HC Deb 20 March 1972 vol 833 cc1297-304

3.13 a.m.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

Why on earth anyone in his right mind should wish, at 3.15 in the morning, to raise the question of Class IV, Vote 5A, Subhead M, on the post-Apollo programme may cause speculation. I do so because I think that the Defence Procurement Executive and its colleagues are urgently faced with one of the major issues with which technology in the post-war world has been faced, namely, the question on which a decision is required before the summer of the post-Apollo programme and whether we participate with the United States in this programme. Indeed, I use the analogy of the mid-1950s, when the issue of the Treaty of Messina and whether to sign it went undiscussed. The decision on post-Apollo could be a watershed.

I am grateful to the Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry for being present to answer the debate, because I know that he has an important engagement in Brighton at the Oceanography Conference tomorrow at 10 a.m. Had his colleagues at the Ministry of Defence been as helpful as he normally is, there would have been no need for this debate, because the debate is conducted against the background of some mutual ill temper in the Defence Department which ill-becomes such a complex issue.

The Defence Ministers, when questions have been asked—in the defence debate, in the debate on the Air Estimates and in the debate on the Army Estimates—have not been forthcoming. Indeed, if it is said that it is not a matter for the Ministry of Defence, apart from anything else how is it that the Under-Secretary for Defence for the Royal Navy was the Minister chosen to visit Cape Kennedy this month? I think that the Defence Department has to bear some responsibility in this matter of keeping the Under-Secretary and his officials far into the night.

The decision must naturally come within the purview of the procurement agency because there are specific military considerations. Every nation recognises this—the Americans, the Russians and the Chinese. The post-Apollo decision is in danger of being lost in the British Government machine, and that is my central worry tonight. The decision is an orphan in the British Government machine.

Whereas I am happy to concede that most of the work of the procurement agency and the National Defence Industries Council is going well, and I am told by people that they are happy with the performance of the noble Lord the Secretary of State for Defence on N.D.I.C. and they are prepared to give credit to the Government in key positions in industry, the same people say that they are exasperated over the lack of a decision on the post-Apollo situation, a decision which we in Western Europe must communicate to the Americans by the summer. I do not think, if I may say so in parenthesis, that it is worth blaming or trying to blame our European allies. The truth is that firms such as B.A.C. and Hawker Siddeley see this as a serious matter, and Sir Arnold Hall and Sir George Edwards have expensive skilled resources tied up at Kingston and Bristol waiting for some kind of decision.

The offer was first put about three years ago to my right hon. Friend the Member for Bristol, South-East (Mr. Benn) when he was Minister of Technology. It is true that the Department has contributed to the cost of preliminary feasibility studies of a type which have been carried out by the European Space Conference and that British industry, with Government financial assistance, has collaborated with United States firms in feasibility studies on shuttle systems, but is the Under-Secretary of State satisfied that he has had sufficient discussions with the major firms involved in British industry, particularly B.A.C. and Hawker Siddeley?

Time is not on our side. Indeed, space agency procurement practices took a sharp turn last week with the decision to select a single contractor for development of the shuttle and to provide recoverable solid-fuelled booster stages as Government-furnished equipment. It looks as though the other side of the Atlantic, with a prime contractor, will get the largest part of the 5.1 billion dollars expected to be spent on shuttle development, and this contractor will be selected around 1st July for contract negotiation.

In those circumstances I do not think it is appropriate, during this kind of debate, to pass any kind of pontifical judgment upon whether Britain should participate, but it would be wrong if some statement were not made to the House on the issues involved and at least some clarification given of how the Government machine is setting about tackling this real problem.

Mr. Deputy Speaker (Miss Harvie Anderson)

Order. I know that the hon. Member is in some difficulty and is trying to keep within the rules of order, but if he were to expand on the decision, as he has started to do, he would go beyond the scope of the debate and so, indeed, would the Minister in replying.

Mr. Dalyell

I do not want to abuse the rules of the House, Mr. Deputy Speaker, and I shall keep it short as I intended. What specific jobs are the Ministry people who are working for the procurement agency doing if they are not giving their mind to the decision that I have raised tonight of post-Apollo?

I would ask the Minister to confirm that the visit of the American team under George Mansur, who I gather saw the Procurement Executive when it visited London in the second week of March, did not discuss the post-Apollo problems. Are we and the Procurement Executive negotiating with the Americans as an individual country, outside the context of E.S.R.O. and E.L.D.O.? To what extent is the Procurement Executive and those who have been taken on by it tying up with E.L.D.O., E.S.R.O. and European Governments under the chairmanship of M. Lefevre in giving some response to the American offer? Finally, are the Government happy that the American offer has been sufficiently clearly defined, so that we are giving the meaningful kind of answer that we should be giving?

I know that hon. Members should not abuse this rather narrow debate, but I think that what I have said falls within order and I hope that these questions can be answered by the Minister.

3.21 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. David Price)

I thank the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) for his courteous references to myself.

This Supplementary Estimate, for £200,000, has arisen from increases in the pay of the staff and other running costs of the aviation establishments. It is simply to catch up with inflation. There has been no big increase in staff.

