MPs still unhappy with watered down Dera flotation plan

An all-party committee of MPs has criticised the government’s latest plans to partly privatise the Ministry of Defence’s scientific research arm, the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency (Dera).

Under the MoD’s plans, three-quarters of Dera would be floated in a public/private partnership. The other quarter, including the chemical defence establishment at Porton Down and other sensitive establishments, would be retained by the ministry.

But MPs on the House of Commons defence committee believe a private owner could put its own commercial interests before Dera’s wider defence role.

Questioning defence procurement minister Baroness Symons before the committee last week, chairman Bruce George referred several times to the proposed privatised entity as the `flogged-off Dera’. He added that previous plans to privatise Dera had been `bonkers’.

Symons maintained that the initiative would reduce Dera’s dependence on public funding. `At the moment you keep on having to go back to the taxpayer for extra money,’ she said – an arrangement she described as `deplorable’.

Symons announced the new proposals last month following opposition to earlier plans, first flagged in the 1998 Strategic Defence Review and announced in May 1999, under which most of Dera would have been floated next year.

UK defence companies, other research organisations, trade unions and the US Defence Department all opposed the original plans.

The US government is thought to still be sceptical about partial privatisation, which could result in technology developed jointly by the US and UK governments being transferred to the private sector. Further consultation with the US will take place next week to try and allay its concerns.

Dera chief executive Sir John Chisholm could not say how long the government would retain its `golden’ share in Dera.

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