Space Science and Technology - Question for Short Debate

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 7:58 pm on 15th July 2019.

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Photo of Baroness Walmsley Baroness Walmsley Co-Deputy Leader of the Liberal Democrat Peers 7:58 pm, 15th July 2019

My Lords, I too thank the noble Lord, Lord Mawson, for securing this debate. When devising our industrial strategy, it makes sense to assess our opportunities and play to our strengths. In relation to both, the UK should be doing more: though only 3% of the world economy, we are 5% to 6% of the world space economy, so we are already doing well, although we need to do a whole lot better if we are to reach the Government’s target of having 10% of the global space market by 2030. Apart from the trade and the very high-value jobs we can create from space exploitation, there are four good reasons why we need to be active in this field. Space programmes allow us to monitor and observe our world: this is vital for environmental protection and climate change mitigation. Communications rely on space programmes, as does navigation. Then there is the vital area of defence. We need to be independent in all these areas.

We are already active in two of the major sectors of space exploitation: building satellites and receiving and interpreting data from them. The area where we are lacking is in independent launch facilities, although this aspect of space exploitation could be worth £3.8 billion to our economy by the end of the decade.

The Sutherland space hub being developed by Highlands and Islands Enterprise is supported by £2.5 million from the UK Government as part of its £17.3 million funding, and other grants have been made available to companies developing a new rocket, launch operations and a new satellite. The location of this site makes sense, so that we can launch to the north-east, but it is in Scotland, a part of the UK where the people and the Government do not want to leave the European Union and where the SNP Government have threatened to attempt to break up the union if we Brexit. What happens to the Sutherland site then? I understand that there is another site in Cornwall where there are plans for a launch site, but the investment in Sutherland is already great. What discussions have taken place with the Scottish Government to protect that investment?

Brexit threatens more than that. Half our current satellite manufacturing is exported to the EU. Tariffs would make us less competitive and a no-deal exit would be a disaster for companies such as those in the Glasgow and Surrey clusters, which build a lot of small satellites. One area in which we excel at the moment is removing space debris. There is a parallel here with the plastics that pollute our oceans. In our race for development, we have polluted the oceans with plastics that do not decompose and we have polluted space with bits of technology that are no longer used. A British satellite manufacturer has a clever netting system that can remove them. Surely this technology has enormous potential. Are the Government backing it?