HC Deb 02 July 1973 vol 859 cc29-33
Mr. Mikardo

(by Private Notice) asked the Minister of State for Defence if he will make a statement about the closure of Orfordness radar station which was announced last Friday.

The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Ian Gilmour)

Under an agreement made in 1967, RAF Orfordness, Suffolk, has been the location for a joint programme of long-range radio propagation research by the United States Air Force in cooperation with United Kingdom authorities.

Since this programme started, new technical and scientific studies conducted in the United States have been more effective. In the light of this, it was decided that a further programme at RAF Orfordness could not be justified and, consequently, that the U.S. Air Force would not renew the contract with RCA Limited for the technical maintenance of the equipment as from 30th June 1973.

The British civilian employees of RCA Limited have been given one month's notice, until the end of July 1973. Urgent consideration is being given to the future of the site and the future employment of the British civilians employed by the Ministry of Defence and the Department of the Environment. Work on running down the installation is likely to last a further three or four months, and some of the personnel will be needed for that period.

The United Kingdom capital contribution over the whole of the programme has amounted to £1.4 million. In addition, Her Majesty's Government have shared in the running costs, and our annual contribution has risen to a maximum of some £250,000 over the last 12 months.

Mr. Mikardo

Will the right hon. Gentleman bear in mind that many of his hon. and right hon. Friends who are concerned with such matters have said that people should not be declared redundant without consultation and without the longest possible notice? In view of that, how does he justify an announcement at 2 o'clock on Friday afternoon that some hundreds of people, including 100 or so high-level scientists and technicians, are to be out of work from midnight a day and a half later?

After the rundown, will this £34 million worth of sophisticated equipment be left untended to rust? Not least important, why did the Minister think it right to make this announcement by way of a Press statement at 2 o'clock on Friday instead of treating the House to the courtesy of a statement in the House, where he could have been questioned on the matter?

Mr. Gilmour

Of course, it is always a matter for regret when employees do not receive as much notice as they would like or expect. Perhaps I may explain why these events have taken place. The United States Government were anxious for contractual reasons to announce their decision before 30th June, and as they were by far the larger of the two parties their view naturally prevailed. We learnt of their intentions on 18th June, and we had to make a number of decisions, including, for instance, whether we should continue with the installation on our own. Also, we had hoped in our announcement to clarify such important matters as the future of the site, which obviously will affect some of the employees, perhaps a great many of them, but that was not possible.

We could not make our announcement before the Americans, who have paid by far the greater part of the cost, had made theirs. We thought that this was primarily a matter between the United States Government and the company, and I do not consider that anyone could claim that we have tried to conceal these things from the country. The hon. Member referred to a figure of £34 million, but I can assure him that is wildly inflated. The future maintenance of the equipment is a matter for the United States Government because they paid for all of it.

Mr. Wilkinson

Will my right hon. Friend confirm that the unilateral decision by the Americans not to renew the contract will not have any degrading effect on the air defence or other operational capabilities of the United Kingdom Armed Services?

Mr. Gilmour

I can confirm that.

Mr. John Morris

If this was a contractual matter, were we not partners in the establishment, and should we not therefore, have taken part in the ultimate decision? Was any Minister in the Ministry of Defence aware that this announcement was being made on a Friday afternoon? If so, would not a matter of this significance on British soil concerning British technicians and some British money invested in it have merited the courtesy of a statement in the House, even by a written answer?

Has not a totally different procedure been adopted here compared with when a British research station is vacated, and have not the staff been shoddily treated? As partners in the project, do the Government approve of what has happened? Since our paramount concern must be for British defence, what is the effect of this decision on our defence, and will the right hon. Gentleman remove any grounds for fear that British security has been weakened?

Mr. Gilmour

I have already answered the last two of the right hon. and learned Gentleman's questions. There are no grounds for thinking that British security has been worsened. This was a contract entered into by the Labour Government. I have explained why we made the announcement as we did. Perhaps that procedure would not be invariably right but it seemed right in the circumstances, and we never tried to conceal it from the country. This was a contractual matter, and the skilled employees were employed by RCA Limited on behalf of the United States Government.

Sir G. Nabarro

Is not the greatest concentration of scientific equipment and manpower in Britain located at the Royal Radar Establishment at Malvern, and will my right hon. Friend say whether any of the surplus equipment can be absorbed at Malvern and, having regard to the rationalisation of the Royal Radar Establishment as announced in the Defence White Paper, whether any redundant staff could not easily be absorbed into other radar establishments in the United Kingdom

Mr. Gilmour

Of course, there is a great concentration of scientific equipment and expertise at Malvern. I doubt whether any of the equipment will be absorbed there because the establishment is already well equipped and the equipment at Orfordness belongs to the United States Government. It is for them to decide where it goes.

As for redundancies, it may be that some employees can be absorbed in Malvern and elsewhere, but because of the short notice we are not able to make a definitive statement about where they will go.

Mr. Pardoe

What the right lion. Gentleman said is disgraceful. It is not simply a question of the notice that people would like; it is a question of entitlement. Does the Minister not think the Government should set a decent example over notice? Will he clear up the point about the larger of the two partners? Surely the most important and significant partner is the partner on whose soil the investment stands. If the Minister is to state a new Government doctrine that because the Americans have large investments in something here they can dictate the terms, it is a sorry outlook for North Sea oil and for all the other American investments in this country.

Mr. Gilmour

This matter does not merit that sort of tone. If the hon. Member is referring to entitlement, what I have said has gone beyond strict entitlement. These employees have been given what they are entitled to. However, I agree that the Government should set an example when possible. The House will agree that the Ministry of Defence is a good employer and has been so under both Governments, and that it has a record of which we are proud. I have told the hon. Member for Poplar (Mr. Mikardo) why this announcement took place in the way that it did.

Mr. John Morris

Since the British Government were a partner in the agreement, does the right hon. Gentleman approve of this method of treating employees? Had they not a right to be consulted, as employees are when British defence stations are affected?

Mr. Gilmour

There is something in that, but, if the right hon. Gentleman thought that, the Labour Government should have altered the terms of the contractual arrangement.

Mr. Dan Jones

The right hon. Gentleman says that this establishment will not be missed. In that case, what on earth was its value in the first place?

Mr. Gilmour

That again is a matter for the technical judgment of the last Government, with which, I would add, I do not quarrel.

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