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House of Lords Hansard
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Square Kilometre Array Observatory (Immunities and Privileges) Order 2020
14 September 2020
Volume 805

Considered in Grand Committee

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That the Grand Committee do consider the Square Kilometre Array Observatory (Immunities and Privileges) Order 2020.

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My Lords, the draft order was laid before the House on 14 July 2020 under the affirmative procedure. It confers immunities, privileges, reliefs and exemptions on this new intergovernmental organisation, the Square Kilometre Array Observatory, or SKAO, under the International Organisations Act 1968. If Parliament agrees, it would complete the UK’s ratification of the convention which was signed in March 2019 and laid in Parliament in July of that year under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010.

Before I go into the detail of the order, I want to set the subject in context by saying a few words about the Square Kilometre Array project that the SKAO is being established to deliver and operate. The Square Kilometre Array, or SKA, is an international mega-science project to build the world’s largest and most sensitive radio telescope. It is a truly global effort involving 11 member countries and participation of around 100 organisations across a total of 20 countries. The SKA is one of the most ambitious international science projects of the 21st century.

Co-located in South Africa and Western Australia, the SKA will use hundreds of dishes and thousands of antennas connected by optical fibre to monitor the sky in unprecedented detail. Many times faster and significantly more sensitive than any current radio telescope, and of a scale never seen before, it will enable scientists to test some of the key questions in physics and about the nature of the universe. For example, was Einstein right about gravity? What is dark energy and why is it so important in our universe? And where did magnetism come from?

The SKA will deliver significant technological advances in data processing and opportunities for business innovation. It will help to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers.

The SKAO will be the intergovernmental organisation building and managing the SKA. Based in the UK at the Jodrell Bank Observatory, it will manage the construction, operation and data processing of the telescopes. The SKA is a flagship project for the UK Government and underlines our commitment to worldwide partnerships as part of our modern industrial strategy ambition to make sure that the UK remains a global leader in science, research and innovation.

The UK Government have already committed £100 million to the construction of the SKA—we are one of the largest contributors—and a further £85 million for running costs over a 10-year period to 2026-27. This investment gives the UK a leading role in the project during the construction and operation phases. The investment and the UK’s hosting of this new intergovernmental organisation at its Jodrell Bank HQ are a demonstration of our world-leading position and influence in radio astronomy and wider scientific collaboration and exploration.

Let me now turn to the details of the order. As I have mentioned, the convention was formally laid in Parliament under the Constitutional Reform and Governance Act 2010 in July last year and was completed in October. The order is part of the UK’s ratification and provides the privileges and immunities to enable the SKAO to function as an intergovernmental organisation in the United Kingdom. It is standard practice for intergovernmental organisations and their staff to be accorded privileges and immunities by the member states.

I reassure noble Lords that the privileges and immunities afforded to officers of the SKAO in the UK are limited to those required for them to conduct their official activities and are not for their personal benefit. They are in line with those offered to officers of other intergovernmental organisations of which the UK is a member. These include limited immunity from jurisdiction and inviolability for its officers and employees, including immunity from legal process in respect of their official acts, and tax exemption. They do not include immunity from UK road traffic law. The SKAO convention also requires that the SKAO has legal capacity so that it can enter into contracts and take such other action as may be necessary or useful for its purposes and activities.

The order applies to the whole of the UK. However, some provisions of the instrument do not extend to, or apply in, Scotland. A separate Scottish Order in Council has been prepared to deal with these provisions within the legislative competence of the Scottish Parliament. This was laid before the Scottish Parliament on 10 August.

The order confers on the new SKAO and its staff only those privileges and immunities necessary for the organisation to function effectively and conduct its official activities. The order will enable the UK to complete its ratification of the SKAO convention and make the global SKA project a reality. Completing ratification of the SKAO convention will bring us closer to answering some of the most important questions in advancing our understanding of the universe.

