§ Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair)
The hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) has asked me whether he can make an intervention. He has cleared it with the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) and I see that the Minister has also agreed to that.
§ Mr. John Grogan (Selby)
We have heard a great deal lately about firefighters' sense of public service, public spiritedness, selflessness, bravery, and brotherhood and sisterhood. Our Prime Minister rightly praised New York's finest for their dedication to duty, humanity and bravery. Within hours of the dreadful occurrences of 11 September, more than 100 men and women from our Ministry of Defence fire service volunteered to go to New York to help with the rescue. As far as I know, there are no plans to privatise New York's fire service. The House and the country will be surprised to learn that, on the other hand there is, every possibility that the Ministry of Defence fire service will be privatised.
Under the Ministry of Defence's airfield services study project, the work of nearly 3,000 defence fire service and air support staff at about 100 military sites across the UK and abroad is potentially the subject of bids for a contract worth around £4 billion over 15 to 25 years. In Yorkshire, the bases covered by the Ministry of Defence fire service include RAF Linton-on-Ouse, RAF Dishforth, RAF Topcliffe, RAF Church Fenton, which is in my constituency, RAF Fylingdales and the US air force base at Menwith Hill. As I said, the bases are scattered throughout the country. My hon. Friend the Member for Stafford (Mr. Kidney) has a base in his constituency, for example.
On 20 September this year—with impeccable timing—three private consortiums were invited to tender for the work of the Ministry of Defence fire service and associated support services. "Associated support services" may be an anodyne phrase, but it means tanker drivers, mechanics, vehicle technicians and refuellers—the very people upon whom our pilots rely for their lives and whose sense of public service, professionalism and patriotism we all too often take for granted.
The origins of this sorry situation go back to the late 1980s, when a major study was undertaken to review the Ministry of Defence fire services. The study recommended that the existing Navy, Army and Air Force departmental services should be rationalised into one fire service under central control. The trade unions, led by the Transport and General Workers Union, backed the proposals in full, showing great farsightedness; it was a failure of management not to implement them. At the time, the total concept was resisted by the management of the three services, principally because it was believed that commanding officers should retain control of their own fire service personnel. Partial rationalisation followed, in the form of a renamed Ministry of Defence fire service with common technical standards and training. However, each service continued to manage its element of the fire service in different ways, to suit its service culture. Duplication inevitably occurred—the very reason the trade unions had argued for a unified structure in the late 1980s.
228WH Parliamentary answers to my hon. Friend the Member for Thurrock (Andrew Mackinlay), who has taken a particular interest in the subject, show that in 1995 the then Government initiated a feasibility study to look at the viability of privatising the provision of airfield support services to the Ministry of Defence worldwide. The new Labour Government received the report, which indicated that there was, not surprisingly, significant private sector interest in the idea. Further work continued. Some negotiations with the trade unions were held, and in September this year, with no statement of any kind to the House, invitations to tender were issued.
I have much respect and regard for right my hon. Friend the Minister of State for Defence. I cannot imagine that he has ever got up in the morning with privatising the jobs of Ministry of Defence firefighters at the top of his agenda. When I first heard about the issue, I thought that perhaps he was faced with a recalcitrant work force who refused to contemplate change, put safety and security at risk by their inefficiency, and gave public service a bad name, and that in those circumstances he had to contemplate drastic change. However, the truth is that his work force has been crying out for change and modernisation for a decade.
I repeat: the work force has backed far-reaching change in the defence fire service in the 1980s and more recently, the trade unions and the stakeholders—the defence fire service management, the lieutenant colonels and the wing commanders—have got together and produced the Ministry of Defence "Fire Study 2000", which shows clearly how to cut costs by 20 per cent. and retain the fire service as a true public service in the public sector. The study states:This report identifies that, although previous reports have proposed changes for efficiency and effectiveness, reluctance to change has meant that all possible savings have not been realised... The Study Team proposes in this Report the creation of a new organisation—Defence Fire Risk Management Organisation—as an agency to be responsible for all fire risk management and fire support for military capability worldwide...The study team identifies that...there would be substantial cost savings (at least 20 per cent. per annum on current operating costs) through a leaner, more efficient structure, localised service provision, functional support direct to service providers with reduced travel and subsistence costs. There will be efficiency gains through multi-skilled personnel, reduced levels of management, effective IT and communication and personnel with devolved responsibility".That is management speak, but staff who have given their working lives to the defence fire service and the associated services felt for the first time that their ideas for improvement were being taken seriously. The irony is that because the external tendering process has now started and will not be finished for a year or two, there is no start date for implementing the public sector solution outlined in the report. In the meantime, taxpayers' money is being wasted and best value set aside.
