Previous Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page

6.57 p.m.

Lord Graham of Edmonton: My Lords, I begin by extending the apologies of my noble friend Lord Williams, who, as the Minister will know, takes a keen interest in these matters but is unfortunately unable to be here. However, that provided me with the opportunity —in fact the necessity—to do a bit more reading than I might otherwise have done. I must confess that I am an ex-Royal Marine, corporal PLY X112 105, 1943. Ever since then I have taken an interest in defence matters and, on behalf of my party, I have spoken on defence matters from time to time in the past. Therefore it was a pleasure for me to have to do the necessary reading to equip myself for this debate.

I share the commendations of all of us not only to the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, but also to members of his Committee. The Minister normally expresses his gratitude to those colleagues in the House who have served him and the House. He will want to say how grateful we all are to the Committee not merely because it has done a thoroughly worthwhile job but also because it has given the Minister an opportunity to comment on this matter.

The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, referred to the Ministry's response. There is no need for me to go over the report when the Minister will no doubt do that. If what we have in the report is the response from the Government, that will be the response that we are given from the Government Minister. The debate provides us with an opportunity to state our views before we hear the Minister's response. I certainly hope that he can give a more encouraging response than some previous responses have been. What we have here is an impressive document which has been painstakingly—but I believe expertly and dispassionately—assembled. One hears a great deal about interests, for example Members' interests and declarable interests. "Vested interest" are certainly not dirty words to me.

There has been an impressive investigation into a national asset. Those of us who have been in the House and in politics for a long time, and indeed those individuals whose careers are at stake, recognise that there has been a revolution both in the management and the structure of many hitherto well-established public services. Therefore, I do not believe that there will be any argument about the need for a review.

I listened carefully to the noble and gallant Lord, Lord Carver. He not only told us what is right with the report. He impressed me with the fact that not only had he read the report but he had analysed it, and he presented his ideas on how it could be improved. I am sure that the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, and his committee, will be grateful for that, because it is all grist to the mill.

However, I wish to emphasise immediately a view contrary to that expressed by the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne. The Government and the Minister have stated repeatedly that they have no plans at present to privatise the industry. The noble Lord nevertheless took the opportunity to say that while he accepted that for the

8 Dec 1994 : Column 1071

moment, perhaps in two, three or four years' time the question should be revisited. I hesitate to believe that an organisation which has been in turmoil and suffered trauma over the past few years will welcome the fact that, as it is getting to grips with a new role, it can look forward to its entrails being examined yet again in two, three or four years' time. Therefore, I hope that the Minister will be a little more kind to those whose careers are affected and will say that, in the context of the changes, he and his colleagues fully expect the new arrangements to be a success. If they are not successful, then of course the Minister and his colleagues will consider alternatives.

I was very impressed to learn that the DRA is not merely defence oriented or an organisation with a defence capability. There are a number of ways in which an organisation which is established for a limited purpose may develop expertise and then may become a competitor. I understand the delicacy of that situation. There may be resentment. However, I see nothing wrong in a mix of civil and public resources and businesses if it produces a good match. I am very encouraged by that aspect of the report.

Recommendation 4.24 on page 32 states:

    "We consider that Treasury rules place an unnecessarily high burden upon DRA. The current target rates of return appear unrealistic, and we consider that DRA should be able to charge customers at marginal costs where appropriate; to do otherwise would place the future of many unique and vital facilities in the United Kingdom in jeopardy".

he committee has had the benefit of hearing the witnesses and questioning them. They have used their great expertise, and their political nous. If it is their view that the present rules could place many unique and vital facilities in the United Kingdom in jeopardy, I should like the Minister either to put that in context or to reassure those who are affected. It would be a nonsense if that were to happen in pursuit of dogma. The noble Lord, Lord Redesdale, also mentioned that point.