The SKA will provide huge opportunities for technological advances and innovation, notably in the field of big data processing and in areas where UK industry and the research establishment are well poised to benefit. I beg to move.

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My Lords, the Minister’s statement should surely be welcomed and uncontroversial. I have no specific involvement to declare, but as Astronomer Royal I am probably one of the few Members of this House familiar with the SKA. I will therefore supplement what the Minister said by outlining for a few minutes the project’s international significance, why the UK’s central role is especially welcome and why this decision has broader long-term benefits extending beyond the science itself.

Astronomy is the grandest environmental science. We are trying to discover the whole “zoo” of objects the cosmos contains—galaxies, stars, planets, black holes, et cetera. Just as Darwin showed how we and our biosphere evolved from the first life on the young earth about 4 billion years ago, we are trying to go back further and trace how the solar system and all the atoms in it emerged from some mysterious beginning nearly 14 billion years ago.

We can also learn new basic physics by observing phenomena where nature has, as it were, created conditions and done experiments we could never simulate in the lab. Within a decade, incidentally, we can observe planets around other stars to check whether they might harbour life. This subject has become a “big science” advanced by international consortia—indeed, in optical astronomy the European Southern Observatory, to which we in the UK belong, has a world lead. It has the biggest and best optical telescope currently and the one now being built will also be a world-beater.

Moreover, other kinds of radiation, not just optical but radio waves, reveal just as much as visible light. Indeed, much of the gas in the universe is hydrogen and radiates only in the radio band. Ever since the 1950s, the UK has been an international leader in radio astronomy, not least because radio waves are not stopped by clouds and rain.

However, there is a fundamental constraint. To get a sharp image of the radio sky would require a dish far bigger than those at Jodrell Bank and elsewhere—literally miles across—which is obviously out of the question. But there is another way to get sharp images. The radiation gathered from an array of separate dishes can be combined to create a map of the radio sky as sharp as a single radio dish the size of the earth.

The SKA exploits this amazing technique, which incidentally was first developed by Martin Ryle in Cambridge in the 1960s. It will comprise hundreds of dishes, with a total surface area of a square kilometre—hence its name—but these dishes will be spread over a large geographical region. Perhaps the biggest challenge, to which the Minister alluded, is the huge computer power needed to combine and process the data flow from all the dishes in the array.

Such an array cannot be built in Britain. It needs large, open and sparsely populated areas. After years of international discussion, two optimal sites were found in the southern hemisphere which have scientific and geopolitical advantages. Half the array will be concentrated in remote pastoral areas of Western Australia, though some outlying dishes in that array will spread right across the continent.

The other half will be in South Africa, centred in a region of the Northern Cape known as the Karoo. Nearly 200 dishes will be concentrated in a region 100 miles across, but some outliers will spread further away into eight other African countries: Ghana, Zambia, Madagascar, Botswana, Namibia, Kenya, Mauritius and Mozambique. South Africa is already a major player in astronomy, having prioritised it for decades. To quote the relevant South African Minister:

“We are determined to ensure the success of what will be the first ever large global research infrastructure hosted in Africa”.

Participation in the SKA project has significantly strengthened South Africa’s data science capabilities, enabling it to close the gap with developed economies.

So much for the background. The SKA hardware is concentrated in two southern countries, but 15 or more nations are contributing, so it needs a governance structure established through international treaties similar to those governing two other sciences that require costly international facilities and multinational partnerships: CERN, the particle accelerator in Geneva, and the European Space Agency. I should add that the SKA is about 10 times cheaper than CERN.

The global headquarters will be the legal entity responsible for constructing and operating the telescopes in the southern hemisphere. The convention was signed, as the Minister said, in 2019 by Australia, China, Italy, the Netherlands, Portugal, South Africa and the UK. Other member nations plan to join and contribute financially and via their expertise.

