Tuesday, July 03, 2007

It is not going to fly … it is a dud system

That was one view expressed in a debate in the House of Commons last night on the Galileo system – an event in which Rosie Winterton (pictured) made her debut as transport minister.

She was dreadful. Asking the House to endorse the Government's approach to discussions on the system at the Council of Ministers, she was unable to tell the House how much the UK government had spent on it, how much it might be committed to spend, how much the system itself might cost and what benefits might be gained from it.

Owen Paterson (pictured below), in his last speech as shadow transport minister, responded for the opposition. His thesis was that we have a perfectly adequate, free system in the US Navstar GPS, with continuity of service guaranteed, and do not need to waste money on what is essentially a European "vanity" project.

The main protagonist was Labour MP Michael Connarty, whose argument was that, like Microsoft, Navstar was a monopoly and, at some time, the US government could exploit that position and start imposing charges. Never mind that the world economy is now so dependent on a free service that this would be inconceivable – and contrary to international agreements – to raise charges. Connarty had his narrative and wasn't going to let reality intrude.

The central issue, of course, was the financing of the Galileo system after the collapse of the public-private partnership (PPP), and with it the prospect of private sector financing. Nevertheless, the British government is clinging to the hope that a PPP can be resuscitated, failing which it wants the Commission to deliver a cost-benefit of what it calls the "procurement route" – i.e., funding the system from taxpayers' money – before it gives its assent.

Connarty thought the latter was perfectly acceptable. It is a "European ambition", he declared. "There’s nothing wrong with ambition". And indeed there is not – but there's everything wrong with taking other peoples' money to pay for it.


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