea what they intend to say.

I am bound to turn my mind back to 1964, when the previous Administration but one launched E.L.D.O. with the old Blue Streak, set up E.S.R.O., and took a rather romantic view of space which became very much embedded in European thinking at that time. The Parliamentary Secretary, the hon. Member for Eastleigh (Mr. David Price), has often quoted his report on possible space applications of 10 years ago and said how right he was. But he has made the speech for 10 years, and his applications have not yet materialised. The main problem of space policy in Europe, and even in the United States, was that we all thought of the hardware first. When we had it, we said, "What are the applications?" Unfortunately, they did not come with the speed that we expected.

In the last few years, there has been a substantial change in thinking initiated by the previous Government. We deliberately scaled down our E.L.D.O. contribution with a view to getting out of E.L.D.O. We laid our emphasis on applications, for the reason suggested by my hon. Friend, namely, that we thought that the market was developing in electronics, in sub-systems and in communications. We backed E.S.R.O. because it came from another budget—the science budget—and we made a formidable contribution to it.

We took a commercial view of space. It was unpopular at first in Europe, but gradually we began to win the argument with our European colleagues. They began to see that it was the industrial interest which should be dominant, and that we could pay too high a price for the independence that my hon. Friend would like. I take what he says. However, in government it is necessary to make choices. It is impossible to be independent in everything. We chose to be more independent in computers than the French were, rather than to go for the launcher independence which the French thought important, at any rate under General de Gaulle.

We also tried to get accepted the idea that European countries engaged in space should not all be compelled to take the same line. We thought that here should be a self-selective approach: there should be launcher countries, application countries, and certain other countries which came in because they wanted to be associated with one project or another. In developing a new European space organisation, we have to be careful that there remains a self-selective element in it. Everyone cannot take the same view. There must also be natural break points as well. We agreed in that spirit to finance a European launcher arrangement to help those countries which were building the launcher.

I should like to know the new Government's policy towards European space. First, what is their attitude towards E.L.D.O.? Do they want us to go back into E.L.D.O.? Do they want us to increase our contribution to E.L.D.O.? Secondly, and without regard to British participation in E.L.D.O., what is the Government's attitude towards a European launcher? Do they think that it is necessary? Are they persuaded, as we were, that in certain conditions it might be possible to get a launcher elsewhere? Have they considered the possibility that the shuttle, if the Americans bring it in, will leave even a Europa 3 standing on the launch pad as so much junk?

Then, what about E.S.R.O.? We offered a very substantial increase on the E.S.R.O. spend. Will it be affected by public expenditure cuts? Is it under review? What view will the Government take on that when they go to Brussels?

What is the Government's attitude towards the N.A.S.A. offer? We debated it recently, and I am not asking for more than some indication of the thinking that the Minister will reveal in Brussels.

Finally, have they considered the user interest? These extraordinary capabilities require a big spend if countries are to be able to use them intelligently for their own interests. As Tom Paine is always saying, space is a new international continent just a few miles off the shores and oceans of every land.

These are very big decisions in which industry must be consulted. They are decisions which affect the allocation of qualified scientists and engineers and money. The choices have to be made. We cannot do everything. What is the choice to be between space and other types of expenditure, and on what criteria are they to be judged? What is the choice to be between the United Kingdom's national programme—Black Arrow, which we supported—and European space, which my hon. Friend thinks should take priority? What is the balance to be between European and trans-Atlantic space projects in respect of spending?

I ask all this because I believe that what a country will look like in the future will depend more on the way that it uses its scientific manpower and the objectives that it sets itself and them than on almost any other single factor. We are talking about a big area of decision involving high skill by large numbers of people. How we use them and whether we use them wisely will, in the end, provide the criterion against which the Government's policy will have to be judged.

3.15 a.m.

The Parliamentary Secretary to the Ministry of Technology (Mr. David Price)

As the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) pointed out, this debate follows naturally from the one that we had on the Friday before last when the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) raised the question of possible British participation in the American post-Apollo programme.

