HC Deb 09 March 1966 vol 725 cc2292-309

12.54 a.m.

Mr Edward du Cann (Taunton)

I am very grateful for the opportunity to raise the subject of No. 3 Supply Reserve Depot, operated by the Royal Army Ordnance Corps in the village of Norton Fitzwarren, near Taunton, in my constituency.

There are a number of rumours about the present situation. There is certainly a degree of uncertainty about the future of this establishment and those who are working there, and I shall be most grateful to the Under-Secretary for any clarification he can give me, and more particularly my constituents, in relation to the particular points which I propose to raise. May I say that I appreciate the hon. Gentleman's courtesy in being here at this very late hour this evening to answer this debate.

This is a story which really began when I received a letter dated 20th October, 1965 from the then Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army. That letter informed me, as Member of Parliament for the constituency, that it had been decided that this depot should be closed and its functions transferred elsewhere. There have been a number of rumours both inside the depot and outside it against this possibility, because rationalisation of the supply functions of the three Services has been a matter about which this House in general has been agreed for some time, and it was generally projected that the future of this depot would be called in question. If I may say so, in parenthesis, as it were, I was grateful for the way in which I was kept informed by the hon. Gentleman's predecessor, who is now the Minister, a habit which the hon. Gentleman has courteously followed in his turn.

The story began at the end of last year, and arising out of that there are a number of points which I hope the Minister will be good enough to answer. Included in the letter to which I have referred was a phrase which really explains the reason why for some time I have been anxious to raise this matter, and I am glad to have the opportunity tonight to do so.

Having told me about the decision to close the depot, the Minister went on to write: There is bound to be redundancy. The civilian strength of this depot is 213 persons, men and women, and I shall be more particular about the figures in a moment. It may seem that in total numbers this is small in the context of the number of people whom the Army employ for this sort of work, and small by comparison with the number of people who may or may not be employed in our great towns and cities, but in the village of Norton Fitzwarren the proposal to close this depot and transfer its functions in the main to Botley, near Southampton, is a very serious matter, for inevitably the final closure involves a substantial proportion of the people living in that village.

May I say something in general about the depot. First, it is designed and built for the task of storing, receiving and issuing thousands of tons of food supplies. It is extremely well equipped. Second, it has a laboratory which is fine in the research and testing work that it does. This laboratory is of recent construction—within the last year or so, in the main—and it is clear that a great deal of money has been spent on it.

Third, it is an extremely efficient depot. I have seen it in operation, and I do not think that anyone could gainsay that. What is more, those who are working in it are widely experienced in their work, and extremely good at it. Fourth—and I do not doubt that I shall carry the Minister with me here—in tonnage, in work, and in loyalty this depot, as an example of its kind, simply cannot be bettered.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

indicated assent.

Mr. du Cann

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for the indication of assent which he is good enough to give me on that point. Indeed, I hope that he will allow me to say that, whatever the future of this depot may be, there is no doubt that the Army and the country in general owe a great deal to those who have worked there with honour and credit to themselves and their country, now and in the past.

That being so, there must be good reason to disband the team and to recruit new labour; in other words, to upset what is obviously an effective operation and transfer the whole thing to Botley.

I want to speak briefly about the human problems involved. The total number of disabled registered and non-registered persons working there is 24, which is more than 10 per cent.—a high proportion. Also included in the total establishment are 132 men over the age of 50 who, again, must obviously, by definition, have given excellent and long service to the Army Department. Of the established staff 25 are non-industrialist—23 men and two women—and 23 are industrial—21 men and two women. Of the temporary staff, eight are non-industrial—three men and five women—and 108 industrial—70 men and 38 women. In general, it can be said that there are bound to be very great human problems in the move, not only in respect of the disabled people but also in respect of those who are over the age of 50, who, plainly, will find it very difficult to find employment.

The Minister was good enough to inform me by letter in the last few days that of those 213 persons employed 122 can be offered other jobs. I am grateful for that. But that leaves the question: what of the remainder—nearly 50 per cent.? I am bound to bring to the attention of the hon. Gentleman the problem of the people working there, for women especially—whether established or not—will no doubt find it extraordinarily difficult to move their homes. In sum, many human problems are involved under this head.

There is virtually no other suitable employment in the area which is immediately available to those who either decide not to move to Botley or cannot be offered employment there. This is the position both in Norton Fitzwarren and Taunton. My first question, therefore, is: to what extent has this change-over been considered in the context of regional development? Obviously, the employment prospects in the South-West are very different from those in the South, and the employment prospects in and around Southampton are very different from those in and around Taunton.

