Flight of fancy

Richard_Rosser_2016.jpgRichard Rosser on the government’s other worldly approach to its Space Industry Bill

A Space Industry Bill might sound a bit futuristic. A 2016 assessment however, reported it was worth £13.7bn in 2014/15 – equivalent to 6.5% of the global space economy, and employing some 37,000 people.

The 1986 Outer Space Act provides the current legal framework for the UK to fulfil its obligations under the United Nation’s space treaties, which require any organisation or individual launching, procuring a launch or operating space objects to be licensed.

To date launches licensed by the UK Space Agency have had to take place overseas but the global market for small satellites is growing rapidly, and is highly competitive. So the purpose of the new legislation is to create a regulatory framework to enable commercial launch to orbit and sub-orbital spaceflight to be carried out from UK spaceports for the first time.

Clauses within the Bill make provision for the grant of licences, the establishment of zones for spaceflight activities, safety and security – as well as liabilities, indemnities and insurance. That’s why we expressed our support for the broad thrust and intent of the plans at Lords second reading, earlier this week.

A major downside however, is that it is in effect a skeletal Bill which places many powers in the hands of the regulators and the Secretary of State, and with around one hundred provisions for delegated powers to bring forward secondary legislation.

There is clearly an argument for a flexible regulatory structure for a growing industry, where there are many ‘unknowns’ and technical advance is rapid. But there is also the need to provide for meaningful parliamentary debate and scrutiny – not least on matters affecting the rights and safety of the public. These cannot be achieved through secondary legislation to the extent that they can through a primary Bill.

The draft Bill was considered by the House of Commons Science and Technology Committee and our Delegated Powers and Regulatory Reform Committee, and some changes have been made by the Government as a result. Whether those changes go far enough in meeting the concerns raised by those Committees, and others, is an issue that will have to be considered in more detail during the further stages of the Bill.

The government says industry wants the Bill in order to make investment decisions based on the certainty of being able to have commercial spaceflights from the UK. But much of the work relating to the Bill appears rushed, even though the Statutory Instruments will not be laid for two years. Policy scoping notes covering all regulation-making powers were promised prior to the second reading, only to be sent around late the day before – all 94 pages.

Apologising for this tardiness, after we raised our concerns, the Minister said “the policy scoping notes are not provided for discussion: they are our initial statement of intention with regard to the use of delegated powers and the need to consult on the use of powers”. Whatever the government thinks, I have a feeling these will be discussed – both in the Lords and beyond.

We have also been given a written intention: “to make more information available regarding the Government’s approach to secondary legislation in advance of Committee Stage of the Bill”. Let’s see how far in advance of Committee Stage that that information actually turns up.

So, a skeletal Bill containing so many provisions for delegated powers, lengthy documents arriving at the last minute, and some documents still to come. It may not be controversial, but does it remind us of anything? As was said in the second reading debate: “many may be wondering if this is but a dry run for the government’s approach to both the legislation and to Parliament in seeking to implement the decision to withdraw from the European Union”.

Lord Richard Rosser is Shadow Transport Minister in the House of Lords

Published 13th July 2017 

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