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7 May 2008 : Column 249WH—continued

9.56 am

Mr. Gregory Campbell (East Londonderry) (DUP): It is a privilege, Mr. Bayley, to serve under your chairmanship. I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) on securing this debate on an important topic in his constituency.

Job retention at military bases is often overlooked, because there is a tendency, particularly in Northern Ireland, to assume that it is an employment factor that was relevant during the troubles—of course, it was relevant, and it provided a sustainable backdrop for many people for 30 years. Hopefully, we are now reaching the point in Northern Ireland when a vicious page has been turned in a chapter of our history—we all hope and pray that that is occurring and that there will be no regress. That being so, the Government have a duty to assist Northern Ireland, whether in the case of the retention of RAF Aldergrove, which my hon. Friend and local people demand, or in the case of the adoption of other sites for utilisation in the local economy, which has been done in a few cases in Belfast and Londonderry and which could become an economic driver, if the MOD were flexible enough to allocate those bases free of charge to the Northern Ireland Executive. That has happened in a few cases, but it should happen in other cases, because we shall probably not have another such opportunity.

We have come through 35 years of tyranny and terror, and we are now almost in a hiatus with the economy still heavily dependent on the public sector, as my hon. Friend has outlined in relation to Antrim. We must promote the private sector in Northern Ireland, and this is a golden opportunity for the Government to assist communities in Northern Ireland. Retaining a base such as RAF Aldergrove and considering whether other bases could be handed over to the Executive for the private sector to provide sustainable, long-term employment will enable us all to enjoy a peaceful, prosperous and progressive Northern Ireland.

Dr. McCrea: The base is associated with not only 30 years of trouble, but the 90 years of history from 1918 in which the RAF has been based in the Antrim area, so the issue goes far beyond the trouble. The trouble was a vital part—there was great personal danger—but when the nation called on the people of the United
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Kingdom, RAF Aldergrove was a vital part of the nation’s defence. I believe that my hon. Friend has referred to Massereene barracks. Another regiment is to be brought in and Massereene will be left vacant. I think that he was pointing out that the base should be handed over to the people of Northern Ireland, that is if the Minister does not change his mind—and I trust that he will—about RAF Aldergrove.

Mr. Campbell: I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention. Indeed, one would have thought that 90 years of service would have merited more than simply the release of a statement. I would have thought that intensive consultation and discussion with the local Member of Parliament would have been a prerequisite. Perhaps the Minister will address that in his response.

In conclusion, I want the Minister to look at the overall concept in Northern Ireland and give a lifeline to Antrim and other places, such as Coleraine, Portadown and Belfast. If a lifeline were provided, the economy could be revitalised through a contribution from the Ministry of Defence. I hope that the Minister will review the MOD’s decision and assist us in our plight as we try to step out of a morass of violence and move into the 21st century.

10 am

Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) (DUP): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Dr. McCrea) on securing this debate about an important issue in his constituency. The proposal will also have a spill-over effect on my constituency, because many of those employed in the civilian work force at Aldergrove live in the East Antrim area—indeed, a number of people have already come to my office to talk about the blow caused by the announcement. I would like the Minister to respond to a number of points. The fact that the announcement was made by written statement perhaps did not provide the opportunity for a closer examination of the decision and this debate at least gives the Minister the opportunity to respond to the relevant points that have been made.

I recognise that defence needs and public spending priorities change. I also recognise that the Northern Ireland economy needs to change—both speakers this morning have referred to that. The Executive of the Northern Ireland Assembly have prioritised moving away from public sector dependence to greater private sector involvement. That transition period will cause pain. The Executive already have grand plans to cut the public sector in Northern Ireland—for example, reviews of public administration, doing away with quangos, amalgamating councils and so on. That will move resources towards the private sector, but if on top of that, Northern Ireland receives a disproportionate reduction in public service employment from central Government at Westminster, the transition period will be made much more difficult and some areas will be badly hit.

