HC Deb 13 February 1961 vol 634 cc1199-210

Motion made, and Question proposed. That this House do now adjourn.—[Mr. Whitelaw.]

4.33 a.m.

Mr. Airey Neave (Abingdon)

The decision of the War Office to close the Central Ordnance Depot at Didcot has aroused in my constituency great feeling and much criticism of the way in which the announcement was handled. Although it means keeping my hon. Friend the Under-Secretary of State for War out of his bed, I feel fully justified in raising the subject tonight. I feel very strongly about it.

The facts are these. On 24th January the War Office announced the closure of the Central Ordnance Depot on the ground that it was concentrating War Office stores from a number of different depô ts and that the stores which are now at Didcot would be moved to Bicester. The War Office announced the closure of the Central Ordance Depot in its Press statement, but it is not clear whether it intends completely to run down the depot by 1st January, 1964.

A statement issued on behalf of the War Office after the official Press statement indicated that it was expected that a few hundred employees of the War Office might still remain at the Depot after 1st January, 1964, which was to be the end of the first phase of the rundown.

As I understand, there will be no redundancy in the first year—1961—but from 1st January, 1962, the move to Bicester will begin. It is, therefore, not clear exactly what the War Office intends to do and what its overall plan is. It certainly has not been made clear to my constituents. There are 2,400 War Office employees at the Central Ordnance Depot, of whom 890 are established civil servants. There are 625 women in the industrial section, and 300 non-industrial women. All the employees live and work in the neighbourhood of Didcot. The depot came to Didcot in 1915, about the same time as the former Royal Air Force Depot at Milton. The Royal Air Force depot was closed in 1958, and handed over to the War Office.

I would like my hon. Friend to remember, when considering the whole of this matter, that both depô ts and their employees have rendered historic service to the Crown in the storing of military equipment. For over forty years there has been a link between Didcot and the War Office, so that it is all the more unfortunate that clumsy handling of the official statement made the news of the closure come as a great shock to them.

I know the people who work there; their loyalty to the War Office is very great Industrial relations are good, and the people show common sense. They realise perfectly well that a reduction in the Army is inevitable, and that concentration of these War Office stores will take place. I should also like to pay tribute not only to these good relations amongst the staff, but to the present Commandant, Brigadier Wortham, in a rather difficult situation.

It was into this atmosphere of good will and responsibility—of the trade unions, particularly—that the War Office dropped what was locally called a "bombshell," but which I would, colloquially, describe as a "clanger"—and a very heavy clanger at that. The reason was that those concerned in the War Office utterly failed to consult any other Government Department involved with the employment situation in the district. They did not consult any local authority or the Ministry of Labour's local officials at a time when there was considerable anxiety as to employment in the car industry at Abingdon. My right hon. Friend the President of the Board of Trade, also, was not consulted.

It was very unfortunate that a series of statements appeared from my right hon. Friend, the Minister of Labour which conflicted with the War Office announcement. All the statements appeared at about the same time, and made a very bad impression in the district. I hope that my hon. Friend will be able to assure me that the War Office will, in future, adopt the practice of consulting the local authorities and those concerned with employment in the area before they make similar announcements to the Press.

It must be realised that from a psychological point of view the timing of the announcement is important. It is from the moment of the announcement that people begin to feel that an upheaval is to take place in their domestic lives—as will be the case with a very large number of the employees at this depot. It is absolutely no excuse to say that redundancy will not take place for a year, and I hope that my hon. Friend will not try to give that as a reason for not having any consultation in future. It is absolutely essential that the War Office should con-suit the local employment office and also local authorities when a move as big as this is contemplated. These things do come as a shock. We have not very much time in the constituency to make preparations for the replacement of this depot by local industry at Didcot. I want an explanation about this matter, and I hope to have certain very definite assurances on it.

I put down a Question for Written Answer asking for a meeting between the War Office, the local authorities, the Ministry of Labour and the Board of Trade. I wanted the meeting to take place in my constituency. I was told that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would act in consultation with the local authorities and the other Departments. I should like a better arrangement than that. I want the War Office to be prepared to attend a meeting in my constituency with representatives of the other Departments, the local authorities and representatives of the Whitley Council from Didcot. There is no reason why there should not be some kind of public meeting on the matter, so that the staff may be reassured. This was done by the Air Ministry in connection with the closure of the R.A.F. Station at Milton.

