HC Deb 29 November 1972 vol 847 cc585-94

11.21 p.m.

Mr. John Cordle (Bournemouth, East and Christchurch)

I greatly welcome the opportunity of raising the matter of the Signals Research Development Establishment at Christchurch. This matter concerns not only myself but my hon. Friends the Members for Dorset, North (Mr. David James) and the New Forest (Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson).

This matter is of grave concern to the staff of the establishment. I have in my hand a notice of dissent signed by 180 members of the staff which I propose to read: We, the Undersigned, Mobile Members of the staff in SRDE, view with dismay and anger the very bare Precis of the Rationalisation Committee's proposals, and the extraordinary short time which our staff negotiators are being given to discuss them. We insist that: unless the Management/Rationalisation Committee are prepared to allow our Staff Representatives ample time in which to discuss with the Committee the pros and cons of a fully documented case for rationalisation, together with considered alternatives, we will not co-operate. The decision of the Ministry of Defence to close this research development establishment is one of major concern causing a great deal of anxiety and unsettlement in Christchurch, not only to the staff of the establishment but to the community as a whole. The honourable career of this establishment started in 1903 and continued all the way through the First and Second World Wars with development of very special wireless telegraphy. The establishment was responsible in the Second World War for the invention of the No. 10 microwave radio set used by all three Services.

It is proposed to transfer the work of the establishment to the Royal Radar Establishment in Malvern. I ask the Minister to confirm or deny whether this is the situation. When I saw my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State two or three weeks ago he said that there was not a definite decision yet on the question of closure. This has been a matter of unsettlement. I should like to have an answer "yes" or "no" tonight on whether the decision has been taken. On behalf of the people of Christchurch I strenuously oppose the closure of this establishment.

The demise of this establishment will have a devastating effect on the social and economic life of the town and its immediate surroundings, since the staff of the establishment are well integrated with the local community.

The SRDE is the largest employer in Christchurch and about 900 people work there. Of these, 300 may be considered as mobile; they are highly qualified, highly paid civil servants. The remaining 600 are lower-paid employees, both skilled and unskilled. If all these people were to lose their jobs the effect on Christchurch would be devastating. Although the 300 mobile civil servants would be moved to jobs elsewhere, such a mass exodus would have a marked effect upon the commercial prosperity of the town and would put a relatively enormous strain on the property market.

The wages and salaries paid in the SRDE are in the neighbourhood of £2 million per annum, and most of the money will be spent locally in the shops, on entertainments, rates and other pursuits. The cash flow in the local community will be reduced by approximately this figure if the establishment closes down or moves. Further, over 100 SRDE wives have local jobs, which are mainly of the service type. A characteristic of the Christchurch type of "older citizen" community is that an above-average level of supporting services is required, much of which is provided by the SRDE wives. If the establishment is disbanded, the effect on community facilities for the older citizen is likely to be very marked.

As for the skilled and unskilled workers, I must emphasise that jobs will have to be found for them should the Ministry fail to take them to alternative employment elsewhere. Christchurch has no shortage of vacancies for skilled machine workers, though this could change dramatically—for reasons which I shall presently relate. But for the unskilled the situation is one of despair. Christchurch does not have the industry to employ them. We have a total employed population of about 14,000, corn-prising 10,000 men and 4,000 women, and we have about 500 unemployed men registered and about 50 women. Of the men registered as unemployed, 52 per cent, are over 67 and 70 per cent. are over 50. I do not know what proportion of SRDE workers are unskilled, but I would estimate that the figure is about 300. Therefore, if any of these men are above 50 years of age, the future is bleak. All these workers have families and take an active part in the life of the town. I beg the Minister not to disturb the social and economic life of our community needlessly by making these men redundant.

The reason why I say that such redundancies would be needless is that it is my considered opinion that there is no need to close down the establishment. It easily pays its way, and it has played, and continues to play, a vital role in the highly efficient communications system used by the British Army of the Rhine. Furthermore, the establishment is at once compact, well-organised and successful. Much of its work earns foreign currency. The SRDE workers are an essential group in Christchurch, and I believe that the Minister has a duty to ensure that their work continues, that their jobs are secured and that the town of Christchurch is not devastated by the closure of the SRDE.

It is certain that the onus of proving the necessity—I say "necessity", not "desirability"—of closing the establishment is squarely upon the Minister. It is an onus that he will not easily discharge. Should he come forward with a strong case for closing the establishment, I still insist that these workers who cannot be absorbed in other Ministry establishments must be protected and helped. The Minister must actively encourage other local employers to take them on. I do not think it is asking too much in this situation to request that the orthodox methods of the Ministry be bypassed. A golden opportunity has presented itself.

