Previous SectionIndexHome Page

Sir Peter Emery (East Devon): Before my hon. Friend finishes his list, will he point out that most of us who spoke yesterday made a number of serious points which received no reply? Will he reiterate the need for us to know what the Government intend with the Parliamentary Assembly if the Western European Union is done away with? Perhaps the Government would also like to say what extra money or manpower is needed for them to go forward, if they intend to, with the European defence initiative. These questions must be answered.

Mr. Davies: I hope that my right hon. Friend's points will be taken on board. I have already reminded the Government of the important matter that my right hon. Friend raised yesterday and of the intelligence that he brought to the House about the French view of the likely coming-into-service date of the A400M. I hope that the Government will respond.

I have not finished with the Government because I shall raise two other important matters on which decisions will be taken shortly, and certainly long before we have another defence debate. We need to know where the Government stand. That is what parliamentary government is all about. One of the two matters is the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. The Government will have to take a decision on it. When will they take it? The worst thing is the uncertainty that their present indecision and vacillation has created. The situation is extremely worrying.

DERA is losing people. Its annual report sets out the decline in manpower in the agency. DERA will also be losing out on collaborative opportunities with the private sector and elsewhere, including the Americans in their public sector, with the Department of Defence and its various institutes. This continuing state of uncertainty has caused damage. When will a decision be taken? That is the first thing that we need to know.

If the Minister does not know, let me help him with the decision that he must take. Whatever decision he takes, he must not opt for the breaking up or fragmentation of the agency and partial privatisation. That would be the worst of all possible worlds. We know that that would be a squalid compromise between the initial proposal that the previous Conservative Administration turned down after due consideration of complete privatisation and the Treasury's desperate desire to get £300 million out of defence at any price in terms of our future defence capability. Also, there are the American objections to full privatisation. Such a decision would not add up.

I shall set out four good reasons why such a decision would not make sense. First, DERA has the dual role of advising the Government on the evaluation of defence bids and research. It is extremely important that the Government have access to independent technical advice on evaluation. The agency's second role is the research and development that it carries out when assessing new military technologies.

2 Nov 2000 : Column 889

Theoretically, the agency could be divided along those lines, but it would be disastrous to do so. DERA has first-class scientists who are at the head of their game internationally. If they were told that they were only to be in the business of advising the Government and evaluating bids, having been taken away from the coal face of research, they would not stay in the agency. That would lead to second and third-rate people undertaking evaluation and advisory roles. We cannot split DERA on that basis.

A second basis on which we might theoretically split the agency is the one on which the Government are proceeding, which is to keep in a retained DERA those parts of the organisation that are working in close collaboration with the United States so as to appease American fears, and to privatise the rest. That will not work either because the two divides will not be the same. There is the division between the people whom we need to retain to advise the Government objectively and those engaged in research, and the other people we need to retain because they are dealing with the Americans and the Americans do not want them to be privatised; and the two distinctions do not coincide.

Thirdly, even if we could make such a distinction on day one, it would not be valid the following day, the following week or the following month. It is important that all aspects of DERA can enter into fruitful collaboration with overseas partners, especially the Americans. That relationship is crucial. It can also enter into joint ventures with the private sector. We cannot freeze for once and all which parts of DERA may be involved either with the Americans or with the evaluation and internal advisory role as opposed to the research role. That does not make sense.

Finally, if the Government think--it would be entirely consistent with the frame of mind and culture of new Labour--that they can somehow finesse the issue by clever spin, by saying that one part of the agency is being privatised and the other is being retained, when in practice both parts will stay together in the same building and have a symbiotic relationship, they underestimate the intelligence of other people. The Americans and the private sector here are not fools; they will see through that immediately. If there is to be a bogus exercise, the Government will end up again with the worst of all possible worlds, with disruption being caused and unnecessary costs being incurred by having two organisations and two sets of overheads. The Americans will still walk away and the private sector will still hesitate to deal with the privatised sector of DERA because there is the issue of giving away for free its own intellectual property. That concern will inevitably exist if it is dealing with what might be a rival commercial enterprise.