What are the plans for the future of the staff? There must have been some plan. It cannot be possible that the War Office has made this decision and has no information to give about how many men or women will become redundant by the end of the rundown period on 1st January, 1964. I tried to make inquiries of my hon. Friend's Department, but no one was able to say how many people would be redundant in that period. It is extremely important for us to have information in the district. It has been reckoned that the number will be between 700 and 800 men. This is very important in view of the need for industries to replace the depot.

This is all said to be part of a major concentration of stores at Bicester. What is the reason for choosing Bicester as a better place than Didcot? Why did the War Office take over Milton from the Air Ministry in 1958? That was a very big depot, and many of the buildings were in comparatively good repair, and the War Office has actually been spending money on those buildings. At that time, the War Office takeover of the R.A.F. depot, in relation to Didcot, gave the town an impression of security, that the War Office intended to stay there. The War Office having made that decision only two years ago, I do not understand why it did not undertake a programme of rebuilding at Didcot at that time.

There is barrack accommodation there and there is housing for War Office workers. There is not so much, and it is not so new, as what is to be found at Bicester, but if the War Office thought it right to take over this R.A.F. depot in 1958, in view of the fact that this town is very dependent on the depot, it seems surprising that it did not select—the situation must have been foreseen for a very long time before the announcement—the Didcot depot as the place to concentrate its stores.

What is the position with regard to the War Office houses at Didcot now? Also, what about the Air Ministry houses at Milton Heights which, I was surprised to learn, the War Office intends to take over from the Air Ministry at the very time when it proposes to close this depot? Is that really so?

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. James Ramsden)

Perhaps I may tell my hon. Friend now that no decision has yet been taken by the War Office about taking over Milton Heights.

Mr. Neave

Perhaps that was only a rumour, but I want to know what is intended there, because the Air Ministry's decision with regard to the tenants depends on what my hon. Friend's Department decides to do.

What industrial staff is envisaged at Bicester? This is very important for Didcot, for reasons which I have already explained, since it is so dependent on the depot at present, with its large number of employees. Bicester is 30 miles from Didcot, and if the staff have to travel there a very complicated assisted travel scheme will be necessary.

It seems to me that this position is very obscure, and I would like to hear more about the reasons for the decision. It seems rather badly thought out, and the people concerned with the civilian employment in the district ought to be more thoroughly consulted.

I would remind my hon. Friend that there are a number of older employees who have given very long service to the depot, and, therefore, that even if he does not accept that there are good reasons for a concentration of stores taking place at Didcot—and if the War Office had decided that some time ago they might have done it more cheaply—he will maintain, after January, 1964, a sub-depot of his Department at Didcot.

Unemployment in the area is very low—about 0. 6 per cent. of the working population of over 13,000. I am not attacking the policy of the War Office in regard to the concentration of stores as such, but only this decision; and my hon. Friend knows I support his right hon. Friend, the Secretary of State and himself in many matters of policy. But I am determined to see that the War Office plan and phase the rundown of the depot so that they do not go, leaving this vast acreage of buildings derelict and useless, and that they phase the rundown in consultation with the President of the Board of Trade and the county planning officer, so that new factories can be introduced into Didcot for the development of the town.

I would like to be absolutely certain from what I am told tonight that the whole thing is properly co-ordinated. There is now a much stronger case for new industries in the town, and I shall press the President of the Board of Trade in that connection later. A number of local authorities have sent resolutions to the Prime Minister, and I hope that my hon. Friend will take account of the strong feeling about the way the matter was handled.

My three points, therefore, are that he will look into the whole question of moving to Bicester and at what the rundown will be, so that the redundancy, if any, at Didcot is phased in with new industries; that the President of the Board of Trade will be asked to encourage industry to Didcot, and, at any rate, that the War Office consider a small sub- depot for some hundreds of War Office employees at Didcot after the end of the first phase; and to make no further decisions on this matter without consultation on the question of employment generally and on the prospects of new industries.

These matters do not, as the War Office seem to think, arise for Didcot in the distant future. They arise now. They involve people's domestic upheaval in having to go to Bicester or elsewhere, and this is already in their minds. It is necessary that my hon. Friend and his Department should take action now in conjunction with other Departments.