There are three elements to the airfield support services project: first, the procurement of equipment in which the trade unions are happy to embrace private sector involvement; secondly, the defence fire service where a robust public service comparator has now been established; and, thirdly, all other support services. Under the chairmanship of Wing Commander Bob Waldegrave, who initially met the trade unions at Transport house—I do not know whether it was over beer and sandwiches. An intense effort was made to 229WH identify future inefficiencies to provide the most efficient and effective in-house support service for the Ministry of Defence. The Ministry set a deadline of 2002 for the work, which is unrealistically tight and restrictive; it will not allow enough time for a robust public sector comparator to be established for the support workers, whose jobs I mentioned earlier and who are outside the defence fire service. The private sector has had five years to put its case together and it seems strange to go out to tender before a complete public service comparator is available.
What is to be done? I paraphrase the Ministry's line. which is, "We've started so we'll finish. We will only privatise if there is demonstrable value for money and if operational effectiveness is not affected. It is too early to say what the outcome will be." But operational effectiveness cannot be guaranteed in a contract, no matter how clever the lawyer. Operational effectiveness in the military and, crucially, its support services, depend on men and women being prepared to go the extra mile, to set aside their own interests and to be flexible out of loyalty, duty and patriotism; men and women who have a clear sense of belonging to the organisation that they work for and are part of, not that to which their boss is contracted or subcontracted.
For example, the defence fire services currently provide free cover to support the civilian services in counties such as my own—North Yorkshire. That is particularly valuable in a big rural area. Last year, during the floods in York and Selby, crews from the Church Fenton station spent hour after hour trying to assist local people. Moreover, in the past two years, parliamentary answers reveal that defence fire service personnel have been deployed overseas 91 times on military operations and exercises. Perhaps firefighters from a privatised force would have to go overseas as part of their contract; however, Darren Gribben, a firefighter recently returned from several months' service in Kosovo, said:I was proud to serve in the hostile conditions of war-torn Pristina, but I would be unsure of returning under a privatised service.
I believe in the power of the public service ethos. It should be constantly tested and probed, but it should always be acknowledged out of respect for those for whom it is a driving force. I hope that the Government would prefer to have an efficient and modern defence fire service in the public sector. If not, some will ask what are our limits. They will want to know whether the Government will consider privatising the whole fire service.
Three consortiums are bidding to win the contract under offer which, remarkably, will be for between 15 and 25 years; however, the media and politicians have only just started scrutinising them. One consortium, Logicair, includes Serco, whose safety record was criticised when it bid unsuccessfully for the civilian air traffic control service. All three consortiums are considering drastic job cuts.
On grounds of safety and security, in light of all recent circumstances and of the services' efficiency plans, the Minister should today remove the threat of privatisation from the defence fire service. He should also announce an extension of next February's deadline to allow those 230WH working in associated support services—they, too, have served our country well—a chance to get their act together, so that a fair public sector comparator for their work can be established.
§ Angus Robertson (Moray)
I start by praising the hon. Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) for securing today's debate. It is timeous and necessary. I also thank him and the Minister for allowing me to speak. Knowing that time is short, I shall be brief.
Like the hon. Member for Selby, I have strong concerns about the proposed privatisation, not least because my constituency contains two of the most significant Royal Air Force bases in the United Kingdom—Lossiemouth and Kinloss. Many of my RAF constituents have raised the planned privatisation with me, and I voice those concerns today.
I share the view of the hon. Member for Selby that the proposals are misguided and ill timed. In the short time available to me, I shall raise also a number of other matters. The concerns expressed by the hon. Gentleman are shared by Moray trades council, which has written to me on the subject, the Transport and General Workers Union and the Scottish National party.
I wish to raise several questions with the Minister: I hope that he will be able to respond. Many of the firefighters at RAF Lossiemouth, whose morale is at rock bottom, are extremely concerned about back-fill—the ability to bring in extra firefighters to cover changes in the category of planes that use those bases. In general, Tornadoes operate from RAF Lossiemouth, but an increasing number of VC10s and Tristars now use it. Those planes are large and have heavy fuel loads, and their status for firefighting goes from category 4 to category 7. The base also has squadrons on detachment, and there is flying every day.
Will the Minister confirm that squads at RAF Lossiemouth will be reduced from seven to six? I would be keen to hear his views on how airfield commitments can be met with fewer men. I wish also to bring to his attention the fact that morale is at rock bottom. Is he not concerned about the safety implications?
