HL Deb 14 October 1997 vol 582 cc395-6

3.30 p.m.

Baroness Turner of Camden

asked Her Majesty's Government:

When they anticipate announcing their plans for a defence diversification agency, as outlined in the Labour Party manifesto.

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Lord Gilbert)

My Lords, work is now in hand on developing proposals on diversification. We have said that we hope to publish a Green Paper in the autumn but I cannot at this stage give a definite date. It will be a consultative document setting out the Government's proposals and inviting the views of interested parties.

Baroness Turner of Camden

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that response. I should perhaps state my interest in this matter. I am a member of MSF, a union which has a large number of members working in the defence industries. I welcome diversification and what the Minister said, but does he not agree that it is extremely important that people working in the industry, many of whom are highly skilled, should know what the future holds for them and should know that as soon as possible?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I am much obliged to my noble friend for her constructive remarks and I agree 100 per cent. with what she said. The Green Paper will be an open consultative document which will invite comments from all interested parties, including—and very importantly—the trade unions. In addition, my honourable friend the Under-Secretary of State for Defence will address the TUC south-west region conference on defence diversification on 4th November. I hope that that demonstrates our commitment to as wide a consultation as possible with those involved in the industry.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, what pressure is the Minister experiencing from within the defence industry for such a diversification agency?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I am glad to say that the defence industry is co-operating fully with the DERA in developments which were initiated under our predecessors in that respect. There are several areas in which industry and the DERA are already co-operating: in the licensing of intellectual property rights; in extra-mural research contracts; in dual-use technology centres; and in the Pathfinder scheme. As far as I am aware, all developments have been greeted with considerable enthusiasm by industry. I should add that the situation has probably been transformed in recent years, in that these days research is largely civilian rather than military-led.

Lord Wallace of Saltaire

My Lords, will the Minister accept that the international market for armaments is going down and is likely to continue to go down? It would be deeply unfortunate if Britain were to compete even more sharply for a shrinking market. Therefore, the need for defence diversification becomes sharper and sharper.

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I certainly acknowledge what the noble Lord said with regard to the shrinking of defence markets throughout the world. I accept from him that the need for diversification is thereby enhanced. But it is a good thing in its own right.

Lord Carver

My Lords, is the noble Lord aware that in the United States it has been shown that it is far better to let firms make up their own minds as to how they should diversify in that situation?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, I agree entirely with the noble and gallant Lord, but there is no element of compulsion whatever in that regard. Industry is involved only if industry wishes to be involved. I am sure that, as always, we can learn from examples on the other side of the Atlantic.

Lord Rea

My Lords, will my noble friend anticipate the review a little and say whether all the expenses of the diversification agency are to be met by the industry, or will any government money be forthcoming?

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, there is already government money forthcoming to support the DERA's activities and I see no change in that position. However, as a result of those developments I hope that it will be possible for additional funds to be available in the public purse.