When I began my speech I made the point that rationalisation of Service supplies is a matter about which the whole House is properly agreed. This is rightly a continuing process. I want to make it plain, therefore, that I am not against rationalisation per se, nor—as I can say with full authority—are the staff of this establishment at Norton Fitzwarren; indeed, in the discussions which we have properly had together about this matter the thing that has impressed me more than anything else has been the extreme reasonableness and common sense of those involved.

A moment or two ago, when Mr. Speaker was in the Chair, he made the point, which we all have in mind, that the opportunity to speak on this Bill allows us to raise grievances before Supply. I do not wish the hon. Member to think that it is my purpose, either for myself—because I have made a judgment—or for my constituents, to raise a grievance. That is not the feeling of my constituents. But it is right that I should say clearly that I hope that the Minister will be able to satisfy me and—more important—my constituents, who are reasonable people, that what is proposed here is reasonable, sensible and in the national interest. To use the same word for the third time, it is "reasonable" to ask that evidence should be given that, if the transfer is carried out, it will produce economies, and that the new arrangement will be at least as efficient as the old.

I am advised that the estimated saving here is likely to be about £300,000 a year and I am grateful for the Under-Secretary's confirmation that this is what is expected. Perhaps we can go into that. I am also advised, however, that the staff costs in Botley are bound to be much more than in Taunton. As many as 120 or more staff might have to be recruited, and the remarkable and unsatisfactory thing is that staff costs—pay, in a word—in Botley appear to be a good deal higher than in the environs of Taunton.

I am told, though I have not been able to check these figures, that a labourer in Botley is likely to be paid about £20 a week—that is to say, his ordinary rate and a bonus—whereas, in Taunton, the basic rate is about £10 18s. a week. There is a bonus scheme in Botley which, in general, results in people being paid between £3 and £4 a week each more than they are in Taunton.

This seems curious, on the face of it, but whatever the logic of the situation—I am not competent to judge, but would appreciate the Under-Secretary's comments tonight—if that is so, it must mean that there will, in general, be a greater expense in paying the staff, that is to say, in the ordinary running costs of the new operation, if the decision has been made to make the transfer. Perhaps there is a simple explanation of this. It is clear that the pressure on staff in the Southampton area must inevitably be very much heavier than in Taunton for the reasons which I have given.

I am also advised that the transport costs at Botley to bring the staff in will be a matter which will fall on the establishment. At Norton Fitzwarren, as the Under-Secretary will know, the staff have to pay their own costs. In sum, under this head, it appears from the advice which I have that staff costs will be greater.

I now turn to the logistics of the matter. I am advised that the scattering of the supply organisation will involve higher transport costs. I am told, for instance, that eight C.S.D.s are served from Norton Fitzwarren and that the position will be entirely changed—without going into the details of the matter—by the transfer. Perhaps the Under-Secretary will comment on this point.

I am advised that the end result, if the transfer is made, will be that savings under this head are likely to be more illusory than real. A short time ago I read the Eighth Report of the Estimates Committee, for the Session 1964–65, which was printed as recently as 3rd November. I was struck by an observation in paragraph 95: In the area covered by Your Committee's inquiry several schemes of rationalisation have been drawn up and some are in the process of being put into effect. The Ministry of Defence were however unable to report any specific economies achieved so far. There may well be good reasons for that: I do not suggest that there are not. I merely quote this paragraph because I think it right to draw it to the Under-Secretary's attention. It reinforces me to a degree in the argument which I have so far adduced, that, on the surface at any rate, it appears that the economies may not be as great as had originally been foreseen, certainly on the staff and logistics side.

I now turn to the physical side, which is a very much larger matter. I am advised that the Navy's storage facilities at Botley are not adequate. I have not seen them, but I did come into fleeting contact with them during the war—but that is a very different matter and it was a long time ago. I am told that only part of the Taunton operation can be accommodated. I am told, for example, that 250,000 sq. ft. is available whereas the packing department alone in Taunton requires almost that amount of space—230,000 sq. ft. I am told, therefore, that as of this moment the whole operation in Taunton, the physical work which they do, and the storage cannot be emptied because there is insufficient room at Botley.

I am told, further, that as a result there will be a need to build new sheds at Botley. Without going into the detail, perhaps the hon. Member will deal with that point in general and tell me whether that is so, whether new sheds will have to be built, and, if so, what is the likely cost. That would enable everybody better to appreciate the realities of the financial situation.

