HC Deb 14 July 1987 vol 119 cc960-1
3. Mr. Wallace

asked the Secretary of State for Defence if he is satisfied with the level of British participation in strategic defence initiative research funded by the Government of the United States of America.

Mr. Younger

A sound start was made in 1986 in the first year of participation. A broadly-based series of awards were placed on contract to the value of $34 million. Vigorous efforts continue to be made to secure SDI research business, both by industry and by the academic community in the United Kingdom, with the active and day-to-day support of my staff in the SDI participation office.

Mr. Wallace

The right hon. Gentleman's predecessor is on record as saying that he fully expected British participation to be on a scale commensurate with Britain's industrial base. Does the Secretary of State feel that the $34 million contract so far gained is on that scale, and, if not, how far does it fall short? Is is not becoming increasingly clear that the Americans were far more interested in getting a cloak of political respectability for their project through British participation than in the project having anything to do with the advancement of Britain's technological interests, which, as the Select Committee on Defence said, would be better achieved through non-military collaborative projects?

Mr. Younger

I note what the hon. Gentleman said, but I do not agree with the latter part of his question. I am disappointed that during the last six months there have not been further announcements of contracts under the SDI programme. The participation office is making every effort to progress the other applications that are in the pipeline and that will be coming forward in the next few months. The reason for this lack of contracts is due largely to the drop in funding of the SDI programme in the United States. I very much hope that British participation will revive when that picks up.

Sir John Farr

Is my right hon. Friend aware that British arms exporters who have been doing so brilliantly in recent months are becoming very disillusioned with the rewards from SDI? The net return now and in the immediate future seems to be negligible compared with that promised by my hon. Friend's predecessor two or three years ago.

Mr. Younger

I do not agree with my hon. Friend that the returns will be negligible. We must remember that this is a very long-term programme stretching over many years. We made a good start in getting participation for British firms, but there has been an unsatisfactory response in the last six months. We very much hope that this will improve. My hon. Friend is perfectly correct about defence export sales generally. Our export sales are going extremely well. It is worth recording that had they won the election the Opposition proposed to wind up the defence export sales organisation. That would have been very bad news.

Mr. Heffer

Has the right hon. Gentleman taken note of the exchange in the proceedings in Washington involving Colonel Oliver North, in which he talked about some unofficial British organisation tied up with the—[interruption.]

Mr. Speaker

Order. The hon. Gentleman should make his supplementary relevant to the question.

Mr. Heffer

It is very relevant, Mr. Speaker, because want to know whether this has had anything to do with the discussions with the United States on this very question of SDI.

Mr. Younger

The answer to the hon. Gentleman's question is no, I do not think that it has. I have seen the report of a press conference about this and it seems to be in the realms of pure fantasy.

Mr. Hill

No doubt my right hon. Friend will recall that we had hoped to participate far more in the research and development programme for SDI, stretching into the mid-1990s. Will he tell his counterparts in the United States that the whole House is rather disappointed at the amount of contracts that are coming our way? Will there be any diminution in the programme if a President who is not quite so pro-SDI is elected at the next presidential election?

Mr. Younger

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I shall certainly draw the attention of my colleagues in the United States to the points that he has made in the House today. I do not think it likely that any United States Administration will abandon research into these important techniques, because that would leave this area entirely free to the Soviet Union, which has a large research programme in this sphere.