HC Deb 27 November 1984 vol 68 cc901-8

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

11.59 pm
Mr. Malcolm Bruce (Gordon)

I sought this debate after the Minister of Defence announced during the summer recess— which was not untypical of the Ministry—that it would be closing the Bridge of Don barracks in my constituency. It emerged later that that would effectively end the training of Scottish junior soldiers in Scotland—a process which has gone on since the founding of the Scottish regiments 200 years ago—and that it would be transferred to, of all places, Newcastle.

I suggest that the training of Scottish soldiers should take place in Scotland and that the way in which the announcement was made was fairly typical of the Ministry of Defence. The decision was announced during a recess and without consultation. It was, in effect, a fait accompli.

The number of establishments for training junior soldiers will be reduced to 12, not one of which will be in Scotland. Even on the basis of proportion of population, 10 per cent. of 12 is more than one, but we are not to have even one training establishment— even though Scotland's proportion of recruits into the Army is higher than the national average. I remind the House, though no Scot would need reminding of it, that Newcastle is not Scotland.

I also criticise the Ministry of Defence for arguing that the case for closure of the barracks is a matter of economics, but giving no details of those economics. We have been asked to take the Ministry's word, and I am not prepared to do that. The only mention of a specific saving has been £8 million on capital costs. Compared with the defence budget, that is peanuts. Even compared with the training budget of £340 million, it is not a large sum. The Ministry has failed to make the case that that money will be saved.

The barracks are good barracks and have been invested in continually. Indeed, about £500,000 has been invested in them in the past year. [Interruption.] If hon. Members on the Labour Front Bench find the subject amusing, they should remember the traditions of the Scottish regiments and realise that I am discussing a major development on which they should be offering me their support, as a number of their colleagues have done.

Will the Minister give us more information about the alleged savings? Without further information, I am not prepared to accept the claim that the savings are substantial. Has the Minister taken account of other Army and Ministry of Defence changes that are likely to occur in north-east Scotland? The closure will mean that there are no barracks in north-east Scotland capable of taking a significant Army unit. How will the long-term needs of the Gordon Highlanders and the expanding TA be met?

Aberdeen is a major centre for North sea development and exploration and is, therefore, an important area in security terms. Has the Ministry of Defence consulted the Department of Energy, which, I understand, takes a different view of the matter?

This is not a party issue. When the closure was announced, I wrote to every hon. Member in Scotland and gained support for the retention of junior soldier training in Scotland from hon. Members of all the political parties in Scotland, including a number of Conservative Members. A delegation visited Lord Trefgarne, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary who made the decision. That delegation included the hon. Members for Moray (Mr. Pollock) and for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Malone) and Liberal, Conservative and Labour councillors. Unfortunately, it was an unsatisfactory meeting. It became clear that the Minister had not taken full account of the arguments and of the significance of the decision, and at one point he sought to equate our representations in a sympathetic way with some representation that he was receiving about the closing of an Army installation in Nottingham. If a Minister treats 200 years of Scottish tradition on that level, he fails to understand what the quotient of the Scottish contribution to the Army really is.

There is, of course, a local impact, although, even though the barracks is in my constituency, this is not the major component of the argument. It is regrettable that the decision will lead to the loss of 42 civilian jobs plus the impact of the loss of the barracks on the local economy. Although we in Aberdeen may be fortunate to have oil-related employment, we are getting a little fed up with the idea that because of that other jobs can cheerfully be destroyed. We want to maintain a diversity of employment within our area and we are riot prepared to allow those jobs to be destroyed; and those civilians will not easily find alternative employment.

The core of the argument is that the long-term tradition of the seven Scottish regiments is being undermined by the decision. They were founded in the 18th century. They were established to build on regional and national loyalties within Scotland. It might be worth reminding the House that this was after the two Jacobite risings when it was of some importance to try to channel feelings in the right direction.

Obviously, representing a constituency with the name of Gordon, I am by definition— and the area is by definition— closely associated with the Gordon Highlanders. That is of considerable importance in recognising the role of regiments on a regional basis within Scotland. The traditions of the Scottish infantryman, the tartan, the trews or the kilt, the pipes and the drums, are an essential component of the pride of Scotland and of the backbone of the British Army. It is a worthy tradition, over 200 years old, and is not to be lightly discarded. I believe that it has been a major factor in the high level of recruitment from within Scotland. The fact that the training takes place in Scotland is also important.