Apart from the capital cost, I am told that the Navy in Botley is handling very different types of food operation from that in train at Taunton at present. To give an example, one-fifth of the naval supplies at present are tinned goods whereas four-fifths of the Norton Fitzwarren goods are tinned.

I turn to the particular work at Norton Fitzwarren where they are so successful—the business of special packs under the command of an excellent man, Mr. Dunster, and his colleagues. The question arises how the specially packed product will be handled in the future. I am advised that at the moment virtually nothing goes from Botley for victualling of ships. How true this is I do not know. I could mention a number of other points, but I am not a technical expert. Nevertheless, I am bound to question whether this changeover will be more effective or more complete.

May I draw the attention of the House, and, in particular, of the Minister, to certain other paragraphs in the eighth Report of the Estimates Committee, beginning at paragraph 106. Without deploying in any detail what is said there, I quote the following: It was…surprising to the Sub-Committee to learn that the Navy Department had been invited to draw up plans for supplying food to all three Services. In that paragraph a further argument is adduced into which I will not go in detail. I content myself with that statement because I do not doubt that the facts are familiar to the hon. Member.

Paragraph 107 is perhaps even more interesting: Even if it is accepted that one of the Services should be the chosen agent for the supply of food, the question still remains as to why the Navy Department were invited to draw up a plan in preference to the Army who have by far the largest organisation for supplying food of the three Services and already provide the R.A.F. with a substantial proportion of their messing requirements. Incidentally, the Minister knows that this is one of the principal functions of the Norton Fitzwarren depot. The paragraph adds: A memorandum on this subject submitted by the Ministry of Defence points out that if this major user principle were to be applied in all arrangements for rationalisation, the Army would almost invariably be selected. The argument is further deployed, and I will not go into it in detail, but it is somewhat impressive that the paragraph ends: Again, Your Committee do not consider that the need to find a task for the naval victualling organisation —a remarkable expression— to undertake is an adequate reason for giving them this very large responsibility. This point is developed further in paragraph 108 when it is suggested that The system of allocating functions to each Service in turn is known as "Buggins' Turn. "

There are some remarks about radio operators, and so on, with which I will not weary the House, but this part sentence ends—after continuing the argument— This would seem likely to limit seriously the economies to be gained from the project. I am sure that the Minister will agree that these questions are fairly weighty and they are the result of the conclusions of a Committee of the whole House, formed after hearing evidence of a substantial kind from expert witnesses from the Minister's own Department.

I hope that the Minister will be able to comment on those, points. Can he assure us that the change will be economical and efficient in the light of the information that I have endeavoured to give shortly on the subject of costing in regard to running costs, capital costs, the particular and peculiar work done by this depot and in relation to the comments of the Estimates Committee? For that clarification I would be most grateful.

Perhaps I could also raise another point which seems to me to run on almost from what I have already said. Is it not possible for some economies to be effected at Norton Fitzwarren itself? I could make practical suggestions and would be happy to do so on another occasion, but I think it fair to ask the Minister what evaluation has been made under this head, and to go further and ask: why is it not possible, rather than shift the Norton Fitzwarren depôt to Botley, to let the Royal Navy take over Norton Fitzwarren as it stands—this purpose-made, efficient depôt?

The closing of this side of Botley's operation, which is small, would affect only seven or eight people. We have already discussed the ease with which those people might find other employment. There would not be the same human problem if that were done. It would presumably be possible for Botley to be sold and the whole thing to be moved to Norton Fitzwarren. Has this been considered? I am advised that the Norton Fitzwarren depôt could easily assume responsibility for the whole naval food and victualling work which is done at Botley and for the stocks.

One of the remarkable features of the whole Norton Fitzwarren operation is that the depot is much larger than its existing user—a point to which I shall refer again later. There is plenty of storage space. There is the supervisory staff necessary to do the additional work. Both exist and both can be seen to exist. As to the additional work load, again I am advised that this could easily be met by rephasing and eliminating the peaks in the present outflow of dispatches. This is a technical matter, but the Minister well knows that this occurs. It could be dealt with, I believe, and if it were done no increase in personnel would be required at Norton Fitzwarren. Again, I would be grateful for the Minister's view. I am suggesting, therefore, that here is possibly a real opportunity for economies.

