HC Deb 19 July 1973 vol 860 cc823-45

9.9 p.m.

Mr. Tam Dalyell (West Lothian)

1 am a regular old soldier in debates on the Consolidated Fund Bill. I know what it is like to endure long speeches from those hon. Members lucky enough to be drawn high in the ballot for whom the debate seems to have a timeless characteristic. For that reason my speech will be in inverse ratio to the difficulty and complication of decisions to be made on 31st July at the reconvened European Space Conference.

I had hoped that the Minister would see fit to take part in the debate, but that is no reflection on the Under-Secretary. It is simply that the Minister is doing the negotiating. I would have thought that the Granada programmes we are about to see, and a number of other commentators, were right to point to the fact that Ministers should pay more attention to the House of Commons in general. This is one opportunity when the Minister for Aerospace might have done so, since he himself did the legislating.

In 1968 when Dr. Thomas Paine, then Director of NASA, first came to Europe to offer participation in the post-Apollo and Shuttle programmes, I padded round my senior Cabinet colleagues urging them to say "snap" there and then. I was met by some ribaldry and I remember that the opening sentence of one formidable member of the Government was "So you've come along to advise me to embark on another Concorde!", whereupon he raised his eyes to the heavens. Now, as then, be the Government Labour or Conservative, any sane man must be shy about advocating what seems to many MPs to be an open-ended commitment.

I understand the legitimate misgivings of the Minister's Cabinet colleagues, haunted by the escalating costs of a supersonic airliner, haunted by Maplin and the Chunnel, and haunted particularly by the size of the public sector borrowing requirement, which is now more than £4,000 million. But before the notion of United Kingdom participation in the post-Apollo programme is put to a slow death by the groans of the Treasury, the antagonisms of economic Ministers and the collective shudder of the Public Expenditure Sub-Committee of the Cabinet, we should pause, because there is a double-barrelled reply.

The first barrel is that here and now Europe as a whole already spends at least one-sixth of American expenditure on space. It is doubtful, to put it charitably, whether we get one-sixtieth of the American results. The reward for existing expenditure has been appalling. Secondly, are we so sure that we want to opt out of a whole sphere of high technology? At the very least, this is a decision that should not be taken without mature reflection.

I do not want to put it too dramatically, but I am not sure that 31st July 1973 and 15th August 1973 will not come to be seen as some kind of technological equivalent of the Treaty of Messina, which was the genesis of the Common Market. The costs of not joining the Americans could be great indeed over the next 100 years, and 15th August will be a parting of the ways.

To turn to the guts of the debate, I should like to register extreme unease about the proposed European Space Agency, at any rate, in its present form. As the Opposition see it—he will tell us should we be wrong—the Minister's right hon. Friend is hell-bent on a European integrated aviation industry, and his public utterances would, I think, substantiate that generality.

But let us study this from the point of view of the British national interest, which may not be paramount but at least is important. First, there is no indication that we should do well out of a European integrated aviation industry or a related integrated space agency. Secondly, three years ago we had not only by far the largest industry, but we were the only country in Europe with complete all-round aviation capacity. With Anglo-French work sharing, this has been wittled down and down and it is now fair to say that we have no worthwhile design leadership opportunities of which to speak, because, as British industry is falling, European industry is rising. We should not be under any illusion but that a European space agency would reinforce that tendency.

I have a further objection to this European Space Agency. It is a marvellous excuse for yet another white elephantine bureaucracy which, in the Byzantine conditions of Euro-technical politics, would spawn and spawn. May I be politely, but perhaps deeply, offensive to the hon. Gentleman the Minister for Aerospace? My view is that there is a species of able, thrusting, honourably but intensely ambitious politician who wants to erect memorials to himself, or herself. Tinged with romantic delusions, that can be jolly dangerous and lead to mind-boggling silliness. I do not make a party point of this because I could give chapter and verse in the Macmillan Government and in the Wilson Government. My suspicion is that this particular form of European Space Agency has become the right hon. Gentleman's baby, or part of a Pharoahonic tendency to be remembered, a yearning to be famous. This European Space Agency will, however, be less like a pyramid of Egypt than a Tower of Babel, which will collapse about our ears.

