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7.9 pm

Mr. Nigel Jones (Cheltenham): I am delighted to be called to speak in this important debate. As hon. Members have already said, the headquarters of GCHQ is in my Cheltenham constituency. Moreover, it is the town's largest and most important employer.

Since implementation of the Intelligence Services Act 1994--I served on the Standing Committee that scrutinised that Bill--the Intelligence and Security Committee has made regular visits to Cheltenham to visit GCHQ. I pay tribute to the work being done by the Committee, and echo Committee members' tributes to the dedicated personnel working in our intelligence and security services, especially at GCHQ.

I wish to speak primarily to paragraph 8 of the Committee's report. However, I should like first to mention the now-ended ban on trade unions, which has been mentioned already in the debate by the Foreign Secretary and other hon. Members. Once again, I thank the Foreign Secretary and the Government for ending the trade union ban at GCHQ, thereby ending a disgraceful episode in which the loyalty of dedicated employees was questioned.

Each January while the ban was still in operation, on the anniversary of its imposition, trade unionists, Members of both Houses of Parliament and ordinary, decent citizens used to meet in Cheltenham to march through the town to protest against the ban. Since I was first elected to the House, in 1992, I have marched shoulder to shoulder with campaigners to end the ban. For five years, I had the privilege of addressing great rallies, at one of which I shared the platform with the late John Smith. Four great party leaders have shown solidarity in redressing the great wrong of the ban--John Smith, Neil Kinnock, Lord Steel of Aikwood and my right hon. Friend the Member for Yeovil (Mr. Ashdown).

We met to support especially each and every one of the 14 loyal trade unionists who were sacked from GCHQ for sticking to their principles and wishing to belong to a trade union. Many of those 14 are my constituents, and they are very special constituents. They are Mike Grindley, Graham Hughes, Brian Johnson, Alan Rowland,

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Gerry O'Hagan, Dee Goddard, Bill Bickham, Alan Chambers, John Cook, Clive Lloyd--a distinguished local councillor--Roy Taylor, Barry Underwood, Gareth Morris and Robin Smith.

Of the 14, 13 were involved in supporting our armed forces during the Falklands conflict, and every one of them was positively vetted. The previous Government claimed that they were a threat to Britain's security, although they did not make that claim when those people were working their socks off helping our troops in a war and providing crucial, round-the-clock support in hugely difficult conditions. The previous Government also did not make that claim at the end of the conflict, when they honoured those people.

The ban on trade unions was a shabby act, and the new Government have put it right. Mike Grindley, Clive Lloyd and their friends--all 14 of the trade unionists--are about as subversive as a bunch of bananas. I thank the Government for keeping their promise to remove the ban on trade unionists at GCHQ.

Hon. Members will know that the previous Government decided to proceed, under the private finance initiative, with new accommodation for GCHQ. The remit was to consolidate GCHQ on a single site, and there were three options--to consolidate on one or other of the existing two sites, at Oakley or Benhall, in Cheltenham, or to build on a new site within the Cheltenham, Gloucester and Tewkesbury triangle. Soon after taking office, the new Government confirmed their intention of proceeding with that PFI, to the surprise of many people, including me. I must admit that I am still not convinced that using a PFI is a good idea in a service that is as vital to national and international security as GCHQ. However, the argument is over, and the PFI will proceed.

The local community has felt left out of the decision-making process because of the confidential nature of the bidding process. Some of the consortiums bidding for the contract were better than others and tried to keep local people informed, whereas others were downright cowboys--although some of my constituents have used the expression "sharks". Rumours were rife, causing considerable alarm and anxiety to local residents, especially those living near GCHQ, Oakley. Local councillors and I did what we could to alleviate the concerns.

Sadly, however, some mischief makers seemed determined to undermine the chances of GCHQ remaining in Cheltenham. At one stage, I found it necessary to tell a journalist that the wild stories that were circulating were "pie in the sky" and would never happen. Fortunately, he used the expression in the headline of his article. Even more fortunately, my comments have proved to be correct. The director of GCHQ found it necessary to take the unprecedented action of writing to the local newspaper to try to calm the rising hysteria. It was a sorry chapter, which, fortunately, has now come to an end.

Last month, the Government announced that they had decided against building GCHQ's new accommodation at Oakley. I support that decision. The Oakley site was far too cramped, and the roads were not suitable to cope with a doubling of office traffic. Currently, during rush hours, queues build up, particularly along the A40 London road, at Sixways, in Charlton Kings, and on other roads leading to GCHQ, Oakley.

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The Government have announced also their decision on the successful consortium. GSL--which includes Tarmac, BT and Group 4--submitted an attractive circular design, with a central open courtyard, for the Benhall site in Cheltenham. On the land to be released--all of Oakley and part of Benhall--there are outline plans for a science park, perhaps a hospital, housing, retail facilities and a public centre. Needless to say, the circular design for the new accommodation has been christened "the GCHQ doughnut".

