European Organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere and the European Space Agency (Immunities and Privileges) (Amendment) Order 2023

Debate between Lord McNally and Lord Collins of Highbury
Tuesday 6th February 2024

(5 months, 2 weeks ago)

Grand Committee
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Lord McNally Portrait Lord McNally (LD)
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My Lords, that apology was delivered with the sincerity and clarity which one has come to expect from the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, in dealing with this place. In some ways, I feel rather guilty. I put my name down for this debate because I am interested in the space industry, but I feel a little bit guilty that a Minister who is usually working for us in some of the tightest spots in the world is delivering an apology for a drafting cock-up from some five or six years ago. However, it gives me great pleasure to work together on this with the noble Lord, Lord Ahmad, again. Over 10 years ago, we were together in the coalition Government. Since then, as I said, his contribution, particularly in our foreign affairs in some of the most difficult and dangerous positions for a Minister, has done great credit to this House.

The instrument corrects an error. It will bring the provision of UK domestic law in line with the headquarters agreement. Most of all, as the Explanatory Memorandum says:

“It is important that the European Space Agency … has a solid presence within the United Kingdom with an identity that is aligned with the strengths of the United Kingdom space sector”.

That is really why I wanted to speak. I thought that whoever replied could reaffirm this Government’s commitment to a space programme. There are not many times that I stand to speak in praise of Boris Johnson, but as Prime Minister he certainly gave real leadership to the space programme and real encouragement to the departments working on it. I hope that, in welcoming this order, and playing host to and participating in these organisations, we are reaffirming our commitment to space exploration.

I grew up in the 1950s, reading that famous comic, the Eagle. I draw noble Lords attention to that because the adventures of Dan Dare, who was the great spaceman in that comic, were set in 1985. In the 1950s, it was assumed that we would be flying to Venus and that we would have settlements on the moon and all kinds of things. Yet it is now 50 years since a man walked on the moon. The need to recommit ourselves to space is very important.

The European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere has an establishment in Chile, which is home to the very large telescope, known to its friends as the VLT, and the extremely large telescope, known as the ELT. It is quite simply unparalleled in terrestrial astronomy and totally deserving of our participation. I saw a television documentary on it; it is amazing what they are doing there.

I suppose the first thing we have to convince the Government of is that the European Space Agency is not an EU body, so we are not frightening the horses in this case. It is a major player in space, and it is vital that we continue with its work as part of a national policy to support the future growth and viability of the sector. The UK is the largest destination for space investment after the USA, and it is projected to take up some 10% of the global space market—a market already valued at £400 billion in 2022. Space technology already underpins key functions in communications, navigation, climate and weather forecasting, as well as in financial transactions and services.

As I said, it is 50 years since a man last walked on the moon, but the real exploration of space is only just beginning. The agencies cited in this order will be essential in ensuring that we receive all the benefits of the new space age.

Lord Collins of Highbury Portrait Lord Collins of Highbury (Lab)
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My Lords, I thank the Minister for his contribution and his apology, which I too think was well meant. We fully understand the reasons for it. I normally congratulate the Minister on his longevity in post. Of course, this is only the second time he has addressed this statutory instrument; I have had the fortune to address it three times. It is quite a horrendous story that an important protection that we are required to give under international conventions has been so difficult to implement. I ran into the noble Baroness, Lady Goldie, last night; she introduced the original SI, and when she responded the first time it was presented she said that the road had been a difficult one, full of potholes and a lot of stumbling. I think that is true.

The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee said:

“Although that 2018 version was made … it still did not implement all the immunities correctly … the treaty has not been ratified. FCDO told us that the error was identified in mid-2018 but its correction was delayed by the requirement to prioritise other legislation for Brexit, COVID-19, and then sanctions connected with the conflict in the Ukraine. Although FCDO says that there has been no actual detriment to the seven individuals involved, this unfortunate series of events casts doubt on FCDO’s competence in drafting effective legislation.”

I hear what the Minister said about double-checking that, but we need a very clear response from him about the impact this may have. As the Explanatory Memorandum says, the siting of this headquarters and bringing it into the UK has a positive economic effect. It is something that we should be encouraging more of, so when we make this sort of mistake it has an impact, as the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee specified, and we need to address it.

The Explanatory Memorandum says that the presence at Harwell

“is attracting businesses and research organisations to locate near to the cluster to enable them to easily access facilities, services and funding that the cluster offers”.

That is a good thing, and it really is a shame that we have not been able to properly implement those protections for the leadership of that cluster. What is the estimated economic benefit of this facility? How much have we been able to attract in locally to benefit that community?

The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee received assurances from the department that there has been no detriment to the individuals. I find that difficult to understand, but anyway, that is what it says. However, the Explanatory Note says:

“An Impact Assessment has not been prepared for this Order as no, or no significant, impact is foreseen on the private, voluntary or public sectors in the United Kingdom”.

Here we have an organisation whose leadership has been impacted by this. Have they suffered a detriment? The Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee said there has been no detriment, but we need to have an assurance that some form of assessment was conducted about the potential impacts on the individuals, the organisation and, as the committee said, on our reputation of being able to facilitate these sorts of arrangements under international conventions.

Obviously, I read the debate on the SI in the other place. My honourable friend Stephen Doughty made it clear that we welcome this statutory instrument, its provisions and the facility in Harwell, so I do not want to pour scorn on this. It is a positive move and a good thing. The Minister said that the Government are taking action to ensure this does not happen again, but there must be some sort of reputational damage to us, particularly if we are to try to be a centre and to bring other international organisations into the United Kingdom. I apologise for being a little bit negative about this, but I accept that the Minister has given an apology and that we are putting something right. That is the most important thing.