4.49 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for War (Mr. James Ramsden)

I am grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Abingdon (Mr. Neave) for having given me notice of some of the points that he has raised, and I hope that from my answer he and his constituents can derive some reassurance. But if I am to persuade him that this decision over Didcot is sense, I must ask him to bear with me while I try to put it in the framework of the operation of running down the United Kingdom base of which it forms an important part.

The "Q Services" organisation—I use the term with the more confidence as my hon. Friend has been a Service Minister—as it stands now, has in its time catered for the needs of an Army of 400,000 men. After 1963, it will be required to serve an Army of rather less than half that number. There therefore has to be some streamlining and I do not think that my hon. Friend would wish to contest the correctness of our decision to run down the United Kingdom base to a size appropriate to the future needs of the Army. The size of the Army's administrative tail is always a focal point for criticism, and we clearly have to make certain that these services are organised as efficiently and economically as possible from the point of view of manpower and of public funds.

This whole operation, when complete, ought to save considerable sums of public money on staff costs alone; something like £2 million. A saving of staff of this order is bound to result in redundancy somewhere. I would emphasise that we are here planning for the very long term, and we must, therefore, take decisions which in the long term will yield the most economies from the taxpayers' point of view.

Now. how were we to do it? We are dealing here with the whole range of Army stores. These fall into three basic divisions or classifications, namely, vehicle spares, technical and warlike stores, and general stores which include clothing. What makes most sense, therefore, is a final disposition which will leave three main depô ts to correspond with these basic divisions of stores. My hon. Friend has no doubt had experience of this kind of reorganisation himself either in business or in the public service. As he knows, some things fall naturally into place and others fall to be decided on more finely balanced considerations.

Chilwell was a natural for vehicle spares, with Derby as a sub-depot. So was Donnington for technical and warlike stores. Each of these two would take up the vehicle and technical stores from Bicester, leaving Bicester empty and available, if it were judged suitable, as a home for the third of the main divisions, the general stores and clothing now at Didcot, Milton, Thatcham, Long-town and Branston. There was, therefore, at this point a choice what to do with this group of stores.

We could, as in the event we did. plump for Bicester. This is a modern depot, planned and built as a depot, with comparatively new permanent buildings equipped with heating and all with good road and rail facilities. By going there we should get all the stores, as it were. under one roof. On the other hand, we could keep the general stores roughly where they are now. Bicester would then be empty—and we have spent about £3 million since the war in servicing it and bringing it up to date. At present, the clothing and general stores are in four depô ts. With the reduced volume we should still need three, widely dispersed, instead of one concentrated at a single spot.

That was the problem, and the solution which my right hon. Friend approved was to go to Bicester. The resultant economies are calculated to save nearly £100,000 a year in staff costs alone, and there will be other substantial savings of public money because less building will be necessary and maintenance will be cheaper there. The buildings at Didcot are really not of a standard suitable for a permanent installation. If we were to remain there we should have to do a great deal more building. This will not be necessary at Bicester. My hon. Friend, who has been a Service Minister, will understand the significance of economies of the order I have indicated on the Votes of Service Departments.

The main arguments against going to Bicester were, as we saw them, the ones my hon. Friend very cogently reminded us of. That is to say, the human and social ones. They concern the effects of this decision on the lives and employment of my hon. Friend's constituents and the fact that there has been a depot at Didcot for a long time and that the life of Didcot and the surrounding neighbourhood is a good deal geared to what goes on there. We weighed these considerations with great care and I shall go into some detail about how we believe that this rundown will actually work and how those concerned will, in practice, be affected. I hope that what I have to say will be of some reassurance to my hon. Friend's constituents.

First, however, I must say to my hon. Friend that, as I think he will agree, we see going on in the country today numerous examples of changes in the long-term pattern of industry. The Ministry of Labour and the Board of Trade are equipped to cope with, and even in some cases to encourage, these changes and, in particular, to give help over the social disturbances that are involved. But I think that my hon. Friend will agree that it is just as wrong for us, as it would be for industry, to shirk taking decisions to improve the efficiency of our lay-out simply because they might have social repercussions. What we must do, and what we will certainly do here, is to ensure that the disturbance of people's lives while the changes are going on is kept to the absolute minimum.

