HC Deb 10 November 1976 vol 919 cc620-30

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

2.6 a.m.

Mr. Charles Morrison (Devizes)

The decisions of the House tonight have shown to a considerable extent the relevance of the comments that I propose to make, for the simple reasons that those decisions forecast the demise of this Government and the arrival in the not too distant future of another Government, who will be committed above all to the defence of this country. It is in relation to defence with regard to a particular base in this country that I wish to speak.

I would first give credit to the action group made up of representatives of trade unions at the Royal Naval Aircraft Yard at Wroughton in Wiltshire. In recent weeks the Royal Naval Aircraft Yard must have been a thorn in the flesh of the Under-Secretary for the Navy, as well as the Ministry of Defence. I make no apology for this, since the currently proposed closure of that yard involves the jobs of some 250 men, many of them highly skilled but in an area of high unemployment.

Only last month the unemployment rate was 6.6 per cent. in the Swindon area, which includes Wroughton. It is because of that in particular that the action group in the aircraft yard has been so active. On the other hand, I would thank the Under-Secretary for having seen my hon. Friend the Member for Chippenham (Mr. Awdry) and myself at the beginning of August and for listening so carefully to our remarks about the aircraft yard. Even so, he cannot have heard all our remarks, or fully understood them. If he had, the proposal to close Wroughton would by now have been dropped. This brief debate provides a chance to repeat some of the points and to make others.

That said, it is a commonly held view, with which I have great sympathy, that the closure proposal stems not from logic or from a well-argued case or from the defence needs of the country, but simply from an edict of the Chancellor of the Exchequer—because he knows that, in our present economic situation, when cuts in public expenditure are a necessity, he must make cuts in defence solely to mollify his left-wing. It is about time that that Soviet of left-wingers realised that by insisting on defence cuts they are adding directly to unemployment in different parts of the country.

Because of this, or for other reasons perhaps, an arbitrary decision was taken to close Wroughton. Without warning and with no prior consultation, on 15th February this year, suddenly out of the blue, employees at Wroughton were informed of the closure. The announcement was made only three days after another statement by the superintendent of the aircraft yard which predicted a rosy future for the yard.

That is a staggering way for the Ministry of Defence to behave. It is appalling when the current political masters of the Ministry of Defence are Labour politi- cians who constantly preach consultation and who pride themselves on good trade union relations. The employees of Wroughton were simply faced with a fait accompli.

The behaviour of the Navy in respect of this yard appears even worse when contrasted with that of the Army in a similar situation which also arose in my constituency. Again in February of this year, the Army undertook a review of Army logistic restructuring in the United Kingdom. Among other bases involved was the Central Vehicle Depot at Ludger-shall, which is just in Wiltshire, albeit near Andover.

But no arbitrary decision was taken in that case. Far from it. The Army published a consultative memorandum whose purpose was to provide a basis for the Department's initial consultations with its departmental, staff and trade union sides". The memorandum suggested the closure of the depot, but consultations were held. The unions were able to disprove the case on which the suggested closure was based, the suggestion was dropped and the depot remains in existence.

I do not know whether the outcome of a similar exercise at Wroughton would have been the same but, whatever the outcome, justice would have been seen to be done and the justification for the Navy's decision would have been tested through the consultative process. It is no defence now for the Ministry of Defence to claim that the former Under-Secretary visited Wroughton, as he did so only after the arbitrary decision had been made.

What is the Navy's justification for the closure proposal? First, it is that it will save money and, second, that the tasks performed there can be done by existing staff and installations, thereby adding an overall financial saving. I do not intend to bandy figures with the Under-Secretary across the Floor of the House. Common ground between the official and staff sides can be established only by detailed discussion around a table. Suffice it to say that every figure produced by the official side since the closure decision was made has been questioned and doubted, and no satisfactory reaction from the official side has there been. Furthermore, the staff side is of the opinion that figures are being produced almost at random merely to justify the arbitrary decision and without a basis in fact.

Worse than that, the Wroughton staff believe that, far from saving money, the closure will add to defence costs while reducing the efficiency of the naval yard repair organisation, which at Wroughton has not only a naval rôle but a tri-Ser-vice role. One staff estimate is that the closure of Wroughton would mean an increased cost to the Ministry of Defence of £50,000, while the Ministry of Defence estimates a saving of £979,000. In comparing estimated costs we must bear in mind that we have insufficient information.

The alternative site for the Wroughton work is Fleetlands. In passing—I regret that it is necessary to say this—Fleet-lands is in or adjacent to the constituency of the former Under-Secretary of State for the Navy, and that, rightly or wrongly, has added still more suspicion to the whole affair.

My information is that Fleetlands, far from being able to cope with its new responsibilities on the basis of its present staff, will require 120 more fitters—not 40, which was the original figure mentioned during the summer. In addition, I have today been told that the capital cost of resiting the aircraft storage requirement from Wroughton to near Fleet-lands will be nearly double the original estimate. I cannot vouch for my figures, but it is clear that there is great confusion.