The European Space Agency is, in the opinion of some of us, built on foundations, not of rock, but of sand—the sand of French self-centredness. The conclusion that I draw from Friday 13th July, which by Press accounts seems to have been a fiasco of a conference, is that as long as the French want to pursue the L3S—invented as a launcher by the Americans about 18 years ago—and as long as the alumni of the Ecole Polytechique want to pursue their own course, there is nothing that we can do about it. They will go on "doing their own thing "with rocket launching in Guyana and other activities. This is not to say that an agency is not essential, if only because the Americans have said that they will deal not with individual Governments but with a coherent European effort. One can understand their point of view.

But I say to the hon. Member for Tavistock (Mr. Michael Heseltine), "If you must have a memorial, make it a right one". The Germans will do the space laboratory, we will do the maritime or GTS satellite, and it may have to be without the French. Could the Minister confirm that the costs for this kind of proposition would be approximately 300 million dollars over eight years? I should like an estimate. Although I have given the Minister only a few hours' notice of my points, which may not be adequate, it is a question I wanted to raise.

Time is not on our side. We must make up our minds by 10th October to allow five days for the paperwork on the American side. The British space industry has been in despair for some time at the lack of decision. We must have some idea of the plan for a maritime technology satellite to replace the original plan for a geostationary technology satellite.

As I see it, there are two options. First, we could wash our hands of the whole space business and say, "Space is not for us. We will concentrate on cancer research, on new fields of energy, such as fast-breeder reactors or fusion, and put everything into Dounreay and Culham." That would be a reasonable point of view, but I would not take it myself.

The trouble with that kind of argument is threefold. First, you cannot just transfer resources by the wave of a nonexistent magic wand into fighting the energy crisis, any more than space engineers can immediately build hospitals, schools and homes. The expertise of men who worked on Black Arrow is devoted to doing contractual work on the Isle of Wight, not to jobs that some of my hon. Friends would like to be done. Secondly, for future communications technology we would be at the mercy of the Americans, with whom we had turned down partnership. Thirdly, I would guess—and it is only a guess—that the Chiefs of Staff would be a little uneasy.

The alternative—and the Minister must be bracing himself for the resumed conference on 31st July—is to recognise that the European Space Agency in this form is a non-starter. In these circumstances, I would like to see the British Government tell the French that their maverick behaviour has made impossible a truly Western European response to the Amercians. May I say in parenthesis that it is the same kind of attitude that has made the French pursue nuclear tests that has created great difficulty for any kind of rational coherent European approach to space that many would like to see on both sides of the Atlantic.

Concretely, I would like to see the Government on 31st July propose to the Germans and to the Dutch, and for that matter to the Belgians and the Italians, but particularly the Germans and the Dutch, who have the capability, that together we should tell the United States that we are serious about accepting mutually agreed proposals with participation in post-Apollo, making sure that our interests in communications and in the earth's resources are safeguarded.

Above all, whatever happens, British industry must be put out of the agony of indecision and we must ensure that we do not go on getting the worst of all possible worlds. The serious criticism of the Government is that over a three-year period they have put British industry in such a position of indecision that we are getting the worst of all possible worlds. A decision one way or the other would be better than no decision at all.

The decision which the Americans and ourselves make on post-Apollo will benefit us or haunt us when Watergate and Poulson are topics for historical novels. This may seem an esoteric subject, but this is something which will live with us for the rest of this century, and that is why I raise it as a matter of urgency tonight.

9.20 p.m.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson (Walthamstow, East)

We all owe the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr, Dalyell) a certain debt of gratitude for having chosen a subject such as the European Space Agency for debate on the Consolidated Fund Bill. Space is one of those subjects that have been neglected by Parliament and I welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate.

However, I do not share the hon. Gentleman's view of my hon. Friend the Minister for Aerospace and Shipping in suggesting that my hon. Friend wishes to set up a number of memorials to himself by endeavouring to create either an integrated European aircraft industry or a European Space Agency. What I think my hon. Friend the Minister is rightly trying to do is to make Western European countries think in European rather than in national terms. As we are such a new member of the EEC, it is heartening to see the younger Ministers pushing forward with the concept of European agencies rather than struggling on with national concepts that do not, and cannot, measure up to those of our competitors, in particular our North American competitors.

