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

Volume 835: debated on Tuesday 6 February 2024

Considered in Grand Committee

Moved by

That the Grand Committee do consider the European Organization for Astronomical Research in the Southern Hemisphere and the European Space Agency (Immunities and Privileges) (Amendment) Order 2023.

Relevant document: 8th Report from the Secondary Legislation Scrutiny Committee

My Lords, this order will allow the European Space Agency’s senior officials to fulfil their roles in the UK by bringing the headquarters agreement the UK signed with the agency in 2013 into domestic law. It will enable the smooth operations of the agency’s facility at the Harwell Science and Innovation Campus in Oxfordshire. It will also foster closer collaboration between the agency and the UK Government and support the development of the space industry, stimulated by the facility at Harwell. The order was laid in draft before Parliament on 18 December, in accordance with the International Organisations Act 1968. It is subject to the affirmative procedure and will be made once it is approved by both Houses.

The purpose of this order is to amend the European Space Agency (Immunities and Privileges) Order 1978. This will be achieved through an amendment to the 2018 order, which sought to amend the 1978 order but did so incorrectly. I apologise to the Committee for that mistake and, indeed, the delay, which, although exceptional, in the sense that it was not something we would expect to happen, is nevertheless unacceptable. This order has been subject to multiple reviews internally and was discussed with the counsel to the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments before it was cleared and laid.

The order amends the 2018 order clearly and coherently, and in doing so creates a stand-alone article for the head of the Harwell centre and high-ranking staff in the 1978 order. In doing so, it will correctly reflect the privileges and immunities set out in the 2013 headquarters agreement. This agreement provides for the establishment and operation of a facility by the agency at Harwell.

To be clear, the 2018 order failed to correctly provide the agency’s head of the Harwell centre and up to seven high-ranking staff with the

“immunity from suit and legal process”

and the “inviolability” of their residences in the UK under the International Organisations Act, thus failing to correctly implement the terms of the headquarters agreement into UK domestic law. Because of these errors, neither the headquarters agreement nor the 2018 order were brought into force. In practice, this means that the head of the Harwell centre and the seven high-ranking staff members were underprotected. Their privileges and immunities were equivalent to the functional immunities provided to European Space Agency officials under Article 16 of the 1978 order. I assure noble Lords that no negative consequences have been identified as a result.

This order corrects those omissions and affords the head of the Harwell centre and up to seven high-ranking staff members the same privileges and immunities which a head of a diplomatic mission and diplomatic agents of a diplomatic mission established in the UK are entitled to. This change is a prerequisite for the 2013 headquarters agreement to enter into force. Additionally, the 1978 order has been amended also to include an exemption from the legal suit and process immunity in the case of a motor traffic offence or damage caused by a motor vehicle.

The Government consider these privileges and immunities both necessary and appropriate to deliver on the interests and commitments that the UK has towards the agency. The privileges and immunities conferred enable its head and high-ranking staff to operate effectively in the UK. They are within the scope of the International Organisations Act and in line with UK precedents.

The agency’s other officials are subject only to official act immunities. By making this amendment, the other provisions of the 2018 order can also be brought into force. These cover entry into the UK, and customs provisions and immunity from legal processes within the scope of official activities. Importantly, the provisions also cover the inviolability of official documents and correspondence; the inviolability of the agency’s premises; statutory meetings; foreign currency exchange; functional immunity for officials; and an immunity waiver.

To conclude, the support for the agency’s facility in Harwell ensured through this order is a unique opportunity to showcase UK leadership in the space industry on a global stage. Through the agency, the UK can continue to undertake missions which no European nation alone can deliver, facilitating scientific collaborations with international partners that raise the profile of the UK’s science, technology and inspirational achievements in space.

The agency’s growth in Harwell is more important than ever when we consider how our reliance on space missions and technology has evolved in recent years. Global telecommunications, cutting edge technologies, and the way that space exploration can inspire young people to study STEM disciplines, mean that we need to foster close relationships with domestic and international space communities. The European Space Agency is key to that work, and I assure noble Lords that the UK remains committed to the organisation as it develops its headquarters in the UK. I commend the order to the Committee.

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.

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.