I began by saying that I had been most impressed with what I had been told by those members of the staff whom I have seen. I was impressed by them and their arguments based, of course, on their practical and devoted experience. One example impressed me more than anything else, and it was this. These are not people who are very highly paid—far from it. Indeed, one of our main problems is that the workpeople in the West Country are paid, in general, much below the national average. But they would be willing for £250, a great sum of money, to be taken from their canteen fund and used to have the matter investigated by independent Consultants. If that is not an example of their backing their own judgment with all the resources they possess, and if that is not impressive, I do not know what is. I hope that it will convince the Minister, if he needs convincing, of the great seriousness with which these people take the matter.

I have said that the depot is not fully used at present. What is the possibility of obtaining other users? I raised this point with the Minister when he gave me a courteous reception some time ago. He informed me that there was a possibility of obtaining a short-term user. He has since written to me saying that he and his Department are satisfied that a short-term user does not exist. So far, so bad, from the point of view of my constituents, but has he any proposals to offer the depot to other Service users, assuming that the decision to close it has been made and that he is satisfied that that is the right course to take? What investigations is he making and when will he be in a position, if these proposals are being looked into, to say exactly what the situation is?

I hope that it will be possible for the Minister to conduct these inquiries as a matter of urgency, because I emphasise that anxiety is felt locally about this matter. Whatever decision is finally made about, say, a Service user or others, other questions arise. For example, if the depot is to be moved—and I hope that the Minister will satisfy us that this is the right course—what will happen to the site in future? I hope that it will be developed for industrial purposes. I have been determined to see that we get an increasing degree of industry in and around Taunton, Wellington, and so on. I have been engaged in this endeavour for a considerable time. This closure provides an opportunity. It is a magnificent site, ideally situated for manufacturing purposes.

Is the D.E.A. or the Board of Trade—with which I am, for the time being, not in as close touch as I was some time ago—making any plans or showing interest in the depot? I assume that some thinking has been given to the matter because it is logical to suppose that these things are thought out before a closure takes place. It is my duty as the hon. Member for the area to look into these matters. I have received a number of inquiries from firms which are only too anxious to take over either the whole or part of the site for industrial purposes. I have with me a letter from one firm which has impressed me very much indeed.

One part of the letter from this local firm states: As is common in interdepartmental affairs of this sort, no one seems clear as to what is going to happen to the section of the Camp which is to be closed or to the workers I have mentioned above. The second point is rather unfair because the Army has gone to a great deal of trouble to see that the people who work there are kept fully informed. I pay tribute to the commanding officer of the depot, who is an officer of the highest calibre. I have obviously not discussed the closure with him, but when I have seen him during my visits to the camp he has impressed me as being an officer of remarkable qualities.

The letter goes on: We have intimated both to the Ministry of Works and to the Ministry of Defence that we would be interested in acquiring, either by negotiated purchase or on a rental basis, building(s) at the S.R.D., and that furthermore, we should be prepared favourably to consider taking up quite a number of the redundant workers if they would be prepared to submit themselves to trade retraining by the Ministry of Labour at the nearest convenient centre. I know that the Minister will appreciate the importance of this in the context of what I have said about the older people.

The letter adds: In this number we should be prepared to incorporate a suitable proportion of disabled workers, who could perform the less arduous machine work. We should be most grateful if you could possibly use your influence"— to obtain an answer from the Ministry.

My final point is simply that here is one example of a firm which could move in to part of that site and, whether or not the depot is closed for its present purposes, could provide employment in the area—something which is very much needed. Can we not make arrangements to get this firm, or any other firms, in now? Cannot that be undertaken? Can we not accelerate the process as a matter of urgency? I appreciate that a number of complicated factors are involved, and that these we must talk about, but in any case, whatever happens to the depot, cannot we show that we are determined to make the maximum use of it in the future, either in part, as I suggest, or in whole?

I know that I have not spoken this evening for as long as have some other hon. Members, but I hope that the Minister will not think that the brevity of my speech in any way means that I do not take the matter extremely seriously. My brevity is, indeed, in inverse proportion to the strength of feeling of both my constituents and myself. I hope that the hon. Gentleman will be able to give satisfactory answers to the questions that I have felt obliged to raise.

1.27 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army (Mr. Merlyn Rees)

I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman the Member for Taunton (Mr. du Cann) for informing me beforehand of some of the points he wished to raise, and I welcome the opportunity to place on record the facts which he has requested. I shall take the opportunity to refer to the Eighth Report of the Estimates Committee, which impinges on the problem. If I do not cover all the points the right hon. Gentleman raised I will, of course, arrange to write to him about them. I will confess to one at once—the particular problem of victualling of ships is something on which I do not have information.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his courteous remarks about my hon. Friend the Minister of Defence for the Army, who is here tonight as well as myself. That is almost two for the price of one—or is it the other way round? I should also like to thank him for his very courteous remarks about the Commanding Officer of No. 3 S.R.D.

