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European Organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (Immunities and Privileges) Order 2009

Volume 711: debated on Wednesday 24 June 2009

Considered in Grand Committee

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That the Grand Committee do report to the House that it has considered the European Organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere (Immunities and Privileges) Order 2009.

Relevant Document: 16th Report from the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments.

The order was laid before the House on 1 June 2009, together with an Explanatory Memorandum, as required for all affirmative statutory instruments. The draft order will confer the legal capacities of a body corporate and privileges and immunities upon the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere, also known as the European Southern Observatory. The order also confers privileges and immunities on representatives of the states parties, the director-general and officials of the organisation.

These privileges and immunities are conferred in accordance with the agreement between the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and the European Southern Observatory concerning the accession to the convention establishing a European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere and related terms and conditions, which was signed on behalf of the United Kingdom on 21 May 2002. The ESO convention obliges the United Kingdom to abide by the terms of the instruments of the ESO, including its multilateral protocol on privileges and immunities. The order implements those obligations in UK law.

The ESO was created in 1962 and currently has 14 member states, the UK becoming a member in 2002. It is the pre-eminent intergovernmental science and technology organisation in ground-based astronomy. It carries out an ambitious programme focused on the design, construction and operation of powerful ground-based observing facilities for astronomy, to enable important scientific discoveries. The ESO employs about 700 staff members across the world. Its headquarters, comprising scientific, technical and admin divisions, are located in Garching, which is near Munich, in Germany; however, its observatories are located in Chile. The ESO operates three world-class observing sites in the Atacama desert region of Chile: La Silla, Paranal and Chajantor.

Through the ESO, the UK is playing a critical role. The UK’s industry and research community is delivering key elements of the global project through provision of novel construction materials and the construction and testing of receivers and support systems. The UK is playing a significant role in the ESO’s development of the European extremely large telescope—E-ELT—a proposed 42-metre-diameter facility planned to be operational by 2018. UK companies have worked on the design of the dome for this and the polishing of the mirror segments, while universities and research institutions are intimately involved in the design of potential instruments.

The ESO is funded through the contributions of member states—approximately €130 million, with the UK's contribution in 2008 about €24 million. In addition to access to the most advanced ground- based optical observatory in the world, UK membership of the ESO brings to the UK an industrial return which will form the basis for training a new generation of technologists in a wide range of disciplines contributing to the strength of the UK's research base. The industrial return amounted to €14 million in 2008, 25 per cent of all the contracts and second in scale only to Germany.

The order, and a similar order to be passed by the Scottish Parliament covering devolved issues, will allow the United Kingdom Government to comply with their international obligations in giving full effect to the protocol on privileges and immunities for the European Organisation for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere.

I am satisfied that the order is compatible with the European Convention of Human Rights. It is important and, I trust, non-controversial. I hope that it will receive the full support of the House.

I thank the Minister for explaining this order; it was covered in some detail in the other place. It puts into effect in this country an existing multilateral protocol on privileges and immunities agreed by the original parties to the European Organisation for Astronomical Research and signed in Paris in 1974. When the United Kingdom joined the organisation in 2002, it also became a signatory to that multilateral agreement, and this instrument is designed to give legal force to those obligations. The European Southern Observatory facility in the Atacama desert in Chile has, for instance, a new technology telescope that, using active optics, can compensate for atmospheric conditions. It also has a very large telescope—VLT—array consisting of four eight-metre telescopes. There are also plans to build a European extremely large telescope.

Those projects have pushed back the limit of observable space and have made notable discoveries, which include Gliese 581e—the lightest exoplanet yet found, just under twice the size of earth but more than 20 light years away—evidence of a black hole at the centre of our galaxy, and what is possibly the furthest galaxy ever seen. All that comes from facilities 2,400 metres up in the middle of the driest desert in the world, in northern Chile. If it sounds like a set from a James Bond film, that is because it was; in “Quantum of Solace”, the baddie, Dominic Greene, chose the ESO facility in Chile as his hideout.

The European Southern Observatory is a world-class asset from which British astronomy gains enormously, and which benefits Britain’s world-class scientists. As such, this statutory instrument is uncontroversial. However, as the measure constitutes an international treaty, I would like to ask some questions on some specifics. First, given that the headquarters are in Germany and the facilities in Chile, what practical effect—if any—will putting the instruments into UK law have on this country? Why is this order necessary? For instance, will anyone enter the UK using diplomatic immunity under this instrument? Will the organisation claim any exemptions from United Kingdom tax? Secondly, can the Minister assure me that the fall in sterling will not affect the UK Government’s funding of the project, and that there will be no knock-on effect on other projects funded by the Science and Technology Facilities Council? Thirdly, how many British staff will be working in Chile or Germany under diplomatic immunity? Lastly, given that this country signed the agreement in 2002, why are we dealing with it now?

I congratulate the noble Lord, Lord Brett, on his instant transformation from dealing with northern Britain to the southern hemisphere. We have no objection in principle to this order, but perhaps I may ask him—to be honest, as much for my information as for anything else—who are the members of the European Organisation for Astronomical Research, what is its budget, what currency is the budget fixed in and for how long, what proportion of it does Britain pay, and whether he will briefly explain the benefits of Britain’s membership.

I thank noble Lords for their broad support for the project and the questions that they have posed. Why is the order required? It is because the UK, in acceding to the convention established for this organisation, is to abide by the terms of the instruments of the ESO including the international protocols signed by the organisation with other member states. There are 14 member states: Austria, Belgium, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom.

On the noble Lord’s detailed questions on budgets, I have given the information for 2008 on the UK’s total spend. On the other, quite legitimate, points he raised, it will be easier for me to write to him, if that is satisfactory, and set out the answers in some detail.

I was asked what the status is of ESO officials and whether they are exempt from UK income tax. That is unlikely to be an issue, given that the ESO’s headquarters will not be in the United Kingdom. However, the order provides for exemptions which presumably apply also to citizens from overseas working in either Chile or Germany. I do not think that we have information on how many personnel there are, but we will seek the most up-to-date information and provide it.

How will the order affect the United Kingdom? It is unlikely to have many implications for the UK because the organisation’s headquarters are in Germany and it operates in the southern hemisphere. However, if the ESO were to hold a meeting in the UK, as it did in 2002, representatives of the states parties and officials of the organisation would enjoy the privileges and immunities entered into in our acceptance of this order.

I hope that that is sufficient to allow noble Lords to continue their support of this draft order and I will get back with the detailed answers that have been requested.

Motion agreed.