Parliament & Politics: New agency to find work for industry

DEFENCE
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The Independent Online
AN ANNUAL budget of pounds 2m is to be allocated to a new Government agency with the task of finding work for defence industries, post-Cold War.

The Government said in a White Paper yesterday on diversifying the industry that the agency would be established by the end of the year, fulfilling a manifesto commitment.

Accusing the Government of "dumbing down" the commitment, Tory Defence spokesman Robert Key said the agency's budget was just 0.01 per cent of the pounds 22bn defence budget. "Labour activists will be shattered,"Mr Key said.

The agency's terms of reference will include encouraging "the transfer of suitable civil technology into military programmes". Agency database will be provided to civil companies to enable them to discover the potential for their products in UK defence programmes. The White Paper said that as part of its work, the agency would encourage biotechnology companies involved in health care to relocate to Porton Down, the chemical and biological warfare plant, where large areas of the old site are being released.

Defence Secretary George Robertson said: "We want to make sure that the ideas that have been developed through military technology and the drive that comes from getting battlefield systems in place very quickly are utilised, but we are not in the business of subsidising industry."

He added: "I am determined to derive maximum benefit from our substantial investment in advance technology for defence use by getting that technology working for the wider economy.

"We want to use our world-beating defence skills to strengthen the UK's industrial base and help improve our economic performance.

"Whatever our views may be, we have to acknowledge that technological progress is often the result of military necessity."

The essence of the idea was to bring "good from military to mankind", he said.

In a refinement of the consultative Green Paper published in March, the new agency will be overseen by a Defence Diversification Council comprising representatives from industry, trade unions and central and local government, who will offer strategic guidance to the agency and advice to Mr Robertson.

It will be chaired by industrialist Joe Carr, currently working at DERA on secondment from TI Group plc.

Mr Robertson said the fact that someone with experience in the private sector had been appointed "will be a very big signal to industry that this isn't some politicians' wheeze, but hard-nosed business reality".

The Defence Secretary was challenged on whether there had been a change of emphasis from the Labour Party's pre-election aspiration of encouraging the defence industry to diversify into non-military technology to encouraging the transfer of technology from defence into civil industry. "We made it absolutely clear in the manifesto that we were proposing an agency that wasn't to do with conversion but was to do with diversification and technology transfer," he said.

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