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OneWeb deal: business secretary ‘interfered’ in parliamentary inquiry

The chair of an inquiry into the government’s £400m OneWeb deal has accused the business secretary, Alok Sharma, of interfering in his committee’s work.

Darren Jones, the Labour MP who chairs parliament’s business select committee, launched an investigation into the bid to save the bankrupt satellite manufacturer in July. The move came as it emerged that Sharma had forced through the deal in the face of opposition from his most senior civil servant.

Dr Tim Farrar, a consultant who has advised the government on the deal, had been summoned to appear before the business select committee’s first OneWeb evidence session on Thursday (17 September). But Jones revealed yesterday that he had been told that Farrar was not authorised to appear before the inquiry.

In a letter to the business secretary Alok Sharma, Jones said: “To be clear, you have no such power to authorise witnesses to my Committee and it is a gross interference in the work of Parliament for the Government to intervene in this way.”

 

In July, the committee revealed that Sharma had issued a ministerial direction to force through the deal after his department’s most senior civil servant raised financial concerns. Sam Beckett, then the department’s acting permanent secretary, warned there was a possibility that the entirety of the investment would be lost.

OneWeb produces low Earth orbit satellites that it claims will be able to bring super-fast internet to parts of the world that are otherwise difficult to connect. The government announced in July that, alongside the Indian telecoms giant Bharti Global, it was acquiring a 45 per cent stake in the company. OneWeb had filed for bankruptcy in March after burning through tens of millions of dollars a month trying to build out its constellation.

The government has sought to justify the deal on three accounts. It has said OneWeb’s constellation could be adapted to provide a satellite navigation system for military purposes after Britain lost access to the EU’s Galileo system. But experts have raised concerns about whether retrofitting the space craft for this purpose is viable given the speed and height at which they travel around the earth.

Since criticism of the plans for using OneWeb for satellite navigation has mounted, the government has said the deal is primarily designed to bolster Britain’s telecoms network and roll out broadband around the world. But critics have questioned why, in this case, the deal was managed by the business department, rather than the department for digital and culture, which oversees broadband policy.

Ministers have also claimed the deal would bolster Britain’s manufacturing sector. In a statement issued in July, Sharma said: “Our access to a global fleet of satellites has the potential to connect millions of people worldwide to broadband, many for the first time, and the deal presents the opportunity to further develop our strong advanced manufacturing base right here in the UK.”

The comments provoked speculation that OneWeb could relocate its manufacturing from the US to the UK. But an executive of the company that oversees production said last month that it had no plans to do so. Debra Facktor, head of Airbus US Space Systems, which builds OneWeb satellites as part of a joint venture, said the company planned to continue manufacturing the satellites in Florida, as NS Tech reported at the time.

As we revealed in August, the government did not consult either its most senior scientific adviser or the Ministry of Defence (MoD) before embarking on the deal. A source with knowledge of the negotiations said the MoD was furious that the deal was approved because it hadn’t been consulted, there was no proof OneWeb’s low Earth orbit constellation could replace Galileo and, even if it could, the satellites’ proximity to earth meant they could be shot down.