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Ministers have been accused of “punishing” the UK Space Agency by removing nearly its entire remit after the body raised concerns about the Government’s £400m satellite investment programme.
Following a review into the UK’s space programme, Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng shifted all of the Agency’s policy making and strategy decisions into the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS).
Labour believes the move was prompted after the agency cast doubts over the viability of the Government’s OneWeb satellite programme, which has cost the taxpayer £400m.
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The space agency is reported to have “disparaged” the idea of repurposing OneWeb’s broadband satellites to build the UK’s own GPS system as a replacement to the EU’s Galileo programme.
A Whitehall source rubbished the claims, insisting it was “laughable to suggest the decision was in any way linked to OneWeb”.
The UK Space Agency was asked by officials to carry out a technical assessment of the OneWeb investment, which has been branded “troubling and concerning” by the Commons Business Committee.
Kwasi Kwarteng,business minister arrives in Downing Street (Photo: Getty)
Although Beis has yet to publish the findings of the assessment, reports have emerged that the space agency concluded there was a high risk that further investment would be needed in OneWeb to realise any benefits.
Mr Kwarteng has since told the agency’s 200 staff that his department will take full control over all space policy.
Shadow Science Minister Chi Onwurah called on the Business Secretary to “come clean” about the OneWeb investment and any concerns officials voiced about it.
“It’s difficult to conclude this is anything but ministers giving their own space agency a slap on the wrist after officials rightly had concerns about the value for money of the risky OneWeb investment,” Ms Onwurah said.
“Rather than respond to rightful scrutiny, the Business Secretary is merely shutting it down by wresting control.”
It emerged in July that the then business secretary Alok Sharma forced through the £400m purchase of OneWeb, which was bankrupt, despite his permanent secretary warning that all the money could be lost.
Officials have insisted the decision to shift space policy-making and strategy into Beis is part of the Government’s wider National Space Strategy, and will free up the UK Space Agency to focus on the delivery of space programmes.
A BEIS spokesperson said: “All parts of government are working together to further accelerate the growth of the UK’s space sector, which currently raises some £15 billion each year in private investment and employs 42,000 people across the country.
“The UK Space Agency is fundamental to delivering the government’s global ambitions for space, to unlock innovation, push the frontiers of knowledge and create jobs throughout the UK.”