Space, as I have said already, has been somewhat neglected by Parliament. If it has been neglected on the Floor of the House, it was not neglected by the Select Committee which was set up between 1970 and 1971 to look into the United Kingdom space effort and whose findings were printed in October 1971,

The Select Committee made five recommendations, but in my opinion the most important of those recommendations was that the United Kingdom should set up a single, independent space agency to be responsible to the Minister for Aerospace and Shipping for all the United Kingdom civil interests in space. To that recommendation the Government made the following observation: The Government believes that until the decisions are taken on the space programmes which Europe will undertake in the next few years and the extent of U.K. participation in them, the need for an independent space agency or other organisational changes, can not be properly assessed. It is not unreasonable to suppose that that statement was an earnest of the thinking in the Minister's mind that perhaps we could leapfrog from a national space agency and go straight to a European Space Agency.

However, as the meeting on 12th July in Brussels has surely shown, there is some way to go before a European Space Agency gets off the ground and, although we may still hope—perhaps my hon. Friend can confirm this—that the European Space Agency will come into existence on 1st January 1974, it is not unreasonable to wonder whether that date is now getting perilously close, as so little agreement appears to have been reached.

and whether we should not consider again the Select Committee's recommendation that a national space agency bears serious consideration.

As my hon. Friend will know, at present no fewer than six Government Departments have an involvement in space. As the Select Committee pointed out, the way our space activities are divided up means that … there is no provision either for draw ing up a balanced, coherent overall programme for space activities such as is normal in other fields or for the general supervison and evaluation of the totality of the space work which is being undertaken. In other words, Britain may have a number of separate projects in hand, but she has no overall space programme as such. As we are spending more than £30 million a year on space, one may wonder whether we are getting value for money.

It may be unrealistic to argue for a British space programme which is separate from anything Western Europe is doing and, indeed, I am not arguing that proposition—but I cannot see any reason why, while we are trying to build up a European Space Agency, we should not be creating a national space authority of our own to co-ordinate the efforts of the United Kingdom space industry and to work with the European Space Agency when it is in existence. Such an authority would be responsible for creating a national space programme and for ensuring that space equipment being developed in the United Kingdom was of a type to allow us to get our share of international satellite systems—for instance, the earth resources and maritime technology satellite to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

Turning now to the European Space Agency concept, the point made by the hon. Gentleman that one could have a proliferation of bureaucracy is right. Certainly, we do not want to set up an agency which would grow—I think it is called Parkinson's Law—without there necessarily being anything for it to do. As we know, so often to our cost in this country, bureaucracy has a self-propagating ability which, if allowed to get out of hand, can be extremely costly.

Equally, this is a moment to consider what we think the European Space Agency should be about and what should be its terms of reference. Do we accept the concept that all European civil space projects should be handled or coordinated by a single agency; and do we think that member countries should commit their entire civil space budgets to it? That seems a fairly tall order. If, perhaps, we question whether that is how it should operate, do we think that nations should contribute on a GNP-related block sum basis, or do we think that they should make pro rata contributions only to those programmes in which they are involved? I gather that the general European view is that individual nations should receive back at least 70 per cent. of any contributions they make in contracts placed by the agency.

Then there is the question whether nations should be asked to specialise in certain types of space equipment, even though they have at this moment a global capability in the sense of making other sorts of equipment, and whether, if there is that type of control from a centralised agency, those countries will not be placed totally within the control of the contract-giving part of the agency thereby preventing those countries' industries from being able to maintain a capability which might allow them to involve themselves in contracts placed outside Europe and to which they now have access.