The lads and their parents identify with training in Aberdeen, the third city of Scotland. They know where they are. They know that they are "our boys" and not, as they will be in Newcastle, the "Jocks" who are being trained outside their own environment, and not really sustaining the full strength of the Scottish tradition, which should be carried on within Scotland, where it is the core of the infantry regiments.

Mr. Alexander Pollock (Moray)

In the event that the hon. Gentleman's argument fails to find favour with the Minister—although I hope that the hon. Gentleman can persuade him to have a change of heart—I wonder what thought the hon. Gentleman may have given to an alternative use for the barracks. For example, has he any information about the facilities available to the TA at present in the north-east, and how long its facilities may be available to it? Is that an aspect that perhaps the Ministry could explore for alternative use?

Mr. Bruce

I am grateful to the hon. Member and hope that the Minister will take account of his remarks. It is my understanding that the TA will require more facilities in Aberdeen. Indeed, the Gordon Highlanders have not yet settled on a permanent home within the city. To throw away the best Army premises within the north-east of Scotland at this stage would ultimately be a false economy which might lead to greater costs in the future. I hope that the Minister will be able to say whether these facts have been taken into account by the Ministry.

I remind the House that some years ago the Government attempted to disband the Scottish regiments altogether. That proposal was greeted with such a storm of protest, under the memorable slogan of "Save the Argylls", that the decision was averted. I can claim some connection with it, inasmuch as it was a former Member for the area I now represent, albeit a Conservative Member, "Mad Mitch", who played the leading part in that campaign.

Mr. Pollock

What about the role of the right hon. Member for Ayr (Mr. Younger)?

Mr. Bruce

Indeed. I do not demur from that in any way. But "Mad Mitch" was himself an Argyll. The Government, having failed at that time to destroy the Scottish regiments head on, appear now to be trying to do it by stealth. They appear to believe that they can simply transfer the training outside Scotland and that we shall accept the consequences. We will not. I have already said that the campaign to persuade the Minister to reverse his decision has all-party and non-party support. The reaction and response from the Ministry of Defence are quite unsatisfactory, and do not show that it has taken account of the position. It gives no details of the savings that will be made.

Mr. Albert McQuarrie (Banff and Buchan)

The hon. Gentleman has justifiably commented on recruitment into the Scottish regiments, especially the Gordon Highlanders, who have a great tradition not only in Aberdeen but in the Highlands region. Many of those who are now serving or will serve in that regiment come from the highlands and islands of Scotland where there is no alternative employment. As with their grandfathers and fathers, they have always, by tradition, wanted to serve in a Scottish regiment. For the north-east of Scotland, especially my constituency of Banff and Buchan, the regiment means the Gordon Highlanders. The Government are taking a retrograde step in considering taking away the barracks.

Mr. Bruce

I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman and agree with his comments. It is ironic that whenever there is a rationalisation Scotland appears to lose out. Whenever there is a recession, recruitment in the Army rises, especially from areas where opportunities are more limited. Yet at a time when recruitment is rising, the Government slap us in the face and take the training away from Scotland, and destroy civilian jobs.

I regret that to date the MOD has got away with the decision because many Scots have not realised what it will mean—the end of the training of Scottish junior soldiers in Scotland after 200 years. The explanation so far from the MOD has been inadequate and mealy-mouthed.

The Scottish regiments have served the British Army well and, by the decision, their tradition is being swept away with the excuse of short-term economics. The Scottish people will not tolerate Scottish soldiers being trained entirely outside Scotland. They want their junior soldiers to be trained in Scotland for Scottish regiments. The decision will seriously affect morale within the Army in Scotland and will seriously affect recruitment. I do not believe that the MOD has made a case that economies will, in fact, be achieved. I urge the Minister to recognise that the Scottish people want Scottish soldiers to be trained in Scotland, not in England.

12.12 am
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. John Stanley)

I fully recognise the importance of the contribution of the Scottish element of the armed forces to the armed forces as a whole—the Army in particular, but also the Royal Air Force and the Royal Navy. In my present responsibilities, I have seen a number of the Scottish regiments during the past year, both in the United Kingdom and when they have been stationed overseas.