I will now say why I think that what we plan to do here satisfies this obligation which, as I have said, we fully accept. In the first place, there is the time factor involved in the plan.

Mr. Neave

Can my hon. Friend say how many people are likely to become redundant?

Mr. Ramsden

I shall, as far as I can, cover the point of redundancy.

In the first place, as I have said, there is the time factor involved. We have given three years' notice of the closure and in the event this may be longer because we may have to retain a part of the depot for a longer period. I think that that answers one of my hon. Friend's questions. But we do not envisage retaining it indefinitely.

This long period of notice will give those who eventually become redundant a very reasonable opportunity to make plans for their alternative employment. I think that this exceptional length of notice deserves emphasising. For example, to put both length of notice and likely redundancy here in proportion, I might say that when we recently had to close the Royal Ordnance Factory at Fazakerley, we had to lay off 1,000 people in Liverpool, a bad employment area, in under a year. I am glad to say that the process of resettlement is going on continuously and has been effective, and only 40 of them are still without jobs.

The long notice will also mean that much of the reduction in the numbers employed will come about through normal wastage, that is people leaving to go to other jobs, or retiring, in the normal course of events. This is also important. There has been a turnover of 10 per cent. of the employees in the last six months. It therefore looks as though wastage, especially if it increases as a result of our announcement, could go on at a rate of over 20 per cent., that is 400 people a year.

Another point concerns employees who are established. There are at present 886 and my hon. Friend will be familiar with their terms of service under which they will continue to be offered employment at War Department establishments. I know that this is sometimes cold comfort when it means a move, or travelling, but by 1964, when the depot closes, 356, or nearly 40 per cent., of the established employees, will be over 60 and eligible to retire on pension. Of the 1,558 temporary employees, 189 will by then be over 65.

My hon. Friend referred to the fact that a number of people already travel some distance to work in Didcot under an assisted travel scheme. I understand that this scheme will still be available in the case of Bicester for those who live in, for example, Faringdon and Wantage, in the kind of direction where the distance would not be too far.

There will, despite all this, inevitably be some redundancy. It would be wrong for me to try to give a forecast as to how much, but the figure which my hon. Friend mentioned as the subject of local speculation looks to me much more like the possible total figure of redundancies over the whole of the United Kingdom base as a result of this rundown plan rather than that likely to result from this single operation. I would not like to forecast a figure, because so much depends on the rate of wastage, as my hon. Friend will appreciate from what I have said. It would be inaccurate to try to make a forecast at the moment.

In view of what I have said, and especially in view of the factors of time and normal wastage, I do not think that my hon. Friend need fear that all this will give rise to any persistent unemployment in his constituency. I say that advisedly. Didcot is a locality which, by and large, has had a tight labour situation. In fact, I have seen letters from my hon. Friend and his neighbours rather stressing the difficulties which our labour needs at the depot were imposing on some local firms.

The Board of Trade in the past has taken the view that because of the generally low rate of unemployment in Abingdon and Didcot there was no need to introduce new industry there. I cannot conceive that in any future reassessment of the needs of the area the fact that by 1964 the depot will no longer exist as a source of employment will not be taken into consideration.

I understand that a property company has acquired a site at Didcot and is planning to put up a number of factories. There, again, I suppose that the employment prospects in the area will be a factor to be taken into account when the question of planning permission is being considered. I shall certainly see to it that as this whole process goes forward we do everything possible to help to smooth the transition for those concerned, as we always do where we are faced with redundancies, by close co-operation with the representatives of the Ministry of Labour.

That, as my hon. Friend will know, is organised right down to factory and shop level in these cases.

I must stress that, in view of the time factor and the fairly rapid turnover of labour which takes place anyway, we do not expect the numbers involved in this redundancy to be very large, certainly nothing like the size of those which I quoted in the case of Fazakerley. My hon. Friend suggested that we should have had consultations with the Ministry of Labour and the Board of Trade—

The Question having been proposed after Ten o'clock on Monday evening, and the debate having continued for half an hour, Mr. DEPUTY-SPEAKER adjourned the House without Question put, pursuant to the Standing Order.

Adjourned at three minutes past Five o'clock a.m.