However, those I have spoken to in our industry generally give the concept of the ESA a welcome, even if it be a qualified one. They see it as absorbing the work being done by ESRO. They see it taking under its umbrella the technical activities of ESRO—I believe that ESRO has a considerable technical facility in Holland—but I believe they wonder to what extent the ESA will be given powers to have a firm direction over Europe's space activities and thus to be cost effective. Certainly they see that nothing is to be lost by co-operating with the agency as regards informing it of national projects. They also think that the co-ordination of programmes within Europe is to be welcomed.

However, there is concern that the agency might be set up and given teeth too quickly and that a transition period will not be allowed in which national and European projects will be allowed one to run down and the other to start up. Obviously, therefore, there is a need for a transition period. One may argue that since the agency is not yet in being, to talk about a transition period is perhaps rushing one's fences, but the point is worth making.

We shall have to assume that a European Space Agency could probably not take military space under its wing. It is difficult to see how it could involve itself in the research and development necessary to the production of military satellites, but I imagine we have already assumed that the European Space Agency will be for civil projects only.

Then there is the question of the great inter-continental communication systems such as Intelsat. Since Intelsat 5, in particular, will be built by a consortium which will undoubtedly consist of at least one major American aerospace company, will it be for the European Space Agency to select the American Partner on behalf of Europe, or will it be for the European companies to make their own terms with the American companies concerned and then for the international Communication Agency to decide which of the competitors it chooses? I believe that the European Space Agency should handle only regional communication systems and it would, therefore, have to leave a measure of flexibility in national industries, which is to be welcomed.

Lastly, I want to touch on the vexed question of launchers. It was probably right in 1968 that we should have withdrawn from the European Launcher Development Organisation, because I understand that ELDO was plagued with a history of overspend. On the other hand, I find it difficult to see how Europe as an entity can operate a total space programme without having a total space capability, and if we are to say that Europe must rely on American launchers to have that capability it follows that Europe will not have the total space capability that I am talking about.

In effect, while Europe will be able to offer satellite equipment the USA will be able to provide a complete satellite system including the launching vehicle. This means that Europe will not be able to compete on a comparable basis with the United States industry. I do not find it surprising, therefore, that the French and the Germans are now considering a launcher programme. What I do find surprising and disappointing, however, is that our own first stage rocket launcher, Blue Streak, is about to come to the end of its active life after only 11 firings. As I understand it, five or six rounds are still in existence.

Blue Streak has proved itself to be an extremely effective vehicle and it has proved that it can be fired successfully and is, therefore, cost effective.

But at this time work on the remaining five Blue Streak rounds still in existence has ceased entirely. Two of those rounds, No. 15 and No. 16, are in a 75 per cent. to 90 per cent. completed state, yet, although they are there and could be used, they are to be broken up. Those working on the project are to be found alternative employment, and the facilities are to be run down.

As we know, the Spadeadam rocket engine testing plant is to be run down, too. No research or development work is being carried out in this country, not even by the RAE and, as far as I am able to find out, the only space launcher now left in Western Europe is the French Diamant rocket which, I am informed, can lift a small satellite of up to 150 kg.

At the same time as Blue Streak is coming to the end of its life and all that know-how is being broken up, the French and the Germans, as the hon. Gentleman stated, are going ahead with the L3S. But the L3S, which I understand is a three-stage launcher, is roughly comparable to a Blue Streak plus a second stage and will be able to lift a satellite no heavier than that which Blue Streak with a second stage could lift. It can lift a 750 kg. satellite into a geostationary orbit.

I find this a sad tale to tell, and I wonder whether even now those Blue Streak rockets have to be destroyed, and the team with them. If Europe is determined to have a launcher programme, I wonder whether there is not some way by which the Blue Streak at least might find its way back into that programme and be used again.

I believe that the Minister for Aerospace is right in his attempts to create a European Space Agency. Perhaps because space is such a new industry, it is the first that can be set up on a European basis. I wish the Minister all success on 31st July when he returns to Brussels.

I hope most sincerely that he will be able to make real progress this time, and that those countries which were unable to comment at the previous meeting will find that this time they can say where they stand on the concept. I find the whole thing an exciting enterprise and I wish him well.

9.38 p.m.