There is a total understanding of the initial point made by the hon. Member for Gordon (Mr. Bruce) about the length and depth of the tradition of service in the armed forces in all parts of Scotland. I hope to show to hon. Members that the decision that we are debating in no way reflects any wish, intention or desire by the Government to loosen the ties between the armed services and Scotland. At the same time as the Government are taking this decision, they are also taking other decisions that represent an increased commitment and an increased expansion of the activities of the armed services in Scotland.

I well understand the concern and disappointment at the decision to close the Gordon barracks at Bridge of Don. The hon. Member for Gordon has voiced that concern again today, as have my hon. Friends the Members for Moray (Mr. Pollock) and for Banff and Buchan (Mr. McQuarrie). They expressed their concern, too, at a meeting with my noble Friend the Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces, which was attended also by my hon. Friend the Member for Aberdeen, South (Mr. Malone). My right hon. Friend the Minister of State, Department of Energy has also expressed to me his deep concern about this. I certainly understand the feelings that have been expressed and I should make it clear to Members on both sides of the House that the decision was not an easy one. Recognising the strong links between the barracks and the area over many years, we are very conscious of the disappointment involved.

None the less, I hope that hon. Members will understand the pressures on the defence budget and the consequent need to ensure that we get the best possible military value for the available expenditure. Those pressures inevitably led the Government to take a hard look at the ways in which we currently do things to see whether it was possible to achieve the same end result more cost effectively.

As part of that process, a study of the whole subject of army training was undertaken last year by General Groom. It was a very thorough and expert study. In essence, it found that our training organisation was simply too large for either present or future needs. It showed that, although the army as a whole had steadily decreased, the training organisation had remained fairly static. In total, army training was costing more than £340 million per year and some 18 per cent. of all uniformed army personnel outside BAOR were employed in the training organisation. Those facts, to which the hon. Member for Gordon himself referred, are fundamental to an appreciation of the background to our decision.

The army training organisation is certainly effective. I do not think that there is any doubt about that. That its training standards are among the highest in the world is amply demonstrated not just by the army's performance in the field but by the number of foreign and Commonwealth Governments who welcome the chance to send students to our training courses. Given the costs and the manpower tied up in the training sector, however, it was necessary to examine whether it could be organised more efficiently while maintaining its traditionally high standards.

The Groom study made a number of recommendations offering opportunities for significant savings. Many of those recommendations are still being worked on. Because it offered the chance of fairly early savings and because it was comparatively self-contained, decisions on the junior training organisation were taken first and the Army Board concluded this summer that substantial savings could be achieved by concentrating junior training in fewer establishments.

Mr. Bruce

Will the Minister nevertheless acknowledge that in future there will be no junior training at all in Scotland and that that is a major departure?

Mr. Stanley

I shall be coming to that, although I should point out that training of junior leaders from Scotland, for example, is at present undertaken entirely outside Scotland so it is not a novel departure. Plenty of training of Scotsmen at both junior and adult level already takes place outside Scotland. However, I wish to give the House a balanced picture.

At present there are 21 establishments providing training for juniors. We calculated that by a better organisation of our resources it would be possible to reduce that number to 13. Some of the remaining establishments could continue to provide adult training, while others could be found an alternative use. However, I am afraid that given the overcapacity for training with which we started, two establishments were found to be surplus to our needs. They were the Gordon barracks at Bridge of Don and the Prince of Wales depot at Crickhowell. Those two establishments are the smallest infantry junior depots. That does not mean that they are not efficient. Both provide excellent training, but because of their overheads neither could be cost-effective in comparison with other larger establishments.

At present we estimate that about 3,000 juniors will be recruited into the infantry each year. They can be accommodated in just four larger establishments— Ouston, Shorncliffe, Pirbright and Flowerdown. It is never easy to take the decision to close an establishment and it is particularly difficult when, as in the case of Bridge of Don, the establishment has a long and distinguished link with the British Army. It was a hard decision to take. We weighed up very carefully the effects that it would have locally and the possible effects on morale and recruitment.

Sir Hector Monro (Dumfries)

My hon. Friend talks of weighing up the possibilities. Did the Government consider either bringing in the junior leaders to Aberdeen, which would have been the best option from the point of view of keeping the establishment open, or taking the junior leaders from Shorncliffe to Milton Bridge and Glencorse and the juniors from Aberdeen to Glencorse and Milton Bridge, so as to retain a further training commitment in Scotland? That option would have been secondary to Aberdeen, but it would have been far superior to the decision that has been taken.