The decision to close 3 Supply Reserve Depot, Taunton, must be seen against the background of the plan prepared by the Navy Department for the single management of food. This plan is part of the general scheme of rationalising logistic functions between the Services, under which each of the Service Departments was given responsibility for preparing rationalisation plans on various subjects. The plan prepared by the Navy Department for food showed that combining the food stocks of the three Services would lead to savings, and that the best way to achieve these was by closing the depot at Taunton. This plan was approved by the Ministry of Defence in September, 1965.

This showed that the existing naval victualling depots could provide all the necessary bulk storage for food. These depots, which are situated in or near to the main naval ports, could not themselves be closed because storage is required near the naval ports for operational reasons. They must be in positions where they can continue to serve the Fleet.

Eighty per cent. of the food stocks held at Taunton will in future be held at the naval victualling depot at Botley in the Southampton area. This is a modern depot built since the 1939–1945 war with excellent facilities, including first-class road and rail access and a highly-developed system of mechanical handling. The remainder of the stock will be held at Kirkliston, in Scotland, with a small quantity at Wrangaton, near Plymouth—both excellent depots. The packing of composite rations will be transferred from Taunton to Botley, where good heated accommodation is available. The Navy Department's laboratory facilities at Gosport, supported as at Taunton by the resources of the Government Chemist, will provide an equally good service of inspection and analysis.

The right hon. Member referred to paragraph 108 of the Estimates Committee Report in which the Committee has agreed with the Association of Government Supervisors' and Radio Officers' judgment that the use of the Navy Department for bulk wholesale food distribution was decided on the principle of "Buggins' turn". I can assure the House that this is not the way in which the Ministry of Defence approaches a problem of this kind. As I hope I have shown, there are sound economic and operational considerations behind this decision.

The right hon. Member also suggested that Botley could not cope with the increased work load. We have examined this with great care and I emphasise that we have no doubt that there is an adequate labour supply and a sufficient up-to-date capacity at Botley. Botley will be able to cope with all the three Services food stocks because the naval clothing and accommodation stores have been rehoused elsewhere. That also answers one of the points raised in paragraph 520 of the eighth Report of the Estimates Committee. The production line for the packing of the 24-hour ration pack is already in successful operation.

The right hon. Member referred to paragraph 115 of the Report of Sub-Committee D of the Estimates Committee and suggested that the giving of responsibility of bulk food supply to the Navy Department would create difficulties in those areas, particularly overseas, where the other Services would operate food depots and organise local distribution. I can assure him that no difficulty will arise in practice. The change we are making is in our bulk storage arrangements, or if you like, our wholesale side. The existing arrangements for local purchase and local inter-Service co-operation will continue. The main difference will be that one department in London instead of two or three will be responsible for financial control and for the supply of those items not bought locally. For instance, the Army depots at Antwerp and Hong Kong will continue to supply food to the three Services in their areas. The origins of the bulk supplies to them will change, but the change will make no difference to their organisation and distribution arrangements.

The constituents of the right hon. Member expressed some concern to him that the standard enjoyed under the existing system might suffer under the new arrangements. The Navy Department attaches great importance to maintaining a high standard of service to all its customers and the Director of Victualling will have Army and Royal Air Force staff seconded to his headquarters. I do not think that the right hon. Member or his constituents need worry on that score. The right hon. Member will have noted that Sub-Committee D made no recommendation to alter the food rationalisation plan. This plan is so devised that the new management organisation could be readily absorbed into a unified stores service if that were considered advisable at a later stage.

The right hon. Member did not refer tonight, but in our talks we have referred, to the Estimates Committee Report and I wish to mention paragraph 1385 of the minutes of evidence where, he will recall, it was suggested that the taking over by the Navy Department might lead to a greater spread of supervisory grades, in other words, to more people of this kind being employed. The Navy and Army Departments employ similar grades of supervisory staff and the numbers and gradings are kept to the minimum consistent with efficiency. In the case of food rationalisation, the closure of the Taunton depôt will produce a net saving of six supervisory personnel, four Army officers and two civilians.

