UK accused of gross interference over parliamentary OneWeb investigation

The committee had launched an investigation into whether this particular "gamble" was a good use of taxpayers money

  
Britain's Speaker of The House of Commons Sir Lindsay Hoyle attends a meeting with new members to the chamber in the House of Commons, in London, Britain January 15, 2020. ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/Handout via REUTERS

Britain's Speaker of The House of Commons Sir Lindsay Hoyle attends a meeting with new members to the chamber in the House of Commons, in London, Britain January 15, 2020. ©UK Parliament/Jessica Taylor/Handout via REUTERS

LONDON- A parliamentary committee which investigates the British government's conduct has accused it of gross interference over a probe into its purchase of a stake in a collapsed satellite operator.

The Business select committee said the government's Business department had prevented a witness from appearing in a session to discuss the government's $500 million purchase of a stake in OneWeb, which it made in July this year.

Business Secretary Alok Sharma said in reply that he welcomed the scrutiny but as the transaction had not closed he did not want the commercial discussions to be affected.

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-energize the industrial sector as it leaves the European Union.

The committee had launched an investigation into whether this particular "gamble" was a good use of taxpayers money and to review where OneWeb fitted into the overall space strategy.

OneWeb, founded in 2014, planned to launch 650 satellites into low earth orbit to provide universal internet access but was locked in a constant struggle to raise funds.

It filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy at the end of March after its biggest investor, SoftBank Group Corp 9984.T , pulled funding, prompting Britain and India's Bharti Global to join forces to buy it at auction.

Darren Jones, chair of the select committee, told a hearing on Thursday that the government had said it could not support the appearance of witness Tim Farrar from Telecom, Media and Finance Associates because he had advised on the deal.

In a letter to Alok Sharma, Britain's business minister, he said: "To be clear, you have no such power to authorise witnesses to my committee and it is a gross interference with the work of parliament for the government to intervene in this way.

"My committee is authorised by parliament to hold you, your colleagues and your department to account."

In his response Sharma suggested Farrar could take part in a confidential briefing or in a standard hearing when the transaction has concluded.

(Reporting by Kate Holton; Editing by Guy Faulconbridge and Hugh Lawson) ((kate.holton@thomsonreuters.com; 0044 207 542 8560; Reuters Messaging: kate.holton.thomsonreuters.com@reuters.net))

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