HC Deb 29 January 1987 vol 109 cc582-8

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

10.1 pm

Mr. Richard Livsey (Brecon and Radnor)

I am glad Mr. Speaker, that you have given me the opportunity of raising the subject of the future of the Cwrt-y-Gollen camp, Crickhowell, in this Adjournment debate. I tried to raise the subject earlier this month when the House debated the Army, but on that occasion I was not lucky enough to catch your eye. I welcome the presence of the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces to answer the points that I raise.

I am anxious to raise the subject because of the severe decline that has occurred in the fortunes of the camp over the past 10 years or so. The camp was purpose-built about 25 years ago to house a depot for some of the Welsh regiments of the British Army, notably what was then the South Wales Borderers and the Welsh Regiment. The site of the camp is one of the finest in the whole of Britain. Through a series of amalgamations of the regiments that I have mentioned, the Royal Regiment of Wales emerged. Although that regiment is young, it has inherited an excellent tradition, backed by the splendid qualities of Welsh soldiers.

The South Wales Borderers held more VCs than any other regiment in the British Army. One of the regiment's greatest exploits was shown in the film "Zulu", when it bravely defended Rorke's Drift and won no fewer than six VCs on that occasion. Indeed, in days past, this area of Wales produced the finest archers in the land, who brought victory for Henry V on the field of Agincourt. Such traditions must not be cast aside lightly in the interests of parsimonous economy and Government policy. The Army has stood by bemused and has been forced to accede to a plethora of policy changes.

Sir John Stradling Thomas (Monmouth)

I know that the hon. Gentleman would not like to mislead the House. He has heard of the Monmouth camp, and I advise him that the archers of Agincourt came from my constituency.

Mr. Livsey

I agree that the archers came from our part of Wales—that covers both constituencies. I think that I pay due respect to the hon. Member for Monmouth (Sir J. Stradling Thomas) on that point.

During the Brecon and Radnor byelection campaign of 1985 the then Secretary of State for Defence acted when there were persistent rumours that the camp was to close. In June 1985 he announced that Cwrt-y-Gollen camp would remain open, but that troops would no longer be stationed there permanently, and in the future Territorial Army units would train there. In the space of 25 years the camp has gone from being the proud depot for the Royal Regiment of Wales to a training camp for junior regiments, and finally to a staging post for intermittent TA training. Cwrt-y-Gollen now exists as a camp, but only just. However, over the years there has been substantial investment in it. There are excellent accommodation facilities, officers' and sergeants' messes, a cookhouse, parade grounds, a church and a large number of married quarters. I hope that the Minister will take the time to visit this excellent camp.

In spite of the promises made in June 1985 about local employment being maintained, civilian employment has declined from around 60 people in 1985 to 15 now. Most left in November 1986, when the junior regiment sadly departed from the camp. Lecturers have been transferred, catering has been privatised and even, surprisingly, the eight security men have been made redundant. As a result, the camp is extremely vulnerable and I regret to report that some equipment has already gone missing. I make the general point that in the camp in my constituency there is a great lack of confidence in the Government's policy of privatising the civilian services that support our troops. They often work late into the night and in the early morning when they come off the ranges. All that remains at Cwrt-y-Gollen camp are 15 clerks to keep the administration going. In the name of what has there been all this decline? Is it some Treasury saving, or something else?

The other factor that weighs heavily is the loss of between 40 and 50 permanent Army staff. Add those to the 40-plus civilian places that have been lost, and that knocks a considerable hole in the local economy.

One of the most bizarre aspects of the recent reorganisation in the camp is that the junior regiment has been transferred to Shorncliffe, Folkestone, but for adventure training these young soldiers return weekly to Cwrt-y-Gollen, a round trip of 400 miles. Does the Minister feel that this is a more cost-effective exercise than the previous arrangements, when the soldiers lived at the camp?

At present, the three camps in my constituency, Cwrt-y-Gollen, Dering Lines in Brecon, and Sennybridge are all engaged in training the Territorial Army and soldiers from all over Britain and NATO. The Sennybridge training area completes over 800,000 man training days a year, but we have no troop numbers of any significance stationed permanently in the area. We have many of the disadvantages of being associated with the armed forces, but we have few of the advantages, in that we have few permanently settled among us.