It would be in the national interest if there were an understanding or some flexibility in these matters. The noble Earl, Lord Selborne, said that before many more scientists are made redundant and before there is a loss of more unique facilities, one ought to pause and reflect on whether that is necessary. He also said that one must recognise that in the context of the defence of the realm we do not want to find ourselves in a few years' time in a position in which either those facilities have to be recreated or we have to obtain the facilities from other agencies, not only in this country but from abroad.

One of my complaints about this Government is that far too often, in a cavalier fashion, they will sell facilities of this kind in order to boost the Exchequer and provide opportunities for tax cuts. I come from the Enfield and Edmonton area. I believe that the noble Lord, Lord Trefgarne, was the Minister at the time of the sale of the ordnance factories. I find it astounding that the Government keep so few of their eggs in the basket of public ownership. I believe that selling our assets in that way is completely wrong.

Therefore I should be grateful if the Minister could give some reassurance in respect of stability.

8 Dec 1994 : Column 1072

In paragraph 5.6 on page 33 the committee recommends that the Government's Chief Scientific Adviser should be:

    "specifically empowered to expose any practices which impede closer links between civil and military science and technology".

Perhaps the Minister or the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, can tell us what they have in mind which may cause them to worry about practices which impede such closer links. Are we talking in terms of civil servants and those who guide them resisting the possibility of moving into the civil field? Are we talking in terms of a fight to the last ditch? The noble and gallant Lord, Lord Carver, impressed me with the need to be flexible in these matters. Therefore, I should be grateful if the Minister or the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, could reassure me. I believe that we need a mix of establishments and expertise linking civil and military science.

I was very impressed by the remark in the government report dealing with the need for the DRA to

    "seek work from other government departments, some of which have research budgets significantly greater than the MoD's, as well as from the private sector".

ill the Minister indicate to what extent there is co-ordination at government level to ensure that initiatives are not inhibited due to vested interests in other departments?

Perhaps I may give an example from my own experience. A colleague of mine worked for the Coal Board. He was in charge of a body called Minestone Executive, whose function was to sell colliery spoil. That was useful for aggregate. It was not first-class aggregate but second-class aggregate which could be used in, for example, road building. An organisation which was nationally owned had difficulty in selling its product because contracts existed between other departments and other contractors which were not owned by the nation. There was clearly a commercial nexus.

Therefore, I should like the Minister, when he replies, to pay particular attention to paragraph 9 on page 2 of the government report and assure us that the facilities and expertise which rest in the agency are capable of being used by others without too much difficulty.

I was reassured by the words of the noble Earl, Lord Selborne. I noted the reference in the report to the decline in DTI funding. The noble Earl seemed to lay great store on an alternative, secondary source of funding. Perhaps he may say when he replies how he is assured that money is available from that other source.

Reference has been made to short termism, a subject of which the Minister is well aware. We are talking about a vital public interest in every sense of the word. The Minister and I will differ on our attitudes in general to the public and private sectors. However, I believe that the DRA needs to be protected. The agency must not disintegrate for short-term reasons, with parts of it sold off. Five thousand scientists and many other employees who serve the nation well are involved.

8 Dec 1994 : Column 1073

I had intended to say how useful the report is for people such as myself. I read it with a great deal of interest. However, perhaps I may say to the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, and others that paragraph 2.22 on page 17 almost put me off. It states:

    "DRA already seeks European (EC and non-EC) collaboration, involving itself in EC Framework Programme projects and in EUCLID, BRITE/EURAM, ESPRIT, SCIENCE, and MAST".

e are supposed to understand that. It seems gobbledegook. The report is full of initials. This report clearly has a great value to those people who prepared it; they will use it. But it could be improved if so many initials were not used. However, the House is indebted to the noble Earl, Lord Selborne, and to those who contributed to the report. On this side of the Chamber, we pay a warm tribute to their work and look forward to the continuation of the valuable national service given by those men and women.

Next Section Back to Table of Contents Lords Hansard Home Page