Mr. E. S. Bishop (Newark)

I wish to intervene only briefly because I know the number of debates which have to follow. I do not apologise, however, because the subject before us is of great importance and all too rarely does the House have the opportunity to debate matters such as these. On another Consolidaed Fund debate I managed in the early hours to open a debate on the future of our aerospace industry.

This is an exciting project, as the hon. Member for Walthamstow, East (Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson) said. Last year I was privileged to take part in a two-week defence tour of the United States, seeing Apollo 17 before launch at Cape Kennedy. I visited Huntsville Missile Centre as well, and went to the White House to discuss aerospace with some of the British firms represented in Washington. We recognise that the urgency of tonight's debate is due to the fact that in a few days' time the Minister will be meeting his counterpart in Brussels to discuss the future of British participation in this important industry.

Over the last year or two, the Government have missed a number of opportunities when they could have given a lead in respect of post-Apollo. In the light of the collaboration on Concorde and other projects with European co-ordination, we must have learned some lessons which could be of use to us now. We should be seeking a partnership with the United States, not merely as sub-contractors for some American projects, but as equal partners and sharing in the know-how.

The House is indebted to my hon. Friend the Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell) for this opportunity to raise these questions. I should like to make a few brief remarks before posing some questions which I hope the Minister will answer. The industry in this country has been delayed to some extent and there has been real concern about the lack of any firm sense of direction which should come from the Government in these important negotiations. The record of procrastination goes back to last July when we were asking questions to which we got no answers. There was a delayed meeting in September and another in December when the future of ELDO and ESRO were being considered with the future of the new European Space Agency. These matters are still being discussed when action should already have been taken.

It seems that Europe is still looking for a space identity, for it still does not know what role it should have and what part its members should play. The Government have been quick to tip us into the EEC, but, having done that, they have not taken the initiative that we expect of them. They have followed the "lame duck "policy which seems to have been discarded in other directions.

We are in the EEC. If we have to accept this kind of marriage, it is not good enough for the United Kingdom not to take a lead in these important matters. Before it can do that it must know what is wanted for the United Kingdom, what our industry wants and the needs of those who have a stake in it, whether management or workers.

Many people will not be able to see the relevance of putting men on the moon, but in this matter we are not concerned with such ambitious enterprises. However, there is an enormous spin-off of high technology from post-Apollo projects and the Government and the industry must spell out the benefits of space participation in terms of medicine, biology, counter-pollution measures, meteorology, weather forecasting, telecommunications, crop control and many other aspects which will help not only the developed, but the under-developed, countries. This is a job for the Government and industry. They must spell out what they mean by space and the benefits that can flow from it.

We must also recognise the contribution made by some of our own industries. We know of the £10 million geostationary satellite contract for BAC and of the very successful 3 million dollar Intelsat IVA satellite contract for the same firm. We also recognise the contribution made by BAC and other firms in this country to satellite communications providing 24-hour telephone and television service links over the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Indian Oceans and many other places. This is just touching on what could be the exciting possibilities of space development.

I close by asking the Minister some questions. Is it the Government's policy that the ESC should be set up with sensible entrepreneurial and commercial terms of reference? Is the United Kingdom likely to join Germany and the rest of Europe in the post-Apollo space laboratory? What is the Government's policy with regard to each country making a minimum contribution to each project? Should contributions go only to the projects in which a country is particularly interested?

I think that the Minister will agree that our contribution is rather low compared with our responsibilities. Does he think that our contribution of only 10 per cent. to the overall European space effort is enough, whereas our GNP share should be about 23 per cent.?

Finally, I ask the question that many people in the industry in Europe and elsewhere are asking: will the Minister stop trying to lead from behind?

These are important questions. I recognise that the kind of thinking, policy and action that the Government take at this time will determine the spin-off of high technology to Britain's role in space in the next 10 or 20 years. When some of the present projects are ending, thousands of people employed in the space and electronics industry will be looking for the kind of work-load which our policies can provide for their security of work in future.