As my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim has mentioned, a decision about the Massereene site in Antrim has been made, and that will, of course, lead to reduced spending power as a result of a decrease in employment there. The loss of a population of about 1,100 people plus the civilian jobs that pump money into the local economy will have a downward multiplier
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effect at a time when changes and decisions are already being made in relation to public employment in the area by the Northern Ireland Executive.

The proposal will also have a sudden impact on local schools because a number of nearby schools are heavily dependent upon children from the base at Aldergrove. I cannot compare Aldergrove with other bases here in England, but I have toured the base on a number of occasions and seen its excellent facilities, which include not only workshops, hangars and mechanical resources, but excellent domestic housing facilities for service staff. After hearing about the conditions in which service staff are forced to live at some bases in this part of the United Kingdom, one must ask how far the total costs and benefits of the Aldergrove site were considered. How much of a business case was made and was Aldergrove compared with other sites in England before the decision was taken?

I have no doubt that there are economies of scale in bringing all those activities together, but, as my hon. Friend has asked, was a business case worked out for sourcing work done in England and bringing it to Northern Ireland? Aldergrove has the facilities, and it has excellent conditions for the personnel who work on the base. I have been in the houses of many of the personnel based at Aldergrove, and the facilities are first class. Will the Minister say whether it was simply a case of asking what savings could be made by closing Aldergrove, rather than looking at the opportunities to use such a cost-effective and well-resourced facility in Northern Ireland and considering whether some activities could be moved from other parts of the United Kingdom?

I would also like the Minister to indicate whether the MOD looked at the kind of adjustments that are already being required as a result of running down military bases across Northern Ireland? Historically, I know the reasons for that, and I am glad that we do not need the level of troop allocation to Northern Ireland that we did in the past because it shows that we are moving towards greater normality. As a result of the endeavours of members of our party, we are moving Northern Ireland away from a conflict situation towards a much more peaceful and bright future. That has necessarily caused adjustments to be made in constituencies all around Northern Ireland. I understand that this proposal is not related to the need to run down the security forces backing up the police in Northern Ireland and that it is part of the general adjustments being made.

Dr. McCrea: As I said to my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell), let us remember that this base is not a conflict-related base. For 90 years, it has been an RAF base and therefore we are not talking about the general issues that would relate to other bases, but about something that is for the benefit of the United Kingdom as a whole.

Sammy Wilson: That is exactly my point. I understand the run-down and that there is no point in keeping bases that were purely needed for the service personnel who dealt with the troubles. However, it is gratuitous that on top of the necessary removal of bases that are no longer needed because of the greater normality in Northern Ireland, reductions are to be made to a base that has existed for a long, long time and that has provided a service not directly related to the troubles. Again, the
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Ministry of Defence should have taken into consideration the fact that we have already borne a sizeable reduction in personnel and bases in Northern Ireland. The local economy has suffered as a result of those necessary adjustments, but the adjustments to Aldergrove are not necessary—particularly if no cost-benefit analysis was done to see how money or work could be reallocated to Northern Ireland to offset some of the cuts that have already been made.

In the long term, as my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr. Campbell) has pointed out, some military bases could be used to regenerate local economies. The Minister has received considerable representations about the base in Omagh, which people wish to use for an educational facility, bringing together five of the schools in the area. That will happen only if the base does not have to go out at market rates and if the commitment that the Government made to turn over many of these bases as an asset to the Northern Ireland Executive is fulfilled and the promise kept. There are many other such bases.

In the long run, the contraction of the RAF may mean that there is no use for the base at Aldergrove. The adjustment over time is important. That time adjustment may well lead to the base being made redundant in the very long term, but the current reduction, coming at a time when we have had all the other reductions in the armed services in Northern Ireland, is a reduction too far. I am sure that there is considerable economic potential in the longer run, with the development of Aldergrove airport and the plans for the area around it, but given the changes that are already occurring in the Northern Ireland economy, the decision that we are discussing will have a detrimental short-term impact. I believe that it is to lead to facilities being relocated to less desirable facilities elsewhere in the United Kingdom and that efficiency will suffer. If the Minister can tell me differently and show us that the costs have been carefully considered and that there are considerable benefits, I suppose that we will have to examine those figures, but the decision has been a blow.