There is no basis on which DERA can be split up, except one which will seriously damage the utility and, therefore, the value of DERA as a whole. There will be enormous negative synergies if the organisation is split, and the Government should think again while there is time.

Finally, I come to the great decision that the Government must take in the next three weeks. We are coming up to the commitment conference under the common European foreign security and defence policy, at which the various member states of the European Union will say what they are contributing to the party, or to the

2 Nov 2000 : Column 890

catalogue as it is technically called, to achieve the Helsinki headline goals. We are only three weeks away from the conference. Either the Government do not know what they will contribute or they are damn well not going to tell Parliament about it. This is the second day of the defence debate, and we had a defence debate last week, but we still have not heard a word about the UK contribution.

Yesterday, my hon. Friend the Member for Chingford and Woodford Green dealt extremely authoritatively, if I may say so, with the important political, geopolitical and philosophical aspects of CEFSDP. He referred to the possible advantages, the risks and the motivation of the Government in proceeding in one direction or another. I am merely dealing with practical decisions that must be taken in the next couple of weeks or so. I am asking on behalf of Parliament what the Government will do. What have they decided? It is inconceivable that a commitment conference is to take place in three weeks' time and the Government do not know what they will say. Are they going to be completely empty pocketed and empty handed? If they know, they should be telling Parliament now.

Also, we need to know what commitment the Government intend to make in terms of prioritising assets. It is clear that this will be an exercise in double-hatting, triple-hatting or even quadruple-hatting. After all, our forces have commitments to NATO. We may have domestic commitments in Northern Ireland, or commitments overseas--for example, the Falklands, possibly Brunei or Zimbabwe, if that blows up, or perhaps Belize, if we still regard ourselves as committed there. Those have nothing to do with either the Washington treaty or the Brussels treaty territorial defence commitments, or with the new Petersberg tasks and therefore with the headline goals.

We thus have, first, the NATO article 5 commitments; secondly, the other overseas and domestic commitments; and thirdly, a commitment--which some of us find rather worrying and gratuitous--to support UN forces. Now the Government are coming up with a fourth commitment, so it seems that we will be quadruple-hatting the same assets and the same men and women in our armed services. That is a meaningless exercise--just playing with toy soldiers--unless the prioritisation is clear.

That must be true also for our European allies. They are coming to the commitment conference, one hopes, with their own proposals. If these are not new capabilities and are not dedicated to the Helsinki headline goal--we are told that that will not be the approach--they, too, will be double-hatting or triple-hatting. Again, we need to know what the prioritisation is.

That is the most important issue to be discussed this afternoon. Enormously important decisions will be taken and tremendous risks will be run if we get it wrong. If, after all the time-consuming meetings in Brussels, Paris and Nice, after the good dinners and the self-congratulatory speeches and toasts, we come up with not a single new ship, aircraft, tank, weapons system or infantry unit; if all that we are doing is double-hatting, triple-hatting or quadruple-hatting existing units and assets; if we do not even have a prioritisation programme; and if people say, "We are not going to do any more by way of increasing our capability, and what is more, we will turn up on the day only if we feel like it, on a

2 Nov 2000 : Column 891

good day, and if we have nothing better to do with our forces at that moment", the entire exercise will be seen to have been a thoroughgoing fraud.

That will bring with it enormous dangers, not least if the Americans see that the exercise is a thoroughgoing fraud. The Government may be totally incompetent but they are dealing, sadly, with matters that carry very high stakes. If, instead of enhancing the cohesion and solidarity of the Atlantic alliance, the exercise begins to undermine American confidence in European commitments and promises, the Government will have presided over the undermining of that great achievement, the Atlantic alliance, which, ironically, was created by a Labour Government--the Labour Government of Attlee and Bevin--with the very strong support of Churchill and the Opposition of that time, and the support of every Conservative Government since that time.

If that happens, the Government will not merely stand condemned before the Bar of history for simple, banal, muddling incompetence. They will be accused of having perpetrated a monumental historical disaster.

Next Section

IndexHome Page