This morning the hon. Member for Birmingham, Northfield (Mr. Carter) has raised the wider subject of the European Space Conference which includes Europe's response to the N.A.S.A. post-Apollo offer. This means that we are, in effect, debating space in serial form. This is no bad thing necessarily, particularly when it brings the right hon. Member for Bristol. South-East to his feet twice in 10 days on this matter and, if I may say so, making a most helpful speech. The right hon. Gentleman will not be surprised that I cannot answer all his questions on future policy tonight. Part of my right hon. Friend's purpose in going to Brussels is to share views, some in private and some in public, with his European colleagues. It is a period of gestation for my right hon. Friend in giving birth to a full blooded space policy. I share the right hon. Gentleman's view about the effect that the successful development of the shuttle would have on projects like Europa III. I hoped that I indicated that the Friday before last.

Before I attempt to respond to the general arguments raised in the debate, I should like to deal with the accounting aspect of the Supplementary Estimate under review. This provides for an increase of £50,000 in expenditure under sub-head B4. This is a new sub-heading. The original estimate for 1970/71 made no provision for a direct payment to the European Space Conference. But I should add that the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East will know that payments were made through the E.S.R.O. sub-head. This is a direct payment, and therefore it has been felt appropriate to have this new sub-heading.

In the debate on 10th July I said: A preliminary study of the space tug elements of the proposals"— that is, the N.A.S.A. proposals— is being undertaken by the European Space Conference, and the United Kingdom's share of the cost of this study will amount to about £50,000 over the next six months or so."—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th July, 1970; Vol, 803, c. 1110.] I do not wish to weary the House by repeating all that I said on the post-Apollo programme in that debate, but I will summarise the essential features.

First, the N.A.S.A. approach was to Europe collectively and called for a European response. Secondly, the appropriate European institution is the European Space Conference. Thirdly, as part of the further studies needed—I emphasise "needed"—the European Space Conference has entrusted E.L.D.O. with the task of undertaking a study programme on the space tug. Fourthly, the amount of money to be spent on this work will be about £200,000, of which our share will be about £50,000.

The preliminary study will be carried out in industry and will concentrate on the design characteristics of a space tug—that is, a space vehicle which can transfer itself and a payload from one orbit to another. The space tug is one of the possible components of the American post-Apollo programme, in which Europe has been invited to participate. These studies are intended to increase European understanding of the technical problems posed by the design of such a vehicle, but I should make it clear that the choice of the space tug for this study does not imply that Europe intends to concentrate on this part of the post-Apollo programme alone or exclusively if it decides to join the United States in it.

I should add that the net increase to the Exchequer is not £50,000, but only £1,000. This arises because there has been a reduction of £49,000 in our contribution to E.S.R.O. Hon. Members will find this under sub-head B3 on page 26 of the Supplementary Civil Estimates. The reason for this reduction is simply stated. The long-term applied research programme of E.S.R.O. will start somewhat later than we had expected.

So much for the narrow accounting point about the Supplementary Estimate under discussion.

I turn, now, to the broader matter which the hon. Gentleman raised of the European Space Conference as a whole. As the hour is getting late I shall not fill in the background of how the European Space Conference has developed. I know that the hon. Gentleman will know about this, but I should like to respond to one point that he made when he said that we ought to concentrate all our efforts on European co-operation in space, and he envisaged the time when we would be doing nothing domestically.

I ought to put Britain's contribution to European space ventures into perspective by telling the hon. Gentleman what the present state of play is on the distribution of effort. During the last financial year we as a nation were spending rather more than £28 million on our total space activities. Of this, nearly £15 million was spent on international civil programmes, primarily in Europe, and this included about £8 million of E.L.D.O. expenditure, which under the policies we inherited is not due to be repeated. More than £5 million was for defence. The remainder was on national programmes under three main heads—space technology; scientific space research; and the Post Office's Earth Terminals for the Intelsat Communications System. As I said during our previous debate, hon. Members will find a full account of the current United Kingdom space programme in the memorandum which was submitted in January to Sub-Committee A of the Select Committee on Science and Technology.

I think that the relevance of our total space programme to the European Space Conference will be clear to the House. However enthusiastic we may be about British participation in international endeavours, and in this context we are thinking primarily of Europe, whether for technical, economic or political reasons, all of which can be compelling, in my view it must be right to maintain a balance between our domestic and our international programmes, because unless we maintain a minimum level of domestic capability I do not believe that we shall prove to be adequate international partners.

