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6.39 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Defence (Dr. Lewis Moonie): I shall preface my remarks with a short statement, which I have agreed with the spokesmen from the two main Opposition parties, about something that happened earlier today.

In the early hours of this morning, a fire occurred in the engine room of HMS Fearless, which is currently in the Mediterranean. As a result of tremendous work by the crew, to whom I pay tribute, the fire was put out rapidly. There were 11 minor casualties, all of whom have fully recovered and are again available for duty.

The full extent of the damage and the cause of the fire are being investigated. We have decided to withdraw HMS Fearless from the amphibious taskforce deployment announced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State on Monday. That deployment will still go ahead, however, with the Royal Fleet Auxiliary vessel Argus and her embarked helicopters joining the group to support HMS Ocean. The fact that we have been able to integrate Argus at such short notice demonstrates the flexibility of our maritime forces, and our rapid reaction capability.

Mr. Duncan Smith: I thank the Minister for his flexibility in coming to the House to make that semi-statement. Will he, on behalf of Opposition Members, represent to members of the crew our hope that all has gone well and that our thoughts are with them in these difficult times? However, will he assure the House that that ship will not be out of service for too long? Has he any idea of the extent of the damage to the vessel and of how long it will be out of service? Will he be able to let the House know those details as soon as possible?

Dr. Moonie: I shall certainly pass the hon. Gentleman's remarks on to the crew. As to the extent of the damage, I can tell the hon. Gentleman that the ship is sailing under its own power to Malta, where attempts at repair will be made and the extent of the damage inspected. At present, we are uncertain about how extensive the damage is, and about how long the ship will be out of service. However, I can assure the House that it will be brought back into service as soon as possible.

Mr. Menzies Campbell: May I associate myself and my party with the expressions of sympathy uttered by the hon. Member for Chingford and Woodford Green (Mr. Duncan Smith)? Will the Minister say whether the effect of replacing HMS Fearless with RFA Argus and its complement of helicopters will be to strengthen the taskforce rather than weaken it?

Dr. Moonie: The right hon. and learned Gentleman is right: the presence of the Argus and its three Sea King helicopters will provide the taskforce with an enhanced capability.

Before I reply to the debate, I should tell the House that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State regrets that he cannot be present this evening, as a pressing engagement has meant that he cannot stay to the end of the debate.

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It is a privilege for me to draw this defence debate to a close after two excellent days. However, a truly adequate reply would require that the debate be held over three days. I therefore regret that many hon. Members may be disappointed with the brevity of my remarks, and I hope that those to whom I do not manage to refer will recognise that time is limited.

Over the past two days, we have heard how the Government are investing in defence to make sure that our forces remain the best in the world. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State began by announcing another important decision about equipment that has been widely welcomed by hon. Members of all parties. The announcement of the engine choice for the type 45 destroyer is good news for Rolls-Royce, for jobs and for this country.

In replying to a debate such as this, one has to recognise certain priorities. I was intending to reply only to the hon. Member for Grantham and Stamford (Mr. Davies), but my remarks are so extensive that I think that I shall post them to him--without a stamp.

A couple of minor housekeeping announcements give me some satisfaction. First, with the agreement of my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and of my hon. Friend the Minister for the Armed Forces, I shall henceforward be taking over responsibility for cadets and reserve forces. I hope that I will be able to maintain the focus that has been placed on them and to give them the attention that they deserve. Many references have been made to them today, and I am looking forward to the challenge of trying to reverse some of the problems that we have had. I want to ensure that they are given the respect, and the status in society, that they deserve.

I have already made my next announcement in the press because it was being made public from another source, so I shall deal with it briefly. After great difficulty, my staff have managed to source some of our lamb from this country. It amounts to some 20 per cent. of our total requirement--not as much as we would all have liked, but it is a good start. I certainly hope that we can do further work on that in future.

There were one or two points made in yesterday's debate that I will try to sweep up, because my hon. Friend the Minister promised that I would. First, the use of ID tags is an important point which, as the hon. Member for Salisbury (Mr. Key) rightly said, has been in our domain for quite some time. It is currently receiving active consideration. Our aim is to address the entire information needs of the defence medical services. We were hoping to initiate procurement through a private finance initiative project but, as sometimes happens, the final bidder withdrew earlier this year and the procurement is now to take place under the smart procurement initiative. An integrated project team is about to be appointed to take the project forward, although it is not at this stage possible to say when it might be placed. However, it is active.

We recognise the importance of accurate medical information on our troops, particularly in the theatre. We are in fact using the theatre of operational medical data system, which can be downloaded on to laptop computers and used in the field. It has proved very useful in ensuring that we maintain accurate permanent records for our staff, particularly in view of some of the illnesses and the comments that have been made about them over the past couple of days. I hope that I will have time to return to that in the course of my reply.

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Let me make some remarks about our proposals for the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency. I am not simply replying to the points raised in the debate in chronological order, but right hon. and hon. Members will recognise that I must give them some sort of priority. I will respond to as many as I can.

I have spoken in an Adjournment debate on the subject of DERA, which has been raised on numerous occasions over the past year, and we have also announced to the House our intention to proceed with the implementation of the core confidence model for the DERA public-private partnership. This is our chosen solution. Under the core confidence model, two new organisations will be created, with 75 per cent. turned into a private sector company--new DERA--to be floated on the stock market once its potential is suitably developed, which has not yet taken place.

We will retain just under 3,000 staff in the Ministry of Defence, in what is now known as RDERA--or retained DERA--to carry out research in key areas to provide a high-level overview of defence science and technology, in-house impartial advice and management of international research collaboration. That is a different role that is in no way a second-best option for those who are retained in the public sector--quite the reverse. Both organisations will be viable and sustainable, adequately resourced to carry out the tasks expected of them.

We have always emphasised that new DERA, although a key supplier to the Ministry of Defence, will operate and be treated as a fully private sector company. Although a very important supplier, it will have no special or privileged relationship with the MOD. There will be a level playing field with industry which, frankly, I think is essential.

We are committed to ensuring that new DERA does not have an unfair commercial advantage and that all bidders for our future work are treated fairly and equitably. It is very much in the long-term interests of the MOD to encourage genuine competition, not only to maximise value for money but to open up our research programmes to new ideas from outside the Government. We are conducting a small pilot exercise to help us understand the issues associated with running competitions in a complex area that is difficult to define. Although there will always be some areas of work in which competition is not practicable, our goal is to ensure that as much as possible of the research programme is competed for.

I will not say any more about that--I think that I have given as brief but as full an explanation of the position as possible. I cannot say when our proposals will come to fruition; we have not yet decided on the exact mechanism to enable that to happen. When we do, I assure right hon. and hon. Members that they will be the first to know.

Mr. Duncan Smith: We remain in the dark. The joint strike fighter is a critical component of our defence strategy over the next 10 years, and issues such as those surrounding Boscombe down and the transfer of information lie at the heart of policy; yet we do not know where matters stand. Can the Minister not inform us much

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sooner of what is happening so that industry may know exactly what is going on and where things will fit in the structure?

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