HC Deb 25 November 1987 vol 123 cc248-9
6. Mr. Eastham

To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster what representations his Department has received on Britain's space spending.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

We have received letters from hon. and right hon. Members, space companies, interested organisations and members of the public. I and other Ministers have had several meetings with representatives of the aerospace industry.

Mr. Eastham

Is it not a further symptom of complete despair to learn that the director general of the National Space Centre recently resigned? Is the Minister concerned that it is expected that during next year there will be a reduction of 40 per cent. in contracts related to the industry?

Mr. Clarke

I do not think that the hon. Gentleman is bang up to date with events. The former director of the British National Space Centre resigned early in August of this year. Up to that time he had been criticising the way in which the European Space Agency programme had been going increasingly towards grandiose manned space projects, so it cannot have come altogether as a surprise to Mr. Gibson, the gentleman who resigned, that we exercised our option not to join in those projects at the meeting at The Hague.

Mr. Andrew MacKay

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that the Government have a duty to examine the value for money that we receive from the funds that we put into space research? The European Space Agency's plan to put a French midget into space hardly seems productive.

Mr. Clarke

I have heard comments of that kind that are related to the design of the proposed spacecraft. It is an optional programme, and other countries appear to have decided to go to the next phase of developing a spaceship that does not seem to have adequate scientific or technological advantages for us. We put our money in other aspects of space work. As a country we invest £4.5 billion in scientific and technological investments of one type or another.

Mr. Malcolm Bruce

Will the Chancellor nevertheless accept that, since his announcement that we will not support the next phase of the ESA programme, there has been genuine concern amongst the hundreds of companies in Britain that are involved in the space programme that the consequences of that decision will be to cut them off from valuable future orders? Given that there is a three-month period in which the decision can be reviewed, will the Minister listen to the representations that are made to him? I accept that the criticisms that he has made of the programme may be valid, but we should be arguing within the programme rather than hurling abuse from outside it.

Mr. Clarke

Most of the representations that are reaching us come from companies that hope to participate in contracts using the money that the Government were putting in. We do not put money in merely to hand it on to a British company. A project must be evaluated in terms of its long-term potential to the economy as a whole, to see whether sufficient technological and scientific advantages will flow from it to people other than the companies that are directly concerned. We are receiving representations from companies and I am having meetings with several of them. If they can satisfy me that there is some valid national interest to be had from taking part in parts of the space industry, we shall of course do so.

Mr. Mans

Will my right hon. and learned Friend ensure that, now that we are not providing extra funds for the ESA, extra money will be found from Government sources for the continuation of the HOTOL project?

Mr. Clarke

I have had yet another meeting to discuss the HOTOL project with British Aerospace and Rolls-Royce. We must look for other international collaborators and see what the next step is if we are to continue to evaluate the project. This is a long-term matter, and it will have to be considered carefully once we have found what other industrial and governmental partners we might be able to collect for it.

Mr. Stott

I am sure that the Minister now realises that his decision to do nothing has presented us with the worst possible scenario. Will he tell us what he will do with the 300 firms that are now investing their own private money in space research and related activities? How does he see that money being used in the future? Are the Government expecting the private sector to make up the gap between what the Government would normally put in and the position now, and if so, what mechanism do the Government propose to use to ensure that those private funds are put into the programme?

Mr. Clarke

We are already spending more than £100 million each year on our space programme, which is not doing nothing, as the hon. Gentleman has suggested. We have declined to spend £200 million a year on a project to put Europeans—probably Frenchmen—into orbit by the year 2000. That does not have adequate advantages. We are now examining what other projects might be of industrial advantage to us, and what participation the private sector is prepared to contemplate to obtain commercial advantages for itself. Those discussions are continuing.