On savings in general, I am advised that the figures I give are conservative—in the context of tonight, perhaps I should say "modest". The annual net recurring savings arising from the closure of Taunton are about £240,000, after allowing—and I emphasise that it is after allowing—for the necessary increases in cost at the Navy victualling depots. These are the necessary increases in costs of having more staff. I should add that, in addition, there is the disposal value of the depôt at Taunton. It is a valuable site. The £240,000 net saving is made up of £105,000 staff costs and £135,000 running costs. This saving is by far the largest element in the total financial saving resulting from food rationalisation of approximately £300,000 per annum, and I am also advised that the other £60,000 is in smaller items of a general nature including headquarters staff.

Furthermore, I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that we shall make some economies in staff by closing the depôt at Taunton and that, already, we have been able to make some reductions in the Minister of Defence headquarters staff by this rationalisation; and that of itself is very desirable.

On the consequences of the closure, the Taunton depôt is already in process of running down and will close in October of this year. The staff there consists of four Army officers and just over 200 civilians. Some redundancy may occur earlier than October. The precise staff rundown programme is not yet firm, but it is unlikely that any reductions other than by normal wastage will be necessary before July.

Established employees will be offered other Government employment, although this may not be in the Taunton area. There is, of course, a well and long-established procedure for established staff. I can assure the right hon. Gentleman that throughout the course of the negotiations for the closure there have been cordial relations between the management and the trade union representatives on the local Whitley Council. It was clear from many of the right hon. Gentleman's remarks that he realised that.

Unestablished staff do not have the same entitlement as established staff to guaranteed employment. If we cannot absorb them into local Army establishments, the Department does all it can to find alternative work for them in other Departments or in industry. Our local officers maintain close liaison with the Ministry of Labour and major employers in the area and will help our employees by ensuring that they are kept informed of local opportunities by making it easy for them to follow up such opportunities and advising them, through our welfare or labour officers, on matters which may seem to present them with difficulty.

There will be vacancies elsewhere, including the Navy victualling depôt at Botley, for those willing to move, and we are doing all we can, in conjunction with the Ministry of Labour, to help our employees to find other work. In fact, officials from the Botley depôt and the local Ministry of Labour offices were at the Taunton depôt yesterday to help employees about alternative employment. We are aware of the age problem and of the disabled workers and the particular problems of female workers.

The Army Department has established conclusively—and I and my hon. Friend are satisfied on this point—that there is now no use for the depot in another defence rôle. We are now following normal disposal action. First, it is being offered to other Government Departments and, in view of the number of interests to be consulted, this will take us, so I am advised, to the end of April. Then we will have to ask the local authority for its views both on planning and whether it is interested in the site and the buildings. I can tell the right hon. Gentleman that we will make informal contact before then so that the local authority is aware of all that is required before that time.

Thirdly, if the procedure which I have mentioned achieves nothing, we shall dispose of the property on the open market. As the right hon. Gentleman knows and has mentioned tonight, the firm of Messrs. Easton and Johnson has already applied with regard to the future of the depot. I should inform him that there are other and major firms which are also interested. It all looks extremely promising in this respect. We also follow the procedure, which is relatively old, of consulting the Board of Trade which has responsibility here, and because of the responsibility of the D.E.A. in regional planning it also has been informed at an early stage. All these Departments have been aware of what is going on well in advance of the selling.

I am confident that the Defence Department has made the right decision in carrying out this part of its rationalisation programme, which is one of the reasons why the Ministry of Defence was set up in the first instance, as the right hon. Gentleman quite properly agreed. I am equally confident that in its approach to problems arising from change, and especially redundancy problems, the Ministry of Defence stands comparison with the very best of outside industry and I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his remarks in that respect.

To return to the question of the trade unions, the right hon. Gentleman has mentioned their responsibility at local level. I can vouch for their responsibility at national level, because one of my jobs is to be chairman of the Army Department Industrial Council. We discussed this matter at our last meeting. The trade unions discussed it with exactly the same responsibility as the right hon. Gentleman has met locally. I assure him that we shall do everything possible to speed up a new use for the depot. I repeat that it looks very promising. All the people involved in this realise the importance of moving as quickly as possible, but we are equally convinced that this depot must close. There is no other military use for it and it will close down in October.

Mr. du Cann

The hon. Gentleman will understand that a number of questions have been going through my mind while he was speaking, some of detail and importance. I am most grateful for his most clear exposition. I hope that he will permit me to pursue this correspondence in due course either with him or his successor.

Mr. Rees

If we are to gaze into the future as to who will be doing this job we shall have an endless discussion. I am absolutely certain that the officials in the Ministry of Defence who have to deal with this matter are fully aware of the problem. Whoever is doing the job, I am confident that it will be done very properly.