The Brecon and Radnor unemployment rate is 2 per cent. above the national average. But only 1.3 per cent. of the British Army in the United Kingdom is stationed permanently in Wales, with about 1,100 soldiers. We must compare this with the 62 per cent. of troops stationed permanently in southern England. Many include well-known regiments and total 54,000 soldiers. The south has a significantly better rate of employment and a higher standard of living. The transfer of troops to Wales is one way in which the Government can painlessly switch resources to a less wealthy area.

Recruitment in Wales is better than in any part of England. We recruit 6.5 per cent. of the Army total, but we have 5 per cent. of the United Kingdom population. I am sure that when the Minister analyses this against the number of troops permanently stationed in Wales he will agree that Wales is not getting a fair deal.

Will the Minister consider the following points about the future of Cwrt-y-Gollen camp? The Royal Regiment of Wales has in the recent past been active in Germany and Northern Ireland, and has given a good account of itself in those places. However, when it returned to the United Kingdom it was stationed in Wiltshire. This is regrettable, because the Cwrt-y-Gollen camp is only 30 miles from the Severn bridge. It is not way out somewhere in the far away hills. Its good Welsh name does not mean that it is an obscure place. It is alongside the A40, which runs from London to Fishguard. It is extremely accessible.

It would have been far better if the Royal Regiment had come home to Wales, where many of the soldiers hae their families and where many of them originated. Many of them were raised in the valleys of the south of Wales, and in the west and north-west. The Scots regiments remain stationed in Scotland. Why cannot the Royal Regiment of Wales be stationed in Wales?

I remember that when I was working in Scotland the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders were about to be disbanded. A tremendous fuss was made in the area where I was living at the time that the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders should continue to exist and be stationed at Stirling. I thought that that was very laudable. Mad Mitch, the famous major of Aden, campaigned extremely hard because he was an Argyll officer. That campaign was extremely successful, and I believe that in retrospect it has proved to be a very good decision.

I understand that it may not be possible to station the regiment in Wales all the time. I accept that regiments move around from time to time to do duties overseas. Will the Minister accept that a depot and headquarters could be established at Cwrt-y-Gollen, and perhaps the other battalions of the Prince of Wales Division could be stationed at the camp from time to time. If the Royal Regiment of Wales was stationed in Wales it would give a tremendous boost to the morale of the regiment. It would also give a tremendous boost to recruitment in the regiment throughout the length and breadth of Wales.

May I suggest, rather sadly, that the good record of recruitment in Wales is, unfortunately, a reflection of the high levels of unemployment that we have throughout our country. There is a human resource which is underutilised, and rather than idling its time away doing destructive things it could do many constructive things by joining the Army.

I do not speak about this subject idly, because I was a National Service officer. It is my strong belief that it is these local loyalties, brought about by raising regiments in areas of Britain, which give the British Army its fundamental strength. The local community in my constituency would welcome the increased employment opportunities that a permanent Army presence would provide. At the very least, the junior regiment and its bandsmen should return to Port Cwrt-y-Gollen.

The camp may require some investment to bring it up to standard — I do not underestimate that — but it is already in very good condition. It has the infrastructure, and investment there would be far more cost-effective than building a new camp elsewhere. Proposals have been discussed from time to time about building a new camp elsewhere in the British Isles. Other aspects of the defence budget may be preventing the development of camps such as Cwrt-y-Gollen. The investment being made in Trident at the present time may be having a kickback into Army expenditure. Therefore, I ask the Minister to give me an assurance that the camp will definitely remain open. I trust that it is not beig deliberately run down as a prelude to closure.

Will the Minister agree to more Welsh troops being based in Wales? It would be an effective policy for both the Army and the country. I promise that they will be made welcome. The future for Cwrt-y-Gollen camp and Crickhowell will then be assured.

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Roger Freeman)

I congratulate the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Livsey) on bringing to the attention of the House this important subject. He has introduced the subject with great eloquence and in a comprehensive fashion; particularly so because he served as a National Service officer, and I listened with great care and interest to what he said.

By drawing our attention to the history of Cwrt-y-Gollen camp at Crickhowell and the questions which he has posed to me—which I will seek to answer in the time left for the debate—the hon. Gentleman has done a great service to the House. The long-standing, honourable and important contribution that Welsh soldiers have made to the British Army should be recognised, as indeed it always has been, and emphasised again tonight. We are rightly proud of our Welsh Regiments, the Welsh Guards, and, indeed, the larger number of Welsh recruits to all arms and corps who have served us so well over the years. I confirm the recruitment figures that the hon. Gentleman gave. The British army has a long history of successful recruitment in Wales.

