HC Deb 22 May 1992 vol 208 cc610-7

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

9.37 am
Mr. Robert Banks (Harrogate)

I am most grateful for this opportunity to raise a matter of very great importance to the town of Harrogate in my constituency and more especially to the people whose jobs depend on the Ministry of Defence establishment there. I am particularly grateful to see on the Treasury Bench my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon (Mr. Curry) because a number of employees who are employed at the Ministry of Defence establishment live outside the boundaries of my constituency. I am grateful to him for finding time to be here for part of this debate.

My hon. Friends the Members for Ryedale (Mr. Greenway) and for Calder Valley (Sir D. Thompson) have supported me in the efforts that I have been making to retain the Ministry of Defence establishment. They regret that they are unable to be here this morning, owing to their constituency commitments.

The establishment is commonly called the Ministry of Defence in St. George's road by local people in Harrogate. I recognise that its technical title is the Support Management Group, which is within the department of the Air Member for Supply and Organisation. It does not form part of the Procurement Executive, though part of its function is to undertake some procurement work.

All this sounds very confusing. It is even more confusing because it is bound up with the RAF Logistics organisation. None the less, the work at the Ministry of Defence establishment is important and recognised as crucial to the back-up for RAF aircraft. I appeal to the Minister to give departments and their tentacles rational and recognisable titles. More confusion arises from the appointment of two air commodores to operate command at the establishment.

Some time ago we were delighted when the then Secretary of State for Defence, George Younger, made time to visit the establishment. I am most grateful to my hon. Friend the Member for Lincoln (Mr. Carlisle) for the close interest that he took in the establishmnent when he was the Under-Secretary of State for Defence Procurement in the previous Parliament. The same can be said of my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), who, as Secretary of State, made it clear that he would look very closely at any proposals to move jobs from the north to the south. He emphasised to me that about 300 different moves are involved in the review process. I can understand the difficulties that my right hon. Friend the Minister experiences with so many hon. Members having different parts of the procurement division in their constituencies. Their natural inclination, like mine, is to ensure that their establishment stays where it is.

The review is entirely right and proper. Our defence commitments have been reduced by the changed circumstances of the world. There is no doubt that staff at the Ministry of Defence fully accept and understand that our forces must be scaled down to meet our reduced commitments. The reduction in defence expenditure is welcome as it will enable us to spend more on social priorities, but we must exercise prudent care in shaping our defence forces to ensure that we can respond to circumstances that we may not be able to foresee precisely. Circumstances change and we live in a world that is full of surprises and sometimes horrors.

Our role in NATO is enormously important. I have always fervently believed that NATO is the cornerstone of western defence and that it must remain so, particularly because of the link that it establishes with north America and Canada. I am sure that we shall have the opportunity on many occasions to restate the role of NATO and to emphasise the need to maintain our defences to ensure that we are not caught out.

Harrogate has enjoyed the presence of the Ministry of Defence for a long time. When the establishment came to Harrogate after the war, it quickly became part of the town. Employees soon were loyal to Harrogate and it is a posting which is favoured by mobile grades and by service men, who come and go. Some 1,250 civilians and 315 service men work at the establishment, which is the largest single employer in Harrogate. We have a number of employers involved in a diverse range of industries and commerce, but we are particularly proud of the long and important links that we have had with civil servants in the Ministry of Defence and other sections of government.

The Ministry of Defence's buildings are outdated. Temporary and shortlisted buildings have withstood more than their fair test of time. I am arguing not for retention of the present site or occupation of present buildings but for keeping jobs in Yorkshire and in the vicinity of Harrogate.

A review conducted by the previous Labour Government proposed moving the establishment to Glasgow. We resisted that move and, thankfully, it was scuttled when we took office in 1979. Instead, staff were moved from Glasgow to Harrogate. I am eternally grateful to the Ministers who took that decision as it reinforced Harrogate's position and gave staff a sense of security about their long-term future.