Mr. Stanley

I am grateful to my hon. Friend. I shall discuss the junior leaders in a moment and take up that point then.

Weighing the balance, we came to the conclusion that the manpower and financial case for going ahead with our plan for rationalising junior training was very strong. We estimate that under our revised plan for junior training as a whole, we shall be able to achieve civilian manpower savings of over 100 as well as providing considerable scope for releasing a significant number of servicemen from training to operational duties. Additionally, we should be able to obtain capital savings of about £8 million.

The decision to close the Bridge of Don barracks does not imply any lack of commitment on the part of the British Army towards Scotland. Even after the closure there will be a substantial Army presence in Scotland comprising two regular infantry battalions, 25 other regular units and 33 Territorial Army units including 11 of battalion or regimental size, with an additional seven Home Service Force companies forming in January 1985 including companies at Elgin and Aberdeen. We also plan to increase the TA in Scotland in a few years' time, including the creation of an air defence regiment based at Edinburgh and an airfield damage repair squadron at Kinloss.

There is also a substantial RAF presence, with two important stations at Kinloss and Lossiemouth, both of which receive heavy investment, and of course the Royal Marines have a large number of personnel at RM Condor, Arbroath, where it is planned that the barracks will undergo a major rebuild al a cost of £26 million.

The junior soldiers who are now trained at Bridge of Don will in future be trained at Ouston. The time that they will spend there will be comparatively short—about six months—after which they will return to complete their training in Scotland. The Scottish junior leaders who currently undertake their training at Shorncliffe on the east coast will in future be trained nearer to Scotland at Ouston. That will reduce the distance that they will have to travel from home. I do not believe—in response to my hon. Friend the Member for Dumfries (Sir H. Monro)—that it would be in any way economic to preserve the Bridge of Don barracks simply to concentrate there the training of the Scottish junior leaders. The study showed that the best way of dealing with junior leadership training was at Ouston, outside Newcastle:. At least that has the merit of bringing Scottish junior leaders substantially closer to Scotland, although I fully understand that Newcastle is not Scotland.

Mr. McQuarrie

Will my hon. Friend give way?

Mr. Stanley

If I give way I shall not be able to deal with the important point that my hon. Friend raised in an intervention. Perhaps he would be very brief.

Mr. McQuarrie

Does my hon. Friend agree that the majority of recruits who go to the Gordon barracks come from the Highlands? Does he further agree that the barracks could be used fully for training and that, rather than take leaders away from Aberdeen, others could go to the Gordon barracks? Since 1976, millions of pounds have been spent on the barracks and the residential quarters for the families of soldiers. That money will be wasted if the barracks are no longer used by the Army.

Mr. Stanley

I understand that. We have done a full evaluation of existing establishments and those from which we can get the best economies of scale and lowest overheads, and I am afraid that it comes out unfavourably for the Gordon barracks and Bridge of Don. I am sorry about that.

I should like to deal with my hon. Friend's point about alternatives. My noble Friend the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces is to visit the region to see the barracks and have further discussions with local representatives early next month. We have looked carefully to see whether there is any alternative service use for the barracks. My hon. Friend the Member for Moray raised that issue. Although no firm alternatives have presented themselves so far, we understand that there might be interest in the barracks from the Territorial Army in the Aberdeen area. If it makes a costed proposal, I assure the House that it will receive urgent and sympathetic consideration. However, I must be frank—it would be wrong if I led the House to place too much hope on that possibility. I understand that it is no more than a suggestion. It is attractive but as yet uncosted and not presented to us. For it to be accepted, the proposal would have to demonstrate that it had a significant military purpose and that it would achieve savings in cost and manpower equivalent to those which would be produced by the closure.

As I said at the outset, we are faced with an urgent need to obtain the best possible value from our available resources. Nobody would be more pleased than I if it were possible to keep these barracks open on sound economic grounds, but it would not be right to suggest that they should be kept open regardless of the economic facts. I am grateful to the hon. Member for Gordon for raising this issue and to my hon. Friends who have stayed late to hear the debate. I assure them that the importance of this issue in regard to how the Army achieves economies and to the local community fully justifies the debate and I assure the House that we are ready to consider urgently and sympathetically any proposals for an alternative use, provided that such alternative uses make military sense and do not dissipate the savings that we aim to achieve by closure.

Question put and agreed to.

Adjourned accordingly at twenty-eight minutes past Twelve o'clock.