The hon. Gentleman referred to the importance of the local connection for the regimental system and expressed his hope that the Cwrt-y-Gollen camp at Crickhowell might have its potential more fully exploited as the home base for a Welsh regiment.

The local connection is indeed the cornerstone of our regimental tradition which draws upon regional kinships and strengths and the Army encourages that in many ways from school liaison visits, regimental associations and the Territorial Army, to which the hon. Gentleman referred.

However, I must stress that Army regiments are not necessarily based in the geographic areas from which they are recruited. There is no necessary link. Operational considerations must come first, although we try to take integration with the local community into account as far as possible amongst the factors being considered when redeployment is looked at. The siting of Army units is a complex mix of historical associations, convenience to allied units, major centres, training areas and relationship with operational roles.

I am sure that the House will find it useful if I spend a moment explaining the Army's present use of Cwrt-y-Gollen camp. The Armed Forces are constantly examining the cost-effectiveness of their operations and accommodation to achieve the maximum value for money and the greatest operational impact. Hon. Members will be well aware of the numerous reviews and cost-saving initiatives that the services have launched in recent years.

Amongst those was a study into the army's training organisation by Major-General Groom in 1982–83. That study showed conclusively that the Army was spread over too many regional recruit training depots, a number of which were too small to be cost-effective or needed uneconomical amounts of building work and costly maintenance. Groom also proposed intensifying junior training which would significantly reduce bed space requirements.

Following the Groom study, there was and still is a reorganisation of the Army's individual training organisation. Its first impact was to reduce the number of recruit training depots to achieve economies of scale and better combined facilities. Inevitably, a number of smaller regimental depots could not be sustained economically.

Although Cwrt-y-Gollen was an efficient training depot, its throughput was limited, its overheads were unavoidably high and it was the most expensive of all the Army's recruit training depots to run per trainee. In addition, at the time of the review, major building, maintenance and development work in the order of £7 million was considered necessary to maintain the depot's viability. In 1984 it was decided, as the hon. Gentleman knows, that Cwrt-y-Gollen must be one of the smaller recruit training depots which should close in the interests of economy.

Hon. Members will doubtless recall that that decision was subject to the fullest debate in the House at that time. Adult recruits to Welsh infantry regiments now go to Bassingbourn for their initial training and, as the hon. Gentleman said, juniors go to Shorncliffe. The hon. Gentleman referred to the fact that some of the juniors at Shorncliffe go back to the depot and I think that he implied that that was a round trip of some 400 miles. He questioned the logic of that. I can tell him that some but not all of those undergoing junior training do go back to the depot, and indeed other depots in Wales, but I stress that it is not all of them. The costs of such travel were taken into account in the costings for the reorganisation of junior training, so that movement does not come as a surprise to us. It had been taken into account in the financial appraisal.

In 1985 a study was undertaken to consider the: economics of retaining the Cwrt-y-Gollen camp for alternative military use. Full account was taken of local representations and my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for Wales took a personal keen interest. My right hon. Friend the Member for Henley (Mr. Heseltine) the former Secretary of State for Defence, was well aware of the local impact of the decision to withdraw junior training and its effect upon the area.

The study suggested that the camp had a viable military future primarily as a Territorial Army training base and to house a Territorial Army hospital. The then Secretary of State for Defence, my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley, approved its retention for this role. I can give the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor the assurance that he is seeking: the camp has a future.

The camp also houses the Royal Regiment of Wales and the Royal Welch Fusiliers information teams, the families' housing, its welfare service offices for Wales and a detachment of the junior infantry external leadership training wing as well as a number of Territorial Army and cadet units.

In addition, the camp has basic living accommodation for up to 512 all ranks and is capable of being used as a training base all year round. This revived military utilisation of the camp makes the most efficient use of the camp without the need for expensive building work. Although the camp has been operating in this capacity for only a few weeks, it is already heavily over subscribed and we are having to turn units away. Such is its popularity that we estimate that it will be used for 80,000 man training days in 1987. The reorganisation has necessitated the closing of the smaller troop training camp, the Vauxhall at Monmouth.

I recognise that the Army primarily uses Wales for its splendid training areas and that none of the Welsh regiments has a home base in Wales. The local association with regiments and their recruiting areas is very important and adhered to as much as possible throughout the United Kingdom, without the necessity for regiments to be necessarily stationed in their home areas. Indeed, the deployment pattern involved with operational tours would make this practically impossible. In any case, even if it were operationally and economically viable for the Welsh regiments to have a home base in Wales, the Army's plot of operational and emergency tours, home and overseas, would make it very unlikely that a native regiment would often be in its home base.