The present review once again threatens to move the establishment from Harrogate. I hope that my right hon. Friend the Minister will say something about the review and its progress. I know that much has been done and is being done to reach a decision. It was originally to be made in the spring, but there was a delay and it was announced that it would be made in the early summer. Summer seems to be early this year, but I must press my right hon. Friend to accept that the uncertainty for civilian employees in the non-mobile grades is causing much anxiety. I hope that he will say today at least that consultation with the employees' organisations and unions will start as soon as possible once options have been decided. Consultation is most important. We are talking about the livelihoods of employees and their families, the education of their children and the arrangements that they have to make for where they live.

The review involves departments in Gloucestershire, London, RAF Brampton, near Huntingdon, RAF Wyton in Cambridgeshire and at High Wycombe. Conservative Members representing those areas are no doubt making pleas to retain the presence of the Ministry of Defence, in its various forms, in their areas. The locations that I have mentioned are all in the south, but the largest unit is the one in Harrogate. The cost of moving non-mobile grades must be taken into account and I hope that that will be underlined in the review.

We see ourselves in Harrogate as being very much in competition with RAF Wyton. Rumours fly around and people have the impression that there is a major competition between ourselves and RAF Wyton. I admire my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister and if he wanted help I would give it to him unreservedly, but his majority is the largest in the country—36,230. I do not think that he needs the assistance of extra jobs for his constituency. We know, however, that he can stand on his own feet and on his own record.

My area has many military connections. HMS Forest Moor, a small and unknown branch of the Royal Navy, is in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon. It deals with communications in our area. The Army Apprentices college is on the boundary of my constituency and in that of my hon. Friend the Member for Skipton and Ripon. We are both overjoyed that it will be retained as a military establishment and will take on board the Junior Leaders Regiment. That is good news; it keeps jobs in the area.

However, there are three services—the Navy, the Army and the RAF. The RAF presence in my constituency at the Ministry of Defence establishment completes the services representation. A variety of defence sites are therefore available. Even beyond the close boundaries of the Harrogate constituency there is RAF Linton-on-Ouse and the army bases at Catterick. I have no doubt that there is sufficient land, and there are buildings which could certainly be made available as a relocation point for the Ministry of Defence establishment. Will my right hon. Friend tell us how many sites have been considered in the review and where they are located in the Harrogate area?

The St. Georges road site is a valuable one and when the time comes to redevelop, I hope that priority will be given to commercial or office accommodation in order to retain jobs in the area. It is a prestigious point close to the centre of Harrogate and there are a number of uses to which the site could be put.

If one considers its national position, strategically Harrogate must offer the best solution as it is at the heart of the United Kingdom. It has excellent rail and road links, superb schools and an environment of unequalled quality. I do not doubt the enthusiasm of the people who are asked to move to Harrogate once they have seen and know the area.

Jobs are important to us. Jobs have recently been lost at National Power which last year announced that it would be making people redundant at its offices in Harrogate. Of course, that is to be regretted, but all thinking people understand that companies must make their own decisions. The record shows that in March 1990 there were 922 jobs at National Power in Harrogate. In March 1991 the number increased to 1,063 and at the end of March this year the number had fallen to 769. They are important jobs and I am delighted that National Power is retaining its offices in Harrogate even on a reduced basis.

ICI's research fibres division at Hornbeam park recently announced that it was closing down and that there would be 200 job losses as a result of the closure. ICI has had a long and historic connection with Harrogate. Over the years it expanded and then reduced its research fibres division. It has now made a rational decision and, as I said in relation to National Power, we of course regret the loss of jobs at that great company.

One good point is that many of the buildings vacated have been re-occupied by other smaller firms which have come to Harrogate and which provide jobs. Some of the offices have now become our college of art and technology.

Harrogate has an unemployment rate of 4.6 per cent. The figure is 8.4 per cent. in Leeds and 5.9 per cent. in York, so we are relatively lucky. We do not deny that, but we live in a competitive world and we must fight to get and to hold every job that we can. It is always our intention to encourage industry to expand and new companies to come to Harrogate and the surrounding areas, and that is one of Harrogate's great strengths.