9.45 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Industry (Mr. Cranley Onslow)

Like the hon. Member for West Lothian (Mr. Dalyell), I can claim to be something of a veteran on these occasions. I dare say he will remember, as I do, that there is no discourtesy to the House in the fact that Under-Secretaries of State come more commonly than Ministers on these occasions. I do not think that the point the hon. Member made against my hon. Friend the Minister for Aerospace and Shipping is well conceived or well taken. If at the end of the day I leave the hon. Gentleman dissatisfied, that will be no novelty in a Consolidated Fund debate. I shall do the best I can for him.

The hon. Gentleman made three main points. First, he said that the American offer on post-Apollo collaboration should be carefully considered as it will be crucial to Europe's future in space. Secondly, he said that Europe has not received good value for money for its expenditure in space so far. Thirdly, he said that our proposals for a European Space Agency would create a new bureaucracy which would be detrimental to the United Kingdom's industrial interests and that it would founder in any case because of the continuing serious differences of opinion on European space policy. He said that the result would be a proliferation of people and staff.

The hon. Gentleman argued from those premises that when the European Space Conference reconvenes on 31st July the United Kingdom should forget about the new agency and should go ahead with the Spacelab with whatever partners it can find, irrespective of any wider consequences for European co-operation.

There is no dissent on my part with the hon. Gentleman's assertion that Europe has received poor value for the millions which have been spent on space in the last decade. It is precisely in recognition of that that we have proposed the setting-up of a new space agency. That is being done in the hope that there will be an improvement in the cost-effectiveness of Europe's efforts in the decade ahead.

Much has happened in the decade since ESRO was established. The emphasis has shifted from using satellites for scientific observation to using them for commercial services in communications and related spheres—namely, the shift from science to applications. As a result, the industrial significance of space activities has increased; so has the importance of being able to offer users like the PTT authorities the basis of a cost-effective system. Of course these changes have not gone unnoticed in ESRO, which last year drafted a revised convention to take them into account.

There now seems to be general agreement in Europe that a more radically revised approach is needed. That is why the United Kingdom has stressed the need for the new agency to have terms of reference which make clear its commitment to giving its customers good value for money and to have an industrial policy on a European scale which will enable it to meet that aim.

I do not accept that the new agency, with a coherent and integrated industrial policy, will do damage to our industrial interests. Indeed, if it achieves its aim of increasing Europe's effectiveness on a world-wide scale it will have done far more for our industry than we could have hoped to do ourselves. Nor do I accept that the European Space Agency will be an obstructive agency. It will replace effectively two organisations with one organisation.

I now deal with our attitude to post-Apollo. I agree that the original American offer which was made to Europe in October 1969 to take part in building a wholly new space transportation system was a significant new development in international space activities. There had been no previous offer of partnership on that scale with the world's leading nation in space technology. However, the offer faced Europe with some difficult choices. Areas of work had to be found in which Europe had the relevant basis of technology. They also had to be reasonably self-contained so as to minimise management difficulties. Above all, they had to be capable of development within Europe's limited space budgets.

Those problems, together with differences of view on the priorities for Europe's space efforts, delayed Europe's collective response, though European studies of the space tug and a space station were carried out and European firms joined United States contractors in studies of the shuttle. By June 1972 the American authorities had effectively narrowed down the area of co-operation to the development of the sortie module which is now known as Spacelab. Europe's decision, therefore, now turns on whether to undertake this task, at an estimated cost of £125 million or, as the hon. Gentleman said, 300 million dollars.

Mr. Dalyell

Is that over an eight-year period?

Mr. Onslow

Yes. From the technical viewpoint, what is now on offer to Europe is considerably less challenging than was the original American proposal. Nevertheless, Spacelab would provide Europe with direct knowledge of the techniques required for manned space flight and would represent a significant contribution to the American programme which the American authorities have said they will welcome. For these reasons this country has taken a 10 per cent. share in the European studies of the project to date.

Our attitude to participating in the fat more expensive development phase depends on a number of factors. First is the total cost estimate which emerges from the current studies and the content of the programme to which it relates. Second is the existence of real agreement within Europe on the new attitude to space activities, turning our backs on the mistakes of the past. We see the European Space Agency as the key to this new approach. Third is the availability of funds and expenditure limits on our space expenditure so that the work it can do on developing Spacelab must depend on the provision our partners can make to the cost of the maritime satellite which we have proposed. We should like to take a share of up to 10 per cent. but the exact figure now depends on them.