Lastly, I wish to speak of some specific measures that were incorporated in the minutes of the local works Whitley council, which met on 28 September. It noted that RAF Lossiemouth is to be re-categorised as a category 3 station and that its four firefighter crews will bereduced from 7 to 6...However, the Command Fire Officer at the time"—who is named in the report—stated in writing that these figures did not include crew commanders, only the operational firefighters.The report adds that the person in question has, however,now retired and Command Fire has not subsequently substantiated his statement. It transpires that the revised manning figures do include crew commanders and are now enshrined in Joint Services Publication 426.The document adds thatthe Trade Union side wished to record its dissent over the deceitful and underhanded way in which this issue has been handled.231WH I should be grateful if the Minister could deal with those matters.
§ The Minister of State for Defence (Mr. Adam Ingram)
I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Selby (Mr. Grogan) on securing this debate on the future of the Ministry of Defence fire service and providing the House with an opportunity to discuss a subject that is important to him and to other hon. Members. Many have raised issues with me by way of parliamentary questions and other means.
Some emotive language has been used, and I understand why, but I want to remove some of the emotion from the debate, not because I cannot become as exercised as other hon. Gentlemen about the valuable and important service performed by the staff in question, but because we need to think about the matter in a logical, reasonable and structured way. It is better, therefore, that I define the work that is being undertaken in the Department that has clearly given rise to the debate.
Two separate but interlinked work streams are under way in the Department: the airfield support services project—known as ASSP—and "Fire Study 2000". I want to explain their key features to put them in context. The ASSP is investigating whether a public-private partnership would be the most viable and cost-effective way of providing airfield support services to the Ministry of Defence worldwide without compromising operational effectiveness or safety. That final phrase is, of course, crucial and nothing that is done will detract from operational effectiveness or safety.
Fire cover is an important element of ASSP, but we are considering the full range of airfield support services: aircraft fuelling, movements and air cargo handling, airfield clearance, which includes sweeping and snow and ice clearance, and other more general aircraft services such as towing, water, waste and lifting services. The ASSP approach came out of "Front Line First", where specific defence cost studies suggested that airfield support had potential to yield efficiencies, possibly by public-private partnering. Indeed, a number of multi-activity contracts—private contractor arrangements—have been in place at RAF airfields for some years. It is now intended through ASSP to draw together the experience and lessons learned from running those contracts and to consider whether one overarching contract encompassing all the necessary services would provide the best value for money. It is a tri-service, defence-wide project. All the key stakeholders have been involved, as we tried to ensure that, if it proceeds, ASSP provides the right service and outputs.
In September we issued an invitation to negotiate to three consortiums, inviting bids against the statement of requirement. Hon. Members and the trade unions were informed that the invitation to negotiate had been issued. Bids for 15 and 25-year terms are invited. The three bidders involved— Airside, Approach Services and Logicair—are companies that already run multi-activity contracts at many Ministry of Defence airfields. They are not new to the territory, and the concept that we are examining is not a new one. Existing multiactivity contracts already include fire cover—fire cover is not separate—for a number of the RAF stations and airfields, so this is not an unprecedented step into the unknown.
232WH In terms of the next stage of the project, bids are due back by the end of February 2002. There will then be a comprehensive and detailed evaluation before the next major decision stage, which is planned for the end of 2002. If the ASSP is judged to offer the best way forward, and I stress that no decision has been made—this is not top and tail and there are no preconceptions about the outcome—we would then announce a preferred bidder with a view to letting the contract in late 2003. The new service would be implemented in a rolling programme during 2004. That is the background to the matter and the time scale that could apply if a preferred bidder was chosen and we decided to proceed on that basis.
Entering this process by issuing an invitation to negotiate does not mean that a PPP solution is inevitable. There is still a lot of work to be done before any final decisions are taken about the preferred solution. I want to return to some the issues that were raised relating to the ASSP project in a moment, but I would like to turn now to "Fire Study 2000", which is a separate issue running concurrently with the ASSP.
The Ministry of Defence fire service is a large and complex organisation based both in the UK and overseas. The service covers some 108 operational fire stations and employs some 1,320 civil servants, 673 RAF firefighters, 450 Royal Navy aircraft handlers, 422 contractors and 263 locally employed civilians at overseas stations. In addition to their regular duties, it has also made its expertise available in areas of tension across the world including, at the present time, in the Balkans. My hon. Friend the Member for Selby referred to that role.