Harrogate has been fortunate in that the Government whom I am proud to support have moved jobs from the London area to the north. Two departments of the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food are moving and the first—the central science laboratory—is due to relocate in 1996 to Sand Hutton in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Ryedale. Four hundred posts are due to be moved there and about 150 to 200 staff will have to be recruited locally, which is a plus. The move involves mainly scientists. Departments within the headquarters division of the Ministry dealing with pesticide safety, plant health, statistics, personnel, establishment work and finance will be located in York city centre in 1994. About 600 posts will be involved and 300 are expected to be recruited locally.

The Department of Health is also moving staff from the south to Leeds. The move will involve the national health service management executive, more or less in its entirety. Between 1,100 and 1,200 posts are to be relocated. Support services are not being relocated but are being put out to contract, which is a good thing because it is thought that between 100 and 200 support service jobs will be created in the area for local people.

The Department of Social Security is also moving with the Department of Health and, in this case, the whole of the Benefits Agency is coming to Leeds. Seven hundred and ninety one posts are being moved to Leeds, including a range of executive and clerical grades together with senior management posts. The figure does not include support services which will add another 40 local jobs and thus create new jobs for local people.

It has been the Government's policy—rightly so—to decant jobs from the south, or from London, to the north so that there is a better balance of civil service jobs in the north. We value that and it would be a great pity—indeed, a tragedy—if that policy were reversed and a decision made to relocate the Ministry of Defence establishment in another part of the country.

We have a long and historical connection with the Ministry of Defence. We pride ourselves on the fact that our workers at the Ministry of Defence are dedicated, hard working and efficient. They are deeply rooted in the area as they have been there for many years. Their families are there and the sons of some employees now also work in the establishment so there is a family continuity. Above all, the establishment is our largest and, therefore, our most important and valued employer.

I plead with the Minister to ensure that we keep the Ministry of Defence jobs in Yorkshire and that the RAF retains its presence in the Harrogate area. We in the north will be ever grateful to the Ministry and to my right hon. Friend for the close consideration that we know he will give to the points that I have raised. I hope that he will be able to say something about the progress of the review and how we are to regard the future, which is very important for us all.

It will not be an easy decision. It is very important that we have the fullest possible consultation and openness of government on the issue. If it is a straight battle, which it may or may not be, between Harrogate and RAF Wyton, I can say only that we will bend over backwards to show that we can provide the work force and, I am sure, a site and buildings which can be adapted. Our services are wholly available to the Minister in his quest for the right location. There can be no doubt about that.

I hope that the Minister will take my words on board and will be able to give us some advice today that will point the way to the decisions—painful though those decisions will have to be for many people in different parts of the country. I hope that we shall hear something about that now.

9.59 am
The Minister of State for the Armed Forces (Mr. Archie Hamilton)

I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Harrogate (Mr. Banks) on being successful in the ballot for subjects for debate today, and I am grateful for this opportunity to clarify for the House the nature and purpose of the studies that have been under way for some time into the future organisation of RAF Logistics. Because the Ministry of Defence and RAF staff at Harrogate play such an important part in the management of RAF Logistics, the studies clearly have to encompass the future of the site.

The Ministry of Defence at Harrogate employs some 300 service and 1,200 civilian staff and provides the single largest collocated element of the support management organisation. The task of this organisation is to provide the logistic support necessary to underwrite the RAF's operational capability and, as a result of rationalised arrangements, the operational capability of the Army Air Corps and Fleet Air Arm. Support is also provided to some overseas Governments who have purchased British defence equipment. The organisation provides aircraft fleet and inventory management, draws up maintenance and supply policy and manages the provision, procurement and management of spares, modifications, and the repair of equipments and components. It does not itself carry the functions of aircraft and component repair and overhaul, or spares manufacture. Its suppliers are the Maintenance Defence Support Agency—a part of RAF support command—the Naval Aircraft Repair Organisation and, predominantly, private industry. There are, however, significant elements of the organisation not currently based in Harrogate. As my hon. Friend said, the reorganisation will affect people located in several different parts of the country—people based in London, at the RAF headquarters strike command High Wycombe and RAF support command at Brampton, and people who work with specialist staffs at RAF Swanton Morley in Norfolk, RAF Stanbridge in Bedfordshire, and at Glasgow and Liverpool. The task of the studies under way is to design and identify the most efficient and effective structure and location for the long-term future of the support management organisation, bringing it into balance with the reductions in the front line which have already been announced.