I hope I can say to the hon. Member for West Lothian without offence that he is making the mistake of looking at the post-Apollo operation in isolation of the wide range of problems which lay before the European Space Conference. The December 1972 resolution of the conference covered four points affecting both the ESA and its future programmes. These four points are obviously not of equal interest to all member States, but this country's attitude to them was expressed by my hon. Friend the Minister for Aerospace and Shipping at the ESC meeting on July 12th, which I would certainly not accept could be described as a fiasco. In broad terms he said that on the European Space Agency we are pleased with the progress towards setting it up as it is embodied in the draft convention and that we want to see the work of the officials continue with all urgency so as to allow the target date of 1st January 1974 to be met. I confirm to my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, East (Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson) that this is the target date.

On the L3S, our sincere difference of view with the French over the need to develop a European launch vehicle cannot be ignored. We remain of the opinion that the expense of developing a heavy launcher in Europe, when the United States perfected the technology many years ago, cannot be justified and that we cannot contribute towards developing L3S. We hope that this difference will not preclude co-operation in other areas. I shall come later to the argument about the merits of European launchers which my hon. Friend deployed.

On Spacelab we took the view that, provided there is general agreement on the ESA framework for Europe's future space co-operation, we should be prepared to take a share of up to 10 per cent. in the project. Because of the ceiling on our space expenditure, we can take a share only in so far as we are relieved of the cost of our maritime communications satellite by contributions from other member States. On the maritime satellite we have proposed to our European partners that the geostationary satellite which is currently being studied in the United Kingdom industry should be adopted as an experimental maritime communications satellite to meet the recently defined European requirement.

In return for contributions to the cost of development we would subcontract up to 25 per cent. of the project, which is close to the full development phase, outside British industry. This offer has met with some criticism within Europe as offering too limited a scope for wider industrial participation and as appearing to duplicate some of the technology of ESRO's OTS satellite. It has been suggested that it would be more widely acceptable if the United Kingdom took an industrial share in a maritime derivative of OTS which goes under the acronym of MAROTS. If a satisfactory agreement could be reached on the ESA framework and the financing of MAROTS, the United Kingdom would be willing to give up its GTS proposal in favour of MAROTS in the community interest.

However, other countries see things differently. Our conclusion is not that we should abandon all attempts to reach a mutually agreed position, as the hon. Member for West Lothian was suggesting, but that we should accept that differences of emphasis can be accommodated within a properly co-ordinated European space programme. In our view countries should be free to contribute to optional programmes according to the degree of their interest. This applies equally to L3S, Spacelab and to the maritime satellite.

To be more precise about the terms of reference of the European Space Agency as we see them, we propose two important changes from ESRO practice. The first is an essentially à la carte approach to financing the ESA's major programmes, with countries taking a share reflecting their individual interests rather than their relative gross national product ranking, and a procedure bringing national activities under ESA co-ordination, in the hope that wasteful duplication can be avoided between national and European efforts and that cost and benefits on otherwise national projects can be more fairly spread.

Mr. Dalyell

Can we take it that the hon. Gentleman's use of the phrase "à la carte approach "means that the problem that dogged ELDO for so long—the feeling that orders had to be placed in a particular country according to the percentage contribution of that country—will be changed? That was a system that we know very well created great difficulty.

Mr. Onslow

I cannot answer, much as I should like to, because I cannot tell the hon. Gentleman what the outcome of the conference will be.

Mr. Dalyell

Is the matter on the agenda?

Mr. Onslow

The agenda is wide and embraces every possibility.

Meanwhile we have noted the other views expressed at the initial meeting on 12th July of the ESA and about the three programmes under consideration. Like our partners, we shall consider whether there is anything more we can do to assist towards a positive outcome at the resumed meeting on 31st July. However, given a fixed ceiling on expenditure, there is inevitably little scope for going beyond the position outlined by my hon. Friend on 12th July, nor is there any case for raising that ceiling.