It is fitting that the world’s future largest radio telescope, the SKA, will have its headquarters at Jodrell Bank—a site recently granted UNESCO world heritage status to mark its pioneering contributions to radio astronomy and the iconic telescope, now called the Lovell Telescope, which was once the world’s largest single dish in radio astronomy. Lovell’s great telescope, incidentally, was commissioned in the 1950s. It has had several updates and is now more than 60 years old, but it is still probing cosmic objects whose very existence was unknown when it was built and, by looking at pairs of neutron stars, conducting some of the most precise tests of fundamental physics and Einstein’s theory of gravity.

Likewise, there is every hope that the SKA will, via periodic upgrades which will deploy computational power beyond today’s conceptual horizon, spearhead cosmic exploration throughout much of the 21st century. It is a benign project that will have a special role in stimulating IT and data-handling in Africa and in the other member countries. It will benefit all participating states, and their number is likely to grow. It is therefore especially welcome for the UK to have a pivotal role, which will be a technological boost to us in this country as well as a boost to our international collaboration. We should surely welcome this decision today.

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My Lords, it is a great honour to follow the noble Lord, Lord Rees, the one person in the Room who is qualified to tell us about this project. We welcome this statutory instrument, and I have to say that it is a slightly easier one than the previous instrument brought forward by the Minister to redefine the metre. However, thanks to his good work, at least we now have an exact measurement for the area covered by the dishes.

I am a little worried about BEIS letting itself loose on dark energy, given that it has still not mastered a plan for nuclear power, but hopefully we shall be safe. I am excited by the possibility of this powerful telescope. It may not reveal the location of any significant new trade deals to replace our relationship with the European Union, but it will contribute massively to our understanding of the origins of the universe, as the noble Lord, Lord Rees, has set out so elegantly.

It is in that latter regard that this project is of huge importance. The fact that the HQ is in the UK should be a source of immense pride, as the Minister set out. It is symbolic of the research reputation which has been built up in this country, particularly in this field, and the quality of our science, both historically and currently. We should be proud that Jodrell Bank was chosen to be the HQ and we should congratulate everyone who helped to make that happen. I am sure that the noble Lord, Lord Rees, was being overly modest when he discounted himself in that regard.

This SI does not mention funding and that is not its purpose. However, I am glad that the Minister did bring that issue in. These are troubled times and this is an opportunity for the Minister to reassure the people who are connected with the project that the Government remain committed. In spite of the obvious economic problems created by Covid and in spite of the future economic problems that will emerge at the end of the transition period, the Minister mentioned £85 million, so I assume that he is confirming that that money will continue to go the SKA. Can he confirm that that is the contribution the Government are making to take us through the completion of phase 1? This is a 50-year project and even I would not expect the Minister to commit funds for the next 50 years. I assume that the money mentioned by the Minister will take us to the end of phase 1, which I think is due to complete in 2023; that is within the remit of this Parliament.

There is some more international red tape. As the Minister said, the Netherlands and South Africa have ratified, and as I understand it, the process we are going through here will mean that the United Kingdom will have ratified. That leaves Australia which has yet to ratify. When do the Government expect Australia to ratify its involvement?

The Explanatory Notes say that this instrument is unlikely to be controversial, and I agree, along with the noble Lord, Lord Rees. However, the notes also say that the treaty is unlikely to attract media attention. They say:

“Little public or media interest is envisaged”.

Why on earth not? I ask the Minister to spark some imagination into his Government and his department. This is science that will explore the universe. As the noble Lord, Lord Rees, mentioned, alongside the European Southern Observatory, it is one of only two intergovernmental organisations that I am aware of which are doing this sort of thing. This is the kind of science that lights the fire in people. It gets them enthusiastic about science, technology, engineering and even about mathematics. The SKA understands this. On its website are some lovely fun things for children and even for grown-ups to do.

