Arms cuts opponent is military lobbyist appealing to save his job

Conservative speaker who argued against reducing defence spending has links with industry. Chris Blackhurst reports
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The Independent Online
A speaker in Tuesday's defence debate at the Conservative conference, who made an impassioned plea for no cuts in military spending, is a lobbyist for a company which is bidding for defence orders totalling almost pounds 4bn.

Mark Francois was introduced as the prospective parliamentary candidate for Brent East, Ken Livingstone's seat. He is a director of Market Access International, a Westminster-based consultancy which acts for numerous defence contractors.

One of Market Access's biggest clients is Northern Telecom, the giant Canadian telecommunications company, which is pitching for two MoD orders: the pounds 2bn Defence Fixed Telecommunications System, known as DFTS, and the pounds 1.8bn Bowman army field radio network.

Market Access has strong Tory connections. David Boddy, its chairman, is a former director of communications at Tory Central Office. Steve Bramall - a former private secretary to Michael Portillo when he was Secretary of State for Transport - is a director of the firm. Mr Francois is a close friend of David Amess, the Tory MP for Basildon who is Mr Portillo's Parliamentary Private Secretary.

Executives from Northern Telecom, who had travelled to Blackpool to lobby for the orders, said they hoped to be on the two-strong shortlist for DFTS, to be announced shortly. DFTS is a telecommunications system serving all the armed forces and the Ministry of Defence. The current contract is held by British Telecom.

Bowman is intended to be the replacement for Clansman, the army's long- standing front-line radio system. The Bowman contract will involve supplying least 60,000 radio handsets and battery packs.

In his speech, Mr Francois began by reminding the audience of the sacrifice made by the British Army in Burma. With Mr Portillo and the Prime Minister sitting behind him, he continued: "There is always a danger, when governments are under financial pressure, they are tempted to find savings from the defence budget. It is always a temptation they should resist."

Twice this century, declared Mr Francois, Britain had allowed its military machine to run down to the point that when war was declared, it wasnot able to offer an immediate riposte. The nation must make sure, he said, that it "never, ever, ever" made such a mistake again. He sat down to thunderous applause.

Replying to the debate, Mr Portillo singled out Mr Francois' contribution, saying he would have understood how Mr Portillo felt when watching veterans at the VJ Day celebrations. "As Mark Francois will understand, perhaps my most moving experience since I became Secretary of State for Defence was when I attended the march-past of veterans who fought against Japan."

Northern Telecom yesterday hosted a packed fringe meeting on the information superhighway, chaired by Danny Finkelstein, head of research at Tory Central Office. With executives from Northern Telecom and Market Access in attendance, Ian Taylor, the Telecommunications Minister, congrat- ulated the company for investing in Britain and creating jobs. The company was "really welcome", Mr Taylor said.

Northern Telecom is one of four bidders for the DFTS contract, along with BT, Racal and GEC-Plessey. Martin Roberts, the company's project director, said he hoped to be present when the shortlist is announced, possibly as early as Friday. The winner of the pounds 2bn order is expected to be declared next April.

Mr Roberts said Market Access was working on the order because: "The next stage is political and down to the Cabinet." Asked if Northern Telecom would be meeting Mr Portillo while in Blackpool, Mr Roberts replied: "I would not be up here otherwise, would I? We hope to talk to him."

The DFTS deal, said Mr Roberts, was worth pounds 2bn. "It is a major contract that will run for 10 years. We have put a very good bid on the table." He confirmed that Mr Francois was working for Market Access.

Mr Amess said he knew Mr Francois "extremely well". The two had met in Basildon, where Mr Francois was a councillor.

Last night Mr Portillo told the Independent that he did not know Mr Francois. "I don't know him at all. I am sorry, I cannot help you. Thank you."

The Independent was unable to contact Mr Francois.

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