No one could claim that Europe has had good value for the money spent on space activities in the past 10 years. Until there is evidence that things are better under the new ESA, an increase in the United Kingdom's expenditure on space cannot be considered.

I cannot say that I share the Old Testatment pessimism of the hon. Member for West Lothian about the situation. I welcome rather the expressions of good will from my hon. Friend the Member for Walthamstow, East. It is certainly nobody's desire to get the worst of all possible worlds. It may be beyond our achievement to get the best of all worlds, but I hope the House can at least join in hoping that there will be a successful outcome to the resumed meeting, because there can be no doubt about the importance of space in the lives of us all.

My hon. Friend took up the cudgels again on behalf of the formation of a national space agency. We have taken the view, as the Government's reply to the Select Committee makes plain, that the ESA concept is a larger issue. It has a higher priority. I do not know whether my hon. Friend saw the old Hungarian proverb quoted by this year's chairman of the SBAC, Mr. Roy Sissons. If so, he will remember that there is some merit in the advice about not seeking to ride two horses with one backside. I think we have our priority right, and I hope for a successful outcome.

Mr. Michael McNair-Wilson

Does my hon. Friend agree that there would be an interface between a national space authority and an ESA? The French have a space authority and we have in the RAE a space division which serves the six Government Departments,' so that in embryo at least such an authority just exists.

Mr. Onslow

I do not necessarily dispute that but, if I may offer another hackneyed piece of advice, I remind my hon. Friend about the old phrase "maintenance of objective". The formation of a European Space Agency in preference to a national one is an objective that we should and will maintain.

It might be as well to set out the Government's view about a European launcher. There is no economic case for an independent European launcher. Launchers are the most expensive and least profitable items of space technology. Satellites, on the other hand, are relatively inexpensive and their applications in commercial ventures offers the best prospects of commercial return. The resources available in Europe are, by common agreement, small by comparison with those of the United States, and the Americans have an impregnable lead in launcher technology, while there is good prospect that Europe can compete successfully in satellites.

As it is today, we have to face the fact that a European launcher would still take some years to develop and would offer no advantage over existing American launchers. Its useful life span would be limited by the far more economic American recoverable launch vehicles —the space shuttles. Morever, the American launchers will have had a far greater number of firings and are likely to be much more reliable than any European launcher. This is of crucial importance in that failure generally means the loss of the payload as well as the rocket, as we have learnt to our cost.

Mr. McNair-Wilson rose

Mr. Charles Loughlin (Gloucestershire, West)

Oh, no.

Mr. McNair-Wilson

Would not my hon. Friend agree that, if we rely totally on American launchers, we are to some extent in the hands of the Americans as to whether they give us that facility? Indeed, is there not a possibility that we might find ourselves being forced to join, in return, a certain system which we might not otherwise wish to join?

Mr. Onslow

I realise that this is essentially a debate for the younger generation and I am sorry that the older generation below the Gangway is getting impatient. But perhaps it matters more to us to get this matter right than it matters to the hon. Member for Gloucestershire, West (Mr. Loughlin) to get the matter he is raising right.

We must stress that the only argument for developing a European launcher is the possibility that Europe might be denied the use of launcher facilities developed elsewhere. In practice that means the United States or, let us say, the Soviet Union. Our view and our decision is that the enormous premium which some Europeans seem prepared to pay to insure against that risk is not worth paying. The United Kingdom's view is that, under American policy, Europe is unlikely to be refused a launching for any satellite of interest to us. If we are in the space shuttle programme through Skylab, we will have the same terms for our satellites, which in any case would need to be less sophisticated in many respects than those we have now.

It has to be understood that space is an international scene. The more inter- national co-operation we can achieve, the more all of us will be able to benefit from the results. I was fortunate enough to be at Cape Kennedy to see the launching of Apollo 17. It was as memorable an experience as I have ever had. It has left me in no doubt about the importance of space to everybody on this small planet, and also about the opportunities which it presents us with for extending our reach, if not our grasp. I share the hopes which have been expressed that we shall get our decision right. I see no reason to suppose as yet that we shall get them wrong.