Although these establishments are run by the Ministry of Defence—the Procurement Executive—under the arrangements set out in the Rayner White Paper, they carry out work for us and we pay for it. As the total running costs have gone up the Ministry's contribution is obviously larger, because they do more for themselves than they do for us. No extra people are working in the Space Division of R.A.E. Farnborough, which is doing no direct project work on the post-Apollo programme. That is being done in E.S.R.O. and E.L.D.O. under the original decision of the European Space Conference at the end of July, 1970. A total of £1 million was voted by the E.S.C. R.A.E. is a general adviser to the Government so we keep in close touch.

Since we last discussed the post-Apollo programme on 10th July, 1970, the Americans have reduced the scope, size and cost of their programme from 10 billion dollars to 5.15 billion. This programme has had presidential approval but has yet to go through Congress, and it is anyone's guess what shape it will be in when it leaves Congress.

What is relevant is the precise United States offer to Europe. The original offer was to the member States of the European Space Conference and separately to the United Kingdom, France and Germany and subsequently to Canada, Australia and Japan, inviting participation, preferably on a multilateral basis, in the total programme. No suggestions were made as to the type or extent of the participation. In subsequent discussions with the American authorities, the figure of 10 per cent. as the European share of the costs of the programme came to be regarded as a meaningful figure of involvement. The latest proposals envisage no particular percentage contribution, and they have been extended to include joint consideration of the applications of post-Apollo.

The programme is now seen as a fresh approach to space activities as a whole. However, I must make the point that in financial and resource terms Europe has not yet got a precise offer to which to respond, although the general shape is becoming clearer.

In the meantime, this year the Committee of Alternates of the E.S.C. considered a proposal for further studies additional to those voted in July, 1970. Briefly they consist of studies on tugs, space shuttle aerodynamic studies, supporting studies mainly concerned with the applications and operational use of the tug, earth orbital system studies and studies of payloads.

Certain countries, including France and Germany, agreed to fund this work at a total cost of some 3 million dollars. The United Kingdom abstained from a vote on this proposal pending further consideration by the Government. The Netherlands position was similar. Our contribution to these studies would be of the order of £240,000. The Government are currently considering whether the United Kingdom should participate in these further studies. Clearly any participation would carry with it no contractual implication of commitment to any ultimate participation in the full programme.

The hon. Member for West Lothian mentioned Mr. Mansur's visit. I can assure him that this visit had no connection with the post-Apollo programme. His visit was directed entirely to explaining to European Governments, his Government's rethinking on the proposed joint aeronautical satellite. If I pursue that matter further, it would certainly be out with the scope of the Vote.

Mr. Dalyell

Will the hon. Gentleman tell me about the time-scale involved?

Mr. Price

My next note is on this point. The proposed studies, to be undertaken during 1972, will extend beyond the period at which the present N.A.S.A. timetable will require a positive European reaction. I think this is the point which the hon. Gentleman wanted. The position is that the American proposals do not envisage the funding of development work outside the United States. If, therefore, Europe wishes to undertake sub-contracting in the shuttle part of the programme, a decision by European Governments will be required by July on meeting the cost of such work done by European industry. Only £40 million worth of such work is available out of a £2,200 million programme.

Before accepting European sub-contractors for the shuttle work, N.A.S.A. would like to be assured that Europe will play a bigger part in the overall programme; for instance, in tug development, estimated cost £280 million; or of specialised payloads, with an estimated cost anything from £80 million to £200 million according to their type. If Europe is not prepared to take some of this work, N.A.S.A. claims that the additional management complications would not make it worth while sub-contracting some or all of the £40 million worth of work on the shuttle.

The European Space Conference secretariat, after discussions with the Americans, is aiming to arrive at a decision in July on participation in the shuttle and an agreement in principle on participation in the shuttle and an agreement in principle on participation in either the tug or the payload development. The studies now proposed on the tug and payloads will not be completed by the middle of the year, but definitive arrangements for these parts of the system are not needed until early 1973. It seems unlikely that European countries would be able to do more in July than say that they would undertake development of tug or payloads if satisfactory arrangements could be worked out.

Mr. Dalyell

Would not there be some considerable disadvantage if the prime contractors were selected by midsummer? That is the danger.

Mr. Price

I did not go into the more American part of the programme because I felt that to do so would be to extend the patience of the Chair rather too far. However, the hon. Gentleman is substantially right in saying that this is basically an American programme in which Europe and ourselves have been invited to participate and even join, but obviously we in Europe would not have a dominant rôle.

The hon. Gentleman spoke of B.A.C. and H.S.D. in relation to space. He will be aware that both organisations have sub-contracts from two of the American prime contractors and have been carrying out feasibility studies on the shuttle. A decision on this aspect will be made by the Americans later in the year. In this work B.A.C. and H.S.D. have had some financial help from the Department, so that it is not true to say that they have been left out in the cold.

The hon. Gentleman will appreciate my difficulty in that I, too, have a problem in keeping in order. It is by no means clear that we should participate in the post-Apollo programme, even assuming that Europe can find a meaningful part in which to participate. After all, this is only one candidate among many long-term projects which may appeal. As I have said on previous occasions, we have the difficult problem of selection from over the whole spectrum of high technology projects, and without intelligent selection the cost to the taxpayer could be considerable, as I said on 10th July, 1970.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time and committed to a Committee of the whole House.

Committee this day.