My Lords, I thank both noble Lords who have spoken in this brief debate for their acknowledgement of the fact that what we have in front of us is a correction rather than a substantive order. I think the intent was very clear. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, talked about 2018, and I will come on to that in a moment, but I begin by thanking the noble Lord, Lord McNally, who, as he stated, I was able to call my noble friend for at least five years of my ministerial career. He is a friend in every sense, and it is a real privilege to be picking up on some of his questions.

I must admit that, as he spoke about the Eagle, I googled it—the wonders of technology; I suppose we live in this kind of era. It provided that kind of insight for that generation. As he was speaking he reminded me of something that happened recently. Over the Christmas period, my younger son, who is only nine, suddenly became a real fan of “Star Wars”. In my time, there were only three films; there are now about 11, and then there are sub-strands. He asked me, “When did you first watch it?” I realised that in 1978 I was the same age he is now, so there was some connection there—although he started his question by saying, “Daddy, when you watched it in the ancient times, did they have this technology?” so I am reminded that things move very quickly in the ever-expanding space that is space. Perhaps in future we will have an FCDO Minister not just for the Commonwealth, south Asia, Middle East and north Africa but for Mars, Venus and who knows what else. We look forward to that.

I acknowledge the insights that the noble Lord provided, and the support of the noble Lord, Lord Collins. As I said in my comments introducing this correction, it is important that, when Governments do not get something right first time around, we acknowledge and correct it.

On the issues raised about the European Space Agency, the noble Lord, Lord McNally, is of course correct: the UK was a founding member of the European Space Agency back in 1975, and it is a key delivery route for UK space objectives. It provides a mechanism to undertake missions that neither the UK nor any other European nation can do alone. It is an inter- governmental organisation which is, as the noble Lord said, independent of the EU. It has 22 members, including EU and non-EU countries such as the UK, Norway and Switzerland, and Canada is an associate member. It recognises the importance of the equities different countries bring to space exploration. One hopes that we can lever it for opportunities that we can all benefit from as a global community in the years and decades ahead.

The noble Lord, Lord Collins, rightly asked about the delay in these errors being picked up. When I first looked at this, I asked the same question: why? I have been reassured by officials that the first draft order went past not just a first but a second and indeed a third pair of eyes to check internally, and it was also discussed in detail with the counsel to the Joint Committee on Statutory Instruments. The noble Lord mentioned Covid. That, along with the whole issue of the sanctions policy as we left the EU, meant that resources had to be focused on certain priorities. Of course, no one expected Covid. But I pay tribute to our officials. I asked the direct question: how long did the process take to ensure this review? I can assure the noble Lord, Lord Collins, that, once it was picked up formally again to ensure all the missions were covered, it was a 12-month process before bringing this statutory instrument today.

On the question of whether there was any negative impact from this amendment not being made sooner, as I said, the head of the Harwell centre and the seven high-ranking officials were underprotected. I asked what happened or what would have happened in the meantime. Their P&Is were derived directly from Article 16 of the 1978 order, which provides functional immunity and other P&I in respect of permanent members of staff of the ESA. The 1978 order also contains exemption from immunity for vehicle offences or incidents, which I mentioned. However, as I said, I fully accept that this should not have happened, and mitigations have been put in place to prevent such an error occurring again. In front of us is a clearer and more coherent order, and the high-ranking staff are now included in their own stand-alone article to ensure that it is understood more easily. The drafting has gone through scrutiny and I am confident: it is important that such incidents do not occur again.

The noble Lord, Lord McNally, raised the commitment that we have benefited from. We are also collaborating with the US and Japan. For the UK, we are talking about benefits of over $450 million annually. UK space industry income grew 5.1% to £17.5 billion in 2021. The noble Lord, Lord Collins, rightly asked what this has meant to the local community. Direct employment grew to 48,800 jobs in 2020/21 from 47,000 in 2019/20, supporting a total of over 126,800 jobs across the supply chain. There is a real benefit economically to the community, to us as a nation, to Europe as a continent and, importantly, to the world, as we explore space.

I thank both noble Lords, Lord McNally and Lord Collins, for their support of this SI. I commend it to the Committee.

Motion agreed.