Unfortunately, when announcing the preferred developer, the Government did not announce the site. Instead, they have rather confused the issue by saying that the doughnut would be built either on the Benhall site or over at Brockworth, in the Gloucester business park, in the Tewkesbury parliamentary constituency. I should explain briefly why the Benhall option should be chosen. I should also like to urge the Government to make a decision quickly--today, if possible--to end speculation on the matter.

On the GCHQ PFI project, in paragraph 8 of its report, the Intelligence and Security Committee states:

The Committee Chairman, the right hon. Member for Bridgwater (Mr. King), eloquently expressed the importance of that point.

The Government currently own land at Benhall that is within the GCHQ's boundaries, which will allow new accommodation to be built alongside existing offices. Therefore, there need be no interruption of or conflict with the vital work done there. Many talented employees working at GCHQ tell me that they wish to remain in Cheltenham. The vast majority live in or near the town. Visiting American security officers who occasionally visit Cheltenham have said that they think it is "unthinkable" that GCHQ should leave Cheltenham. Frankly, it would be disastrous if GCHQ left.

I have been told that GCHQ's work force is the equivalent of one quarter of Cheltenham's entire work force. Estimates show that, with the multiplier effect, GCHQ and its staff annually contribute more than £200 million to the town's economy. The people who work there contribute not only through their high street spending but in various other ways. They contribute to sports clubs and to voluntary and arts groups; some are school governors and a few are even local councillors. I was told last night that Cheltenham's Bach choir is made up mainly of GCHQ employees. If GCHQ moved out, property prices would fall, shops would close and many jobs would be lost.

There is also an important environmental reason for building the GCHQ doughnut at Benhall. A large majority of GCHQ personnel live in Cheltenham. If the new accommodation were built at Brockworth, the staff would need to travel to and from the new site every working day, many of them along busy and narrow roads. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of extra vehicles would use the A46 through the delightful village of Shurdington. According to one estimate, an extra 5 million miles would need to be travelled each year.

I understand that, under the terms of their contracts, GCHQ employees would be reimbursed for up to three years for the additional costs of travel. I shall let hon. Members work out for themselves how much that would cost the taxpayer.

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The Government claim to be environmentally aware. Indeed, each Government Department has appointed a green Minister, and I support the thrust of that policy. I therefore find it impossible to believe that the Government are considering using taxpayers' money, which is always in short supply, to force GCHQ staff to waste their time travelling millions of extra miles to and from work, using non-renewable resources and adding to air pollution. How would that policy fit in with the Government's obligations under the Kyoto agreement? One of my constituents is the country's leading environmental campaigner, Jonathon Porritt. I discussed the issue with him last week, and he was horrified to hear what was being considered.

Another key point to bear in mind is that the people of Cheltenham, whom I have the honour and privilege to represent, want to continue the long and successful partnership between the town and this vital Government installation. I pay tribute to the councillors and officers of Cheltenham borough council who have bent over backwards to help GCHQ during the PFI process. On 12 October, the chairman of the council's policy and resources committee, Councillor David Lawrence, asked the council to approve a resolution welcoming

and urging the Government to

    "accept the Benhall option".

That motion was carried unanimously.

In order to gauge local opinion, I sent a letter and survey to thousands of people living near the Benhall site. I pointed out the importance of GCHQ and the fact that development would take place at the site whatever the decision over GCHQ. My office has received bucketfuls of responses, and 97 per cent. of the people responding want GCHQ at Benhall.

By contrast, the people of Brockworth say that they do not want GCHQ. Brockworth parish council chairman Jim Hunt is reported in the Gloucester Citizen as saying:

Other councillors have also said that they do not want it. Councillor Mike Matthews said that traffic was a concern:

    "We all know what the traffic is like now. It would be worse. There wouldn't be any jobs created for people in Brockworth".

Councillor Colin Gomersall said:

    "There would be chaos on the roads. We said 'yes' to Gloucester Business Park because it would bring jobs to the locality but this is a dead duck."

Councillor Barry Morris said the council had been kept in the dark about the proposal. He added:

    "I think we should write to Tewkesbury Borough Council to express our dismay that we knew nothing about the prospect of GCHQ moving to Brockworth."

I understand from a constituent that the water table on the Brockworth site, formerly used by the Gloucester Aviation Company, is no more than a metre below the surface. He writes:

    "The geology of the site reveals alluvial lias clays. These sub-soils have the ability to absorb large quantities of water, expanding to double or triple their size. The downside is that when they dry out they contract in similar proportions, from where they get the name 'shrinkable clays'.

    Modern construction methods can overcome the worst effects of these clays on normal rectangular buildings, but it must be a major concern for the potential distortion of an annular form of the proposed doughnut."

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    What my constituent is saying is that the Brockworth site is not suitable for a circular design like the GCHQ doughnut.

The decision for the Government should now be easy. The people of Cheltenham want GCHQ; Brockworth does not. The Benhall option in Cheltenham ties in with the Government's green agenda; Brockworth does not. The employees of GCHQ want to stay in Cheltenham; they do not want to waste time travelling to Brockworth. The Benhall site in Cheltenham is structurally sound for the circular design of the new GCHQ; Brockworth is not.

I urge the Government to announce, sooner rather than later, that Benhall is to be the home for a successful future for GCHQ.

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