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UK Space Industry Bill: Second Commons Reading

On Monday 15 January, the 2nd anniversary of British ESA astronaut Tim Peake’s historic spacewalk, the House of Commons debated the Space Industry Bill[1] after its second reading. I have discussed the Space Industry Bill, and its predecessor in the last Parliament, the Spaceflight Bill, on several occasions so I won’t go into great detail about the act itself here, instead I will focus on the debate in the Commons, which can be read in full here. There were a few key themes throughout the debate, and it is clear that there are quite a few Star Trek fans among the members of the British Parliament. It was also interesting to note the absence of Labour MPs resulting in the debate being dominated by members of the Conservative and Scottish Nationalist parties.

One of the central themes of the debate was that the UK space industry is strong and robust but that this is not well known outside of those with a specific interest in the field. This is something I have noticed myself, with many people I speak to being surprised that the UK even has a space industry, let alone one as successful as it is. I’m not quite sure what the solution to this is, but I think the increasing government interest in the industry should help. Though I do think it also indicates that people like myself need to do a better job of evangelizing about the UK space industry. Groups like UKSEDS (and their excellent are helping to get the word out to young people, but considering the UK space industry is projected to need tens of thousands of new employees in order to achieve the Innovation and Growth Strategy goals more needs to be done.

Another major theme running through the debate was concern about the liability rules, particularly that if they are not brought in line with the standard practices of other launching states then it will handicap the UK’s new spaceports as operators will still be lured overseas for launches by more favourable liability rules regardless of how excellent or convenient the UK spaceports may be. The UK government has made quite a bit of progress on the liability rules and their ‘traffic light’ system should make the process of getting launch authorisation a lot simpler and less stressful, however given that this has been a common complaint that I have heard perhaps more needs to be done to advertise the changes that are being implemented…

A third major theme was the issue of delegated powers. This was the opposition Labour Party’s main point of contention in the speeches given by both of their speakers, both from the shadow transport team. A common refrain was that the bill contains 71 clauses and 100 delegated powers, and that the government has been unable to provide any draft or model regulations for scrutiny by Parliament. Karl Turner, Labour MP and Shadow Transport Minister in his remarks praised the Lords for the changes they made but also warns about the remaining scope of delegated powers, saying that the government should have done better. While he does understand the need for flexibility he suggested that this is another example of the government being too preoccupied with Brexit to do its job properly. He also said that Labour may need to introduce amendments addressing concerns about delegated powers but also that they have concerns that land use powers may encroach upon devolved powers (ie to the Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh governments) and Labour are also concerned about lack of judicial oversight of emergency powers in the bill. Although these weren’t just party-political concerns but were issues raised by Conservative and SNP MPs as well. These were also points of contention during the bill’s passage through the House of Lords where most of the ‘so called’ Henry VIII clauses were removed. Some of these concerns also raised the notice of Mark Elliot, professor of public law at Cambridge University, who wrote an entry in his blog Public Law for Everyone back in September on the Space Industry Bill.[2] However, a few MPs defended the government’s approach, rightfully recognizing that this is a new and developing area of activity and that there needs to be flexibility regarding regulation so as to not kill off an industry before it even starts. That said, there is a need for certainty, especially as the government would like to see spaceports up and running within the next two years, and a number of MPs raised the point that without an understanding of the regulatory framework they would be operating under it would be impossible for them to plan ahead let alone raise funds. Jesse Norman, Conservative MP for Hereford and South Herefordshire and an Undersecretary for Transport, said that the government would be putting statutory instruments before Parliament in summer 2019.

A final common theme worth mentioning was concern about the impact of Brexit on the UK Space Industry. Few of these points were directly relevant to the bill being discussed but as the debate also delved into the health and vitality of the UK space industry as a whole it was unsurprising the ‘B word’ came up. The impact of Brexit on the UK space industry is another subject that I have discussed in detail on this blog before and so won’t repeat my concerns in this particular post, but the threat to UK companies’ ability to compete for contracts for future Galileo and Copernicus satellites was a concern raised by more than one MP. Several MPs prompted the Government to maintain it’s support for the European Space Agency, specifically mentioning that it is not a European Union project, so there’s no reason to leave it. And Carol Monaghan, Scottish Nationalist MP for Glasgow North West, raised concerns about the UK’s ability to retain and attract foreign workers who are vital for the health of the UK space industry. Jessie Norman, wrapping up the debate for the government, didn’t really address the Brexit concerns, except to say that the UK would be remaining an ESA member state and that the UK would be able to continue to participate in EU space programmes (although he didn’t specify how or in what capacity.)

Overall it was a good debate, and it is heartening to see that there is such an interest in the UK space industry in Parliament. As several MPs said, the space industry allows us to believe in a positive vision for the future, and a path to a high skill, high tech British economy. However, I am concerned about the expectations that are being heaped on the potential for the UK as a launching state. While there may be a market for polar launches which the UK is reasonably well placed for, there is a reason the major launch sites are located thousands of kilometres closer to the equator than any UK launch site could ever hope to be (perhaps with the exception of Ascension Island but that has its own problems…) Jesse Norman referred to Prospero, the only UK built satellite to be launched from a UK rocket, when discussing the potential for the UK as a launching state, however he neglected to mention that Prospero was launched from Australia… Furthermore, I fear there is a ‘legislate/build it and they will come’ type sentiment to space tourism in the UK. I am sceptical of the scope of the space tourism market anyway, but given that the US started building its legal regime for commercial spaceflight over ten years ago, and New Mexico has spent over $200 million building Spaceport America and still no one has flown a single paying passenger I am concerned that the expectations of many in the UK are unrealistic, to put it mildly. Finally, I think the debate highlighted the missed opportunity for a broader scope to the ‘space industry bill,’ not just to include space mining, but on orbit servicing, mega constellations and more.

PS just would like to give a shout out to the excellent work of the House of Commons communications/social media team for a fantastic video advertising the debate – Space Industry Bill: Episode II

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