Although we recognise the fire services' outstanding record of service, it became clear in the late 1980s that a rationalisation of the Ministry of Defence fire service structure was overdue. A major review was undertaken at that time, which recommended that the fire services of the Royal Navy, the Army and the Royal Air Force should be rationalised into a single fire service under central control. Although the proposal was embraced by the fire services themselves, other concurrent organisational changes within the Department meant that some important aspects of the rationalisation did not go ahead. I agree with my hon. Friend the Member for Selby that that was an opportunity lost, and not because of a lack of commitment from the work force at the time.
Following the over-arching strategic defence review undertaken by the Government in 1998, it was clear that the structural problems of the defence fire service had not gone away and that a fresh study was needed. A major review known as "Fire Study 2000" was accordingly launched in January 2000 with a remit to review the current organisation and operation of the defence fire service and develop an optimum strategy for meeting the Department's current and future requirements for fire risk management in times of peace, crisis, and war.
The first stage of "Fire Study 2000" was completed in July of this year and the second stage, involving a more detailed financial appraisal, is due to be completed by the end of December. The proposed future organisation embraces all fire safety support services required by the MOD and comprises a single 233WH totally integrated organisation that provides opportunities for a more effective and efficient organisation delivering improved value for money.
§ Mr. Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (Cotswold)
Does the Minister accept that one of the support services for the defence fire service is training? Is he aware that the fire service college in Moreton-in-Marsh provides high-quality cost-effective training? Will he consider carefully whether defence fire service staff could receive their training at that college?
§ Mr. Ingram
I shall take those comments on board. I accept the point that training is an important aspect of how any defence service is delivered at airfields and elsewhere and I shall write to the hon. Gentleman about the point that he raised.
By explaining the two strands of examination, I want to point out the clear relationship between ASSP and "Fire Study 2000". We must be driven partly by the desire to ensure that all that we deliver is as efficient as possible. The public sector comparator—an essential aspect of the public-private partnership scheme that we envisage—must be as taut and well constructed as possible. It should inform the overarching examination of the delivery of service at our airfields. "Fire Study 2000" informs the public sector comparator, so it will help to provide a robust comparator against which we can judge the bids. That seems a sensible approach. I would like to hear any dissent from that—any logical argument against trying to ensure that maximum efficiency is brought into play and that we exercise our best minds to ensure best value for money in all aspects of service delivery.
My hon. Friend the Member for Selby and I have commented on the trade union commitment overall, in terms of approaches to study. The trade unions are heavily engaged in developing the public sector comparator. I want to compliment them on their close examination of the subject. However, that does not mean that we then assume that the private sector can necessarily provide the right level of service and best value for money. The next step, logically, need not follow. Similarly, we cannot assume that the existing service necessarily offers best value for money to the taxpayer.
We are dealing with a big organisation with huge inefficiencies that have been identified time and again, and have not been tackled in the past for reasons that we 234WH need not discuss. Now we are tackling them in a logical and coherent way. We have to test the market and then assess the bids. We should not refuse to consider what the market can provide, and we must recognise the fact that the market is already in place through several schemes linked to the overall delivery of service. We should see what they can do to ensure best value for money.
§ Angus Robertson
Will the Minister use his limited time to answer one or more of the questions that I asked him?
§ Mr. Ingram
The hon. Gentleman wears on his sleeve great concern about what is happening in his constituency, but his party would probably close down the activity of bases in Scotland. It is opposed to NATO and the defence posture of our country. I am trying to deal with the main issues raised by my hon. Friend the hon. Member for Selby, who secured the debate. I will deal with the questions posed by the hon. Member for Moray (Angus Robertson) in writing, because sufficient time is not available. As ever, we have to make do with the time available.
We are simply guaranteeing the safety and security of all services delivered at the airfields. There is no privatisation initiative. The allegation that we are privatising the Ministry of Defence fire service will not stand up to an examination of the explanation that I have given. Jobs will not suddenly be cast aside. Many protections will be put in place to maintain the jobs of the civilian staff who provide the service. My hon. Friend accepted that the unions recognised the need to ensure a rational approach, so that there is a logical development. Overall employment plays a part in the equation on efficiencies. Everyone is facing up to the need to tackle the problem constructively and responsibly.
The two studies being conducted on two strands are closely interrelated. However, our overall strategy will be to ensure that operational effectiveness and the safety of our armed forces are never put at risk. Those services exist to provide that safety, albeit with armed forces personnel as part of their delivery. We recognise the important role played by those who deliver the services. but we must get value for money from them. We must regard every penny as having the value of a pound.
§ Mr. Mike Hancock (in the Chair)
Order. I ask hon. Members and others who are not staying for the next debate to move quietly and quickly out of the room.