I think that the decision is indicative of the way in which the Government at Westminster sometimes treat Northern Ireland. I do not think that something as important as this would have been done without consultation in an English constituency. For the Member for the area to hear about the matter on the news, rather than there being prior consultation, and for things to be done outside the normal parliamentary procedure—it is fortuitous that we have this debate today—has been regrettable and causes people in Northern Ireland to believe that sometimes they are an afterthought in these decisions, rather than part and parcel of the proper way in which governmental decisions should be made. I hope that that is not because there are no votes for the Government party in Northern Ireland and that it is therefore felt that Northern Ireland can be disregarded.

Dr. McCrea: Rather than there being no votes, there could be very important votes in this House from Northern Ireland at the next election.

Sammy Wilson: When I said “no votes”, I meant for the particular party, as it has refused to stand in Northern Ireland.

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Mr. Gregory Campbell: So far.

Sammy Wilson: Indeed. I hope that it is not the case that people feel that Northern Ireland can be disregarded in that way because the governing party at present is not organised in that part of the United Kingdom. We are part of the United Kingdom. We believe that we should be treated in the same way as any other part of the United Kingdom and that, when major announcements such as this are being made, a proper consultation process should be undertaken.

10.14 am

Willie Rennie (Dunfermline and West Fife) (LD): It is an honour to follow three great speakers. This is my first foray into Northern Ireland politics and I will tread carefully—Scottish politics is complicated enough, and I do not regard myself as an expert on that. Westminster Hall debates are an interesting discipline, because they force us to examine and explore issues that we might not explore in our usual work in Parliament, and it has been very interesting to discover the rich history of the RAF Aldergrove base.

I have been on the Puma helicopters that are based at RAF Aldergrove. With the Select Committee on Defence, I flew over Baghdad last year and witnessed the extraordinary professionalism of the crew and pilots on those craft as they flew us over the city. They moved at a fair lick through the suburbs of Baghdad, which was probably the right thing to do at the time. When we got into the green zone, about 27 mortars came over the wall in the space of an hour, and that was supposed to be the safe area.

I wish to cover four issues this morning. Many points have been made already, but I wish to rehearse some of the arguments. The first issue is the technical, military aspects of the decision—the reasons behind the decision from an MOD perspective; the second is the political significance for Northern Ireland and wider politics; the third is the economic impact; and the fourth is the social impact. All four aspects are extremely important and must be considered in their own right.

The significant history of the RAF base has been referred to. It goes back over 90 years, to a time well before the recent troubles. It played a role during the second world war in the battle of the Atlantic, when reconnaissance aircraft from the base searched for U-boats. For the V-bombers, it was one of only 26 airfields in the UK in 1962. So the base has played a very important role in the past, as well as in more recent times in Northern Ireland.

The RAF Aldergrove website, which I have been scrutinising over the past few days, clearly states:

However, it is clearly stated on the BBC website, although not in the Minister’s statement to the House in April, that the cutback

I find it quite difficult to believe that the decision is nothing to do with the peace process, when the role of the base was clearly to do with supporting the PSNI. I
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would therefore like the Minister to clarify whether the move is part of the peace process. Perhaps it is not part of the technical troop withdrawal, but is it part of the wider peace process? If it is, we should be open about that and make it clear in the statements.

If the move is connected with the military aspects, we need more explanation of why a single site is required now when that did not seem to be an imperative at an earlier stage, during the troubles. The Minister needs to be clear about the justification for the single site. If there is a requirement for a single site, which military experts may recommend, was Aldergrove considered—the excellent housing facilities there were mentioned—especially given that there is a profusion of military bases in the south-east of England? It may not be now, but that was part of the overheated south-east economy. Would it not have been better to consider Aldergrove as part of the job dispersal programme that the Government are keen on, so that the wider needs of the community in the UK as well as Northern Ireland were considered and not just the narrow needs of the MOD? Was wider consideration given, as opposed to the restrictive silo mentality that has often marked various Departments?

