Only a few days to go: We’re raising £25,000 to keep TheyWorkForYou running and make sure people across the UK can hold their elected representatives to account.

Donate to our crowdfunder

Industry and Education

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:44 pm on 21st November 1994.

Alert me about debates like this

Photo of Dame Cheryl Gillan Dame Cheryl Gillan , Chesham and Amersham 8:44 pm, 21st November 1994

I am extremely pleased to make a contribution to the debate on the Queen's Speech because I believe that the legislative programme which has been outlined for this Session is not only comprehensive, but reflects an extremely steady hand on the tiller of government.

I wish to raise merely two matters in my brief contribution to the debate—one about proposed legislation, and another that has not been raised at all. I was surprised that many Opposition Members concentrated chiefly on matters that were not included in the speech rather than on what has been laid down for our legislative programme in the coming Session.

I am also surprised by the omission in Opposition coverage of the two privatisation measures proposed in the Queen's Speech. I say now how delighted I was to see the privatisation of Atomic Energy Authority technology included in the speech. It will no doubt be seen as legislation which reflects the Government's confidence in the operation, products, services and staff of AEA technology.

I have visited AEA twice this year and on both occasions members of the AEA team have expressed great eagerness to make progress on privatisation. I am pleased that we have been able to satisfy its requests.

The nuclear industry receives its fair share of attention—indeed, some would say more than its fair share. But the focus is normally placed on power generation, and I do not wish to cover that ground again tonight. Instead, I want to draw attention to some of the so-called by-products of our original investment in nuclear research and development. As a result of that investment, we have several centres of expertise: of highly skilled and world-acclaimed scientists and engineers using their skills to the benefit of mankind.

AEA technology is not a nuclear energy business and should not be confused as such because of its name. It is a science and engineering services business which is solving technical safety and environmental problems for Governments and industrial clients throughout the world. More than 70 per cent. of its contracts require a combination of skills in product development, plant and process performance, safety management and environmental protection. The business offers a large, multi-disciplinary capability, independent and impartial advice, and integrated solutions to a broad range of industries and markets. If I sound like a commercial, Mr. Deputy Speaker, I make no apology for my recommendation of this organisation.

Science and engineering is a huge growth market in the world. It is an area in which the United Kingdom has long been recognised as having particular strengths, and it is exactly these types of high technology areas in which we must invest and on which we should build our economic future. Our future will depend on our industries being not only at the front edge of technology, but competitive in international markets.

A privatised AEA technology will do better in the private sector because it will be liberated from the constraints of the public sector and be able to raise capital more freely to invest in the business. So long as it is part of the AEA involvement in nuclear power, which dominates the rest of the business, it will inevitably be impeded by the shadow of the nuclear power industry. If it is independent, it will be free to exploit the expertise that it has developed in the international market place.

This is not a pipe-dream born out of political conviction. We have only to look at my constituency and Amersham International which, following privatisation in 1982, has grown into an international business with 90 per cent. of its turnover outside the UK.

Amersham International represents only 9 per cent. of the United Kingdom's nuclear industry turnover, but it generates more than 50 per cent. of the industry's overseas earnings. It is no longer a nuclear company. It is a help science group, depending only in part on radiochemicals to produce its products. Its contribution now to health care, life science and research is indisputable and is one of the great benefits to come from nuclear science, as I am sure hon. Members on both sides of the House agree.

Before leaving the subject, I introduce a cautionary note for my right hon. and hon. Friends on the Front Bench. In some respects, AEA technology is intertwined with the rest of AEA simply because of its parentage. I hope that great care will be taken not to damage its prospects by the demands of the nuclear energy sector or the anti-nuclear lobbies. The new industries that have descended from the original nuclear programme have developed sufficiently to justify reorganisation separately from the nuclear generating industry. They have special needs and their problems, such as low-level nuclear waste disposal, are different from those of the rest of the industry.

In addition to privatising AEA technology, our programme involves creating a new environmental agency, a nuclear review and a review of radioactive waste management and policy. Although I welcome those initiatives, I do not want the benefits and the position of the nuclear-related companies strangled by the provisions that might be deemed necessary for their parent industry. I hope that the Department of Trade and Industry and the Department of the Environment—and, in due course, the environment agency—will establish separate machinery for consulting the smaller nuclear-related industries, especially in relation to regulation. We should not forget that low-level waste disposal is a problem faced not only by those industries, but by a whole range of organisations, including hospitals, clinics and research laboratories. Their needs are totally different from those of the nuclear power-generating industry and must be reviewed in a different light. I know that Amersham International would be willing to bring the benefit of its scientific knowledge and its business experience to produce safe, sensible and economically beneficial solutions to these difficult problems.

I now move on to a subject that was not raised in the Queen's Speech; I am sure that the House will be relieved to know that it is not Post Office privatisation. I had the privilege of raising on the Adjournment before the recess the question of space, expenditure and benefits. As we face such an important year of decisions on future space activities, I make no apology for touching on the subject again. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Esher (Mr. Taylor) who, since his appointment as Under-Secretary of State for Trade and Technology, has taken such an active and intelligent interest in space. I believe that he now has the opportunity to make an important personal contribution during the preparations for the European Space Agency ministerial council meeting next year as well as at the meeting itself.

I am sad to say that our involvement and expenditure in European Space Agency programmes has been diminished in recent years. Frankly, we are at serious risk of damaging the industries that we have built up through our past contributions, primarily to ESA. We have now reached the stage where we can no longer just depend on the Department of Trade and Industry for funding for space. Virtually every Department now has a present and future identifiable interest in space and its development. I listed a few in a recent article in a magazine for the Bow group. The Home Office may have an interest in space in terms of drug traffic monitoring and drug crops growth monitoring. The Department for Education may have an interest in space in terms of communications and science and technology education. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office may have an interest in terms of aid to the third world—in water discovery, crop growing and the identification of natural resources, for example. I should like to see more cross-departmental co-operation and funding, and now is the time to start.

We should not neglect the increasing convergence between military and civil systems. I know that the military in all countries has a penchant for its own systems and that it talks about security requirements as a justification. Obviously, those requirements need consideration. Even in the Gulf war, however, the United States' military depended on the French SPOT satellite for some of its observation data and on communications satellites, some of which were civil systems. There are real problems in transforming convergence from a comforting buzz word into a common-sense and money-saving reality. Instead of debating the pros and cons of a European defence earth observation satellite system, it might be more practical to identify the actual data needs. We might find that much of the required data were available from the existing civil systems or that it could be provided by the private sector. It would be well worth an impartial evaluation before we went further.

We certainly need some new thinking about the way in which we approach space. I hope that in this Session, the Department of Trade and Industry, as well as other Departments, will take a special interest in the area and will increase their co-operation. It can only be for the advantage of our industries and the benefit of this country.

In common with all my colleagues, I wish the Queen's Speech and the legislation that it proposes a safe and speedy passage.