That confusion was made worse when the Ministry of Defence, in reply to a memorandum written by the action group at Wroughton about the closure of the yard, referred casually to the sale of land without giving any estimate of the sum expected to be realised from the sale. The possibility of sale raises other questions.

I am informed by one of the planning authorities involved—this is purely opinion—that in all likelihoods the sale of the land could be only on the basis of agricultural use. In other words, the land would have to revert to its original use. If so, the Ministry of Defence could easily incur huge expense in removing hangars and ripping up runways. What estimate has been made of that cost, and has it been included in the Ministry of Defence calculation?

I hope that I have said enough to emphasise the fog and confusion which exist about the proposal to close the aircraft yard. The uncertainties are many more than time allows me to describe. The questions in the minds of Wroughton employees still remain unanswered. What is the economic justification? What is the strategic justification? Is it right to centralise the repair work of naval and other Service aircraft? Why were there no consultations? Was regard paid to local employees' prospects in the Swindon area? Are the skills at Wroughton available at Fleetlands? What is proposed for the Wroughton site in future? These are only some of the many questions which need to be answered.

What is to be done? I believe that the hon. Gentleman has a fair duty to take back the decision to close the yard and to set up a public inquiry. Only then can all the facts be known. Only then can the Secretary of State be certain whether he is saving money or spending more. Only then can the Chancellor of the Exchequer know whether he is getting a good or a bad deal. Only then can this matter be judged against the country's defence needs. Only then can justice be seen to be done. If there is a public inquiry, I believe that the facts will speak so strongly that closure of the yard will not take place.

Mr. Daniel Awdry (Chippenham)

I associate myself with the excellent case put by my hon. Friend the Member for Devizes (Mr. Morrison). Many of the employees who work at Wroughton live in and around my constituency. They feel, as the Minister knows, angry and re sentful of the way in which this decision was reached.

In view of the shortage of time, I want to emphasise only one serious aspect, that of prior consultation. It is a little surprising that the Ministry has made this mistake in the light of an earlier experience a few years ago at Copenacre naval depot, in my constituency.

There was then a decision taken with little discussion, but a public inquiry was held, chaired by the Bishop of Bristol. The facts were then fully discussed, and in the end the proposed closure was cancelled. People there felt that justice had been done and that they had seen it being done. There should be a public inquiry in this case, and I hope that the hon. Gentleman will tell us that he proposes to hold one.

2.23 a.m.

The Under-Secretary of State for Defence for the Royal Navy (Mr. A. E. P. Duffy)

It is entirely right that the hon. Member for Devizes (Mr. Morrison) should have proposed this subject for our debate this evening. The closure of any Government establishment with any consequent loss of jobs is not a matter that can be treated lightly, especially at the present time. I can assure the House that the Government did not take the decision to close Wroughton lightly. I hope that the House will understand the reasons why we decided as we did, and why there could be no alternative in present circumstances.

It may be helpful to explain first Wroughton's rôle in the Naval Aircraft Repair Organisation, NARO. As well as the yard at Wroughton, there is a major aircraft yard at Fleetlands, near Gosport, an aircraft workshop at Perth, and a smaller facility which is part of the naval depot at Copenacre. The principal task of the organisation is the repair and servicing of helicopters for all three Services. The RAF has similar responsibilities for fixed-wing aircraft.

The Royal Navy began to assume a tri-Service responsibility for helicopters in 1972. The facilities then placed at the disposal of the Navy were those assessed to be required for a task which would build up very considerably over the 1970s. The capacity made available would have been sufficient to cope with that task. But since then the Government have undertaken a thorough defence review. There have been changes in the plans of all three Services. Moreover, we have had to make further reductions in our planned defence budget.

What was to be the effect of these various changes? We were bound to look most closely at all our support facilities. We had to ensure that we were getting value for money. That is a vital objective, as I am sure the whole House would agree. Whether the repair of helicopters is carried out in defence facilities or in outside industry—and the task is shared with industry—we must see that we get value for money.

We therefore made a careful examination of the future helicopter repair requirements for all three Services. It became apparent that we should soon have considerable surplus capacity in the Naval Aircraft Repair Organisation. To remove the surplus capacity, we could have made reductions in our planned staff numbers at the various establishments. But our facilities would then have been under-used. The overheads would have made this solution uneconomical.

Alternatively, we could have diverted repair work planned for industry back to Service facilities. But we believe it is right that the aircraft industry should continue to receive its agreed share of the work. Besides, without major capital investment, Wroughton would not have been able to take on the work currently done by industry.

