Armed forces upset over Portillo adviser Military `seething' at Hart's defence job headlyne in here

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The Independent Online

The armed forces were "seething" with the appointment of David Hart as the special adviser to Michael Portillo, the Secretary of State for Defence, Labour alleged last night.

Mr Portillo disclosed in a letter to David Clark, the Labour defence spokesman, that Mr Hart had been given one of the lowest categories of security clearance for his role inside the Ministry of Defence.

Mr Clark, protesting about Mr Hart's appointment, accused Mr Portillo of preferring foreign arms manufacturers to British equipment. He said plans to lease F16 jets from the United States had been revived since Mr Portillo had moved to the MoD. The author of the plan was Mr Hart.

That was not the only procurement decision in which Mr Hart had taken an interest, Mr Clark added. Mr Hart had written an article for the Spectator in 1983 which made "uneasy reading" for the British defence companies, arguing that they should become "little more than metal bashers for United States companies".

"It is no wonder the armed forces are seething with the influence of the so-called independent adviser. A number of people are deeply concerned that Mr Hart has access to confidential information from British defence companies."

Mr Portillo was asked by Mr Clark what security clearance had been given to Mr Hart, replying: "Mr Hart has been subject to the checks necessary to permit him from time to time to have access to classified information.

"Mr Hart fully understands the need to safeguard all information given to him in his departmental role and this should not be used for any other purposes."

Mr Portillo said Mr Hart advised him "in only a small number of areas where the department is in negotiation which may lead to a procurement programme. If he were to have a financial interest in one or more of the firms in negotiation for such a contract, I would expect him to declare it and would reach a view of his involvement."

Mr Clark said: "I don't think that contains the guarantees that I or the House would want. Has he signed the Official Secrets Act?" But Mr Portillo refused to be drawn further.

The Labour spokesman also bitterly criticised Mr Portillo's "disgracefully nationalistic rant" at the Conservative Party conference last week. Mr Portillo appeared to tone down his remarks, but stood by his rejection of a common defence policy.

Mr Portillo, opening a two-day debate on defence, admitted that overstretch in the armed forces was getting worse. The army will miss its target of a 24-month break between tours of duty. The average break is now 20 months for infantry battalions.

But the Government accused Labour of being split on defence after 37 Labour MPs signed a protest motion calling for the scrapping of Trident nuclear weapons in defiance of the Labour Party conference vote. Those signing the motion included Tony Benn, Alan Simpson, Jean Corston, Helen Jackson, Peter Hain and Ann Clwyd.