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Hon. Members: Object.


United Christian Broadcasters

12.56 am

Mr. Jeffrey Donaldson (Lagan Valley): I am delighted to be able to present a petition on behalf of 1,167 residents of the Lagan valley and surrounding areas. The collection of signatures has been co-ordinated by Ruby Hutchinson on behalf of United Christian Broadcasters.

The petition states:

To lie upon the Table.

11 Jul 2000 : Column 843

Defence Evaluation and Research Agency

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.--[Mr. McNulty.]

12.58 am

Sir Michael Spicer (West Worcestershire): Nowadays I always make it a practice to declare an interest as president of the Association of Electricity Producers, in case there is a read-across from defence to electricity. I also declare that the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, Malvern is in my constituency. Although I do not intend to refer specifically to that establishment, it is fair to say that the Government's proposals have alarmed my constituents and made them unsure of their future. I do not want to make that case tonight, but I cannot resist reminding the Minister that only this Monday an exhibition opened in Malvern to celebrate its heritage as the home of radar, which was arguably the most important technical development of the second world war.

I am delighted that my hon. Friend the Member for Sevenoaks (Mr. Fallon), who represents DERA Fort Halstead, and my hon. Friend the Member for Aldershot (Mr. Howarth), who represents DERA headquarters at Farnborough, are present. I am also pleased to see such a heavy contingent of shadow Cabinet Ministers and deputy Ministers on our Front Bench.

An independent state has two primary functions: to protect its citizens from the threat of internal anarchy, through the rule of law, and to provide them with adequate defence from any threat of foreign or terrorist aggression. In circumstances in which adequate defence is as dependent as it is today on technological developments, it follows that the state must retain its capability to plan, evaluate and monitor the applications of defence technology and to satisfy the needs of its intelligence services. In other words, the state must have its own capability to know what is going on and what is coming up in defence technology. That is what DERA does.

For Britain, there is a particular dimension to the issue. British defence technology is entwined with and highly dependent on technical developments in the United States, even if the successful bilateral co-operation at governmental level with several other countries, notably France, is taken into account. The bond that has been built up between our defence scientists and those of the United States is at the core of Britain's high technology defence system. Britain is undoubtedly the net gainer in that relationship; that is the context in which the Government's proposals for the future of DERA, which were outlined in the consultation document published in April, should be viewed.

The essence of those proposals is that DERA should be split into two parts. The first, comprising some 3,000 people, would be known as retained DERA--or RDERA, to use one of the abbreviations that the military prefer--and kept in the public sector. The second, comprising some 9,000 staff, would be semi-privatised and known as new DERA, or NDERA.

11 Jul 2000 : Column 844

The first problem arises because of the lack of clarity over how the split is to be made. Paragraph 13 of the consultation document, or CD, states:

My information is that Ministry of Defence officials are finding it more difficult today to decide the criteria for separation than when the consultation paper was published, and it is easy to see why that should be so.

Leaving aside the possibility that elements of pure research or down-the-line development might be hived off to an independent establishment, the main functions of providing advice to the Government and, above all, collaborating with other countries at intergovernmental level, cannot be easily split. Indeed, one questions whether they can be split at all. For that reason, the suspicion grows that the Government, under the guise of phoney privatisation, really propose a cut of some 75 per cent. in the nation's defence evaluation and development capability. Apparently, the job that was done by 12,000 people can now be done just as easily by 3,000.

The consultation paper of course puts that very differently. It talks of new DERA, in new Labour speak, becoming

However, if it is to be a truly competitive "knowledge provider", why the need to retain a special share, why the continued MOD control, and why semi-privatise in a half-baked way that will merely distort the existing market for other independent so-called knowledge providers? Therein lies the second cause for confusion.

The Government have apparently given their American counterparts the assurance that new DERA will be a private sector organisation

By contrast, and totally at variance with that, Sir John Chisholm, DERA's chief executive, has assured members of his staff that the two organisations will be extremely close and will continue to share accommodation and possibly support facilities.

The question of how close the two new organisations will be to each other goes to the heart of the matter, not merely because of the economic impact that the semi-privatisation of DERA will have, but because of the enormous implications for how the proposal will be viewed in the United States. In answer to a question that I put to him on 3 July, the Secretary of State for Defence said:

The Secretary of State was either grossly misinformed on this matter or was being disingenuous. The fact is that there is widespread concern in the United States about the Government's muddled proposals for the future of DERA.

I first became aware of the seriousness of those concerns when I paid a visit to the Pentagon in Washington towards the end of last year. If the Chisholm version of what will happen comes about and the two

11 Jul 2000 : Column 845

DERAs remain very close to each other, it is possible that the Americans will put a complete embargo on relations between British and US defence scientists. That will happen if the word spreads in United States defence circles that if people speak to scientists retained on the Ministry of Defence payroll they would, in the process, pass information to scientists competing for work in the private sector. Even if officials and politicians were prepared to swallow that, it is unimaginable that scientists working for US defence contractors would do so.

A scientist in a US naval laboratory has recently been quoted as saying:

The future of Britain's defence technical evaluation and collaborative capability is at stake. This is a serious matter, given the growing importance of high-technology defence. Under the cloak of spin, weasel words and pretended privatisation, the Government have, in effect, proposed a 9,000 personnel cut in the defence budget. They have completely failed to explain the benefits of these proposals to the defence of this country. I hope that they will do so tonight; it is certainly what the Select Committee on Defence has called for.

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