Was there a requirement for a single site? If so, why was Aldergrove not chosen, if it was considered at all? Will the Minister also explain why Massereene is being closed and why the Engineers will be going from there to Aldergrove? What will the Massereene site be used for? I would like the Minister to go into some of those matters.

I found the contributions of other hon. Members extremely interesting, as there are many parallels in my part of the world as the result of a transition from coal mining and dockyard operations to more private sector involvement. Such a transition is difficult, so it is important that we have a plan and that we do not have various Departments making different decisions at different times, without the whole picture being considered. It is important that the Minister addresses those points.

The second aspect is the political impact of closure. As we heard, there has been a bit of a political scrap between the various Unionist parties in Northern Ireland about who was consulted and who was not. If the Northern Ireland Executive are to operate effectively, it is vital that they are consulted and included in the decision-making process. Was the First Minister of Northern Ireland consulted? Why was the MP for the area not included in the early notification process? If he had been, he would have been prepared and ready to ask questions before the decision was finally announced.

Does the Minister find it significant that there will be no RAF base in Northern Ireland? That is an important historical point, which we should consider before making the final decision. There are many bases elsewhere in the United Kingdom, and the people of Northern Ireland will be puzzled about why Northern Ireland is the only place with no base. Some RAF personnel and the Army Air Corps will be based at Aldergrove, but it will be a significant change from having had an RAF base established there for more than 90 years to no longer having a base. That point should be noted and the Minister should reflect on its wider significance.

Various figures on how many jobs will be lost have been bandied about—mainly ranging between 100 and 140. Does the Minister have any information on that?
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What support will be put in place to ensure that those people have the best opportunities made available to them?

I apologise for referring to Scotland so regularly, but there we have the PACE—partnership action for continuing employment—team. Jobcentre Plus, local councils, the enterprise agencies and others get together as a hit team. They support personnel, such as those from the Lexmark factory in my constituency who have lost their jobs, and they provide round-the-clock support with CV writing and training; they also offer advice on what further training might be available elsewhere. Is similar provision made in Northern Ireland, and if not, can it be put in place? What role does the Ministry of Defence play in providing such support for people who are to lose their job?

We have heard that 1,100 personnel, families and support staff may move out of the area. If we were to lose 1,000 people from my constituency, we would know about it. We would feel the impact on the local economy, as people would no longer be spending money and would not be using the local post office, the local shops or the local library. What measures will be put in place to support the community? I do not know how widely dispersed those people are in the area, or whether they live close together.

Dr. McCrea: The written statement about the massive change that will come about if the Minister goes ahead states that unions will be consulted. Removing 1,100 people from a community will cause serious economic problems, but there was no mention of consultation with the borough council or the community on how they would pick up the pieces afterward. The unions are to be consulted about the 140 jobs, but it seems that no one else has the right to be consulted.

Willie Rennie: I sometimes think that the 90-day consultation with unions is a proxy for real consultation; it is sometimes a bit too strict and does not enter into the spirit of the wider consultation that is required. We should look in a more holistic way at involving councils and others in the area in order to ensure that they understand the consequences and engage in a transition strategy to deal with the loss of 1,100 people. The hon. Gentleman makes a most relevant point. It is essential that the Minister explains what wider consultation there will be beyond the trade unions; consultation is vital, but it needs to be wider to cover the economic impact on the area.

We also need to ensure that mitigation measures are in place. What extra support can be supplied to councils and the enterprise agencies to ensure that alternatives, such as business start-ups, can be put in place? We need to utilise the skills not only of the base personnel who are to lose their jobs, but of those who support the base in the wider sense, as I have no doubt that there will be further job losses.

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