This is science that will explore the universe, so ratifying the treaty is an opportunity. BEIS, the Department for Education and other government departments should plan a campaign around this project that will encourage the future technologists of this country. Can the Minister please promise to spark his department into some life? Far from dismissing this as a media non-event, he and his colleagues should be shouting about it from the rooftops. That we are leading it is a great success. It is a fantastic project that will shed light on to so many different things. It is typical of big science in that it inspires ideas and will deliver umpteen practical benefits. It is a truly international effort to boost science and it will affect the whole world’s understanding of itself.

Of course, it means that people from many different countries must come together. In this regard, can the Minister tell the House how many non-UK scientists are expected to be based in the UK HQ? Perhaps, without sounding too cheap, how will they and their families be affected by the new Immigration Rules being brought in by Her Majesty’s Government? Does this statutory instrument, which establishes immunities and privileges that the Minister started to set out, include the immigration of individuals and their families? If so, I would welcome that.

We on these Benches support this statutory instrument. It will help to deliver a great project and, more than that, in today’s febrile atmosphere of nationalism and border closures, it is a splendid internationalist project; it is a beacon. It is the opposite of what is being discussed today in the other place. Rather than planning on how the UK might break international law, this legislation enables the country to honour its obligations. In this respect, too, it has full Liberal Democrat support.

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My Lords, I am delighted to take part in this historic discussion about big science, as the Astronomer Royal put it—indeed, very big science. I echo some of what has just been said by the noble Lord, Lord Fox. It is an honour to be present and a part of this, and it is humbling to hear about all the extraordinary things that are going on in this area of science. It is very good news indeed that the UK is playing its part and I congratulate the Government on that.

I have little to add to the debate because it is uncontroversial. Like the noble Lord, Lord Fox, I think it would be nice to put a little of the oxygen of publicity behind it, but I understand the difficulties that that may pose. It is nevertheless a good story and good stories deserve their space. I shall finish with a few detailed questions.

I want to push a little further on a point made by the noble Lord, Lord Fox. Paragraph 7.3 of the Explanatory Memorandum talks about this being a first phase project and that there will be a second phase which will mark

“a significant increase in capabilities.”

I presume that that is code for quite a lot of money. The Astronomer Royal made the point that we are talking about new generation computing and hardware that may still not yet have passed the provability test. The expectation is that a substantial sum of money will be required to do that. I want just to check that my reading of the notes is correct. I do not think that the Minister is in a position to give us details, but perhaps he will confirm, even with a nod, that this is where we are going. We should welcome that because if we are going to enter this, let us go in fully and with commitment, and make sure that we are there not only at the beginning but also at the end of the project to share in the benefits that will be brought forward.

That leads me on to the slightly wider question of whether there is a long-term plan for the SKA. Presumably since it is exploring what is by definition unknown, we are not able to plan right through, but it would be useful to have a reassurance from the Minister that we are talking about a long-term commitment and that this will not be resolved in a few days, a few years, or even a few Parliaments. We need to be sure that we will remain a part of this.

Finally, just to pick up the point also made by the noble Lord, Lord Fox, the Explanatory Memorandum mentions other projects of which the UK is now part. I was very glad to hear about them. They had escaped my attention, but it is good to know about them. There is talk about £374 million having already been promised and committed to the European Space Agency for projects undefined. I am not looking for detail, but when he responds perhaps the Minister can confirm that that is not money that is being imagined but is definitely in the budget and will be paid, and that we are talking about long-term engagement with the EU space agency.

There is also mention of a lunar gateway project and other projects in the pipeline. Although I think it is funded differently, the Copernicus Earth Observatory Programme gets a mention. Again, perhaps the Minister could mention anything that comes out that in terms of what funding streams are identified. This is not critical. It is just along the lines of what the noble Lord, Lord Fox, said: the more we know about this, the easier it is to celebrate it.

We support this. We think it is a great project and are delighted to see it well on its way.