I do not think it would be appropriate tonight to enter into a discussion on what that minimum level should be. Suffice to say that the national space technology programme which we have inherited is currently of the order of about £3 million a year. This would be my major qualification of what the hon. Gentleman said about a total British commitment to European space co-operation.

Mr. Benn

May I ask the Minister whether he is saying indirectly that the Black Arrow programme is to continue with a British launcher, and this has been decided?

Mr. Price

No, I am not. I am stating what is my own approach to these matters. I think the right hon. Gentleman will be entitled to assume that until or unless other policies are announced we are continuing with what he was doing.

N.A.S.A.'s approach to Europe to take part in the post-Apollo programme, which has triggered off the need for this Supplementary Estimate, was made on a collective basis and calls for a collective European response. Like so much of space technology, in my view this is an area where single European nations cannot hope to go it alone; the costs and the expertise needed are too great. This fact is recognised in the establishment of the European Space Conference as a forum for Ministerial discussion and for co-operation.

But I put it to the House that, even on the basis of pooled resources, Europe has to be selective in its approach to potential space projects. In the West, only the United States has been able to afford a programme covering all aspects of space technology, and now even the American programme is undergoing critical examination because of the demands it makes on national resources. Europe, the House will agree, has to choose, and to choose carefully.

There are probably three main criteria which European space Ministers will have in their minds in considering future space programmes at the conference. The first is the need to avoid investing in obsolete technology, and in a field of very rapid technical advance this is not always as easy to avoid as it sounds. The second, conflicting in some respects with the first, is the need to maintain technical expertise at a sufficient level and over a wide enough field to keep the option of moving into new areas of technology as they develop. The conflict with avoiding obsolete technology may, of course, come when the "threshold" level of expertise can be reached only by repeating work which has been done elsewhere.

The third criterion, and in many ways the most important, is the economic return offered by a project. Here the difficulty is that in any area of advanced technology detailed analysis of costs and benefits can only point the way to a decision; in the end, judgment still has to be applied to the available figures. This is especially true when the choice is between providing a commercial service by conventional means or by using a satellite system, and more so when the service involved is—like weather forecasting—hard to analyse in strictly economic benefit terms even when conventional systems are used. Nevertheless, the discipline of attempting to calculate economic return is always salutary where high costs, long time scales and advanced concepts are concerned.

This, then, is the background for this week's meeting of the European Space Conference at Brussels. As the right hon. Gentleman reminded the House, our delegation will be led by my right hon. and learned Friend the Minister of Technology supported by my noble Friend the Minister of State. Naturally, I cannot anticipate the trend of the discussions nor would it be proper for me to indicate the precise line which my right hon. Friend will feel it is right to take on each point as it emerges.

However, we would anticipate that the major discussions will probably centre around some fairly obvious topics. It would be no great breach of confidence to indicate them to the House, as they have been extremely well aired in some British and European newspapers. The first, to which the right hon. Gentleman referred in passing, is the institutional question—namely, the integration of E.S.R.O. and E.L.D.O.

The second is the response to N.A.S.A.'s offer of participation on the post-Apollo programme.

Thirdly, there are the studies about application satellites, which are likely to be in three main areas: a telecommunications programme; an aeronautical programme; and a meteorological programme.

Fourthly, there is the continuing theme of scientific programmes.

Fifthly, there is the future of European launchers.

Whether all these topics will be discussed in depth I cannot say, but they are clearly the major topics with which the European Ministers are likely to be concerned.

In our debate on 10th July the right hon. Member for Bristol, South-East pointed out the danger of individual Governments trying to make decisions before the meetings of European Ministers. He said: One of the great reasons for the failure of these discussions in the past was that the Cabinets commit their representatives before they go and the result is that there is no flexibility in discussion".—[OFFICIAL REPORT, 10th July, 1970; Vol. 803, c. 1107.] Those were very wise words. It is because I know that the House would wish my right hon. Friend to have just that flexibility in his discussions this week at Brussels that it would be counterproductive for me to attempt to pre-empt these discussions, and those who know me well will realise that this involves a high degree of restraint on my part.

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