HC Deb 28 October 1987 vol 121 cc291-3
10. Mr. Ernie Ross

asked the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster when he expects to announce the level of financial support for the British Space Centre.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

The Government have decided not to increase public expenditure on space above the current level, which is already running at over £100 million a year.

Mr. Ross

Will the Minister bear in mind when he goes to the meeting on 9 and 10 November that the Japanese are currently considering a report from their space committee at NASA which proposes an increase in spending this year from 120 billion yen to 300 billion to 400 billion yen, with a further target of raising that spending—all on civilian space products—to 6 trillion yen by the end of the century?

The Minister will know from the reports from Japan that it is targeting that spending on civilian products because of the dramatic recovery that it expects for space activity. Does he not consider it rather silly to go to the meeting with such a low spending plan for Britain?

Mr. Clarke

I shall go to the meeting of the European Space Agency at the The Hague explaining that Britain wishes to play a constructive and useful role in the agency. However, we have argued repeatedly, and will continue to argue, that the ESA plan should be based on financial, scientific and commercial reality. We should judge carefully which targets to spend money on. I am sure that the Japanese have made a similar hard-nosed appraisal of their investment, and we believe that Europe should do the same in regard to its space effort.

Mr. Batiste

Does my right hon. and learned Friend accept the importance of the space industry to the country's technology base, and will he take this opportunity of reconfirming the Government's commitment to the success of that industry in the future?

Mr. Clarke

Indeed I do accept the importance of the space industry. It is because we accept it that we are already spending such substantial sums on the space programme, and why we have taken part in the discussions on the European programme. I intend over the next few months to continue to hold discussions with British companies about the way in which we can obtain scientific and industrial value from our commitment to space. That is the message that I shall be taking to the ESA. It is no good arguing, however, that any money spent on any space programme is justifiable when it reaches the considerable sums arrived at by the European agency.

Mr. Bermingham

Does the Minister agree that, unless we invest in the European programmes, we shall not retain our scientists and engineers, who will find opportunities, if not in Europe, in America and elsewhere? Does he also agree that if we are to play a useful part in the technological advances of the 21st century we must retain those scientists now?

Mr. Clarke

We must encourage and support the scientists whom we have, and, in particular, we must maintain the undoubted lead that parts of the scientific and industrial community have here—for example, in space satellites. We are telling the ESA that, while we shall continue our membership, we wish to question the objective of programmes such as Hermes, which appear to be based on a desire to achieve a European manned presence in space by the turn of the century. But there is no real doubt in the British scientific and industrial community about either the scientific or the commercial worth of that programme.

Mr. Haselhurst

Does my right hon. and learned Friend agree that an essential preliminary to long-term decisions is a clear understanding between Government and industry on what our objectives should be? Is he confident that we can arrive at such an understanding in the time scale that is necessary if opportunities are not to be lost?

Mr. Clarke

My hon. Friend asks a cogent question. It is important that we continue as rapidly as possible the discussions taking place between the BNSC, British industrialists and myself to work out a clear strategy to define our objectives. It is unlikely that we shall have completed that by the time of the meeting at The Hague. On the other hand, I think that there is a very good case for asking the agency as a whole, and its members, to make a fundamental reappraisal of where they wish to target their efforts and on which programmes they ought to concentrate.

Mr. Gould

Does the Minister agree with his right hon. Friend the Member for Chertsey and Walton (Sir G. Pattie) that in refusing further support for space research the Government have taken leave of their senses? Will he explain why he is right and why his counterparts in France, Germany, Italy, the United States, Japan, Canada and even India, all of whom spend more than we do on space research, are wrong?

Mr. Clarke

My right hon. Friend the previous Minister for Information Technology took part in a Rome conference that sketched the outlines of the European Space Agency programmes. Since then the costs have more than doubled. Programmes such as Hermes, for manned space flight at the end of the century, have been added to the programme. When my right hon. Friend was in office, and since I have been in office, we have argued consistently that these plans are grandiose, not well targeted and do not provide for enough industrial and commercial participation. Simply to say that India spends more than we do on its space programme and that therefore we should spend millions more, willy-nilly, regardless of what ESA is putting forward, is not the most scientific or intellectual contribution to the debate.

Sir Trevor Skeet

Should not my right hon. and learned Friend bear in mind the advice of ACOST, which, as reported in the national press, has suggested that either we should give sufficient money to space or get out of it? Is it not bad for international collaboration if we cease to take a positive line on both space and reasearch?

Mr. Clarke

I have an advantage over my hon. Friend, because I have received the advice of ACOST, whereas he has to rely on newspaper reports. I shall be paying regard to the advice of ACOST. I agree entirely with my hon. Friend's conclusion that we must make a positive contribution, but a positive contribution is to request the European Space Agency seriously to reappraise its programmes and stop being led into grandiose, prestige projects that are of dubious scientific and economic value.