We concluded that the only course was to close Wroughton. Wroughton's repair task can be completely absorbed at Fleet-lands by 1979. Our forecast work load for Fleetlands for 1977–78—before Wroughton closes—compared with 1979–80 shows that Fleetlands' task will increase by only about 5 per cent. With the considerably reduced helicopter storage task now forecast, it will also be possible to store the necessary aircraft in the vicinity of Fleetlands.

The Services' operational capability will not be impaired by the closure of Wroughton. Moreover, the closure of an establishment, rather than a reduction in staff spread throughout the NARO, will produce greater savings to the defence budget.

The hon. Member for Devizes has scorned the financial savings that we expect to achieve from Wroughton's closure. I can confirm that it is our estimate that there will be a net annual saving to defence Votes in recurrent costs of about £1 million when Wroughton is finally closed. I can assure the House that the Navy can use that £1 million.

I appreciate that the closure of Wroughton is bound to be a painful process for the staff. I have listened with some sympathy to what the hon. Member for Devizes has said about the lack of consultation before the decision was announced, because I appreciate how vital consultation is. I would merely say that earlier this year we had at short notice to draw up plans for achieving further savings on the defence budget. We saw no alternative to the closure of several establishments, of which Wroughton was one.

Although we were unable to consult before the decision, we have at least given notice of our intentions well in advance. We expect to complete the transfer of the aircraft repair task by 1979, although storage facilities could be needed for a period after that. Over the last few months the Ministry of Defence has been very willing to listen to the representations of the staff associations and trade unions. The Wroughton staff produced this summer a well argued report against closure and I have it here. I also have the reply of the Ministry of Defence. We took the representations of the staff and their own considered case very seriously, as can be seen in the note that I have now in my possession. I believe that that note reflected a full and sympathetic reply. I am therefore rather taken aback, to say the least, to hear the suggestion from the hon. Member for Devizes that we have not been prepared to listen to Wroughton's case.

I also have here a list of exchanges between my predecessor, and the previous Secretary of State, as well as myself, with the hon. Gentleman and with other local champions of the Wroughton case. I am looking at the list and I pick out names such as that of Mr. Vic Finlayson. There are also the names of my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon (Mr. Stoddart) and the hon. Member for Chippenham (Mr. Awdry.) The hon. Gentleman must know this, and cannot really be serious in his insistence that there has been a lack of consultation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Portsmouth, North (Mr. Judd), when he was Under-Secretary of State for the Navy, visited Wroughton to explain personally to the work force why the Government had taken the difficult decision to close the yard. Both my predecessor and I have on several occasions corresponded on the closure of Wroughton with my hon. Friend the Member for Swindon, the hon. Member for Devizes and the hon. Member for Chippenham. What is more, we have both had discussions with all three hon. Members in the Department and here in this House.

In September, Wroughton staff representatives, together with the departmental staff and trade union sides, attended a meeting with the Chief of Fleet Support to discuss the closure. The Wroughton staff representatives have been offered a further meeting with my officials to discuss the background to the decision, together with the run-down plans. I hope what I have said sets the record straight on the question of consultation since February. We could not have had more in the time available, given the constraints to which were subject.

We are more than willing to discuss the arrangements for the run-down of Wroughton with the staff representatives. The closure of the yard will take place in stages, So far as possible, we shall try to avoid actual redundancies. Mobile staff—mainly professional and technical officers—will be offered transfers to other posts in the normal way. We have also offered aircraft fitters the opportunity to transfer to Fleetlands. We shall make every effort to offer alternative employment wherever possible. In these ways we shall do our utmost to ease the impact of the yard's closure.

As I said earlier, the closure of a defence establishment cannot be treated lightly. It is obviously important that the Services should have the facilities that they need, whether in a defence establishment or in industry, to ensure that helicopters are repaired and maintained in an efficient and timely fashion. Having served in the Fleet Air Arm myself and more recently seen some of NARO's work, I am well aware how important these support facilities are. I am satisfied that we have facilities that meet the Services' needs and will continue to do so after Wroughton has been closed.

But there is another aspect to this debate. As a defence Minister I also have a duty to see that the resources which the nation can devote to defence are spent wisely and economically. The Opposition may take a different view from the Government on the size of the defence budget, but they must surely accept, particularly when they call for further cuts in public spending, that, whatever the level of defence expenditure, the Services' requirements must be met as economically as possible. The Opposition cannot criticise us for sensible measures of rationalisation, and the closure of Wroughton is essentially a measure of rationalisation.

Of course, it is true that the further defence cuts we have made, as part of our reductions in public spending, will affect jobs. We are very much aware of the consequencies. But we cannot justify the retention of establishments and staff for whom we cannot provide full work.

If we were not to take measures such as the closure of the aircraft yard at Wroughton, we should have to take other measures that might put the Services' operational capability at risk. I am sure we have made the right choice. We now have to implement our decisions. I can assure the House not only that we shall be aiming to achieve the necessary savings in public expenditure, but that we shall also be giving all the help we can to the staff concerned.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-six minutes to Three o'clock a.m.