Thursday 17 September 2020 2:54 pm

MP accuses government of 'interference' in inquiry into Oneweb takeover

The government has been accused of interfering in an independent inquiry of its acquisition of space tech unicorn Oneweb, after it attempted to prevent a witness from giving evidence.

The business, energy and industrial strategy select committee was scheduled to interview three witnesses today regarding the takeover, however it received a letter from business secretary Alok Sharma retracting Dr Tim Farrar from testifying.

Read more: UK government wins stake in satellite firm Oneweb

Darren Jones, chair of the business, energy and industrial strategy committee appointed to oversee the probe, told Sharma in a letter today he felt disrespected by the department’s attempt to intervene in the hearing.

“At 3pm yesterday, after the department had been informed of witnesses on Monday and publicly announced on Wednesday morning, your department contacted my clerks to inform us that you did not ‘authorise’ one of our witnesses to attend,” he wrote.

“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.”

“As chair, I have acted in good faith to build a relationship of mutual cooperation and respect with your department which I had expected to receive in return.”

Read more: Government to invest £65m in new technologies

The government moved to acquire Oneweb in July as part of a $1bn deal with Bharti Enterprises, an Indian firm with operations in the UK.

It hopes to build a sovereign satellite network with the technology gained from the deal.

Sharma said in a reply to Jones that his department had not wanted Farrar to attend the hearing in a bid to prevent any influence of ongoing discussions about the Oneweb deal, which has not yet closed.

He added that Farrar could take part in a confidential briefing with the committee, or a standard hearing once the transaction has finished.

Oneweb had been planning to launch a constellation of 650 satellites from its base in London that would provide global broadband services. However it collapsed in March after running out of funds, prompting the government to step in as part of a rescue deal.

It emerged earlier this month that Japanese giant Softbank is planning to take back some of its stake in Oneweb, after the startup finishes the process of going through US bankruptcy.