Mandelson's mystery man

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The Independent Online
Peter Mandelson, Minister without Portfolio, is set to renew discussions over a proposed pounds 1bn, 6,000-job electronics factory with a man who is reluctant to reveal his backers and will give no details of his previous employment.

Allan Barker, who his wife describes as a "nuclear electronics engineer," and Crest, a US company said to be based in Nevada, are interested in getting public money towards building a new plant on the outskirts of Hartlepool, Mandelson's constituency.

"Mr Mandelson has met them before and plans to meet them in the near future," said Benjamin Wegg-Prosser, the Minister's political adviser. "He has asked them to come to London to do a further presentation. Obviously he would be delighted if they are able to bring a lot of jobs to the North-east."

Yet Mr Barker, currently working from a Lincolnshire village, has reached a temporary impasse with DTI officials over an application for Regional Selective Assistance.

According to one official, Mr Barker is reluctant to provide information on the project without first getting a strong signal that grants will be forthcoming.

Whitehall works the other way round. "We are still awaiting the information required to progress the application," said a DTI spokesman.

The plant, says Ms Indu Chana, Mr Barker's wife, will be a "manufacturing facility for flat TV screens" and will also be involved in producing "medical and defence related" electronics equipment.

Asked about who is backing the project, Ms Chana said: "IBM is involved, Matsushita is involved."

"Mr Barker is a potential customer if the project goes ahead and that's all," said Brendan Gore, a Matsushita spokesman. "Mr Barker hasn't asked us to invest in it, and it's not our intention to do so."

IBM also says it has talked to Crest but only about the possibility of supplying components to the project. "We have talked to Crest but only in the way we would talk to any prospective customer," said an IBM spokes- man.

Asked about whether he is an an engineer and where he worked before, Mr Barker replied "No comment and no comment." Asked how much money is behind the project he said: "Enough."

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