HL Deb 15 June 2000 vol 613 cc1751-4

Lord Chalfont asked Her Majesty's Government:

What plans they have for the future of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (DERA).

The Minister of State, Ministry of Defence (Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean)

My Lords, on 17th April we announced a revised proposal for a public private partnership for the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency, and published a consultation document. Our proposal would see around three-quarters of the current DERA organisation turned into a company. The remainder of DERA would be retained in the MoD. Formal consultation ended on 9th June. We are considering the responses and hope to make a further announcement before the Summer Recess.

Lord Chalfont

My Lords, I thank the Minister for that Answer. Given that DERA is one of the leading scientific and technological installations in the world, does she agree that this goes rather further than her reply might suggest? A host of questions arises from the plan to privatise three-quarters of DERA; I should like to ask the noble Baroness two.

First, how will the Government continue to benefit from the scientific and technological research of the privatised part of DERA, where obviously commercial success rather than national security will be the criterion upon which it will work? How has the United States reacted to this in the light of the close collaboration that we have with the Americans in these areas?

Secondly, what machinery will be established to maintain communications between the private and public sectors to ensure that there is full communication and exchange of ideas between the two sectors?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, as to the noble Lord's second point, we expect close communication between the public and private sectors. The bulk of new DERA's work will continue to come from the MoD for a very long time, and officials in both organisations will be working closely together. As to the benefits that may accrue to the public sector from privatisation, they may be achieved through some kind of "golden share", which the noble Lord will have seen mentioned in the consultation document. We shall develop our thinking on that in the light of the consultation which is taking place. So far as concerns the USA, I am happy to say that it seems broadly content with what Her Majesty's Government are now proposing.

Baroness Warwick of Undercliffe

My Lords, the proposals for the partial privatisation of DERA obviously have implications for its research base and thus for those universities which have significant research engagements with the MoD. Can the Minister give an assurance that there will be effective consultation with higher education to prevent unfortunate consequences—whether intended or unintended—on the conduct of research in the United Kingdom?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I suspect that the noble Baroness knows that we have received a contribution from the Committee of Vice-Chancellors and Principals and from the Defence Scientific Advisory Board, as well as from many other academic groups. I can assure the noble Baroness that their comments will be taken fully into account. I should say to her—as I have to many others with an interest in this matter—that my door will stay open during this period. Should anyone wish to come and give supporting oral evidence to the written evidence they have already given, I shall be glad to see them—within reason.

Lord Burnham

My Lords, how will the Procurement Agency get impartial scientific advice after privatisation?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, that will be given through that part of DERA which will remain as part of the MoD. The noble Lord wall have noticed in the consultation document that approximately 900 individuals will be retained within the MoD part of DERA to give the impartial and objective advice that we all recognise will be absolutely vital in the post-privatisation period.

Viscount Waverley

My Lords, is the Minister sensitive to the need to ring-fence hitherto classified information? If so, where is the Minister determined to draw that line?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, it was, in part, the MoD's and Ministers' recognit ion of the importance of ring-fencing that led us to the second bout of consultation that we are currently undertaking. The most sensitive areas of DERA will stay entirely within the MoD. Porton Down, about 70 per cent of the Centre for Defence Analysis, the Defence Research Information Centre and the Defence Radiological Protection Service will all stay fully within the MoD.

Lord Gilbert

My Lords, my noble friend said that the Americans were broadly satisfied with what has been proposed. Does she accept that I should be much happier if she could tell the House that the Americans were completely satisfied with what has been proposed in the light of its criticality to our defence interests?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am always conscious of the fact that were Ito say that the Americans were completely satisfied one of your Lordships would inevitably pop up and say that he had had a conversation with someone who was not completely satisfied. I can tell the noble Lord that when I discussed this with the former Deputy Defence Secretary, John Hamre, and when I discussed it with the current Defence Secretary, Mr Rudy de Leon, both expressed themselves to be happy with the proposals; indeed, they were very positive. We have had an extremely helpful response from the United States at those official levels.

Lord Roper

My Lords, reference has been made to co-operation with the United States. In view of the growing importance of co-operation with our major European partners, can the Minister say what are the implications of the new hybrid DERA for that cooperation?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, in my discussions with my opposite numbers in Europe—with whom I have been having a series of bilateral discussions over the past two or three months—I made it a point to raise with them the proposals put forward by Her Majesty's Government for the future developments in DERA. Considerable interest has been expressed. I understand that today we received an official response from the Government of Germany, and we are expecting an official response from the Government of France. All in all, the proposals have been welcomed by our interlocutors. I do not foresee any "show-stoppers" coming from our colleagues in Europe.

Earl Attlee

My Lords, are the Government experiencing any delays in retaining staff at the retained DERA?

Baroness Symons of Vernham Dean

My Lords, I am unaware of any delays or difficulties in retaining staff in retained DERA. During this period of consultation there is bound to be an element of uncertainty, and staff interests must be treated with the utmost sensitivity. I fully recognise that many people are not quite certain on which side of the line they are likely to fall, or, indeed, may wish to be on the other side of the line than that designated for them. I hope that we will be able to have full consultations with both the trade unions and individuals who may have particular problems.