I remind the House that my right hon. Friend the Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), then Secretary of State for Defence, announced on 25 July 1990 the outline structure of British forces for the future. Further details were set out in the "Statement on the Defence Estimates" published on 9 July 1991. For the RAF, the closures of the stations at Wildenrath and Gutersloh in Germany have been announced and, indeed, most of their squadrons have been disbanded or relocated already. Cessation of flying at RAF Wattisham has been announced and its Phantom squadrons will be disbanded later this year. Flying will also cease at RAF Honnington and RAF regiment units are to be relocated from West Raynham, Catterick and Hullavington as the number of RAF regiment squadrons reduces.

On the support side, the maintenance unit at Abingdon is to close later this year, the flying training school at Church Fenton is changing to a relief landing ground and flying training is to cease at RAF Brawdy. Further closures and rationalisations in ground training, maintenance, supply and movements will be announced and made in due course and there is a continuing programme of closure for RAF stations used by the United States Air Force in this country.

In those circumstances, it is necessary for us to review and streamline the logistics management organisation and associated MOD headquarters functions to meet the needs of the new front line and supporting units: it would be quite wrong of us not to do so. Indeed, if we did not, we could not undertake to provide the well-equipped and well-trained front line for 1990s and beyond which the Government have promised. The Government have therefore made it clear that they seek substantial savings in the support area, at least proportionate to the reductions in the front line. As part of that, we approved last year the recommendations of a study—known as the PROSPECT study—on the future size and structure of the Ministry of Defence and its relationships with the commands. The recommendations that are being implemented include headquarters manpower savings at all levels of at least 20 per cent. and significant relocation of posts out of London. The object of the changes is to reduce substantially the MOD's overheads and streamline its working practices, consistent with the reductions in our front-line strengths, the opportunities opened by the Department's new management strategy and the application of new information technology. At a time of such change in our armed forces following the momentous international developments of recent years, we owe it to them and to the public at large to produce a leaner and more responsive MOD.

Central to the study's recommendations was the principle that only small, core headquarters should be retained in London, with the remaining functions being redeployed. For the RAF, the report recommended in particular that the staffs of the Air Member for Supply and Organisation—within whose department are the majority of the staffs currently based at Harrogate—should move out of London and, together with associated elements of RAF support command, chiefly the Maintenance Defence Support Agency, form a logistics command located at the current RAF support command headquarters at Brampton, near Huntingdon. On formation of the new command, the separate appointments of AMSO and air officer commanding in chief support command would be abolished. As a consequence of these changes, it is clear that there will be significant relocation of staff to the Brampton area. The object of the studies now under way has been to establish the best long-term locations for the remainder of the staffs in other parts of the new logistics command, which are not already located in the Brampton area. As I have already said, they are predominantly in London, at Harrogate, High Wycombe, RAF Stanbridge and RAF Swanton Morley.

It is clear that, to meet the challenging targets for efficiency which we have set, we shall need to exploit to the maximum the opportunities for the collocation and integration of service and civilian staffs. This will enable us to reduce the management overhead and, with the use of modern management techniques and information technology, improve the quality of decision taking. The RAF is already embarked upon a major update of its logistics information systems—many of which date from the late 1960s and early 1970s—known as the logistics information technology strategy, or—to use one of the acronyms which the MOD loves—LITS. Also, following a fundamental review of the management of supply and engineering in the late 1980s, RAF support management now operates on the basis of multi-discipline groups, which combine engineering, supply, procurement and financial disciplines into project teams. These are already showing their worth, but full integration, which we must achieve to exploit fully the opportunities of new technology and new working practices, has been hampered by the current dispersed nature of the organisation. The PROSPECT study, which these reforms preceded, provides an opportunity, unlikely to recur, of overcoming this drawback and achieving substantial long-term benefits.