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First, I thank all noble Lords who have taken part in this brief debate. I was particularly grateful for the support of the noble Lord, Lord Rees of Ludlow, who is a renowned expert, as the noble Lord, Lord Fox, said, in this subject. I understand that this is the noble Lord’s 25th anniversary as the Astronomer Royal, and I am sure that the whole Committee will want to offer him our warmest congratulations.

This order and the separate Scottish order are the final legislative steps necessary for the UK to ratify the SKAO convention. Once approved by both Parliaments and the Privy Council, we can ratify the convention. This order confers privileges and immunities on the Square Kilometre Array Observatory only as far as is necessary for it to function as an intergovernmental organisation in the United Kingdom. As required by the SKAO convention, the order also confers legal capacity on the organisation so that it can enter into contracts and take such other action as may be necessary or useful for its purpose and activities. The privileges and immunities of the SKAO will be equivalent to those of other intergovernmental organisations, such as the CERN particle physics laboratory near Geneva and the European Southern Observatory. Indeed, the legal status and structure of CERN was used as a model for SKAO.

Turning now to the specific points raised in the debate, as I said earlier, I am very grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Rees, in particular, for his support and for giving us his insight into the SKA project, outlining the many scientific opportunities it will lead to. In particular the noble Lord mentioned the European Southern Observatory, which is an important international facility of which the UK has been the leading member since 2002 and which has substantially supported our astronomical leadership. I am also grateful to the noble Lord, Lord Fox, for his support for the SKA project. I reassure him that BEIS, despite the expertise of its excellent officials, is not being let loose on the subject of dark energy. We are very content to leave that to the astronomers and the experts of the SKA.

The noble Lord asked about ratification. We expect Australia to ratify this year. I can confirm that the expenditure we have committed is for phase 1 of the project. I agree that the SKA should be spoken of with high regard as a great opportunity for the UK and that we should take it as an opportunity to promote our scientific leadership. This order enables non-UK national members of staff, including scientists, to work in the UK, and we expect there to be more than 50 non-UK national members of staff initially, rising to more than 100 later.

The noble Lord, Lord Stevenson, asked about the second phase of the project. The project is scalable and we will build on phase 1. Clearly the funding agreement for that is some way off, but successful completion of phase 1 will form a solid basis for it. This is a very narrow piece of legislation focused on the privileges and immunities of the SKAO and is not related to our commitment to the European Space Agency.

I shall give noble Lords a bit more detail on the finances. In March 2014, the UK Government committed to investing £100 million in the construction of the SKA, which was around 16% of the total construction cost. This was agreed as part of the process of bringing the headquarters to the United Kingdom. A new £16.5 million building has been constructed at Jodrell Bank to house the SKA HQ, with funding from BEIS of £9.8 million, the Science and Technological Facilities Council, the University of Manchester, which committed £5.7 million, and Cheshire East Council, which contributed £1 million. As shown by the widespread support for this project, it is enormously exciting for the UK, and our astronomy community will be a key partner in this global project.

We remain committed to strengthening our position as a world leader in astronomy and space exploration. The order takes us one step closer to bringing the SKAO into operation. As one of the host countries, this Government remain committed to bringing it into being as soon as possible. It will become fully operational when the convention enters into force. As one of the host countries, it is important that the United Kingdom ratifies at the earliest opportunity so that the start of construction of the telescope in 2021 is not delayed. The convention will come into force 30 days after all three host countries—the United Kingdom, South Africa and Australia—plus two further members have ratified it. We expect this to occur by November 2020. This will retain international member confidence in the project and encourage other countries to join. UK scientists and engineers have been involved in the SKA from the project’s inception in the early 1990s.

By hosting this intergovernmental organisation in the UK, we will continue to play a leading role in bringing this project to fruition and guiding it through the construction and operation phases. The UK’s participation reinforces our position in international astronomy and maintains and strengthens relationships with researchers across the globe. I commend this order to the Committee.

Motion agreed.

Sitting suspended.