Business secretary Alok Sharma accused of ‘interfering’ in parliamentary inquiry over OneWeb deal

UK business secretary, Alok Sharma has been accused of interfering in a parliamentary inquiry involving the government’s £400m OneWeb deal.

The business select committee said the government’s business department had prevented a witness from appearing in a session to discuss the purchase of a stake in OneWeb, which it made in July this year.

The UK is set take a “significant” stake in the satellite firm, which is based in London, with Indian telco Bharti Global also likely to own a percentage of it.

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.

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.”

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.

British governments have generally taken a hands-off approach to business but prime minister Boris Johnson has vowed to invest in technology and infrastructure to re-shape and re-energise the industrial sector as it leaves the European Union.

It hopes the acquisition of the company will help establish the UK as a major player in the space industry, and go some way towards making up for the loss of access to the EU’s Galileo system after Brexit.

Ministers have also claimed the deal would bolster Britain’s manufacturing sector.

In July, Sharma said that 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.”

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.

Carissa Christensen, CEO and founder of Bryce Space and Technology, said: “There is significant ongoing growth in the demand for broadband capability, and one of the challenges is the price competitiveness of broadband providers.

“For space systems to achieve services that are comparable with terrestrial and offer them at a competitive price is a significant business challenge. "

Christensen said that there are currently satellite operators who offer broadband using a different type of architecture to that contemplated by OneWeb, and those systems serve people who cannot get a terrestrial alternative. She added that they can be costly and have challenges in achieving speeds comparable to terrestrial.

OneWeb, who filed for bankruptcy in March, citing the financial impact of Covid-19 had raised over $3.4 billion — including from SoftBank Group Corp., Qualcomm and the UK Space Agency — to launch a constellation of 650 satellites providing space-based internet connectivity (500mb/s with a latency under 50ms) but so far only 74 units are in orbit.