Committee of Public Accounts

Press Notice No. 21 of Session 2004-05, dated 9 June 2005


Mr Edward Leigh MP, Chairman of the Committee of Public Accounts in the previous Parliament, said today:

"The failure of the Beagle 2 project highlighted the British National Space Centre Partnership's poor risk management. In this case risks were exacerbated by an over-ambitious timetable, last-minute technical changes and uncertain funding. Ambitious projects like this should go ahead only if enough money has been made available up front and due allowance has been made for risk.

"Individual space projects are expensive, take a long time to develop, and cannot always guarantee results. In the face of such uncertainty it is essential that the Partnership does everything it can to monitor projects closely and reduce the risk of failure.

"The Partnership does not have enough information to explain how its investment provides value for UK taxpayers. For example, there has been no independent evaluation of the benefits estimated to arise from our investment in the European satellite navigation system. The Partnership should also seek a review of European Space Agency procurement policies which, by guaranteeing each member a proportion of contracts, may sacrifice value for money. It also needs to do more to engage smaller British firms that may have a valuable contribution to make."

Mr Leigh was speaking as the Committee published its 21st Report of the 2004-05 Session, which examined the management of the UK's civil space activities.

The Government has identified specific scientific, commercial and social objectives as the most effective way of investing in civil space activities but it does not see the exploration of space as an end in itself. The Government spent £188.6 million in 2003-04 on its civil space activities which are carried out by a Partnership (the Partnership) of 10 Government Departments, Agencies and Research Councils. Their work is co-ordinated by the British National Space Centre (BNSC) at the Department of Trade and Industry (the Department).

Space missions are by nature risky. The Partnership applies risk management techniques, but not consistently across their programmes. In the case of the high-profile Beagle 2 project, the Partnership's capacity to manage risk was constrained by the tight timetable, restrictions placed upon the weight of the lander and unrealistic funding assumptions, amongst other factors. Risks to the project were not explicitly addressed in appraisals of applications for funding.

Investing in space is expensive. Around two thirds of the United Kingdom's budget is spent through the European Space Agency (ESA) and EUMETSAT which provides and operates Europe's weather forecasting satellites. The procurement system used by ESA provides for fair returns to contributing nations. The Committee found that the costs of the space programme are increased by this system, which means that contracts are not always awarded to the most cost-effective bidder. It also creates additional administrative costs.

The remaining third of the United Kingdom budget is spent primarily on nationally run space programmes operated by three of the partners. Here the Committee found that cost control was compromised by the limitations of internal information systems.

Space exploration can also generate significant commercial and scientific benefits, and there have been notable individual successes in space missions funded by the United Kingdom. But the Partnership does not summarise the benefits across space programmes, nor monitor progress against strategic objectives.

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