Messrs. Penny and Giles Limited, a member of the Penny and Giles Group, wishes to increase its undertaking in the Christchurch area. The company is based at Mudeford. It would like to buy 45 acres of the site presently occupied by the establishment. It seeks to erect a purpose-built construction. If this went through, the company could take on between 150–250 extra personnel. This would alleviate the increase in unemployment consequent on the closure of the establishment, as well as the redundancy problem caused by the closure of the British Aircraft Corporation plant at Hurn, close to Christchurch, which over the last 18 months has suffered redundancies amounting to 12,000 men.

I have asked that in this instance the orthodox methods of disposal of Crown land should be bypassed. The Department is already in the process of selling off surplus land at the establishment. Planning permission for industrial development has been granted by the county council for part of the land which has been bought by the local authority.

The disposal of surplus land is controlled by the Property Services Agency, which is required to offer land to other Government Departments and then to local authorities. If no offers are accepted there has to be a public auction. Penny and Giles could bid for the land, but there is always the possibility of some other purchaser outbidding it. This company will expand 'its interests in Christchurch if it can get the land. It would thus be enabled to employ a sizeable number of workers made redundant by the closure of the establishment. If the company cannot expand at Christchurch it is highly likely that it will move to Wales, where it can expand. This would aggravate a worsening situation.

I concede that the set method of the disposal of land is fair and wise. However, this is an exceptional situation, and the Department must do everything to mitigate the damage it will cause by the closing of the establishment. People are more important than procedures, and no procedure is wholly just if strict adherence to it ignores good reason and humanity. I ask the Minister to do one of two things—halt any plans to close the establishment at Christchurch or confine redundancies as much as possible and give every encouragement to Messrs. Penny and Giles Ltd. to step into the breach.

11.33 p.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Army (Mr. Peter Blaker)

The House will recognise the anxieties on the part of his constituents which lie behind my hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, East and Christchurch (Mr. Cordle) in raising this subject. I recognise too, the interest in this important matter of my hon. Friends the Members for New Forest (Mr. Patrick McNair-Wilson) and Dorset, North (Mr. David James). I have had the opportunity this evening of talking with my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth, West (Sir J. Eden), who has also explained to me many of the important points referred to by my hon. Friend. He also assured me that he takes a close interest in the problem.

There are two points with which I must deal before dealing with the matters raised by my hon. Friend. There is no dispute between us about the vital importance of the work which the Signals Research Development Establishment is carrying out and its capacity to carry on such work in future. Whatever decisions are taken, the value of this work will not be lost. What is in question is the best way of reconciling the need to continue work of this kind with the various factors which I shall mention.

Secondly—here I am answering one question put to me by my hon. Friend—I must make it clear that no decision about the establishment's future has yet been made. Certain proposals for rationalising the Department's research and development activities were put confidentially to representatives of the staff associations and trade unions on 19th October. One of the proposals affected the SRDE. Our consultations with the staff associations and the trade unions have not yet been completed. When they have been completed, that is the time when decision will be taken.

On consultation, to which my hon. Friend referred when he read an extract from a document early in his speech, I should like to make clear what the position has been. Since 19th October there has been an exchange of letters in which the reactions of the staff side to the broad proposals were put forward and were answered by the Permanent Secretary.

A meeting to discuss this correspondence took place and further information which was asked for was supplied to the staff side. A thorough examination has been made with the staff side of the technical arguments in favour of the rationalisation proposals, and local delegates from the establishments affected are similarly being given an opportunity to make representations.

A meeting between the Controller of Research and all the establishments affected is due to take place tomorrow. On 1st December a senior official will meet the trade unions, and on 4th December the secretary of the procurement executive will be meeting the staff side. On these occasions there will be a full opportunity for discussions and the putting of questions.

Mr. Cordle

Will there be an opportunity also for the town clerk and a deputation from the council to have discussions with my hon. Friend or with the Secretary of State?

Mr. Blaker

My hon. Friend the Minister of State has just written to the Town Clerk of the Borough of Christchurch saying that he would be happy to meet a deputation from the borough council, and he would appreciate my hon. Friend's attendance.

Mr. Cordle

I thank my hon. Friend for that information.