Sir John Stradling Thomas

I do not go all the way with the hon. Member for Brecon and Radnor (Mr. Livesey) on a number of issues and especially the idea that unemployment has contributed to recruitment in Wales. I believe that the Welsh, Scottish, English and Irish soldiers are superb.

The closure of the training camp at Vauxhall worries me, as does the semi-closure of Cwrt-y-Gollen. That camp is right on the fringe of my constituency and we need an army presence in Wales and Monmouthshire. Will my hon. Friend ask the Ministry of Defence and the Property Services Agency to get on with it and decide what will happen to the Vauxhall camp? We have all paid lip service to the Territorial Army. One of the last militia regiments of the British Army is based in Monmouth. I referred earlier to the Monmouth archers. We throw away the Territorial Army—the old voluntary spirit—as well as the regular soldiers at our peril for the future defence of our country. If Major-General Groom had been working for me and I had been his commanding officer he would not have lasted five minutes.

Mr. Freeman

I can assure my hon. Friend that the camp at Cwrt-y-Gollen does have a viable use and we have every intention of using it to the full. I can also assure him that the recent reference by the Ministry of Defence to the PSA concerning the disposal of the land at Vauxhall camp will be prosecuted with all deliberate speed. I assure the hon. Gentleman that I shall write to the PSA and ask for a status report on the disposal of the land and I shall write to him with a progress report.

As I have said, the factors affecting operational deployment and accommodation are complex and constrained by existing dispositions of facilities. The Army has been reviewing its estate in an attempt to redeploy to more economical areas and to take account of growing social pressures. There are many vital calls on the defence budget and operatonal capability must take precedence over social redeployment or the interests of local economies. Cwrt-y-Gollen camp is unsuitable to take an infantry battalion and does not have the necessary barrack and married quarter infrastructure. It costs up to £25 million to rebuild a barracks to today's standards and up to £10 million for the necessary married quarters.

Mr. Livsey

Are there any plans to build a new camp for the Army elsewhere? If so, the Minister's deliberations should take account of the fact that there has already been considerable investment in Cwrt-y-Gollen and there is room for expansion, although I accept that it could be an expensive operation. We have troops in many countries, many of whom may be coming back more often than in the past and will need more accommodation. The Minister should consider Cwrt-y-Gollen as a possible expansion point.

Mr. Freeman

I can give the hon. Gentleman the assurance that as and when the Army needs new building or modernisation of existing buildings to house units that may be coming back permanently to the United Kingdom, whenever there is a requirement for new building, Wales and the northern parts of England and Scotland will be given serious consideration. I believe that my right hon. Friend the Member for Henley gave that assurance when he was Secretary of State, and I repeat it today. Much more detailed study on operational logistic, economic and social factors would be needed before moving any regimental base. At present, I can only repeat that the Army has no plans or funds for such a move to Cwrt-y-Gollen, but I hope that the hon. Gentleman will accept the wider assurance that I have given.

I should point out to the hon. Gentleman that the armed forces have, none the less, retained a significant presence in south Wales. The Brecon training area, Castlemartin and Sennybridge ranges, are heavily used and the Army apprentice college is nearby at Chepstow. As a Minister responsible for all three services, I cannot confine this discussion simply to the Army. The Royal Air Force, of course, has very large units at St. Athan, Brawdy, and Sealand. The Army still employs 115 officers and more than 900 soldiers and 900 civilians in Wales. The Royal Air Force employs 4,850 military and 2,650 civilians and the Navy somewhat fewer. I appreciate that those numbers have fallen, in line with reducing numbers across the defence services and the Government's drive for greater efficiency in support services. None the less, the armed forces retain a considerable and proud presence in Wales and will continue to do so.

Although we have no immediate plans to move any major Army units into Wales, we would, of course, consider all locations—including locations in Wales—in any future redeployment of military units. I recognise and fully appreciate the close association between Wales and the Welsh people and the British Army. I am also mindful of the excellent training facilities that we enjoy in Wales.

In conclusion, I gladly take up the hon. Gentleman's suggestion of a visit to Wales. I have every intention of visiting not only Cwrt-y-Gollen but Sennybridge and Brecon itself.

Question put and agreed to.

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