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Radar Defence: Modernisation Programme

Volume 413: debated on Thursday 9 October 1980

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3.13 p.m.

My Lords, I beg leave to ask the Question which stands in my name on the Order Paper.

The Question was as follows:

To ask Her Majesty's Government when they expect to let tenders for the work services connected with the modernisation of the United Kingdom's radar defence network.

My Lords, the first tenders for this important programme have already been let. Further tenders will be let progressively over the next few years.

My Lords, while British air defence is dependent on some 80 fighters, may I ask my noble friend whether he agrees that it is vitally important that we should make the maximum progress in the modernisation of the radar and control network? In accord with that view, may I ask him to consider whether we could speed up the bureaucracy of the Property Services Agency to the maximum degree and put as much work as possible to civil contractors, who may be able to build speedily and therefore more cheaply and bring about the operational requirements which are so urgently needed?

My Lords, the PSA is something of a soft target in parliamentary debates, particularly defence debates. However, while a number of people feel that the PSA is unnecessarily bureaucratic, it is extremely difficult to get any evidence that that is in fact the case. I think I can reassure my noble friend that on the whole the practice would be to use local contractors as being the most cost-effective way of doing the job. As far as recognition of the urgency of the matter is concerned, I would make two further points. First, it has not been possible to get on as fast as one would wish until the tenders were let for the equipment that will go into these establishments, and my noble friend will be aware that, happily, a British consortium won the large contract for this equipment just before the Farnborough Show. Secondly, in recognition of the fact that this is an urgent programme, the work services and other contracts have been exempted from the moritorium which regrettably the Ministry of Defence have placed on new contracts.

My Lords, while welcoming the fact that many of these contracts may be put out to private contractors, may I ask the Minister to do what he can to ensure that all other minor works at RAF stations are put out to private contract as well as to the PSA?

That is a different question, my Lords, although it is a question, as I said, that crops up on a number of occasions. There should be no misunderstanding about this. I think it is likely that all these contracts will be put out to private contractors. I am not aware of a suitable Government contractor who would undertake the work, anyway, certainly so far as this work is concerned.

My Lords, can the Minister assure us that the British consortium to which he referred will arrange for the manufcature of this equipment to be in the United Kingdom?

I do not think I could give an assurance of that nature, my Lords; that would be a matter for the consortium and the manufacturers. But it is predominantly a British consortium and I would imagine that the basis on which they went into the tender was therefore a British manufacturing base.

My Lords, is my noble friend aware of the estimate that at least 70 per cent, of the equipment in connection with that tender will be made in Great Britain? Is he further aware that wherever these networks have been built in the free world, it has always been the work services and local post office which have held up progress, and therefore he might have been wise to have let the works contract even before letting the contract for the electronics that go inside? Will he therefore try to make up for lost time in view of the delay of 18 months while these tenders have been considered?

My Lords, what I tried to explain to my noble friend is that there is a difficulty about letting the works services until one knows the exact dimensions of the equipment one intends to put inside, and clearly one does not know the exact dimensions of the equipment until one has had the contract. I can confirm that, so far as the data processing equipment is concerned, it is my understanding that 70 per cent, of the equipment is British; but I have to remind my noble friend that regrettably some of the primary radar equipment will not be made in this country and that outside contractors have been successful.