HC Deb 13 January 1988 vol 125 cc282-4
12. Mr. Ernie Ross

To ask the Chancellor of the Duchy weof Lancaster what further action he intends taking to promote and safeguard British interests in the space industry.

Mr. Kenneth Clarke

I am discussing with United Kingdom companies the space projects to which they attach importance, and we are taking a fresh look at United Kingdom civil space activities, both nationally and in the European Space Agency.

Mr. Ross

When will the Minister be able to tell us exactly what he intends to do? Some of us supported him when he came back from his meeting in Europe. He will recall that he said at the time that he was going to revamp the British National Space Centre. When can we hear the proposals, and when will those working in the industry know what those proposals are, so that they can start planning to deal with the losses which they say they will incur as a result of being excluded from programmes in Europe — regardless of whether those programmes are good or bad—because of the decision not to participate?

Mr. Clarke

We have made no cut in our present plans. As I have said, I am discussing with companies how they see the future Indeed, I have arranged meetings with the managements of two important companies tomorrow.

Obviously, we wish to reach conclusions over the next month or two. However, I see this as a continuing process of ensuring that we obtain good commercial and scientific value out of the commitment to space that we retain.

Mr. Wilkinson

Important as it is to listen to the views of commercial companies, it is for Governments to have a strategic vision of the importance of space activities, for their strategic interest and also for their commercial benefits. That is the case in the Soviet Union, the People's Republic of China, the Indian sub-continent, Japan and 13 of the 14 countries in the European Space Agency—particularly, of course, France, which has kept Europe in the space business.

Mr. Clarke

The strategic view that the Government have to take must have some aims, and those aims must be commercial, scientific and consistent with the public interest. With respect to my hon. Friend, it is not good enough to point to other countries and say that if they spend a certain proportion of their gross domestic product on space we must do the same. India is always cited. I believe that it spends its money on education satellites, for understandable reasons. We are already spending large sums in the space industry, and we are committed to continuing to do so, but, talking to private companies, we find a wide range of views on what our commercial and scientific objectives should be. We must also explore with them the prospect of the private sector putting a bit more money into the efforts that it wishes to pursue.

Mr. Stott

The Minister is only too well aware of our views on his recent performance at The Hague. They are not very complimentary. Notwithstanding that, however, will he tell us what Government policy will be in respect of companies that are currently being funded for, and are engaged in, work on European Space Agency projects—particularly Logica, which is a leading multinational team of companies developing software for all of the Columbus programme, not just the polar platform? What will happen to projects such as that, and those developed by British Aerospace, in the future, given his statement at The Hague?

At the same time, perhaps the Minister will remind his hon. Friend the Member for Langbaurgh (Mr. Holt) that the Wigan metropolitan brass band is also going to Australia for the bicentennial celebrations.

Mr. Clarke

We decided at The Hague that we were not going to join certain optional programmes. I have met the executives from Logica, which is one of the organisations affected. We shall get work in those projects in which we choose to participate, and not in those in which we choose not to participate.

The way to judge such matters is not simply to say that a company will receive a contract and that therefore we must participate. We might as well give Logica the cheque if that is our sole interest. We are prepared to fund arty work in which we trust that British companies will obtain a large proportion of the contracts available, as long as we are pursuing serious commercial and scientific objectives.

I am delighted to hear about the brass band from Wigan, but I do not think that it is likely to be able to travel to Australia by Hotol in the very near future.

Mr. Sayeed

Does my right hon. and learned Friend's Department believe that Hotol has commercial potential?

Mr. Clarke

Work is just about to be completed on what is called a proof of concept study. When we have the results of that to hand, I intend to have further discussions with the companies that have been involved with the Government in taking the project so far.