Mr. Blaker

Turning to the substance of the proposal which my hon. Friend has criticised, I should like to give the general background to the House. The starting point is the formation of the Procurement Executive of the Ministry of Defence, following the report of Mr. Derek Rayner's project team published last year as a White Paper. Before the Procurement Executive was set up, the Navy Department, the Army Department and the Ministry of Aviation Supply each ran research and development establishments of their own. There was central co-ordination of programmes by the Ministry of Defence, but the organisations were fundamentally separate.

One of the more important objectives of the Rayner proposals, which the Government accepted, was to achieve some rationalisation of the activities of 30 different research and development establishments. The Rayner report regarded rationalisation as an urgent task aimed at giving better value for money. It would have been strange indeed if, as a result of bringing all these establishments under one management, the conclusion had been reached that until that time all was for the best in the best of all possible worlds.

Towards the end of last year a number of studies were put in hand on the different aspects of the research and development programme—for example, communications, electronics, materials research and explosives research, all being subjects which fell within the scope of more than one research and development establishment. The aim of these studies was mainly to establish the facts and the realistic possibilities for reorganisation. When the studies began we informed the staff associations and the trade unions concerned of what we were doing and undertook to consult them before decisions were taken on the proposals.

The principles on which we attempted to plan the future size and shape of the organisation were fairly obvious and straightforward, but they bear very much on the case which my hon. Friend has made, and it might be useful to the House if I were to list them.

The first requirement was to produce an organisation which is more flexible than the present one. In the nature of things, research and development requirements vary greatly over the years, and to have a number of small establishments, each highly specialised, does not make for good managerial arrangements. The second principle was that the task should be done as economically as possible. This means, broadly, that we should try to minimise overheads and overlapping between the tasks of establishments. The third need was that wherever possible we should reduce defence land holdings. The fourth principle was that we should seek to devise an organisation which could get on with its job with the minimum of headquarters intervention.

The task was to reconcile those principles with the hard realities of the situation as revealed in the factual study to which I referred. The problem was to work out means of altering the shape of the organisation as cost-effectively as possible. It would have been easy to start with a clean sheet and work out in a vacuum the best allocation for the various activities, but the fact was that we started with a pattern of resources, both human and material, which could be altered only at considerable cost in terms both of money and of individual problems.

It would have been tempting to conclude that the disruption and the problems made all change undesirable, and this—I hope that my hon. Friend will not misunderstand me if I say this—is the ultimate logic of the argument that there should be no change in the research establishments of the country. But that was not the conclusion to which we came. We found that certain changes, by bringing together related activities, would lead both to greater efficiency and to worthwhile money savings.

The proposed move of the Signals Research Development Establishment to Malvern would, we believe, be one such change. That establishments and the Royal Radar Establishment, Malvern, have a great deal of technical background in common, and the total of facilities which they would require together would be less than they would require if kept apart. Their runnings costs would be lower, and their total land requirements would be lower.

My hon. Friend rightly referred to the important question of employment in the area. I should like to give my own views on this problem because I represent a a seaside area where there is the problem of seasonal unemployment and where the structure of the population from the point of view of age is similar to that which my hon. Friend described. I ask my hon. Friend to remember that we are talking about proposals which, if they are adopted, are not expected to be brought into effect until between three and five years from now. My hon. Friend gave the figure of 300 for mobile individuals. My information is that it is more than 400.

My hon. Friend referred to the possibility of Messrs. Penny and Giles creating 150 to 250 additional jobs in the Christchurch area, provided they can acquire part of the site of the Signals Research Development Establishment. This raises the whole question of the procedures for disposing of land which is surplus to Ministry requirements. As my hon. Friend rightly said, this is a matter for the Property Services Agency. He described the procedure which it normally followed. These procedures may seem time-consuming and complex but they have been designed to safeguard the public purse and cannot lightly be put aside. I understand that my hon. Friend has already discussed his suggestion with the Secretary of State for Defence, who felt able to hold out little hope of arranging a sale on the lines suggested. It would be wrong for me to hold out any more hope, but I understand that Messrs. Penny and Giles is in correspondence with the Property Services Agency.

It is never a popular or painless process for a Government Department to seek to save money. As has been said before, everyone is in favour of general economies and particular expenditure. No one could expect that the Ministry's plans for the rationalisation of research and development establishments, when they are determined, will commend themselves to all those directly or indirectly affected. But I assure the House and my hon. Friend in particular that our decisions will be taken only after a very thorough consideration of the technical position that we have established from our own studies and of the technical effect on individuals and communities, including my hon. Friend's own area, to which he has so ably drawn attention tonight.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at thirteen minutes to Twelve o'clock.