We recognise, however, that such collocation and integration will be disruptive and potentially costly in the short term. Consequently, all available options for the long-term location of all elements of the new logistics command are the subject of intensive and exhaustive study. Although it is clear that there are no options which do not involve relocation, we need to take into account the costs of reproviding office accommodation, domestic accommodation for service personnel who will remain an essential part of the command, relocation of civilian staff, the provision of information technology, the availability of suitably qualified staff, and their training, together with local housing and transport needs. We also need to investigate the opportunities for making the best use of the current defence estate and minimise expensive reprovision of new buildings. With an extensive drawdown in the defence estate under way, there has clearly been a wide range of potential solutions.

From an early stage, however, it has been evident to all concerned that the solutions fall into one of two broad categories: a northern solution, which my hon. Friend suggested, based on the current site at Harrogate, and an East Anglian solution, centred on the current headquarters site at Brampton. Each option will have its advocates and my hon. Friend has been most eloquent in putting forward the virtues of an outcome based at Harrogate.

The Harrogate solution would have the advantage of a large resident work force. However, it would require relocation northward of significant numbers of RAF and civilian specialist staff, and reprovision and expansion of the current buildings which, as my hon. Friend accepts, are almost 50 years old and coming to the end of their economic life. As part of this, we are also studying the possible use of spare capacity at RAF training stations in the area. A solution in the Brampton area would require more relocation, but over shorter distances for many of the specialists involved. Brampton is very close to the RAF station at Wyton, which has significant potential for reuse and is generally well maintained. I take my hon. Friend's point that it is in the constituency of my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister. Ambitious as I am, that has not been one of the factors that has made us consider Wyton as a serious candidate. I assure the House that every option is subject to the most stringent and rigorous operational and economic analysis.

We would, however, ignore qualitative factors at our peril, and I am fully aware of the Department's obligations to its work force. I should like to pay in particular a tribute to the loyalty, dedication and skill of the civilian staff who have always played a major role in the provision of RAF Logistics. They are well aware that major studies are under way into the future of RAF Logistics which will affect both their personal and professional lives.

I am determined that, while we must achieve the efficient provision of the very best logistic support for the RAF for the 1990s and beyond, in doing so we shall also seek to provide a promising and rewarding professional life for those who seek a career in the area. But there will undoubtedly be short-term disruption for some. While we can agree on the appropriateness and need for smaller armed forces, the streamlining of their support, and a smaller proportion of our national wealth being spent on defence, those aims will not be achieved without disruptions and possibly redundancy for some and temporary damage to local economies where establishments are closed.

Whatever the outcome of the recommendations, everything possible will be done to minimise the adverse effects on our employees. Staff in grades with a mobility obligation would, where appropriate, be transferred at public expense and transfers to other Government Departments or MOD establishments would be investigated fully, especially for staff in grades with no mobility obligation. The MOD would establish close contact with employers in areas affected, including other Government Departments which may have relocation plans of their own which offer opportunities for co-ordination. Any staff leaving prematurely under voluntary or compulsory redundancy terms would have available the services of the MOD counselling service and would be compensated under the terms of the appropriate pension scheme.

I am conscious that continued uncertainty for those potentially involved a source of anxiety—a point made strongly by my hon. Friend—and I hope soon to make public our proposals as a basis for consultation. We shall not make a final decision on the way ahead without taking into account all the relevant factors and without a proper period of consultation. In particular, I assure the House that the recommendations will be subject to the full consultative procedures agreed between the Department and the trades unions.